May Reading

Pond by Claire-Louise Bennett

A short book which technically takes the form of a collection of short stories. It feels fairly all-of-a-piece, though, barring some of the very short pieces which feel like something skidding past the camera.  A young woman lives in an Irish cottage, with a connection to academia in her recent past though at the moment she seems to do pretty much nothing.  She does have friends and some degree of social life but nobody else in her world ever becomes a character for us.  The book is mainly her ruminating on the meaning of the various items which make up her material world and her interactions with it.  I read an interview with the author in which she described her interest in the physical world outside us and her lack of interest in human relationships and feelings so I was expecting the tone to be much more observational than it actually is.  The narrator is rather strident about ascribing meaning and value to the things around her, with thought processes that would be quirky if they weren’t aggressively straight-faced and extended.  This interpretative insistence is partly engaging, partly exhausting and irritating.  The narrator sounds chatty while talking about things people do not chat about, which is oddly reminiscent of a confrontation scene with a talkative, gloating villain, even though she’s only talking about breakfast.  The strange appeal of descriptions of the mundane is definitely what the book is about, but the delivery system is an extra element.  The narrator says that “Interfering is something I really loathe in almost all its applications”.  The title comes from the narrator’s great dislike of her neighbour labelling a pond as “Pond” on opening her garden to the public.  Why can’t people be allowed to come to things by themselves, she thinks.  There is in this a kind of combative non-involvement, a condemnation of the force of other people’s personalities and an implicit denial of her own in a way I find too difficult to describe.  A personality that is strong, if not expressed in a very outwards way, that is frequently allergic on principle to evidence of others’ personalities and occupation of the world.  I’m reading into it, I daresay, and responding too much to what I, in my irritation, feel to be a wider type; the dogmatic anti-dogma people. Anyway, suffice it to say the narrator kind of got up my nose and while I found some enjoyment in the book it has so far proved more memorable with regard to the general atmosphere than the content.

Experimental Film by Gemma Files

An excursion into supernatural horror on the grounds that it sounded enough like fantasy that I thought I could cope.  Lois, an unemployed former film critic and teacher of film history who is struggling with her relationship with her autistic son, discovers the work of an early Canadian female filmmaker, who mysteriously disappeared.  She is excited about the potential boost to her career but the Slavic folkloric figure, Lady Midday, around which these films revolve, comes to seem more and more like a frightening reality.  She’s a personification of the hardship of fieldwork on hot days, striking people down with sunstroke and madness and attempting to distract people from their work, which they must resist on pain of death.  I guess that shows you how awful mandatory hard labour on hot days is, if both doing your work and stopping it can be personified as a bringer of death.  Files uses this folklore rather well but the rhythm of revelation and confrontation felt like we were all, author included, being too dragged around by rules of plot construction.  Now we go here and do a bit of this and have these feelings but not for too long!  Now we go there and have this revelation which we could have had earlier but we had to save it for some increased momentum at this point!  The writing advice that people get given to make their stories more exciting seems to suit plenty of people’s tastes but when I see it in books – and I do see the rules, rather than the story — it often feels to me like a tourist tour designed to exhaust and show me the least interesting perspective of everything.  I think I hate the concept of an action scene.  Funnily enough, Files actually goes out on a limb to takes things slow, and show us Lois’s general life angst.  Unfortunately this takes the form of a “nobody loves me, everybody hates me, I’ll go eat worms” attitude, as people around her oppress her with their concern for her well-being.  So this wasn’t really what I wanted it to be but then I have to give it some leeway on that because it isn’t my genre.

Rule Britannia by Daphne Du Maurier

In a kind of alternate timeline Emma lives with her eccentric elderly actress grandmother and the six boys her grandmother has taken in.  The world in general is in a bit of a state, though Emma’s life seems to be trotting on in an ordinary enough mid-century way.  Britain has recently left Europe and isn’t looking likely to do very well…  The Americans have arrived, for no apparent reason at first but it is eventually explained that there has been a kind of merger between the two nations.  They are now USUK and the UK is going to be an olde-worlde-themed holiday resort for the US.  Merger or invasion?  Emma is prepared not to mind too much which, but unfortunately for her the rest of her household is suspicious and resentful from the beginning.  The first part of the book gave me strong flash-backs to Noel Streatfield and it seemed unnatural that we should be stuck with Emma, who simply wanders around feeling a little put-out by the other characters, rather than with the stronger personalities.  Finally suspicion against the Americans takes a concrete form.  The Americans retaliate with increasingly draconian displays of authority.  By this stage Emma’s perspective has become more interesting, as she is astonished and dismayed to feel herself alone among the ruthless and efficiently warlike.  Everyone she knows best turns out to be quite ready to live life as a contest of will, force and guile.  This readiness is what the novel is about, rather than plot.  It isn’t condemned.  It may be exhilarating.  It may quite possibly be the route to freedom.  Emma herself may get swept up in it.  But is it nice, or merciful?  No.  But how valuable is nice?  Du Maurier isn’t just talking about war and violence here but simply power of personality.  The novel reaches a plateau of ambivalence on these themes, which doesn’t take us very far perhaps but is truthful at least.

Goldberg: Variations by Gabriel Josipovici

An eighteenth-century writer has been hired to lull an insomniac English country gentleman to sleep by reading to him.  The insomniac changes the rules and demands that the material Goldberg reads should be newly written by himself.  The following collection of short pieces does not represent pieces which we are to suppose Goldberg obediently composed but variations on the simple theme of this opening situation and these two characters and their possible families.  Westfield’s insomnia is caused by existential despair, the details of which have already escaped me because at their most explicit they were exactly the arid, airless kind of thing which freaks me out.  I can’t deal with that kind of atmosphere.  I can’t read Anita Brookner.  Some of the pieces were like that.  In some of them the melancholy felt more gentle and elegant.  As a whole the book felt like a tray of plain little wafers.  Harmless enough, apart from the bits that were actually quite harmful.  Pleasant, even.  But not exciting.

