Facetious Nights

A book blog

January Reading

The Fortunes of Richard Mahony by Henry Handel Richardson

Expecting from the title for this to be the story of someone with a lot of ups and downs in their lives, and not knowing much else about it, I was a little surprised to meet Richard Mahony.   He is not at first glance a tumultuous figure but a rather dour, cautious figure who has trouble connecting with the world.  He begins as a shopkeeper but spends much of the novel practising as a doctor, though there are also periods of independent wealth.  He broods in an uncharismatic, touchy way, left out of the world’s bonhomie because of his inability to consistently produce or appreciate it, but envying its warmth.   He is much less earthbound and more erratic than he at first appears however, more of an idealist, occasionally hyper-social and periodically subject to an irresistible urge to destroy his present life and start again.


He has one friend who means a lot to him, and through this friend he meets Mary, who becomes his wife when she is only 16 and he is 12 years older.  At this stage in their lives they both have a good deal of idealism in their make-up; their high ethical standards will continue to be the one thing they have in common.  At the beginning the differences in their world-views seems insignificant, not least because Mary is very young.  All of Richard’s energies are bound up with the inner world.  He pursues the great intellectual questions and is a classic case of caring about injustice while being unable to stand people in the flesh.  His interest in spiritualism is a trial for his wife and she doesn’t understand his love of animals.   He doesn’t understand and certainly can’t share her patience with real people which comes from both love and loyalty for friends and family and pragmatism, her ability to make useful connections for him if only he will play his part.  Richardson does very well at making us understand the tug at both ends, each straining for nourishment in opposite directions. We can enter into each character’s frustrations with the other at times.  Occasionally, however, I felt that Richardson hit a false note with Mary’s characterisation in order to achieve this.  Generally her kindness and ability to relate to others is emphasised, except when Richardson wants to make too clear a dichotomy between her kind of perceptions and Richard’s and she suddenly fails in kindness due to her lack of ability to perceive the nature of others’ problems.  I find it hard to buy the idea that kindness can exist without emotional intelligence and in general Mary’s kindness is clearly shown not to be confined to material problems and their solutions.


The need for companionship and the question of what companionship consists of is one of the novel’s themes.  True understanding and sharing of what is most individual or just the simple solidarity and continuing presence of married life?  One of the things I liked most about this book is its treatment of marriage as something that creates a partnership like a separate entity from either of them. Romance might have been the lure to enter into the relationship at the beginning but has very little to do with the substance of it.  And in the end the fact of having spent so much time together is more important than whether it was ever really the best decision to do so.


This book is Introversion: The Three Act Tragedy and I found it horribly convincing.  For me, this passage, which comes at the crux of Richard’s desperation, is the climax of this theme:


For there had been no real love in him: never a feeler thrown out to his fellow-men. Such sympathy as he felt, he had been too backward to show: had given of it only in thought, and from afar. Pride, again! — oh! rightly was a pride like his reckoned among the seven capital sins. For what WAS it, but an iron determination to live untouched and untrammelled . . . to preserve one’s liberty, of body and of mind, at the expense of all human sentiment. To be sufficient unto oneself, asking neither help nor regard, and spending none. A fierce, Lucifer-like inhibition. Yes, this . . . but more besides. Pride also meant the shuddering withdrawal of oneself, because of a rawness . . . a skinlessness . . . on which the touch of any rough hand could cause agony; even the chance contacts of everyday prove a source of exquisite discomfort.


It’s one of those books which makes you wonder why it isn’t better known as one of the Great Books even though you feel a little protective about of it because really you know why it isn’t one of the Great Books even though it has Greatness within it.  Partly it might be that Richard’s tragedy is a little too specific; I related to enough of it to be unsure how universal it was.  Mostly though because of the accumulation of domestic detail; immense quantities of parties given and home improvements and births, deaths and marriages in their family circle.  I have a high tolerance for this stuff and also I thought it conveyed the sense of time; it’s important for this book to convey the impression that it contains the sum of Richard and Mary’s lives.  But I can see how others might be defeated.


