Review – Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

‘In people’s eyes, in the swing, tramp, and trudge; in the bellow and the uproar; the carriages, motor cars, omnibuses, vans, sandwich men shuffling and swinging; brass bands; barrel organs; in the triumph and the jingle and the strange high singing of some aeroplane overhead was what she loved; life; London; this moment of June.’

I could quote from this novel endlessly. Unbelievably, this was the first time I’d read anything by Virginia Woolf. I’m so glad I waited. I genuinely don’t know how I might have reacted to this when I was younger; I get the feeling I might have gulped it down all at once, and not really let it touch the sides.

Instead, I took it slowly, reading this relatively slim novel in even slimmer chunks. I think you have to – or at least, I had to – to truly appreciate the ‘waves of that divine vitality which Clarissa loved’.

A brief note on plot, although plot really isn’t the point. Clarissa Dalloway, a fifty-something bastion of British privilege, is throwing a party. The narrative follows her thoughts, and those of others – mainly her ex-lover Peter, and a shell-shocked veteran Septimus – through the course of a single day in June. During the course of that day, they wander all around central London, occasionally overlapping, although Septimus’s story is broadly independent of the others. Their minds, though, are elsewhere; in Clarissa and Peter’s case, largely in the past, when they were young and things were different.

I have said this about other classics before, but I was surprised by how, well, modern it all felt. This was partly the style (the somewhat breathless stream-of-consciousness style means this novel will definitely be one I go back to; the access to the characters’ most intimate thoughts (and even more so, their thought processes) is familiar to us now, but was still pretty new in the early 1920s). It was also, though, the subject matter. Despite the shadow of World War I, I wasn’t expecting to read about a shell-shocked soldier. His story forms an agonising counterpoint to the main event, and adds depth to a plot which could otherwise – on the surface, at least – have seemed a little frothy.

The star of the show, though, is undoubtedly Clarissa. Married to a man who solemnly declares ‘that no decent man ought to read Shakespeare’s sonnets because it was like listening at keyholes (besides the relationship was not one that he approved)’, she is serene and respectable on the outside, whilst the narrative ranges over a complex and exhausting inner life, from worrying about aging and death, to wishing she could have done everything differently, to being – at times – happy, almost content. I found this complexity and depth wildly exhilarating; like seeing the world with the colours turned up. ‘It might be possible, Septimus thought, looking at England from the train window, as they left Newhaven; it might be possible that the world itself is without meaning.’ That must have been an easy thing to believe, after the horrors of the Great War; maybe it’s an even easier thing to believe today. The joy of this novel, for me, though, was its demonstration of exactly the opposite: ‘Absorbing, mysterious, of infinite richness, this life.’ Quite so.

****

Review – The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers

I had been looking forward to reading this ever since 2014, when some friends and I went on a girly road trip through the Deep South and I fell in love with Dixieland.

Well. Carson McCullers’ novel, written when she was 23 (23! I find that irritating, to say the least) wasn’t quite what I was expecting. But let’s start at the beginning. This is the story of the misfit inhabitants of a town ‘in the middle of the deep South. The summers were long and the months of winter cold were very few. Nearly always the sky was a glassy, brilliant azure and the sun burned down riotously bright. Then the light, chill rains of November would come, and perhaps later there would be frost and some short months of cold. The winters were changeable, but the summers always were burning hot.’

I say ‘the story of’, but actually, if anything this felt more like a collection of short stories than a novel. I think a lot of that is down to how disconnected the characters are with each other (and themselves). The main character, although it feels odd to describe him that way, is Singer, a deaf mute towards whom a number of the other characters gravitate. His inability to speak inevitably draws other people out of themselves; he communicates little, allowing each of them to fill in the blanks and project a little of themselves onto him. They are not alone in this; the Turks in town are convinced that he’s Turkish, the Jews think he’s Jewish, and so on and so forth. ‘His eyes,’ McCullers tells us, ‘made a person think that he heard things nobody else had ever heard, that he knew things no one had ever guessed before. He did not seem quite human.’

Nobody else in the novel, though, seems to be able to connect with each other. There is one scene in particular where Singer, the deaf mute on whom the story hangs together, is visited by all four of his regular visitors at once; used to speaking only to him, they ignore each other awkwardly, until it’s time to leave again. This never improves; if anything, the sense of alienation gets worse, not better, and characters are driven through the book by their desires, rather than their relationships.

The writing is spare and precise and in places simply stunning – like the quote in the second paragraph above, which was one of my favourites. The sense of geography in particular, both in time and space and also in terms of the characters’ place in the natural world, is strong. McCullers (perhaps unsurprisingly, given her age at the time of writing) is also very good on the fizz of adolescent longing; ‘Her face felt like it was scattered in pieces and she could not keep it straight. The feeling was a whole lot worse than being hungry for any dinner, yet it was like that. I want – I want – I want – was all that she could think about – but just what this real want was she did not know.’