All Things Bright and Beautiful by James Herriot

The second omnibus edition of these chronicles of a vet in pre-war Yorkshire.  I read the first last year, having been given it years earlier and been unconvinced by the first few pages, which uncompromisingly presents you right away with Herriot with his hand up a cow.  However, it turns out that animal husbandry actually is a perfectly efficient subject through which to strain a sense of the things that make life worth living – kindness, curiosity, courage etc.  Herriot struggled with depression, which makes sense in a way – a honed need to find a sense of the things that make life worth living.  This one sets up jokes more obviously than the first but it’s still good.  Very detailed animal husbandry though.

The Queen’s Gambit by Walter Tevis

Eighties novel about Beth, an orphan who discovers a phenomenal talent for chess when she is eight and living in a children’s home.  She goes on to play competitively and live a life which revolves entirely around tournaments.  I know nothing about chess and learned nothing about chess from this, which contains many, many detailed chess scenes (you can bring a horse to water but you can’t make it drink).  Still, I rather enjoyed it.  I am fascinated by the urge to excel, and by the appreciation of the processes involved in excelling for their own sake.  Chess for Beth means a vision of a particular kind of intellectual perfection, a perfection that isn’t static but infinitely responsive, thrumming with potentialities.  She needs, to some extent, to overcome a stubborn emphasis on intuition, this responsiveness, this ability to absorb any challenge being what she values most, in order to allow what others have done feed her intuition.  One thing that’s interesting about the novel is that it shows Beth is lonely and damaged by her childhood and that chess cannot be enough and does not help to develop her emotional capacities.  On the other hand, chess represents a large enough part of her that health must include it and learning to connect to others, while it must take place, must take place round the edges.  I’ve seen the film based on Tevis’s novel The Hustler.  As in that, winning the game requires some kind of emotional reckoning beforehand and must be achieved in order to reach any further emotional adjustment and peace.  By the end we feel that Beth will be okay, even if we don’t know what that’s going to look like.

Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini

Sixteenth-century autobiography of a goldsmith who did a lot of other things.  Hard to know what to say, really.  This book just contains so much, and Cellini is so much.  Not that I more than almost like him.  Cellini takes offence very easily, even by the sword-happy standards of his times, and gets into constant disagreements, violent and non-violent.  He’s a curious mixture of the sullen, brooding type with something more energetic and simple.  He is blinkered and driven and it never occurs to him for a moment that life is about anything other than him and his quest to be the best and gain agreement from the highest authorities that he is the best.  Full of surreal details from the prison governor (of course Cellini ends up in prison) who thinks he’s a bat to Cellini raising demons in the Colosseum.  He can’t even go down the road without encountering a hail storm that bludgeons men to death.  Cellini is employed by popes, kings and dukes, and it’s interesting to see the respect even he must show for their position warring with his impatience with their flakiness and general venal monstrousness, the full extent of which isn’t visible to him anyway, being a monster himself.  He describes a pope as bestial at one point.  Popes are neither more nor less than kings here.  Cellini himself has a very comfortable relationship with My Friend God.  Anyway, you get your money’s worth of the renaissance here.

The Matriarch by G. B. Stern

1920s novel about a cosmopolitan Jewish family based on Stern’s own.  It is more about the family as a whole than any particular member.  Anastasia, the matriarch, stubborn, gregarious, managing, is more the swirling centre of the family than a character.  Her granddaughter Toni is, like her contemporaries resentful of her elders’ interference in a new way, representing the end of an era.  Still, alone in her generation, she feels a great love of the family’s history, which means a romantic, adventurous accumulation of experience extending through place and time, combining coherence of identity with ability to adapt.  She also feels a much greater sense of the weight of responsibility to the family, appreciating the need for central figures even when they force their centralness on others.  Stern can be a little uncomfortably drawn to glorify specific kinds of Jewishness at the expense of others.  There is an intolerable lordly cousin love interest.  The shaping is fairly minimal, provided largely by its themes of waxing and waning.  More like a blast of warm scented air than a novel.  Enjoyable if you like to hear about who married who and descriptions of furniture.  I do!

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April Reading

Marcella by Mrs Humphry Ward

An 1894 novel about class politics with particular reference to land, which attempts to find a via media between the nationalisation of land and the negligence of landlords.  Marcella is a fiery, strong-willed young woman who begins the novel with Socialist ideals as her father inherits a country estate.  She likes to be important and cannot help feeling pride in her new position and upper-class heritage, while full of plans to improve the lives of her father’s cottagers.  She forms an engagement with a deeply earnest and conscientious but Conservative heir to a country estate, Aldous Raeburn, but cannot reconcile herself to his politics.  The difficulty is helped along by her attraction to a Radical but flighty politician, Mr Wharton.  Tension is also created by a plot in which one of Marcella’s protégés in the village turns poacher and kills the Raeburns’ keeper; the game laws of the time are one of Marcella’s chief concerns.  This novel is very much like Ward’s Robert Elsmere, about a clergyman who loses faith in the truth of the bible, in that it takes a very earnest, respectable, Victorian approach to the inevitable dissolution of systems that have been depended on, reaches a kind of precarious, painstaking earnest Victorian okayness with the exact stage of transition that Ward has engineered/represented by the end and shrugs towards the future.  That novel had more to offer, I think, because having a good and conscientious man permanently lose his faith feels more a lot newer for the time than having people really want to be good to the poor but not be sure how to do it or whether good always comes out of trying to be good to the poor.  This novel accepts that the system of dependence on patriarchal land owners is probably dying but asks urgently “But what if there are good land owners?  What if they’re really getting their act together?  What if you’re being really unfair in tarring them all with the same brush?”  Marcella repents of her dreadful crime of being unfair to good land owners and decides it’s best to be a little ambitious and innovative but not too much and everyone will just do the duties at hand and see what comes of it.  It was quite interesting to see that Marcella is allowed to live alone and take up a nursing career during the novel.  I suppose she’s a little like Dorothea from Middlemarch with her initial conflation of morality with personal ambition.  Like Dorothea, she has to get squashed but ends up less squashed I think, allowed more ability to be useful in the world in the end.  The book is interesting in that it’s a decent enough treatment of material I find interesting but decidedly too long.  As with Robert Elsmere, this is a Victorian book club kind of book.  It tackles of-the-moment issues in a way that isn’t bad but lacks the kind of universal resonance that allows old books to live.