Nancy by Rhoda Broughton

Victorian novel about the marriage of a young girl to a much older man.  The third book by Broughton I’ve read, having previously read Belinda and Cometh Up As A Flower.  The worst of them, which is only to be expected considering I chose it out of morbid fascination to see how it transitioned the heroine from one of a jolly group in the schoolroom to marrying the man who was at school with Father.  Broughton’s thing so far as I have read her is to have a chatty, jaunty Victorian chicklit mode coloured lilac with melancholy ponderings on the transience of life and having the heroine’s life blighted.  There’s something about this style that both embarrasses me for my capacity to enjoy it and convinces me that Dodie Smith imprinted on Broughton when young; there are echoes of Cometh Up As A Flower particularly in I Capture the Castle.  Both Belinda and Cometh Up as a Flower feature the heroines having their lives blighted by marrying older men when there was a young and beautiful man they wanted instead.  Broughton’s claim to fame is that her heroines feel desire.  Here that pattern is slightly varied; Nancy’s bright young life is blighted, not permanently but for much of the novel by marriage problems but she doesn’t want to be married to anybody else.  There is a beautiful young man, but he’s sullen and insufferable for his assumption that he and Nancy are having a Thing when they are not.  By making Nancy convinced she is undesirable, giving her a horrible father to escape and depriving her of viable alternative men, Broughton makes it more credible that she would make the most of Father’s old friend.  But if she’s not tormented by his oldness and stuffiness, Broughton feels she must be tormented all the same and so endless misunderstandings take up too much of this.


Exodus by Lars Iyer

The last in a trilogy of short novels about W. and Lars, two academics in philosophy departments.  There are descriptions of Lars’s damp, rat-infested flat; otherwise the substance of all three is W. berating Lars for his stupidity and the two of them lamenting their own idiocy and inability to truly think, and the dreadfulness of the world as it surely approaches some kind of apocalypse.  These laments are humorous and it was on this level that I mostly enjoyed them, but they also represent the upholding of a standard, an unachievable ideal that Iyer is on some level seriously saying he does not want the world and Lars and W. to be forgiven for not realising.  I think.  Despite all the abuse W. aim at Lars, it seems quite a nice, effective friendship in some ways; their shared world of exaggerated, performative despair bonds them and channels their anxieties.


100 Essays I Don’t Have Time To Write by Sarah Ruhl

A charming book about playwriting and theatre in general.  I like the idea of theatre though haven’t seen that much of it and I like reading about creative work.  In general I think the mini nature of the “essays” helped the charm as we zip along but there were definitely were some where I was like come on Sarah Ruhl, couldn’t you have actually written the essay?  One of the main themes was the importance of hanging onto the creative core of the work while being enmeshed in some very uncreative structures and procedures (it seems like putting on a play can be less fun than I might have hoped.)  Working motherhood was also a theme; accepting children as part of life rather than an obstacle to it and maintaining that writers live first of all, as well as working through the usual guilt.


Roderick Hudson by Henry James

I enjoyed this less than The Princess Casamassima and The American which I read last year. I don’t think any of the three are really the books people talk about when they talk about Henry James and none of them were more than the sum of their parts. But I felt the two I read last year had a richer texture and more content and more finely drawn characters. This, his first real novel, was fine but the reading experience felt blander.

Rich and benevolent but directionless Rowland Mallet takes talented but undeveloped sculptor Roderick Hudson under his wing. I expected Roderick’s artistic talent and its faltering to be more the subject of the novel than it really was. The meandering romantic entanglements are more privileged. Rowland has a nobly stifled crush on Mary Garland, Roderick’s cousin and fiancée, a girl of stout virtue and integrity. Rowland, a little plump and helplessly polite and sensible, is driven by his sense of responsibility for Roderick’s well-being; a responsibility he feels not only to Roderick but his mother and Mary. One of the more common responses to this book is to believe that Rowland’s crush is not on Mary but Roderick. I couldn’t see it myself, I suppose simply because Mary, sketchily drawn as she is, is clearly preferable to Roderick. I found Roderick simply irritating rather than the intriguing possessor of a tragic flaw. Roderick is callow and stunted, incapable of growth, inaccessible in many ways to outside influence. His defeat is the mortified realisation of smallness and, worse, his smallness in Rowland’s eyes.

Christina Light seduces Roderick’s attention away from not only Mary but his work. She is, like himself, a mercurial creature unlikely to ever develop into anything very different, but she’s more intelligent and more convincingly glamorous. She has to be mentioned because she is the nullifying force, blighting Roderick’s vulnerable vitality and creative ability. This is represented as being fairly final though it seemed to me nothing more nor less than a fit of depression. I was unconvinced that Christina, enlivening though she was, wasn’t a bit extraneous to the story of Rowland and Roderick. This malevolent hypnosis is one of James’s themes, though, this idea that the force of one person’s personality can arrest the life-force of another.

The climax of the Rowland-Roderick story is a mixture of tragedy and bathos, with poor old Rowland providing the bathos. After he finally expresses some indignation it is not long before “his extraordinary, acute sense of his rights had been replaced by the familiar, chronic sense of his duties” and he has been made to be in the wrong for expressing himself. He ends by continuing to sniff around Mary Garland more timidly than hopefully. It is his investment in other people’s lives rather than having one of his own which makes him undignified.