There’s politics, too, and anger. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter has been read as anti-Fascist, which I can definitely see. A couple of the characters are preoccupied with fighting injustice in different ways; there is a doctor who struggles with racial injustice, and a violently self-destructive Communist, trying to open the eyes of the world to everything he finds to be wrong with it. In the end, though, the novel left me feeling a little flat. There was a lot that was good about it, but its vaguely nihilistic world view was a little too much for me – like a teenager trying a little too hard to be cool, I just couldn’t quite believe that someone with such a gift for observing the world could be quite so disillusioned with it. I haven’t read any of McCullers’s later work, but I really hope she grew out of it.

*** 

 

Book Review(s) – Alternative Histories

The Man in the High Castle – Philip K Dick **

The Plot Against America – Philip Roth ****

(Time And Time Again – Ben Elton ****; 11.22.63 – Stephen King ***; Fatherland – Robert Harris ***; Dominion – CJ Sansom ****; The Children’s War – JN Stroyar *****)

 

Regular readers of this blog will have figured out by now that I like history. One of my favourite things about it is the spine-tingling realisation that, on the turn of a knife edge, it could all have gone so very differently.

This is why I will read pretty much any ‘alternative history’ I can get my hands on. Most of the ones I’ve read seem to be along the lines of ‘What if the Germans had won World War II’; I don’t know if that says more about me, or about the people who write them. Last year I read one which broke that mould, Time And Time Again by Ben Elton, which focused instead on World War I. I’ve (rather snobbishly) always thought of Ben Elton as a bit of a populist writer, but Time And Time Again made me eat my words; it was completely different to what I expected, in a really good way. 11.22.63 I found to be less well executed, but made from the same sort of mould.

Towards the end of 2015, I became temporarily fixated by Amazon’s series, The Man In The High Castle. If you haven’t watched it, I’d recommend it very highly – although be warned, Rufus Sewell will give you nightmares. In mourning after watching the last episode, I downloaded the book, and read it over Christmas. Well, what a disappointment – I found it to be fragmented, linguistically uninspiring, and with really poorly-drawn characters. I haven’t read anything else by Philip K Dick, so I have no idea whether that’s characteristic or not – but to be honest, after that experience, I’m not particularly inclined to find out. (I am, though, looking forward to Season 2 of the TV series. I know, I’m a heathen.)

To rectify the situation, I picked up The Plot Against America, which I last read when it was first published, which somehow – horrifyingly – was more than ten years ago. This is also an alternative history, although it doesn’t go quite so far as to show Germany winning the war – rather, it is an imagining of how the early 1940s may have gone, had the US elected an anti-Semitic president in 1940. This was almost the complete opposite of The Man In The High Castle – the story is told through the eyes of a young boy, and the characterisation of him and his family and the rest of the neighbourhood is almost perfect, at times to the point of being heartbreaking. Because this isn’t only an alternative history story; it’s also a coming of age story and a snapshot of a ‘real’ social history which makes the ‘alternative’ stuff seem all too plausible.

To finish, a brief shout-out to three other alternative WWII novels which I read a number of years ago, but which I remember as pretty good (Fatherland), very good (Dominion), and one of the best books I’ve ever read (The Children’s War). All three focus on a post-WWII defeated Europe, with Nazi atrocities proceeding unchecked and conquered people trying to live their lives as best they can. Dominion gets an extra star over Fatherland because of the writing, especially the first scene (a gripping and memorable reimagining of the British Cabinet meeting in 1940 where Churchill took power…or didn’t). The Children’s War gets 5 stars for its unflinching plot (seriously, there is one scene in particular where I had a Joey Tribbiani moment and almost put the book in the freezer), complex characters and sheer richness of detail. It’s not that easy to get hold of, but if you only read one book about what life might have been like if the Nazis had won the war, it really should be this one.

Any other alternative history recommendations gratefully received!

Around the World in 80 Books (#AW80Books) Challenge

I think I may have mentioned once or twice (or more) that I like to travel. Well, ‘like’ is a bit of an understatement. If they had Travellers’ Anonymous meetings, somebody probably would have dragged me into one by the hair a long time ago.

I think I also mentioned a few weeks ago that I’d like to start to read more diversely. This is something I was pretty good at when I was younger (I did a postcolonial fiction module at university, and got a little bit obsessed, especially with Indian fiction), but I’ve lost it a little as I’ve got older.

Well, imagine my joy when I discovered yesterday that Sarah and Lucy (over at the fantastic Hard Book Habit) have had the rather brilliant idea of trying to go Around the World in 80 Books . This challenge literally could not have been more ‘me’ if I’d thought it up myself.