The Tightrope Walker by Dorothy Gilman

A girl who’s afraid of everything and trying to reinvent herself discovers a clue to a murder.  In discovering first who was killed and when and then whodunit, she also embarks on a course of personal growth and learns to be the best her she can be rather than try to be someone else.  There’s a guru in this and everything but Gilman’s approach to spiritual growth is brisk and efficient as well as kitsch and the character development is folded nicely into the mystery.

Arrest the Bishop? by Winifred Peck

Detective mystery.  A blackmailing Reverend with dirt on several worthies is killed.  Did the butler do it or the bishop?  Pleasant enough but a bit slack.

A Nun in the Closet by Dorothy Gilman

A pair of nuns are sent out into the world to take possession of some property they’ve inherited.  They discover a shot but not dead man on the premises, who refuses to explain anything, and make friends with the hippies camping nearby.  The nuns and the hippies combine in their concern for the rights of migrant workers while it becomes clear that the people who shot the mysterious man are still circling.  This one’s a bit twee even for me but still enjoyable.

White Oleander by Janet Fitch 

The story of a teenage girl and her many foster placements after her mother begins a prison sentence.  The placements all go wrong but somehow usually in a way that allows Astrid to develop a fetishistic, fraught relationship with beauty and art and consumerism.  Exactly the florid shot of oestrogen I wanted it to be and which it promised to be from the first page which describes Astrid’s mother smelling of violets with beauty like the edge of a knife.  Fitch enjoys Astrid’s monstrous mother, an egotistical poet fond of making pompous pronouncements on how life should be lived, best of all, I think, though of course Astrid must reject her monstrousness in order to grow.

A Girl in Winter by Philip Larkin

A novel about emotional alienation.  Katherine is a girl in winter literally but more importantly she is internally frozen, in the grip of a winter which may last indefinitely.  Katherine is a refugee in war-time England with a job as a librarian under a petty tyrant boss.  She has been forced by circumstances to make a complete break with her past but Larkin doesn’t commit to making her someone whose family has died or is in danger.  Neither does he commit to making her someone of whom these things are not true.  The novel has three sections and the first describes what passes for a temporary escape from the worst of her lonely life when she is permitted to leave work for a short while to take a young colleague with toothache to the dentist.  Katherine is not drawn to this girl, who is a drip in the unsympathetic kind of way, but after a while is prevailed upon by her vulnerability to attempt to make some kind of connection with her — an attempt which she later finds has been betrayed, in its own small way.  They spend time waiting in the snow before embarking on some slightly surreal yet mundane mishaps.  The people Katherine meets seem a little too near for comfort yet somehow still very far away.  This escape from the library into the winter outside is not the important escape — that is Katherine’s recently established contact with a family she spent a summer holiday with once when she was sixteen.  She may be about to hear from Robin, the pen-pal who invited her back then.  This changes everything because it seems to bring her into touch with a world of possibilities and emotional connection.  She feels that if she does not make touch with this world soon she never will again, that she is on the brink of losing the ability to relate to people.  Since she is still so young, Katherine’s fear that this state of winter might be permanent makes her seem particularly young in this moment to me and I felt the tenderness for her that you feel for people whose problems might not be as bad as they think they are but whose inability to see that is their biggest problem of all.  Larkin, however, makes this impossibility of connection in the world of his novel a little more objective and a little less subjective for her, which made me feel I should feel sorry for him too.

The second section conveys summer as vividly as winter is conveyed by the first and last sections.  Katherine is detectably a younger and more hopeful self here but has not really so much more to be hopeful about.  She has always been puzzled by the wooden letters of her pen-pal Robin and her attempts to draw him out, first by letter and then in person, fail.  She has a pleasant enough time as Robin, accompanied by his annoying sister Jane, dutifully shows her around, but she is irritated by her inability to work out what makes him tick or why he has invited her.  She is doubly irritated by the presence of Jane, which she is sure prevents her from discovering exciting answers to these mysteries.  During this section, in which Katherine works up a sexual attraction to Robin, it seemed to me that surely it is rare that male writers show as much interest as Larkin here in what their female characters think of their male characters.  Which is strange.  The holiday stasis is broken by Katherine’s discovery of the real reason why she has been invited, a reason that has nothing to do with her previous speculations.  It is a kind of claim on her unwilling sympathies, not unlike Katherine’s winter encounter with the Miss Green with toothache, that again fails partly because of the claimant’s failure to follow through.

The third section shows us that Katherine now has very little idea how the holiday and Robin actually turned out; it is the hope she remembers feeling then which has been giving her hope she could feel it again.  This hope dies when Robin turns up, nothing but a stranger wanting from Katherine what she wants from him.

There are signs that this is a poet’s novel.  Not in a floweriness of language, because his poetry is not flowery, but in an attitude that the inanimate world is just as valid a subject of interest as people.  There are descriptions of things that are given the same weight as descriptions of events.  Katherine wishes by the end of her holiday that she had paid less attention to Robin and more to the simplest, least human physical details of English life.  A view of life which always pleasantly uncramps my horizons.

Having studied Larkin’s poetry in 6th form and felt antagonistic towards his gloomy misanthropism, and having heard since that publication of his diaries or correspondence had shown him in an unpleasant light, I was surprised by how much I liked this.  I mean, I don’t think I love it but I thought it was a solidly good novel, with a warmth of sympathy lurking amid the frozenness, and that it was a shame Larkin didn’t write more novels.  Apparently he planned at one point to write a novel about coming to life again.  It’s nice to know he thought he had it in him but I can see why he ultimately might not have done.