The Happy Prisoner by Monica Dickens

Middlebrow from the forties.  Oliver, a long-term though not permanent invalid after WWII, looks on at family life.  One sister gets married, another sister’s marriage is in trouble and he himself is intrigued by his nurse, the competent but primly enigmatic Elizabeth.  Will Elizabeth really marry someone who wants to go to Torquay for the honeymoon and whose best friend calls her “Little lady”?  Other tangles with wicked stepmothers and kleptomaniac mothers-in-law arise.  A collection of loosely connected strands with everyone getting their turn, not a narrative with much central, consistent drive.  I really enjoyed this — like a rich tea biscuit when you’re really in the mood for a rich tea biscuit.


The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner

The story of Romy, a lapdancer who is in jail for life after she killed her stalker. She has a young son and is tortured by her inability to assure herself of his wellbeing, let alone see him herself.  The novel cuts between her life before jail and her life in jail. It also cuts between her story and the perspective of a guy who teaches classes in jail, who has the odd thought about life in the mountains, some extracts from the Unabomber’s journal, chapters from the perspective of a guy in jail who was mixed up with a woman who is a death row celebrity in Romy’s jail, and who rambles internally about country music, one chapter from the perspective of someone Romy is actually in jail with, and one chapter from the perspective of Romy’s killed stalker. I wouldn’t have minded more details about the other women prisoners, but having just one chapter about just one of them seems lopsided. The other stuff did not provide an interesting perspective. There were also too many details about San Francisco that were just wallpaper to me but I’m willing to believe that’s because I’m British and Kushner was writing for people who at least had preconceptions about the place.


The core of this is sound, the core being the portrayal of life in a women’s prison. It’s claustrophobic and compelling, and the details of the ludicrously frustrating systems which rule and have ruled the characters’ lives are clearly presented.  Unfortunately I got the impression Kushner thought the core wasn’t ambitious enough and made me think of a bird gathering up unsuitable materials which won’t weave together, bent on making a bigger and better nest.  I’m not saying it wouldn’t have been possible to add material to the core of the novel that would have illustrated the emotional themes or the socioeconomic implications. But Kushner’s added material is awkward and badly chosen and dilutes the impact of the novel as a whole. Sometimes putting a whole bunch of the things that interest you into one book is a good idea and sometimes it isn’t.


Sweet Days of Discipline by Fleur Jaeggy

Novella set in a Swiss boarding school in the fifties. Deals primarily with a friendship between the narrator and a girl called Frederique, though also covers the narrator’s impressions of boarding school life in general. Boarding school life still seems to be life for the narrator, writing years later. Restlessly longing to be out in the world in her schooldays, in her adulthood she is haunted by Frederique and her many schools in general. The confines of institutional life are represented as containing some ascetic, ceremonial quality that is the clue to a mystery. This is an enigmatic work that is all atmosphere, and the nature of the atmosphere is itself a kind of mystery. I felt the writing was pretentious at times yet at the same time irresistibly called to mind the word crystalline. Frederique, “the most disciplined, respectful, ordered, perfect girl,” is not the sort of person teenage girls are generally represented as finding charismatic in books about people being haunted by memories of charismatic teenage friends. The narrator feels that perfectly folded clothes are a sign of some sort of secret knowledge, a secret knowledge which is nearer death than life. It’s a strange book and over before you know it, but not without leaving an impression.



Cold Earth by Sarah Moss

The story of a group of archaeologists setting off to Greenland just as an epidemic begins. Concerns about this epidemic and their ultimate survival run alongside a ghost story.  In some ways the survival story and the ghost story are rivals (for me the survival story won) and in others their intertwining illustrates the continuity of human history.  The fact that they are us and archaeology is not that separate from life is a theme:  “Even hiding traces leaves traces.  And we were there.  We are history too.” The effectiveness of the ghost story drops when Moss drops the perspective of Nina, who perceives the presence of the dead Greenlanders most clearly, though much of her purpose for offering the perspectives of other characters seems to be to assure us that although they are sceptical about the ghosts they experience disconcerting things too.  Still, it added resonance to the story of the dead Greenlanders and emphasised the way in which the survival story makes the archaeology extra excavating as they learn desperation and despair in the same place as the Greenlanders did.