The gist of it is, participants should read their way around the world in 80 books. It’s very low-pressure, with no deadline and no set itinerary – and only one or two suggested ground rules, such as trying to hit every continent (ideas for Antarctica, anybody?), including a sea-based book, and reading one book which features travel (Orient Express, hot air balloon, road trip etc). One of my favourite things is that books can be fiction or non-fiction, so it really is pretty broad – which makes it perfect for those of us who are easily bored…

As you may have picked up by now, I’m not very good at sticking to plans (travel, reading, or life in general!), but I have set up this page to track my round-the-world reading from the beginning of 2016.

Now, if only British Airways gave airmiles for fictional travels…

 

Random (sort-of) Bookish Thoughts -14 February 2016

I am writing this from the cafe of the British Library. I know, how cool am I, hanging out at the British Library on a Sunday afternoon. I have just been to the BL’s current exhibition, ‘West Africa – Word, Symbol, Song’. It rounds off quite a cultural couple of weeks (by BooksAhoy standards, at least) and, as some of my recent outings have been at least tangentially book-related, I thought I’d share:

  • The Friday before last, a group of friends and I saw the comedian Isy Suttie, for a friend’s birthday. This is probably the most tenuous link but, well, she has just written a book, so her current tour is a cross between a stand-up comedy tour and a sort of book promotion junket. The show (and the book, apparently) are all about getting to your late twenties/early thirties and finding everybody growing up around you, whilst you are still behaving like a nineteen-year-old. I can relate.
  • On Monday, I saw the European Union Chamber Orchestra. I didn’t think this would be book-related, but during the first half they played a symphony by Shostakovich – the subject of The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes (review published yesterday). Complete coincidence, but a nice one!
  • Yesterday afternoon, I watched the Saturday matinee of As You Like It at the National Theatre. It’s not one of the plays I was particularly familiar with, but the staging was excellent (in particular the transition from civilisation – a fluorescent modern office – to a Forest of Arden built from suspended office furniture. It sounds weird, but it was hugely atmospheric, and the play itself was great – a reminder of how very Shakespearean modernity really is, or maybe vice versa. There is a good article about Rosalie Craig (Rosalind) and Polly Findlay (director) here: http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2015/nov/02/as-you-like-it-shakespeare-national-theatre-london-rosalie-craig-polly-findlay-interview – although, if you follow the link to the appalling review of Polly Findlay’s Merchant of Venice, I actually thought that production was pretty amazing too.
  • I wouldn’t have come to the British Library’s West Africa exhibition if I hadn’t recently read ‘Americanah’ by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I’m glad I did, though. There was a little too much history and not quite enough literature, which is an observation I’ve made about some British Library exhibitions before, but overall it’s a pretty minor grumble.

Reading-wise, I read The Ramblers (which isn’t great) and am halfway through Mrs Dalloway (which is). I also owe the blog reviews of Americanah, Exposure, The Trouble with Goats and Sheep, and I’d like to write one of Scottsboro as well. Behind, as always. I’m really glad to be reading, though. For the last couple of years at this time, I’ve slipped into a late-winter-early-spring reading slump; I’m glad it doesn’t seem to be an annual thing!

Happy Sunday everyone!

Review – The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes

OK, I’m calling it: When I grow up, I want to be Julian Barnes, please.

I’m not – specifically not – saying that The Noise of Time is the most enjoyable novel I’ve ever read. In places it was actually a bit of a slog. I did, though, still find it to be worth the effort. Why? Well, it turns out that Julian Barnes has a brain the size of a planet (and a proper planet, not one of those hokey-cokey ones at the edge of the solar system), and here he’s in the mood for sharing.

Indeed, there are times when this hardly felt like a novel at all. At its simplest, The Noise of Time is a fictionalised life of Dmitri Shostakovich under the Soviet regime, but that description in isolation is simple to the point of being misleading. This is not literary biography. Rather, Barnes takes three moments in Shostakovich’s life and uses them as a springboard for Barnes-as-Shostakovich’s ruminations on literature, music, philosophy, politics – really, a little of everything, delivered at times deadpan, with black humour; at others, with barely-suppressed anger. I’m not qualified (certainly not as qualified as Barnes) to comment on what Shostakovich was really thinking at these particular points in his life; to me, though, passages like this feel more like unfictionalised Barnes:

‘Art belongs to everybody and nobody. Art belongs to all time and no time. Art belongs to those who create it and those who savour it. Art no more belongs to the People and the Party than it once belonged to the aristocracy and the patron. Art is the whisper of history, heard above the noise of time. Art does not exist for art’s sake: it exists for people’s sake.’