The Crossing by Andrew Miller

Contemporary literary novel.  Tim falls for Maud.  The problem with this is that Tim is both a little pretentious and a feelings person; the kind of person who makes elaborate meals and considers writing concertos, while Maud is an uncommunicative scientist who, when asked in a job interview to describe herself as a drink, decides she is a glass of water.  Much is made of the fact that she has a tattoo which says “Every man for himself” in Latin.  She doesn’t display much personality but nothing will stop her from fulfilling the aims she does have.  Miller is doing a thing with Maud.  She’s a mysterious absence at the heart of the novel.  Is her interiority withheld from us or is she so much like a glass of water that there is nothing more going on inside than there is outside?  Is she on the spectrum or cold or just astonishingly straightforward?  Fittingly enough, perhaps, I felt pretty neutral about the interestingness of Maud and what Miller is doing with her.  For Tim to carry on a relationship with Maud is for him to do all the voices, the I love yous and I love you toos, essentially.  He’s partly aware of this, and fascinated by her otherness, and partly not aware that he’s talking for her.  For both of these reactions we probably think a little less of him.

After the relationship finally falls apart following a tragedy, we go sailing.  Maud and Tim are both into sailing and bought a boat together, though Maud was more into it than Tim.  She takes the boat and sets off without an aim, right across the Atlantic.  As I found the boat talk beforehand pretty hard-going and the rest of the novel only so-so I was surprised by how genuinely exhilarating I found this episode.  First there is the sense of freedom brought by being so absolutely alone at sea, with nothing to do and nowhere to be, nothing to prevent Maud from sailing on and on.  Then there is a battering storm which goes on and on and demands the full use of Maud’s capacities.  This is also satisfying, not because it’s all that dramatic exactly but because Miller makes the subjection of self to physical exigency fulfilling.  Like in The African Queen, where the characters are happier than they ever have been or will be precisely because of the awful time they’re having with that boat.  Then Maud washes up amid a community of children who’ve been abandoned wherever it is by snake-handling religious maniacs.  This section felt like a misstep; the community is both clichéd and too odd to be introduced so late in a novel.  Most of all, it deprives Maud of her straight man out function.  There’s nothing really particular about her relationship to the children.  So overall, meh but that one bit did wake me up.

Hard Rain Falling by Don Carpenter

1960’s hard-boiled noir-adjacent story of Jack and Billy, who begin as aimless delinquent teenagers in pool halls.  Jack, at least, is aimless.  Billy has his pool, which does something for him besides let him make some money, though he’s not quite sure what.  However, the novel spends more time in prison than pool halls.  If I had set out to find a book full of explicit discussion of the dehumanising nature of the penal system and capitalism in mid-century America, I would have been delighted.  As it is, though that book sounds like something that has a right to exist, I was never seduced somehow into really wanting to read it.  I wanted a story that felt more immersed in individual experience.  I feel hard-boiled and noir fiction, working at its best, sinks down much of its emotional and intellectual content into the fabric of the novel — the oddly incantatory function of the descriptions of the material world, the macguffins, the ritualistic performances of the relationships of the characters – so that these things can be used as symbolic shorthand.  I liked the novel best when there were actual scenes that weren’t Jack raging against the machine or thinking about how there was no point to anything all by himself — these scenes related fruitfully to the material world in the way I associate with those genres, though flexibly.  The novel shows the way toxic masculinity prevents urgently necessary connection between people and at times manages to keep the delicate balance required in dramatising the emotional lives of highly unpleasant people.  Jack’s relationship with the slightly less fucked-up Billy eventually brings him to life emotionally. Billy has a more distinct personality than Jack but unfortunately it’s Jack we spend most time with.  All too often he seemed like nothing more than a delivery system for feelings and thoughts which were too abstract or too intense to bear so much treatment without seeming windy and untethered.  This made the novel a bit cabbagey for me even apart from its being so depressing.  It’s just too up in the air, too diluted by its own intensity.  What I really mean is that there was too much telling rather than showing.

 It could not be true that he had wasted his life up to now; it was not possible that fighting City Hall was wrong or futile.  The folk saying (So go fight City Hall) had to be wrong.  It was not like Don Quixote fighting a windmill, because a windmill wasn’t a criminal, and society was.  Society was a criminal because it committed crimes.  To fight society because it was a criminal had to be good.  But was that what Jack had done most of his life?  Had he fought to make society quit cheating, lying, robbing and murdering?  Or had he fought because he was scared?  Search as he would, he could find nothing in his past to justify his fight.  He had not fought the evil side of society; he was not even sure what it was.  He had merely fought.  It left him with an awful sense of frustration, because in his case society, too, had been fighting blindly and helplessly.  There had been nothing else to do with him but what it had done.

By then he would realise that the freedom he had always yearned for and never understood was beyond his or any man’s reach, and that all men must yearn for it equally; a freedom for the society of mankind without its absence; a freedom from connection, from fear, from trouble, and above all the loneliness of being alive.  By then he would understand that fulfilment was only temporary and desire the enemy of death. 

These quotes are both summings up near the end, which is fair, but there’s too much of the above all the way through.

Marius the Epicurean by Walter Pater

1885 novel set in the Rome of Marcus Aurelius.  This reads like Pater is projecting himself into a kind of virtual reality so as to wander around the possibilities of the era that he personally finds most enticing.  It’s an imagined being, not doing.  Imagining the mellow solemnity of growing up in a villa in the countryside with the rituals of the Roman Gods, already apparently a little old-fashioned, as your formative cultural heritage.  Imagining encounters with Marcus Aurelius and Apuleius and Lucian.  Imagining picking and choosing between various philosophies and ways of being, most notably Epicureanism, Stoicism and Christianity, having the ability to take what Pater considers to be the most interesting elements of each of them.