I had some minor practical quibbles but generally felt that the biggest flaw was that Moss seemed to have a much clearer grasp on one character than the others.  Nina, a literature postgraduate student who shouldn’t have been there at all, suffers from anxiety which expresses itself in hyper-focusing on grounding practical comforts like food and her expertise on them and in an inferiority/superiority complex.  She initially seems vulnerable but you quickly realise that she is ready to defend herself on the offensive like a tiresome little dog, seeing social interaction as a win or lose situation.  Her cultural background is the most like Moss’s and the other characters did not come from other worlds very convincingly.


The Forgotten Beasts of Eld by Patricia McKillip

Very slow, quite dense fantasy novel about conflicting loyalties.  Or at least I’m not sure it is that slow seeing as it’s not a long novel and quite a lot of things do happen, but somehow they seem to happen suspended in some thick fluid.  In a good way!  I thought the way the conflicts were set up was very effective, apart from the point at which McKillip leaned too heavily on the idea that characters who clearly don’t believe in keeping their hands clean of bloodshed at all cost would suddenly be appalled by a particular revenge and that it must not be allowed to happen.  This often happens with historical or fantasy fiction and makes me feel bloodthirsty when the characters are wringing their hands and shaping the whole plot around the idea that life must always be preserved and I just do not buy that it is that big a deal for them.  But anyway, I liked the psychological themes and the fairytale-ish atmosphere.


The Cloister Walk by Kathleen Norris

Not a conventional narrative but a collection of pieces about the author’s experiences in Benedictine communities and with communal Christian spirituality more generally.  One of the reasons why I read this was because ever since a disastrous stint as a PhD candidate I’ve been feeling oppressively conscious of the thought-feeling divide and feeling the need for things which speak about feeling as a kind of knowing.  The book did deliver, a little more specifically than I’d expected in parts; Norris speaks about feeling uncomfortable in academic settings as a poet.  The longer pieces had a distinct tendency to be the ones that felt most as if Norris had something to say; some of the shorter pieces felt more like filler journalism so far as my interest in them went.  The pieces got shorter towards the end of the book and my interest waned.  I liked the pieces about the process of gaining meaning from various texts and was quite struck by Norris’s claim for spirituality as necessarily communal.  I’m always interested in institutional life and there’s some interesting stuff about that though really the book is very much about Norris.  I’ve always been drawn to material about religious experiences without being an actual religious person myself and there’s often a funny tension between feelings of overlap and feelings of difference.  I found this interesting and rewarding as a whole, but not all the way through.


Goose of Hermogenes by Ithell Colquahoun

Surreal, occultist novella about a girl trapped on her uncle’s island.  At the limit of the extent to which you can string images into a narrative.  Very much what you’d expect it to be like, I suppose, very much like listening to a long dream.  It made me think about artistic effects of compression; the way it allows you to juxtapose more things without having to explain connections and therefore gain effects that way but also loses effects because no dwelling, no explanation.  Quantity rather than quality, even in such a small space.  Still, the images did have something.



Cecilia by Frances Burney

A beautiful and virtuous young heiress has less than a year to go until she comes of age is leaving the country to live in London with Mr Harrell one of her three guardians.  Her late uncle has appointed has appointed Mr Harrell, the husband of her childhood friend, Mr Briggs, an eccentric and off-putting miser and Mr Delvile, a gentleman from an old family who is absurdly proud.   Cecilia soon realises that she is in an unfortunate position as her childhood friend and her husband lead a shallow extravagant social whirl of a life.  Cecilia pines for rational conversation and true affection and learns the human cost of the Harrells’ extravagance: honest workmen and their families are suffering because the Harrells refuse to pay what is due to them.  Cecilia feels that the relief of the poor is the true purpose of her great wealth.  She is emotionally blackmailed into lending the Harrells large sums of money but regrets wasting money on such a hopeless cause.  She hopes to escape from the Harrells but is hindered by the defects of her other two options.

Mr Delvile comes out ahead of Mr Briggs as his wife and son tip the balance.  Cecilia feels greatly drawn to Mrs Delvile who shares her husband’s unreasonable family pride but apart from this important flaw has a high moral and intellectual tone.  Cecilia and the young Mortimer Delvile are drawn to one another but their attraction is blocked first by a series of irritating circumstances which make it appear as though Cecilia’s affections are already engaged, then by the family pride.  Cecilia’s ancestry is only vaguely adequate but the real obstacle is a clause in her uncle’s will that if she marries she will lose her fortune if her husband doesn’t take her name.  I was put off reading this novel for years because I knew this was the major plot point and how it turned out.  I dislike Obstacle Fiction in general where everything goes wrong and I found the idea of having to take this obstacle seriously too annoying.  In the event, this potential name change isn’t represented as a serious, gendered obstacle, really.  The book treats the clause as a pretty normal thing in the circumstances and makes it clear that for most people it would not be an obstacle; it’s just that this one guy’s family are weirdos.

