Thursday, June 24, 2010

363. A World of Love – Elizabeth Bowen

History: This book was published in 1955, and is considered to be a turning point in Bowen’s writing career, and is considered negatively in comparison to her other books.
Plot: This is the story of a family, and how the past effects family’s relations. The family resides in Montefort, a crumbling mansion in the countryside that has seen better days. Antonia Montefort, a photographer in her early fifties, the owner of the dilapidated Montefort manor in the south of Ireland. Antonia inherited the manor from Guy Montefort, her cousin, who was killed in action in World War I at the age of twenty. Antonia lives in London but occasionally visits the manor, where she is served by the Danbys: Fred runs the manor farm, and Lilia, his wife, manages the housework in a dilatory way. Antonia, having arranged their marriage, keeps them on the manor out of a sense of responsibility. Guy was engaged to Lilia, and they were deeply in love. When he died in the war, Lilia was left unprepared, depressed, and changed. Antonia, out of guilt (it seems she and Guy had had a sort of affair as well), arranged the marriage. Fred, the illegimate cousin of Guy and Antonia was a ladies man, but fell in love with Lilia, and asked her to marry him under Antonia’s urging. It took Lilia a lot of time to say yes, and her reluctance continues until the present tense, after two children born, she is still very unhappy. Fred continues to have affairs, but remains in love with Lilia and especially with his oldest daughter Jane.
Jane is beautiful, and is just coming out of childhood. Her younger sister Maud is the comic relief of the novel. Jane finds some letters, and a wedding dress in a trunk in the attic. The letters are love letters from Guy, supposedly to Lilia. As the novel progresses, we learn that the recipient could be Antonia (Lilia even knew of the affair), or even another woman.
Jane becomes obsessed with the dead soldier, and Antonia as well has regrets of the past and her effect in them. Fred and Lilia’s crumbling marriage, Lilia’s depression, and the curiosity of Jane and Maud about the past are the subjects of the novel.
In the end, Fred protects Lilia from the letters and this brings them closer. Jane goes out in the world, getting drunk for the first time, and in the end does meet a man.
Review: Antonia Montefort and Lilia Danby primarily, A World of Love culminates in their half-verbalized, partially conscious realization of the true nature of their relationship to each other. The story takes place in the confines of a run-down country estate over the space of a few days.
An uneasy group of relations are living under one roof at Montefort, a decaying manor in the Irish countryside. When twenty-year-old Jane finds in the attic a packet of love letters written years ago by Guy, her mother’s one-time fiance who died in World War I, the discovery has explosive repercussions. It is not clear to whom the letters are addressed, and their appearance begins to lay bare the strange and unspoken connections between the adults now living in the house. Soon, a girl on the brink of womanhood, a mother haunted by love lost, and a ruined matchmaker with her own claim on the dead wage a battle that makes the ghostly Guy as real a presence in Montefort as any of the living.
Opening Line: “The sun rose on a landscape still pale with the heat of the day before.”
Closing Line: “They no sooner looked but they loved.”
Quotes: “For worse or better, they were in each other’s hands. Such a relationship is lifelong.”
Rating: Moderately good.

