Facetious Nights

A book blog

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.

Good Morning, Midnight by Jean Rhys

In the late thirties Sophia Jansen, hopeless, lonely, depressed, alcoholic, has come back to Paris to revisit the scenes of previous failures for “a quiet, sane fortnight.” We’re not sure how old she is, but she’s very much aware that she’s not as young as she was. Sophia has come apart; she’s not in the process of coming apart. I hadn’t read any Rhys for years and it was interesting to see that there is something engaging about the misery and monotony, and to try and work out what it is.

Sophia has a submerged kind of consciousness, emerging occasionally into clarity and recognition of pain, or, much more rarely, into recognition of its absence. She is past pride, she’s given up. She hasn’t got the stamina for the performance of social interaction. She is frightened and alienated by other people and resentful of them; she feels herself at the mercy of their agency, having none of her own. She’s self-pitying, but not really the kind of character there’s much point in thinking should just buck up and get their act together. She’s far too far gone.

The book is made up of her recollections of past humiliations and tragedies and chance encounters with people she is never going to be able to really connect with in the present. She plays at connecting with them for moments, but could not sustain any relationship. Sophia keeps bolting into the lavatories of cafes (called here lavabos, as I have never seen elsewhere) to look at herself and temporarily escape into her own society. There is a sense that she finds a certain, dysfunctional comfort and self-affirmation in confirmation of her doomed status: “Who is this crying? The same one who laughed on the landing, kissed him and was happy. This is me, this is myself, who is crying. The other – how do I know who the other is? She isn’t me.” I guess the book is about the consolations of self when barely recognisable as such. It engages, I think, because of something to do with the implicit contrast in it. It’s made up of Sophia’s vulnerability and incoherence, yet it’s well arranged. Sophia/Rhys lays out everything in just the right place and order. It represents a dogged energy and purpose. Also a kind of ultimate satisfaction with the state of things.

Strangers and Pilgrims by Walter de la Mare

Ambivalent about this one, but at its best it was certainly worth me reading. It’s a collection of short stories about ghosts, fairies and the uncanny in general. The stories are arranged in the chronological order of writing, which perhaps accounts for my feeling most positive about this in the middle. Some of them are quite fairytale-y, some are stories of early 20th century life with an unexplained feeling of something disturbingly inexplicable lurking, and some of them are fairly traditional ghost stories. There are lots of churches and churchyards. They’re atmospheric. The words are pretty. I’m not entirely sure they were always in the right order, but then again I’m not sure they were in the wrong order either. De la Mare is all about the uncanny as experience of otherness, chilling not quite so much in the sense of frightening but in its lack of the warmth of familiarity. The occasional fairy plays basically much the same role as a ghost: the sighting transfixes and transfigures the seer; they never get to know anything beyond their initial confrontation with its existence and they are marked by the knowledge that it, and another kind of reality, exists. The introduction makes much of the idea that most of the uncanny cannot be proven to be outside the characters’ minds and what really haunts them is themselves. This is kind of true of most ghost stories and I’m not sure it seemed to be more true of these. It’s usually the mental effects of the uncanny that is presented as the real horror. But yes, De la Mare has his own version of this. He puts you into that cold, unhuman place but then I guess I wanted him to do more with it, at least sometimes. After a while I started to want there to be a next step.

The Daisy Chain by Charlotte Yonge

Like Little Women but more religious. So you have to like nineteenth-century domestic fiction and to have a strong stomach for didacticism. This is the story of a family of eleven children whose mother dies in the first few chapters. Their father, a country doctor, generous, absent-minded, with a temper that prevents his children at times from trusting him, has been used to leaving all domestic concerns to his wife. Naturally, his teenage daughters take on a great deal of this responsibility for him. One of these daughters, Ethel, is the main character if the book has a main character. She’s rather a Jo March type who has to learn to channel her enthusiasm in order to achieve things, to sacrifice things because women can’t have it all, and to become more domestic. She’s the character whose virtue is worth most because we are most involved in her struggle to attain it. Not that the other characters don’t have their own struggles. Yonge is particularly concerned here with how to cope with being clever, well-off and popular; she sees these as problems to be taken very seriously. Sometimes it is a character’s duty to suffer heroically through being lauded and lucky and sometimes it isn’t. This has the gossipy feel of small incidents in a small group of characters, punctuated by melodrama when characters die or don’t die.

The thing about Yonge is that if you can get over the fact that self-sacrifice and death are presented as good things in almost any circumstance, she’s a good writer. She engages with people and puts much more into the book than she has to. She doesn’t drag her characters from A to B, bent only on proving her point. She takes the time to acknowledge the idiosyncrasy of particular characters’ psychology so that they get to B under their own steam. The characters each have their different, carefully thought out strengths and weaknesses. She has a great imagination for moral flaws and sees them in the most unlikely places so that, for all the didacticism, your moral imagination is put to work rather than put to sleep.

Ethel should have married the Scottish laird though.