Mortimer struggles with the family pride name issue before telling Cecilia that he loves her so much that it doesn’t matter to him, in a scene that is very similar to Mr Darcy’s first proposal but less stiff-necked.  His parents, however, are not budging.  Cecilia never accepts the validity of their position but, being so virtuous, she naturally takes filial obedience very seriously, as well as feeling too much pride herself to push in somewhere she isn’t wanted.  The conflict between duty and inclination is painful for Cecilia but it is never in question which she will choose.  The problem is that because duty in this case is defined solely by other people’s feelings her knowledge of her duty fluctuates frustratingly out of her control.

The conflict is made more painful because Cecilia is invested in her relationship with Mrs Delvile as well as with Mortimer.  Mrs Delvile is painfully torn between her great affection for Cecilia and her adamant, unquestionable conviction that Mortimer must not change his name. Cecilia is only able to maintain her affection for Mrs Delvile because, being so virtuous and forgiving, she is willing to occupy her point of view and see that her feelings are real to her and that, feeling as she does, she ought to stick to her guns.  There is a constant interchange of painful forgiveness and overlooking causes of resentment between — well, I was going to say Cecilia and Mrs Delvile, but really between them and Mortimer as a group of three and between Cecilia and Mortimer as well.  This is also the case with Cecilia’s friend Henrietta who has a crush on Mortimer.  Characters’ interests conflict, even where there is the highest level of affection and sympathy.

One of the things that I wondered about most while reading the novel was the degree to which features only work because of the novel’s specific moment in time.  The language is one of these features.

This is how the characters speak in moments of high drama (which are a lot of moments):

“No, we will not part!” cried Delvile, with increasing vehemence; “if you force me, madam, from her, you will drive me to distraction!  What is there in this world that can offer me a recompense?  And what can pride even to the proudest afford as an equivalent?  Her perfections you acknowledge, her greatness of mind is like your own; she has generously given me her heart,  — Oh sacred and fascinating charge!  Shall I, after such a deposite, consent to an eternal separation?  Repeal, repeal your sentence, my Cecilia! let us live to ourselves and our consciences, and leave the vain prejudices of the world to those who can be paid by them for the loss of all besides!”

“Is this conflict, then,” said Mrs Delvile, “to last forever?  Oh, end it, Mortimer, finish it and make me happy! she is just, and will forgive you, she is noble-minded, and will honour you.  Fly, then, at this critical moment, for in flight alone is your safety; and then will your father see the son of his hopes, and then shall the fond blessings of your idolizing mother soothe all your affliction, and soften all your regret!”

“Oh madam!” cried Delvile, “for mercy, for humanity, forbear this cruel supplication!”

“Nay, more than supplication, you have my commands; commands you have never yet disputed, and misery, ten-fold misery, will follow their disobedience.  Hear me, Mortimer, for I speak prophetically; I know your heart, I know it to be formed for rectitude and duty, or destined by their neglect to repentance and horror.”

It occurred to me that we’re kind of used to hearing Elizabethan/Jacobean non-naturalistic literary language, but the eighteenth-century equivalent doesn’t get aired in the same way, and I’d be interested to hear actors make this kind of thing sound natural.  This kind of dialogue always makes me think of musicals; characters open their mouths and express themselves in this performative “pretend this is how the world is” kind of way.  Novels of this period get away with this high-flown stuff without having to make it a whole “I’m doing a thing” thing — or being just plain bad, of course.

I was also struck with the character of Cecilia.  While the concept of her character is very simple — she’s perfectly balanced and right about everything apart from sometimes being just too generous — there were aspects that didn’t feel so familiar as I might have expected.  What really struck me about Cecilia was that her great instinct for goodness is rooted in her need to respect herself.  This is explicitly stated many times.  When she feels unsure she has made the right decision she decides she needs to recover her self-esteem as her first priority.  I’m not actually sure I’ve ever seen self-worth uncritically presented as the primary, central motivation for goodness.  I can certainly imagine some Victorian novelists presenting this strain of thought critically or at least ambivalently as self-sufficient, in the disapproving Victorian inflection of the word.  And Cecilia is self-sufficient; she has no one she can look to for ethical guidance.  The influence that has most impact on her is the Delviles’ disproval of her marrying Mortimer and while she submits to this she never respects it, never regards it as anything other than an unfortunate foible.  She has no one in her life who matches her in both principles and capability.  Mortimer is a worthy young man, of course, but she can’t rely on him to make decisions about their potential marriage that will allow her to keep her own good opinion.  She is not completely correct in all her decisions and perceptions, as she is both young and faced with a lot of tough choices, but she comes very near perfection in her serious, sensible but liberal and sympathetic way.  She has the greatest delicacy and rectitude and sometimes faints with sensibility and is therefore irreproachably good and feminine but that emphasis on her sense and judgement and risk-aversion means that she could come across as dull or stolid, because she doesn’t strike either a sweet, mellifluous damsel note, or a more challenging, strident note of principled, intelligent woman at odds with the ethics of her environment — even though that is what she <i>is.</i>  I think Burney avoids making Cecilia a prig but I’m not quite sure how.  I do wonder if it has something to do with her being able to play her straighter, without it that choice making her a writer who doesn’t understand when something is too clichéd to be used so straight and also well.  As it is, Burney does undercut some of her high drama and high tone with farce and sly commentary, though not as often as Austen does.