362. Therese Raquin – Emile Zola

History: The title of a novel (first published in 1867) and a play (first performed in 1873) by the French writer Émile Zola. The novel was originally published in serial format in the journal L'Artiste and in book format in December of the same year.
Plot: Thérèse Raquin is the daughter of a French captain and an Algerian mother. After the death of her mother, her father brings her to live with her aunt, Madame Raquin, and her sickly son, Camille. Because her son is so ill, Madame Raquin dotes on Camille to the point where he is selfish and spoiled. Camille and Thérèse grow up side-by-side, and Madame Raquin marries them together when Thérèse is 21. Shortly thereafter, Camille decides that the family should move to Paris so he can pursue a career.
Thérèse and Madame Raquin set up shop in the Passage du Pont Neuf to support Camille while he searches for a job. Camille eventually begins working for the Orléans Railroad Company, where he meets up with a childhood friend, Laurent. Laurent visits the Raquins and decides to take up an affair with the lonely Thérèse, mostly because he cannot afford prostitutes anymore. However, this soon turns into a torrid love affair.
Thérèse and Laurent conspire to drown Camille while out on a boat trip. This enables them to marry, but their guilt comes between them. They imagine they see the dead man in their bedroom every night, preventing them from touching each other and quickly driving them insane. Laurent, who is an artist, cannot paint a picture (even a landscape) which does not in some way resemble the dead man. They also have to look after Madame Raquin, who suffered a stroke after Camille's death. Madame Raquin suffers a second stroke and becomes completely paralyzed except for her eyes (as in locked-in syndrome).
During an evening's game of dominoes with friends (an attempt to keep up a facade of normality) she manages to move her finger with an extreme effort of will to trace words on the table: "Thérèse et Laurent ont t..." The complete sentence was intended to be "Thérèse et Laurent ont tué Camille" (Thérèse and Laurent killed Camille). At this point her strength gives out, and the words are interpreted as "Thérèse and Laurent look after me very well".
Eventually, Thérèse and Laurent find life together intolerable and plot to kill each other. At the climax of the novel, the two are about to kill one another when each of them realizes the plans of the other. They each then break down sobbing and reflect upon their miserable lives. After having embraced one last time, they each commit suicide by taking the poison, all in front of the watchful gaze of Madame Raquin.
Review: The story contains quite a bit of symbolism most of which relates to animals. It is also quite scary but at the same time very gripping and interesting. Most of the symbolism is lost in the English translations and so reading the original French is much better.
This novel was described by Zola as an attempt to "forensically examine" the symptoms, physiological and psychological effects and consequences of the exercise of forbidden, adulterous passions on the part of the main protagonists, Therese Raquin and her lover, the feckless, would be artist, Laurent. The background histories of both are presented, as well as their current circumstances (the symptoms), enabling us to understand the motivations for their later actions: namely, adultery and murder, and their consequences: madness and suicide. Although Zola's attempt to portray the situation in a purely scientific, detached manner is unsuccessful (as any such experiment done through the medium of literature must be) the story of the two lovers and their ill-fated affair is a highly engaging one and Zola's considerable skills as a writer are effectively employed in this novel
Opening Line: “At the end of the Rue Guenegaud, coming from the quays, you find the
Arcade of the Pont Neuf, a sort of narrow, dark corridor running from
the Rue Mazarine to the Rue de Seine.”
Closing Line: “And for nearly twelve hours, in fact until the following day
at about noon, Madame Raquin, rigid and mute, contemplated them at her
feet, overwhelming them with her heavy gaze, and unable to sufficiently
gorge her eyes with the hideous sight.”
Quotes: "And Thérèse could not see a single human, not a living creature, among these grotesque and sinister beings with whom she was shut up. At times she would suffer hallucinations, thinking that she was buried in a vault together with mechanical bodies whose heads moved and whose arms and legs waved when their strings were pulled."
Rating: Okay.

361. The Shadow Line – Joseph Conrad

History: Published in 1917, this novella is notable for its dual narrative structure. The ironic constructions following from the conflict between the 'young' protagonist (who is never named) and the 'old' drive much of the underlying points of the novella, namely the nature of wisdom, experience and maturity.
The novel has often been cited as a metaphor of the First World War, given its timing and references to a long struggle, the importance of camaraderie, etc. This viewpoint may also be reinforced by the knowledge that Conrad's son, Boris, was wounded in the First World War. Others however see the novel as having a strong supernatural influence, referring to various plotlines in the novella such as the 'ghost' of the previous captain potentially cursing the ship, and the madness of first mate Burns. Conrad himself however denied this link in his author's note, claiming that although critics had attempted to show this link, "The world of the living contains enough marvels and mysteries as it is."
Plot: The story starts with a seaman giving up his position on a steamer because he is bored and wants to go home. He then gets offered the chance of his own captaincy and jumps at the chance. But the boat seems to be under the curse of the previous captain who went mad and tried to send the crew on a suicidal journey. The first mater Burns stood up and questioned the captain who died shortly afterwards. Stranded in calm seas with the crew becoming ill Burns is convinced that the old captain is against them until he comes on deck from his own sick bed and laughs in the face of the storm he believes has been sent to destroy them. The winds pick up and the boat limps into Singapore and then with a fresh crew the narrator and captain heads out to sea again.
Review: The Shadow-Line, in its simple plot and unmediated narrative, is a sharp formal departure from Conrad’s earlier, more celebrated work. In many ways, however, it is also a return: a return to the sea, that testing ground of the soul, and a return to the virtues that arise and flourish in this arena. Virginia Woolf claimed that Conrad’s late work was not suited to his particular genius, that it was too concerned with the domestic sphere: “There are no masts in drawing-rooms; the typhoon does not test the worth of politicians and business men.” The Shadow-Line surely complicates such a rigid division. In it, we can see once again what Woolf calls “the old nobilities and sonorities”; in it, we can see Conrad come home to the homelessness of the sea.
Opening Line: “Only the young have such moments.”
Closing Line: “He exclaimed, flushed up dusky red, gave my hand a hard wrench--and next moment, left alone in the cabin, I listened to him going up the com- panion stairs cautiously, step by step, in mortal fear of starting into sudden anger our common enemy it was his hard fate to carry consciously within his faithful breast.”
Quotes: “It was something big and alive. Not a dog – more like a sheep, rather. But there were no animals in the ship. How could an animal…It was an added and fantastic horror which I could not resist. The hair of my head stirred even as I picked myself up, awfully scared; not as a man is scared while his judgment, his reason still try to resist, but completely, boundlessly, and, as it were, innocently scared – like a little child.”
Rating: Not Good.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