Satantango by Laszlo Krasznahorkai

The reviews for this, while faultlessly emphatic on its dark depressingness somehow, through this very emphasis, made me imagine something more vivaciously, energetically dark and depressing. More frenzied, I think. The reality is drearier. This begins with some depressed, desultory characters in a Hungarian village abandoned except by them. The buildings are rotting, falling apart, the inhabitants unable to prevent them from returning to the primeval mud. The monotony is broken up by the arrival of someone with a personality and his sidekick, both previously thought dead. Only briefly broken up mind. Once we’ve established their arrival we spend the first half of the novel establishing quite what all the depressed desultory characters were doing before Irimias and Petrina got there. A child commits suicide and, while waiting for Irimias and Petrina, the characters lose themselves for a while in a drunken dance, which is about as good as things get for them.

Irimias, returning to the estate for some obscure nefarious bureaucratic reason, gathers up the characters and redistributes them for further nefarious bureaucratic reasons, obscure at least to me. The shine has gone off him for one character who realises he probably doesn’t even know what he is doing. It’s all about the pointlessness of a particular political situation, I imagine, and life in general. It’s not entirely deathly serious, there’s an edge of “what does anything really matter?” humour.

The problem with books that are said to be like Kafka and Beckett etc is that they are like them. That is, we have seen it before. We are slogging through all this dreariness for the literary value, and when books are like something else rather than like themselves, the literary value has been stretched too far and has worn a little thin. This is somewhat the case with this, but the problem with Difficult Books is that by the time you’ve got through them you’re kind of stockholmed, so I’m not sure whether this was enough of its own thing or not. It does have an atmosphere of it own, I think.

Kilvert’s Diary by Francis Kilvert

A wild rainy night.  They are holding Clyro Feast Ball at the Swan opposite.  As I write I hear the scraping and squealing of the fiddle and the ceaseless heavy tramp of the dancers as they stamp the floor in a  country dance.  An occasional blast of wind or rush of wind shakes my window.  Toby sits before the fire on the hearthrug and now and then jumps up on my knee to be stroked.  The mice scurry rattling along the wainscot and Toby darts off in great excitement to listen and watch for them.

Isn’t that the kind of passage you’d read a book like this for?  The cosy and the foreign, the intimate and the far away.

It took either Kilvert or me a little while to get into it — diaries can sound so self-conscious, and be rendered so much less interesting because of it.  But we both got into it and I think this really is an important document that should be better known.  It’s an actually lived version of some charming, fascinating rural material more usually seen in fiction, and Kilvert is so much like both a real three-dimensional person (being a real person and all) and a stereotypical Victorian in some respects.  You will need to like scenery, at least when done well, and Kilvert does do it well.  What’s nice is that Kilvert appreciates his vantage point and his relatively leisured lifestyle.

It’s good to see the picturesque country setting and the quaint but changing community free of the need to fulfil the thematic demands of fiction.  The diary format, working as a mosaic composed of random little slivers of colour, creates a curious, sometimes jarring effect — one minute Kilvert is in a cottage hearing some gruesome gossip of death and disaster and madness, the next he’s sauntering off down the lane noticing poetic things and about wildflowers.  Some people are doomed and devastated and some people are doing just fine.  Kilvert himself dies before he’s forty.  I liked the older people’s stories of the olden days — it’s not just the Victorian’s present that’s different to ours, it’s the past that they’re most familiar with.  Kilvert thinking sadly in the 1870s how the attendants at the annual banquet for Waterloo veterans must be dwindling.  The sense of a human chain stretching all the way back, though all but a short section of the preceding chain in lost to sight.

Romance and sexual attraction is where Kilvert is most Victorian, though there is a bit about his reaction to the Prince of Wales’s illness which is pretty foreign.  It’s the weird thing where sexual attraction gets mostly sublimated into waxing lyrical about rosy cheeks and angels, which, because there’s nothing in it that’s specific to the qualities of adult women, gets lavished on little girls too, even though to our eyes it seems so clearly sexual.   Kilvert barely knows there are such things as little boys, but he tells us all about the little girls in his parish.  This is going to give us a “You seem nice; <i>why</i> must you be creepy?” reaction as we read.  It’s annoying not only because of the age element but because of the Dickensy element.  All the girls he likes are made to sound like the girls Dickens heroes marry.  They’re undifferentiated from each other and have no personality apart from being lusciously innocent and good.  The Victorian weirdness shows up in other ways.  Kilvert meets a girl and falls in love with her that same day.  Two days later he and a friend are earnestly discussing whether or not he should marry her and getting all excited about what a good idea it all is.  The day after that he’s announcing his intentions to the girl’s father.  This happens more than once, which certainly adds a humorous element.  They used to be stuck with spouses for life, yet you really notice an incredibly casual attitude with regard to choosing them in the past.

The Vintage edition has a pretty cover but seems to be a facsimile of a much earlier one.  There’s just an old page and a half introduction, which really seemed pretty cheap to me.  They got people to do introductions for the most minor Graham Greene novels, and this is more something that deserves putting in context.