It seemed just then as if the desire of the artist in him — that old longing– might be satisfied by the exact and literal transcript of what was then passing around him, in simple prose, arresting the desirable moment as it passed, and prolonging its life a little.

This description of Marius’s urge to “arrest the desirable moment” reminded me of Pater’s modus operandi in this novel; he has a list of desirable moments to fit into this premise and he freeze-frames them.

Marius, as the title tells you, is an Epicurean.  I know nothing about Epicureanism beyond what this novel told me, so I don’t know whether Pater’s take on it truly is a little idiosyncratic.  Marius’s philosophy seems to be that nothing exists beyond the present moment so that we should take care to live the present moment as vividly as possible.  The idiosyncrasy comes in with Pater’s idea of vividness.  It is made clear at the beginning that Marius has a special capacity to enjoy beauty and visual stimulus and that his life’s good shall come to him through these.  It is also made clear that Marius is far too refined and restrained and full of rectitude to interpret his philosophy as a licence for debauchery.  I might have expected a novel full of Proustian descriptions of the visual world, then, but that doesn’t really happen.  For all this emphasis on beauty being important to Marius, the physical world seems to have little reality for him.  Physical beauty is the cipher for a beautiful concept behind it, he decides during a spiritual experience in a natural setting:

It was easier to conceive of the material fabric of things as but an element in a world of thought — as a thought in a mind, than of mind as an element, or accident, or passing condition in a world of matter, because mind was really nearer to himself: it was an explanation of what was less known by what was known better.  The purely material world that close, impassable prison-wall, seemed just then the unreal thing, to be actually dissolving away all around him: and he felt a quiet hope, a quiet joy dawning faintly, in the dawning of this doctrine upon him as a really credible opinion.

This has something to do with Platonism, I think, but I don’t know enough to tell why Marius is an Epicurean rather than a Platonist.  This intangible nature of what Marius is striving for is emphasised as he sums up his life at the end:

Revelation, vision, the discovery of a vision, the seeing of a perfect humanity, in a perfect world—through all his alternations of mind, by some dominant instinct, determined by the original necessities of his own nature and character, he had always set that above the having, or even the doing, of anything. For, such vision, if received with due attitude on his part, was, in reality, the being something, and as such was surely a pleasant offering or sacrifice to whatever gods there might be, observant of him.

The novel seems like it presents itself as a plea for some ethical position but the more I think about it the odder it seems.  This insistence of Pater’s on talking about the physical world being everything one moment and nothing the next moment is at the heart of it.  I think he means that the physical world is the key to the invisible world but this seems too obvious to him to always make it apparent.  Instead there is all this invisible world stuff, when you thought it said something else on the tin.

Thankfully I have read Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations because one of the main things this book is for is to quarrel respectfully with him.  At one point Marius almost has a chat with him to point out where he is going wrong but Marcus Aurelius is busy with orphans and misses his chance.  Part of this is Pater’s puzzled sorrow that someone who tried to be good could have lent himself to some of his period’s atrocities and part of it is a rejection of what he sees as Marcus Aurelius’s gloomy assumptions that life is a burden.

Marius encounters Christians, and after spending lots of time looking at their tombs comes to the conclusion that Christianity is all about joy.  He doesn’t convert but is able to die happily knowing that Christianity exists.  I was surprised by how unconvincing I found Marius’s reactions to Christianity — surprised since it seems clear that the representation of early Christianity is carefully crafted to suit Pater’s own vision.  The fact that Pater had in fact lost his faith in Christianity may have something to do with the awkwardness I felt here, the effect of crudely visible lines in something that has nonetheless clearly been lovingly pieced together.

Ultimately I suppose the oddness of the book is due to the fact that this is Pater’s world, and happiness in it is defined by the tastes of one wistful intellectual.  And that’s what this objectively dull book had that I quite liked: a wistful intellectual vision of happiness.

March Reading

Problems by Jade Sharma

A novel about a young woman in the grip of self-loathing, the fear of abandonment and existential angst.  The style is aggressively energetic in its graphic portrayal of Maya’s drug habit, sex life and the prostitution she ends up using to support the drug habit.  The energy is that you might see in blog posts written by unhappy people whose blogs are not read by many people.  The lurid details feel ultimately subordinate to the themes.  Entertaining but also depressing and claustrophobic.  Really though, the most significant thing about my reading experience might have been that it started me wondering about the whole business of quite good books dealing with dramatic and extreme subject matter, because Problems isn’t more than quite good.  There’s something about it that seems on the one hand inherently contradictory to me – like the subject matter (not of this book in particular; think of the piles of quite good books about war, for instance) is a cheap shortcut to quite good.  Like if such a book is not super good then it is nothing.  But I don’t really believe in the sublime or nothing dichotomy and have a lot of time for quite good books.

The Feast by Margaret Kennedy

1950 novel about a group of people in a hotel.  Some of them are good, some of them are bad, some of them are in between, and most of them are sad.  Some of them represent the seven deathly sins.  We are told in the opening pages that the hotel falls into the sea, killing some of these people.  We don’t know which ones, though, so we go through the novel wondering whether the right people will die.  It’s a book about recovery from grief and disappointment and the refusal to recover.  It’s quite meandering, I suppose, but I found it very engrossing.  A lot of these middlebrow 20th century books are about psychological health, I think; the return or initiation into life and light as opposed to stasis and darkness.