360. The Information – Martin Amis

History: This book was published in 1995. The plot involves two forty-year-old novelists, Gwyn Barry (successful) and Richard Tull (not so). Amis has asserted that both characters are based (if they can be regarded as based on anybody) on himself. It is, says Amis, a book about "literary enmity".
Plot: Gwyn Barry and Richard Tull have been friends since they roomed together at university. Richard Tull was a promising writer with a seemingly bright future. However his career flags and he finds himself depressed writing book reviews for a small literary paper and running a vanity press. To his chagrin, Gwyn Barry - whose literary skills Tull holds in low esteem - has written a phenomenally successful novel and won a lucrative and respected literary prize. Barry begins to enjoy a rarified life whilst Tull toils away with his unsuccessful pursuits.
Tull, increasingly envious, begins to manufacture ways of bringing Barry down. Richard’s simmering hatred inspires him at first to play practical tricks on Gwyn; “harmless” pranks like seducing his wife or paying a poolhall thug to rough him up. Gradually Richard becomes an erupting volcano of rage, a literary Iago intent on ruining Gwyn’s reputation and, if possible, having him killed.
Fueling Richard’s fury is the wretched state of his own career. Once a reputable author, Richard now survives by reviewing interminable biographies on dead and largely forgotten subjects (such as The Mercutio of Lincoln’s Inn Fields: A Life of Thomas Betterton and AntiLatitudinarian: The Heretical Career of Francis Atterbury). He works for a little magazine called, appropriately, The Little Magazine. And his unfinished novel Untitled, which features a scene where five unreliable narrators have a conversation over crossed cellular phone lines while all walking through the same revolving door — got that? — gives everyone who dares to read it a crushing migraine headache. Richard becomes increasingly dissociated from his wife, his children, and his own soul as he broods obsessively on ways to get even with his "friend. Finally he decides that Gwyn is so cushioned by success and adulation that he is impervious to mere criticism; only bodily harm will do the trick, and so Scozzy, a professional criminal who embodies the terrifying forces of violence and chaos with which Richard has never before been confronted, enters the lives of the Tull family, and events move beyond Richard's control.
Gwyn, in the meantime, has become the biggest literary sensation since Charles Dickens on the strength of a book about a dozen people (one from each racial/ethnic group) stranded on an island where there is no war and no love.
These begin relatively innocently, attempts to cause Barry inconvenience. But later things become much more serious as Tull makes contact with violent men he later finds he cannot control. The Information takes us on a guided tour through the bars and alleyways of England where characters named Scozzie and Crash nurse on the breast of violence and intimidation; and then to the moneyed estates of the rich and famous, who engage in the same activities and call it culture.
Review: Amis does a wonderful job, I have to say, of portraying unhappy relationships, masculine self-doubt, and violent jealousy: I've seen them elsewhere, of course, but The Information is terrific on these things. Running through the book (indeed what "The Information" in question turns out to be) is the awareness of mortality and, relating to that, midlife crisis. In addition the book deals with ideas of success, failure and envy. Martin Amis’s The Information is a novel that’s glibly self-conscious about the entire literary publication process, and bitter as horseradish about it, too. It’s a novel that’s sure to offend, horrify, and amuse anyone that’s ever indulged in writing, book reviewing, editing, or publishing. Unfortunately, there’s a bit of Richard Tull hidden away somewhere inside Martin Amis. His novel can make you cackle with vicious glee on one page and then bore you to tears with a pretentious dissertation on the pointlessness of human endeavors the next. He takes his characters to task for their unendurable solipsism, but he pads The Information with long strings of narrative bombast written in the first person.
Opening Line: “Cities at night, I feel, contain men who cry in their sleep and then say Nothing.”
Closing Line: “And then there is the information, which is nothing; and comes at night.”
Quotes: “It was when the patch of shit appeared on the pilot’s cream rum that Richard knew for certain that all was not well.”
Rating: Difficult to follow, but dark entertaining wit.