The novel is pessimistic about the world and the possibility of solutions to its sufferings and problems.  Cecilia is better than the rest of it but she must compromise with it, not reform it or defeat it or exist in supreme isolation.

The Idiot by Elif Batuman and Alberta and Freedom by Cora Sandel

The Idiot

Selin, a young Turkish-American student at Harvard, tries earnestly to be educated and has a crush on Ivan, an emotionally unavailable flake. Most of her communication with Ivan happens through enigmatic emails. The novel is about the attempt to find or imbue meaning. It’s an attempt that doesn’t meet with success, exactly; the novel ends with Selin declaring that she has learned nothing. Nevetheless, it’s an attempt that accrues experience we can see is a kind of learning. A very nebulous, negative type of learning, perhaps. The novel has a very bald, deadpan style. If the style doesn’t work for you, you will find this novel decidedly dull. For me, that was what made the novel work; it establishes a very direct connection to Selin and the way experience works. It walks a fine line between the banal and ascribing over-significance, and generally it kept its balance very well. The defining features of Selin is basically her emptiness, her nervous willingness to be filled and her inability to find anything that will do it, sorting through what seems to be on offer in a way both naïve and shrewd. That emptiness and fruitless search for meaning makes the novel sound more dreary and existential than it is; I found it droll rather than dreary. The emptiness is that of just not having been around that long, not that of ennui. Selin is passive because everything is new and therefore to have anything happen at all is a kind of seeking. Not a lot does happen and we can imply that this in itself will help Selin eliminate options; seeking becomes more active the more options are eliminated.

Alberta and Freedom

Here you spend some time blowing about uncertainly with Alberta in Paris. Alberta is not a painter herself but she is part of a social group of artists and there is a fair bit of description of the days and their atmospheres that seemed painterly. It’s not a happy book but I felt somehow something quite warm and likeable about it. Alberta is a very occasional artist’s model and freelance journalist but really she has no job. This means she has no role and no income. Sometimes she scribbles fragments which may ultimately add up to something, to a role, but they do not do so yet. Both the lack of money and the lack of role are problems but this rolelessness brings us to the freedom of the title. Alberta is lost and lonely, shut out from the action of life both because she is evading it and because she cannot get into it. This awkward, unnerving in-between-ness in which she somehow carries on is the nearest she can get to freedom because there she is as much herself as the world will allow her to be, without having to be something to somebody else. This is part of why the book has some warmth to it; Alberta’s life is not so devoid of consolation as it might seem. But then, in one of the most important moments of the book for me, Alberta has a fleeting epiphany that everything she has suffered has given her more wisdom and experience, more illumination, than before, and I feel this is a consolation which could be carried over into the next book, where I gather Alberta is not free. The freedom theme is very gendered; all the choices open to Alberta and other women involve more irrevocable commitment than they might for men, which corrupts the joy of romantic relationships.

The Wee Free Men by Terry Pratchett and Princess Priscilla’s Fortnight by Elizabeth von Arnim

The Wee Free Men

Girl goes into Fairyland to get back her brother who’s been stolen by the fairy Queen. Tiffany has already decided that she is going to be a witch and she learns throughout the book what it means to be a witch. Her dead grandmother was, basically, a witch and Tiffany spends a lot of time getting to grips with what made her grandmother special and coming to terms with her death and her own future continuing her work. This definitely has one of the fullest, if not the fullest, unfoldings of Pratchett’s particular take on life. The witches who seem to be most closely identified with Pratchett’s own ideas have an earthy, almost saturnine or dour approach and aren’t quick to allow themselves or other people frills. By taking on the witch role they’re denying themselves other things in their lives and their reward is knowledge, being close to the workings of the universe. Evil distorts reality and Pratchett leans especially hard on this idea here with the fairy Queen. Duty is heavily emphasised. Magic is stepping up and doing your job and doing it well.