Cassandra at the Wedding by Dorothy Baker

Cassandra’s twin sister Judith is getting married.  Cassandra thought she and Judith were going to live in Paris together only then Judith went off to try living alone for a while, during which Cassandra sunk into depression, and now the impending marriage means the break is final.  Or at least, it appears final.  Cassandra hasn’t given up hope of making Judith understand that they belong together.  There’s an oddly unsisterly tone to the brooding possessiveness Cassandra feels for Judith but the core of Cassandra’s issues is very childish, or even babyish: she doesn’t want to possess Judith, she wants Judith to come and be Cassandra with her.  Because being your self is lonely, a loneliness Cassandra is rebelling against in the ways least likely to alleviate it.  Parts of this novel had something of the appeal of being a child and watching another child behave badly, combining the pleasures of disapproval and vicarious satisfaction at seeing impulses we understand lived out.  There are at least two definite and quite important things that happen in the novel but its plot is really a very internal one, unfolding slowly.  I thought it was done very skilfully and was also struck by it as a finished novel.  Every now and then I have this thought about a book that makes me realise how few novels make me feel like they had a job to do and turned up and did it.  I don’t mean that the finished books are necessarily the diamonds and the unfinished ones are the dirt, or that the finished books are less alive and more complacently certain.  We don’t know what Cassandra will do next, after all.  But I felt Baker knew what she wanted to do and completed it.

Gingerbread by Helen Oyeyemi

Difficult to describe this book.  Mostly about Harriet, a diffident, pleasant woman who grew up in a country which doesn’t exist and has a mother and a daughter.  It’s about economic exploitation and friendship and diffidence and has magic realism and a large rich family that may or may not be sinister.  At a certain point in the book I looked at how far into it I was and realised that it didn’t seem to be going anywhere much.  Then I wondered if I minded and decided I didn’t.  I enjoyed it but it’s hard to remember particulars.  I would say it lacked substance but it felt more as if it was all substance and nothing else – raw material.  It feels like it could be a novel’s worth of material deleted from the actual novel.  But I quite liked it!

Neverworld Wake by Marisha Pessl

A YA book about rich kids with stupid names stuck in a Groundhog Day loop which only one can survive as they discover the truth behind the mysterious death of the heroine’s boyfriend.  I guess it was pretty much what I thought it would be.

Miss Billy Trilogy by Eleanor H. Porter

A perky eighteen year old orphan gets taken in by her father’s friend, who is expecting her to be a boy.  Naturally hilarity ensues and she brightens the life of Uncle William and his brothers.  Readable and pleasant and quite an interesting tour of potential relationship problems of this era.

Riders in the Chariot by Patrick White

Explores the possibility of the redemption of the suffering world through compassion.  Four characters who are outcasts in their various ways, each with a kind of creative moral vision which is both part of what condemns them to outcast status and its consolation.  The four each brush up against each other with some kind of recognition, but the substance of the novel is not about their relationships with one another.  Rather it gives us the backstories of each of these characters, interspersed with their present day.  Densely written in a modernistic style that I felt was the result of pushing through imaginative experience inch by inch.  This didn’t have exactly the same sense of grim, teeth-grittingly dogged perseverance I found in Voss, the only previous White book I’ve read.  A kind of seething in its own juices thing, something produced by suffering but which lubricates and soothes and gives an environment in which to exist, even to float away — underneath the persecution and estrangement which continues. Reading it felt at once submersive and expansive. It made me feel that White might be the author I didn’t know I was waiting for.  It might have been rebarbatively gruelling but I find that sometimes when you feel sufficiently close to the suffering the less I flinch from the pathos of the spectacle and the more wholly I am able to engage.

I could have done without the grotesque and callous ignorance of mundanity being so grotesque and so largely embodied by women.

In the Mountains by Elizabeth Von Arnim

A woman takes to her holiday home in the Swiss Alps to recover from depression and heartsickness following bereavement in WWI and a parting from a romantic partner which is never gone into.  The beauty and tranquillity help her to remember that the world can be good and by the time she has had time to feel lonely two Englishwomen happen to be passing and she invites them to stay.  She would dearly love to be friends with them but one of them is too set on being a perfect guest and keeping what she feels to be disgraceful secrets close to allow this to happen.  This frustrating impasse is broken by a means which has a certain comic value, I suppose, but I think Von Arnim could have found something more satisfying.  This is a very slight novel, and repetitive even for its length, but still pleasant and I did like the theme of recovery.

Olivia by Dorothy Strachey

Olivia is a favoured pupil being “finished” at a highly-cultured French boarding school in the later nineteenth century.  She has a very intense crush on one of the two headmistresses, whose relationship with the other head, her partner, is falling apart. Olivia wants something from Mlle Julie but is frustrated by her puzzlement as to what.  Mlle Julie opens Olivia’s eyes to a cosmopolitan world of art and culture and also opens her eyes to what is represented as the archetypal pathos of adult emotional life.  Mlle Julie tries to avoid hurting Olivia’s feelings but, having by modern standards very dubious ideas of the boundaries between teacher and pupil, still trifles with her affections.  The writing itself is good but this reads more like a convincing outline of potential than a fully realised work.  Also, I suspect that the emotional core of hero worship is one I’d have found only more saccharine the more fully it was developed.

The Benefactress by Elizabeth Von Arnim

This starts off very much in Von Arnim’s comic mode.  Anna leads a purposeless existence as an idealistic, pretty young woman of good family who has not married as she was expected to and feels that she does not want to marry but wants the means to live an independent life.  Her uncle leaves her a small estate in Germany and she decides to share her good fortune and invite sad impoverished gentlewomen to live with her.  It is obvious at an early stage that the scheme isn’t going to be very successful and while happy enough to read the story of how Anna’s beautiful plans to spread love and happiness fall apart, leaving Anna herself chastened but willing to be consoled by marriage, I did feel resentful that people’s ambitious schemes to do good in books so often do fall apart, hilariously or otherwise.  Dare to dream.  People should be more willing to imagine someone achieving something worthwhile, if not changing the world.  However, the novel took, as far as I was concerned, an unexpectedly bleak turn and rather than a catalogue of misadventures that seem as if they are there for the fun of disorder while incidentally or not so incidentally reinforcing order, became a more explicit statement of the plight of the good in a hard, cruel world which is impervious to kinder influences and where the better you are the worse you are thought to be:

For the first time she was wide awake, was facing life as it is without dreams, facing its absolute cruelty and pitilessness. This was life, these were the realities—suffering, injustice, and shame; not to be avoided apparently by the most honourable and innocent of men; but at least to be fought with all the weapons in one’s power, with unflinching courage to the end, whatever that end might be. That was what one needed most, of all the gifts of the gods—not happiness—oh, foolish, childish dream! how could there be happiness so long as men were wicked?—but courage.