359. The Girls of Slender Means – Muriel Spark

History: This book was published in 1963.
Plot: It is set in 'The May of Teck Club', established "for the Pecuniary Convenience and Social Protection of Ladies of Slender Means below the age of Thirty Years, who are obliged to reside apart from their Families in order to follow an Occupation in London". It concerns the lives and loves of its disparate residents amongst the deprivations of immediate post-war Kensington between VE Day and VJ Day in 1945. The frame story, set in 1963, concerns the news that Nicholas Farringdon, an anarchist intellectual turned Jesuit, has been killed in Haiti. The bulk of the novella is taken up by flashbacks to 1945, concerning Farringdon and the club. It is mainly a collection of stories about the women of the club and their various antics dealing with war in London. The May of Teck girls in London swapped chocolate for face cream. They quarrelled and reconciled, much as we had done, and worked on their poise and dabbled in danger and took turns wearing a gorgeous Schiaparelli dress that one of the girls had inherited from an aunt. The girls are all working as clerks or secretaries and living on rations, clothing coupons and hand outs from admiring men. Through each on of the girls in the book Spark looks at the morals and plotting of such a group of women in both a comic and sometimes shocking way.
We have Joanna a rectors daughter who shockingly fell for a rector herself before coming to London and teaching elocution lessons, Greggie, Jarvie and Collie the old maids of the building, Pauline Fox a mad young lady who believes she dines with the actor Jack Buchanan every night, Jane Wright who works in a publisher and gets authors to write letters signed she can sell on the black market and yet who doesn’t know Henry James is dead and Selina a woman of loose morals who sleeps with weak men but pursues strong ones for marriage partners she wont sleep with yet. All of them will become more unified and torn apart though not only when Nicholas Farringdon a charming author turns up, but when a shocking event leads to one girls fatal end.
Review: This was an innovative book in 1963 - not that I knew that then - and it still, today, flashes its own disguising Schiaparelli dress, with the beauty of youth pressed close against youth's bewilderment. Innocence is abruptly overturned in these pages, but Spark has structured her novel so that we realise we are about to be blown into tragedy. Each of them is in peril, each frightened by a direct question concerning her raison d'être (that daunting phrase they are just beginning to hear). Their slenderness lies not so much in their means as in their half-perceived notions about what their lives will become and their overestimation of their power in the world. They are fearless and frightened at the same time, as only the very young can be, and they are as heartless in spirit as they are merry in mode.
Opening Line: “Long ago in 1945, all the nice people in England were poor, allowing for exceptions.”
Closing Line: “Nicholas marveled at her stamina, recalling her in this image years later in the country of his death, how she stood sturdy and barelegged in the dark grass occupied with her hair, as if this was an image of all the May of Teck establishment, in it’s meek, unselfish attitudes of poverty, in 1945.”
Quotes: "All the nice people were poor; at least, that was a general axiom, the best of the rich being poor in spirit."
Rating: Moderately good.