All this stuff about what it means to be good is my sort of thing and I particularly like stuff about how goodness is essentially a true understanding of life.  I liked the Granny Aching stuff.  However, I felt there were slacknesses and that the book didn’t match my favourite Pratchett Witch books. I felt I could detect too much resentful defence of being a taciturn, logical person sometimes, in a way that didn’t feel as if it had quite enough to do with Tiffany. Then again, that was probably because Tiffany didn’t feel nine. Thirteen would have been better. She seemed to have too much baggage about the kind of person she was but then, not being that kind of person, I don’t suppose I would know at which age baggage might accrue.   The confrontation scenes with the fairy Queen were too repetitive, both of other Pratchetts and in themselves. The plot is kind of a tag-on. I don’t think that the humour is broader or more juvenile really than other Pratchetts, but it felt quite slabby, like “Now here is a humorous scene.” I think that’s what I would say about this book; the humour and the ethics are both less folded into each other than in better Pratchetts.

Princess Priscilla’s Fortnight

A well-behaved young princess from a small Ruritanian country breaks out in search of the simple life, attempting to settle in an idyllic English village and wreaking havoc on the inhabitants in her desire to bring them help and pleasure.

This is new to me but I reread The Enchanted April and Christopher and Columbus in recent months, which, like this, are very sunny. Christopher and Columbus, like Princess Priscilla, has the feel of one of those charming, slight, whimsical and slightly odd black and white films. I was thinking about Arnim’s themes when I read these, because it’s interesting to see how the same stuff can be turned to different purposes. The way people who are truly sincere cannot make themselves understood, as if they are speaking a different language, which leads to misunderstandings both comic and tragic. The intoxication of getting away from one’s responsibilities. Not a permanent getting away, as far as I can recall, and certainly not here. Whimsical framings of trains of logic which sometimes leads her characters right and sometimes wrong. Sunny as some of Arnim’s books are, the same themes and tics are used to much more depressing effect in some of her others like Vera, Love and, ultimately, The Pastor’s Wife, which deal with psychological oppression and manipulation and desperation. The stony ground on which the tremulously ingenuous fall on.

This is a slight and whimsical read with some darker aspects that might grate. Not a great work or anything but I enjoyed it a lot.

A Scots Quair by Lewis Grassic Gibbon

Something I really liked about this trilogy about early twentieth-century Scotland is the way each book builds on the last. They’re all related and the last two books do things they couldn’t do if it hadn’t been for the last book, but they’re all different. The big theme of the trilogy is, on a personal level, gaining experience and what it does to you, and, more generally, the inevitability of change.

Sunset Song, the first novel, is a bildungsroman, really. Chris Guthrie is the teenage daughter of a crofter in 1911 Scotland. She’s torn between identifying as the “English” Chris, who finds reality in the pages of books and wants to be a teacher and as the “Scottish” Chris whose self is always, inescapably, tied up with the land. A big theme of the trilogy is how ephemeral people are compared to the land, which almost negates time. In this first book characters occasionally catch glimpses of figures from another time. In later books there’s a character that’s into archaeology, which speaks of the same need to find the people who are gone in the landscape which is shared with those living. Chris becomes a sexual being, gets married and has a baby. Then WWI happens. It’s nothing much at first, but it changes everything forever. This book is the seeing out of a way of life. Chris’s experiences here are synthesise the archetypal and the personal. I felt it was one of those books that has been done many times but, not least because it was written before it had been done so often, almost fools you into feeling like it’s a first time. Which is how that archetypal/personal experience thing should work. The writing style reminded me of Esther Waters by George Moore, though only in the sense that that novel seemed poised between the Victorians and modernism. This has that same sense of new suffusing the old, and of something preparing to take flight and change into something else. People seem to like this first book the best. It has the most joy and lyricism and sense of timelessness, and the war, though it destroys what the book is about, gives it a good sense of narrative. It has an ending.

The other two books are about what happens after the end. They expand outwards from the small community of Kinraddie where Sunset Song is set. In Cloud Howe Chris marries again and moves to Segget, a larger community. Her husband is the minister and this is a difficult position for both him and Chris, as it places them a little outside their class and community. Robert is an idealist, where Chris is a realist, though her realism is not everyone’s. There is a sense of desperate need for positive change in this book. The central paradox of the trilogy is that this is seen as a doomed mission but one it is vital to embark on. Or at least, Chris’s husband and son find it so. Chris is the real grown-up of the trilogy, able to face reality without placebos like religion and politics. This could be a bit of a tiresome stereotype, shutting women out from the important things while, as consolation prize, suggesting that they’re the more mature for this exclusion. Chris isn’t a boring grown-up to the more interesting men, though. We enter into both mindsets but Chris is the centre. This book is where I decided that I loved the trilogy, because Gibbon is committed. He wants a solution but he doesn’t pretend there is one. The biggest flaw in the trilogy is the presentation of the political ignorance and callousness of the majority. It’s too two-dimensional. In another book it would be a big problem for me but it’s surrounded by enough that’s real.