The insistence on the loneliness and powerlessness of those who simply want to do right because it is right make this novel decidedly more depressing than I was bargaining for.  It ends abruptly, as if Von Arnim has got disgusted with the whole business.

February Reading

Caroline Minuscule by Andrew Taylor

A little crime novel from the eighties in which William, a useless postgraduate student, is not entirely displeased at being drawn into sinister goings on after discovering that his tutor has been murdered.  Pleasant enough for the sort of thing it is but very slight.

The Amateur Cracksman by E. W. Hornung

A series of connected short stories from 1898 on a “What if Sherlock Holmes was a thief instead of a detective?” premise.  The goodreads review which complains that Raffles, the thief, is “narcissistic and borderline psychopathic” and that Bunny, his accomplice and number one fan, is a “snivelling little wimp” is pretty accurate.  I found Raffles unpleasant in an uncharismatic kind of way and I think an infectious sense of mischief is required to really make the “order has become disorder” premise live up to its promise.  Still, it is readable enough that it remains possible I might read the next in the series.  And one can puzzle over whether Hornung knew how much Bunny wants to be Raffles’ boyfriend.

A Time to Be Born by Dawn Powell

Social satire of certain circles of New York in the forties.  Amanda Keeler, author of a trashy historical novel, has, through marriage to a newspaper mogul, arrived at a ridiculously undeserved position as a kind of saint of political and social issues, the ostensible mouthpiece for work put together by hordes of minions.  At around the same time as she is prevailed upon to find a job for Vicky Haven, an old friend, she re-encounters the man she had to dump in order to marry her mogul.  He had the audacity to be a bit peeved about that and she wants to prove that she can pull him back in.  But can she?  Vicky is a hapless Bridget Jones type in contrast to Amanda the monster, but it’s not the kind of novel where you feel sure that the good will end happily and the bad unhappily.  The tone of this is unrelentingly snide and at times I felt a bit scoured and wish for something kinder.  But I did find it funny.  And Powell does allow you to feel a certain pity for the bleak emptiness of Amanda’s brittle soul, which has nothing to give and no ability to appreciate anything that is given to it or feel anything beyond gratification at being able to commandeer and desolate rage at not being able to.

Regiment of Women by Clemence Dane

1917 novel centred around a friendship between Clare Hartill (pointed name there) and Alwynne.  They are both teachers at a girls’ school; Clare is coolly authoritative and poised to succeed the current Headmistress and Alwynne, sweet-natured and open if headstrong is only eighteen; it does seem a little strange that an eighteen year-old should be a fully-fledged teacher.  Clare’s complicated and unpleasant psychology is the star of the show; she is incapable of perceiving relationships as anything other than a power struggle.  She seeks out worshippers who she does genuinely appreciate in their time, though mostly for the gratification of their homage.  She enjoys originality but is unable to allow it for very long in those around her without doing her best to crush it out of them; all interaction should reinforce her dominance as its sole function.  Once she has reduced her latest friend or pet schoolgirl to dullness in their eagerness to please and fear of not doing so, she tires of them and discards them.   I never feel the magnetism of cold, withholding, mercurial characters, so I found it hard to understand how quite so much of the school should be so infatuated with her, not least because Dane spends less time establishing her looking wise and kind from the outside than in showing the inner goings-on.  However, this inside view helps to make the book more interesting than it might have been.  It is clear that Dane feels very enthusiastic about Clare’s awfulness, and the energy of that enthusiasm drives the book.  Dane wallows in Clare’s monsterishness and the very heightened emotions and tragic events that it leads to.  At one point Louise, a highly-strung thirteen year-old, is one of the main characters and she exits the book dramatically.  The relationship between Clare and Alwynne isn’t of the type that reads as “these people are totally having sex and it’s just not mentioned on the page” but it is very clearly represented as a romantic relationship nonetheless, and is therefore a barrier to any heterosexual relationship for Alwynne.  The novel has two emotional climaxes: the Louise plot followed by the extraction of Alwynne from Clare’s grasp, which must be done via marriage.

The section which follows the introduction of love interest Roger has some strange elements.  It is crudely reductive in ways which I think are played more straight than some modern readers would like to think.  That said, Dane does make it hard to buy what she’s selling.  One of the frustrations is that Alwynne, whose main character traits have always been her simplicity, kindness and childlike and childish straightforwardness, continues to have as little agency with Roger as she has done with Clare.  Alwynne’s mother-figure aunt has subtly kept up a battle for her soul with Clare throughout the novel.  Now her side is strengthened as Roger joins her.  Not being Clare is a big point in Roger’s favour but this is undermined by his patronising attitude that looks right over her head and seeks the knowing glance of Elsbeth instead.  This “I know what’s best for you, little girl” attitude is unfortunately common in love interests of far too many centuries and decades but it’s heightened here because of the oddness of his very pointed conspiracy with Elsbeth, shutting out Alwynne and because Alwynne is so smothered already.  It would have worked really well if Roger had helped Alwynne to a recognition of agency but no.

The crudest part of this “Marriage and motherhood for women good, singleness, careers and female friendship nonsense” message comes in the conversation between Clare and Elsbeth, which spells this message out.  Elsbeth, timid maiden aunt, is the unlikely yet somehow inevitable slayer of the vampire.  She lost out on marriage to Roger’s father when another girl with flashier looks came along and she has the decency, to feel humiliated on not having managed to snag a man: “We’re not children.  We both know that an unmated woman — she’s a failure — she’s unfulfilled.”  Elsbeth has the insider’s angle on Clare and is able to reveal that her claims of being uninterested in men are sour grapes due to her inability to attract them.  This determination that sexual attractiveness and childbearing is all and that if you can’t achieve them you should just stay in the corner where you’ve been put and not pretend that you aren’t a waste of space — it’s galling, but more than that, it’s hypocritical. Not in the sense that Dane stayed unmarried, living with female friends her whole life, but hypocritical in the world of the novel.  The novel ends with Clare alone, thinking she sees a pool of blood spreading across the floor; this kind of thing is what the novel really enjoys, not fresh-air functional heterosexual relationships.  I get where forlorn claims that Alwynne’s relationship with Clare is better than the Roger relationship and that Dane means us to think so are coming from, but I don’t find them at all convincing.  Nonetheless, there is definitely a disconnect between what Dane says and what she means.