Or this eminently quotable quote:

‘How was it possible not to love Shakespeare? Shakespeare, after all, had loved music. His plays were full of it, even the tragedies. That moment when Lear awakes from madness to the sound of music…And that moment in The Merchant of Venice where Shakespeare says that the man who doesn’t like music isn’t trustworthy; that such a man would be capable of a base act, even murder or treason. So of course tyrants hated music, however strenuously they pretended to love it. Although they hated poetry more.’

There are plenty more where that came from; in places, The Noise of Time feels like an evening spent with your old university professor, the one whose approval you craved. I enjoyed it, but then, that’s because I’m crazy about smart people, and I was in awe of nearly all of my professors – learning is pretty much my favourite thing. As a novel, though, rather than an exercise in intelligence, I’m not sure how well it works. It’s certainly not a book which can be read quickly, despite being a slim 192 pages – I had to keep putting it down and going back to it – and it’s not a book to pick up when you’re tired or distracted. I’d say that The Noise of Time has about the same intellectual density as Marilynne Robinson’s Lila has spiritual density; if you have the patience and the attention span to enjoy one, I think you’ll probably enjoy the other.

Now, I’m off to listen to some Shostakovich. Seems like it’s about time.

***

(This rating is probably unfair; I’m already feeling a little guilty about it, and may come back and bump it up. I think Julian Barnes accomplishes exactly what he set out to – and if I hadn’t read so many great novels recently, I probably would have given this an extra star. But I am a Philistine, and could have done with just a tiny bit more plot to help me digest all that intellectual fibre.)

Review – Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.

No, really, I did. This book will get into your head. For that reason, this is going to be a difficult review to write without spoilers, but I’ll do my best…

For anybody who, like me, has somehow managed to avoid this particular piece of British culture until now:

Our unnamed narrator seems doomed to a harried and unfulfilling life as a paid companion to a brash American (the frankly hilarious Mrs van Hopper), until she meets and falls in love with the tragic, brooding Maxim de Winter. After a whirlwind courtship (including, it must be said, one of the worst marriage proposals in literature), the newly-married de Winters return to his familial home, the incredibly atmospheric Manderley. And this is where the trouble starts. Manderley, in the great British Gothic tradition, is haunted. Not literally – although once or twice we may have our doubts – but emotionally, the whole estate is still saturated by the memories of the first Mrs de Winter, the eponymous Rebecca.

This had been on my TBR pile for years. I don’t know why it never made it to the top until now (I’m sure me buying a beautiful Little, Brown hardback edition had nothing to do with it…). Maybe I was slightly put off by a vague association of Daphne du Maurier with ‘romance’, by which I mean ‘romance’ in the awful, sniffy, prejudiced sense that associates the genre (falsely, in so many cases) with bad writing and unbelievable characters and events.

Well. I could not have been more wrong. I mean, there is romance, yes, and melodrama (in spades), and the characters are occasionally annoying. There’s a stretch in the middle, in particular, where I could quite cheerfully have slapped our narrator in the face for being such a bloody wet blanket. But something happens, and she gets over it, and besides, there’s so much else about the novel that’s good. I’m a fan of anything Gothic, and this novel has the Gothic in spades (remote country estate, characters communing with nature, unexplained phenomena – you name it, it’s there). There is also one of the strongest senses of place I’ve ever felt in a novel – Cornwall is never actually mentioned, but it’s everywhere, woven through the fabric of the story; apparently du Maurier wrote most of the novel while she was in Egypt and homesick for Cornwall, and it really shows.

The structure of the novel is intriguing, too. After a few pages at the beginning which make it clear that something terrible has happened, the rest is split broadly into thirds – the courtship in Monte Carlo, the tension-building introduction to Manderley and its residents, and then the breathless denouement, which has so many plot twists it’s like a cross between Downton Abbey and Eastenders.

But what really struck me were the parallels with another Gothic ‘romance’ with a troublesome first wife. I am, of course, talking about Jane Eyre. The character of Rebecca, unlike Bertha Rochester, is never seen, but she is everywhere, driving the narrative throughout – and in increasingly malevolent ways, through her own sinister presence or through the – frankly terrifying – agency of her own Grace Poole figure, Mrs Danvers. Maxim de Winter is, at once, both better and worse than Rochester; suffice it to say that they both play on our sympathies in comparable ways. Our narrator is like Jane Eyre mainly in the things that happen to her, rather than in who she is and how she reacts to them. She is younger than Jane, and less emotionally independent, and her own internal journey is all the more fascinating for that; her imagination gets her into a decent amount of trouble, and we’re never quite sure how much of what she tells us is really true. This adds a fascinating psychological dimension to the story, and kept me gripped, right to the end.

****