In Grey Granite Gibbon moves Chris and her son Ewan to a city and really goes for the political stuff. Ewan is not unlikeable but chillingly distant from everyday emotional concerns. When he becomes a Communist it’s a way of becoming human for him, in a way, as he finally identifies as one of everyone else, but we soon see that he’s just as distant as ever really. The flaws of social reform and political ideals are clear here. With Ewan’s quest for justice and equality we have a sense of passion for something even he knows is hopeless. His politics are, apparently, the author’s, but one doesn’t feel these can have provided Gibbon with much consolation. Chris has lost her ability to invest in anyone romantically, to feel really close to anyone. To experience others is important but ultimately one is alone. In a way her life is over in this book, but in another way it’s about how life goes on even when your life is over. There is no real end.

I think this is a book you have to be willing to commit to despite its flaws. Otherwise it would probably seem torrid. But I felt like the author committed to it and that meant a lot. This trilogy creates an impressive sense of progressive experience that comes from that commitment.

NW by Zadie Smith

It’s about several characters with working class, mostly black backgrounds. The two we see most of have left this background behind to some extent; for Natalie this is more deliberate than it is for Leah but they are both very ambivalent about it. To what extent does their new context replace their original context, and how much do they want it to? It’s about the choices and experiences of women in their twenties and thirties, too, as they take on various forms of responsibility and their social identity crystallises. Natalie and Leah both seem to ultimately find this process pretty depressing. The two most important things about this book are social realism and a certain experimentalism in the style of telling. London is seen as a stream of language and consciousness and Smith tries to replicate this to some extent.

There was a point at the end of the first section and at the beginning of the second section when I despised this book, but I got involved again. I didn’t find it that hard to hold onto the thread and care enough about what was happening while it was happening. My problem with the book, I suppose, was just that it felt so dutiful, both the discussion of social issues and the experimentalism. There’s nothing really incisive here, no moments of observation or language that gave me that feeling of “This is true but I haven’t seen it said like that before”. There’s a certain kind of book full of social observations that never seem especially novel or true to me, a kind of book that inevitably includes at least fleeting descriptions of dreadful dinner parties with dreadful pretentious people. I’ve decided you need to go to those dinner parties to feel really enlivened and set free by the truth of any acknowledgement that they’re dreadful. From the outside that, and the rest, all seems a bit too obvious.

I liked White Teeth and On Beauty better. I can’t remember them very well but I remember having more of the feeling that they were giving something about life back to you. This doesn’t quite come to life. The reviews in the inside pages seem a little overexcited just to see an accent on the page.

Beware of Pity by Stefan Zweig

This is uncomfortable reading. It’s an examination of the kind of situation that you know before you ever start reading is going to end in tears, that is going doomed to miss its chances to go right, and you spend the whole time dreading the crash. It’s all the worse because mingled with the emotive nature of the dread is the more petty but just as powerful, perhaps even more unbearable, element of embarrassment. This mix of dread and emotiveness and petty but overruling embarrassment is innate to the pity dynamic and this book is a really thorough exploration of the implications of the situation it sets up. There’s something that seemed very Victorian to me in the way it uses its small set of characters as a microcosm, to demonstrate what happens from beginning to end when they are posed with an ethical dilemma.

Edith Kekesfalva and her father, the characters who are pitied, are less the subject of this book than the pitiers, the young officer Hofmiller and the doctor Condor. I liked the way Hofmiller is intoxicated by his discovery of emotional intelligence; Zweig is good at making the simple concept of pity far-reaching in its relevance. The essential problem is the embarrassment element. In some ways, sometimes, pity means to be embarrassed by someone. Hofmiller is alternately embarrassed into and out of his pity for the Kekesfalvas. Condor’s pity is an absolute commitment to a person, to allow oneself to be eaten alive in order to create others. It stands as a reproach to Hofmiller after he has very thoroughly learnt the lesson “beware of pity”. Pity, at its best, is pitiless in its demands of pitiers. To pity one must be prepared to give all, the moral seems to be. Once engaged in the relationship of pity you cannot escape whole.