Opening Night by Ngaio Marsh

One of Marsh’s theatrical mysteries and one of my favourite Marshes so far, along with Death at the Dolphin and A Surfeit of Lampreys. Carries off being a novel in which someone eventually gets killed.  The intellectual modern play being put on sounds dubiously of its time (not up there with the sexy Shakespearean hopping of Death at the Dolphin, though) and the heroine’s part in it makes the romance deeply bizarre, but the romance hardly comes into it.

Lions and Shadows by Christopher Isherwood

Autobiographical novel about artistic development in connection with the formation of identity and friendship.  Covers Isherwood’s last years at school, his time at Cambridge, particularly focusing on Isherwood’s development of a grotesque rural fantasy world with a friend, and a little on his drifting, questing time after Cambridge.  I found Isherwood’s performatively unsparing baring of his meek formlessness a little irritating at times but I found this very readable and liked its exploration of the stories we tell ourselves and other people and the way in which these very private, personal narratives can grow into something that can stand alone and go off into the world without you — though this last stage isn’t covered here but looked forward to.  It was interesting to see how heavily Isherwood and his friends depend on one another for their interest in their creative endeavours, literally and almost literally to the extent of co-composition.

Medieval People by Eileen Power

Social history from the twenties.  Snapshots from the life of a peasant, a prioress, a wool merchant and so on.  Including Marco Polo, which felt like cheating on the “everyday people” theme.  I wasn’t expecting it to be at the cutting edge of the latest research but I was surprised to find out how much very barely social history is a thing yet in this book.  In too many places it feels like a gesture towards the idea that social history can be a good idea and knowing about people’s daily lives is possible and fun and useful, rather than actually getting on and telling you all that much about people’s daily lives.  But I’m not sure how much this can be put down to the twenties and how much is Power’s arrangement of her material, which doesn’t feel very cohesive.  There are some pretty descriptions and I can’t say I learned nothing but that was largely because I was so uninformed to begin with.

The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

I couldn’t really connect with this, which was a shame.  I felt like I ought to be able to because I did with Crime and Punishment and particularly The Idiot when I read them over a decade ago, and many of the same themes are present.  But I tried this one a couple of times before and though I read it all this time it just wasn’t quite happening.  It had something to do with the breathless style of writing; rather than being carried away I think I felt the need to read particularly carefully to make sure I’d got the gist, which had a distancing effect.  I enjoyed Alyosha and Lise and Mitya’s arrest and Ivan’s devil and found the ending touching.  I liked (not that that’s quite the right word) some of Mitya’s themes and how he was “dissolute, but loved goodness.  Every moment I was anxious to reform, but I lived like a wild beast” and how he stands in for humanity in its faultiness, only redeemable for its awareness of debasement, longing for something purer, and love for its fellows, earning forgiveness through forgiving others. But too often they seemed like little people far below and I would say “Ah yes, now they’re feeling such and such” when I wanted to have feelings too.  As for the court scene with the incessant yapping, by the end of that section I was fantasising about tearing the book up.

Prisoner of Grace by Joyce Cary

The first of a trilogy which is not the trilogy Cary is best known for.  This trilogy centres on Nina, who marries Chester Nimmo, because for no reason that seems sufficiently good she isn’t marrying her cousin Jim who has got her pregnant.  Chester is an Edwardian Liberal politician who has a religious and cultural background that is very gone with the wind and which I possibly felt that I didn’t quite understand enough precisely because the novel adopts a very explanatory, guiding tone, very conscious of the characters doing and thinking things that no longer seem the obvious things.  This definitely isn’t as good as Cary’s other trilogy but I got drawn in after a while, though not without regularly criticising.  There are an astonishing amount of unnecessary parentheses; every now and then I would notice them afresh and marvel.  All too often it feels frustratingly like a description of a succession of circumstances, with us rarely breaking into “real time” within the novel.  The substance of the novel is Nina’s special pleading for the psychological peculiarities of other characters and the psychological insight isn’t quite sharp enough to prevent her constant reminding that everyone looks quite reasonable from their own point of view from feeling a bit too much like a woolly would-be hot take.  There’s a bereavement of the kind that left me all but open-mouthed at the “It seemed like a terrible tragedy for a week” treatment it received.  The novel offers an opportunity to see where we’re up to in “able to talk about sex” in 1940: the discussion of Nina’s sex life is quite frank yet in some places only the more puzzlingly cryptic.  Most of all, it’s depressingly the story of a woman whose life is dominated by relationships with two controlling men; “I did everything possible to give the man what he wanted as quickly as possible, to get it over with” she says, representatively.  Jim is the bad-tempered kind of cousin whose ferocious impatience with his female relatives is often presented in fiction of this period as a reason why he should be their love interest.  He has a great fondness for forcing Nina out sailing with him under dangerous conditions.  Nina relishes his fierce jealousy of her as a sign of his love.  The only thing which undermines Jim’s control is that Nina is at the same time allowing Chester to impose himself on her in the most outrageous way.  Her refusal to choose just one man to be controlled by is her only form of resistance.  Still, the absurdity of the situation was sometimes entertaining and I could see the characters.  I vaguely remember Sara from Cary’s first trilogy representing something of the same theme as Nina does here: an argument for slipperiness as sense and strength.  It’s quite an interesting theme but Sara was a more vivid character.

 

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.