358. Le Pere Goriot – Honore de Balzac

History: Originally published in serial form during the winter of 1834–35, Le Père Goriot is widely considered Balzac's most important novel. It marks the first serious use by the author of characters who had appeared in other books, a technique that distinguishes Balzac's fiction. The novel is also noted as an example of his realist style, using minute details to create character and subtext.
The novel was released to mixed reviews. Some critics praised the author for his complex characters and attention to detail; others condemned him for his many depictions of corruption and greed. A favorite of Balzac's, the book quickly won widespread popularity and has often been adapted for film and the stage. It gave rise to the French expression "Rastignac", a social climber willing to use any means to better his situation.
Le Père Goriot begins in June 1819, following Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo, after the House of Bourbon had been restored to the throne of France. A tension was mounting between the aristocracy – which had returned with King Louis XVIII – and the bourgeoisie produced by the Industrial Revolution. During this era, France saw a tightening of social structures, with a lower class steeped in overwhelming poverty. By one estimate, almost three-quarters of Parisians did not make the 500–600francs a year required for a minimal standard of living. At the same time, this upheaval made possible a social mobility unthinkable during the Ancien Régime of previous centuries. Individuals willing to adapt themselves to the rules of this new society could sometimes ascend into its upper echelons from modest backgrounds, much to the distaste of the established wealthy class.
Although the novel is often referred to as "a mystery",[18] it is not an example of whodunit or detective fiction. Instead, the central puzzles are the origins of suffering and the motivations of unusual behavior. Characters appear in fragments, with brief scenes providing small clues about their identity.
Balzac included characters in the first edition of Le Père Goriot that would recur in later works. Although Balzac had used this technique before, the characters had always reappeared in minor roles, as nearly identical versions of the same people. Rastignac's appearance shows, for the first time in Balzac's fiction, a novel-length back-story that illuminates and develops a returning character.
Plot: The novel opens with an extended description of the Maison Vauquer, a boarding house in Paris' rue Neuve-Sainte-Geneviève covered with vines, owned by the widow Madame Vauquer. The residents include the law student Eugène de Rastignac, a mysterious agitator named Vautrin, and an elderly retired vermicelli-maker named Jean-Joachim Goriot. The old man is ridiculed frequently by the other boarders, who soon learn that he has bankrupted himself to support his two well-married daughters.
Rastignac, who moved to Paris from the south of France, becomes attracted to the upper class. He has difficulty fitting in, but is tutored by his cousin, Madame de Beauséant, in the ways of high society. Rastignac endears himself to one of Goriot's daughters, Delphine, after extracting money from his own already-poor family. Vautrin, meanwhile, tries to convince Rastignac to pursue an unmarried woman named Victorine, whose family fortune is blocked only by her brother. He offers to clear the way for Rastignac by having the brother killed in a duel.
Rastignac refuses to go along with the plot, balking at the idea of having someone killed to acquire their wealth, but he takes note of Vautrin's machinations. This is a lesson in the harsh realities of high society. Before long, the boarders learn that police are seeking Vautrin, revealed to be a master criminal nicknamed Trompe-la-Mort ("Cheater of Death"). Vautrin arranges for a friend to kill Victorine's brother, in the meantime, and is captured by the police.
Goriot, supportive of Rastignac's interest in his daughter and furious with her husband's tyrannical control over her, finds himself unable to help. When his other daughter, Anastasie, informs him that she has been selling off family jewelry to pay her lover's debts, the old man is overcome with grief at his own impotence and suffers a stroke.
Neither Delphine nor Anastasie will visit Goriot as he lies on his deathbed, and before dying he rages about their disrespect toward him. His funeral is attended only by Rastignac, a servant named Christophe, and two paid mourners. After the short ceremony, Rastignac turns to face Paris as the lights of evening begin to appear. He sets out to dine with Delphine de Nucingen and declares to the city: "À nous deux, maintenant!" ("It's between you and me now!")
Review: The novel takes place during the Bourbon Restoration, which brought about profound changes in French society; the struggle of individuals to secure upper-class status is ubiquitous in the book. The city of Paris also impresses itself on the characters – especially young Rastignac, who grew up in the provinces of southern France. Balzac analyzes, through Goriot and others, the nature of family and marriage, providing a pessimistic view of these institutions. Rastignac, the naive provincial who yearns to enter high Parisian society while learning its realities and costs; Vautrin, the convict, who has a greater practical understanding of the world than anyone else - a character both lovable and detestable; and Old Goriot himself, the archtypal father figure, who enslaves his happiness to his uncaring daughters but is too blinded by affection to see how they really treat him.
Goriot is both annoying and endearing, and in that way, I think he is most realistic of them all. He reminded me of the way parents can often see no wrong in their children - even when they are horribly obnoxious. This attitude can be taken so far as to see their children as perfect, even to the point of always putting a rosy spin on their faults.
But Goriot is an extreme case, and in that sense must be constrained as a literary character. Where any real person would eventually become exasperated by their daughter's exploitations, Goriot never swerves from his illusions. His unswerving devotion, even at his death, was disappointing to me. I think what makes me, as a reader, engaged by characters is watching them change and develop over the course of a story. Goriot never changed, never altered his thinking, always remained static, and in a way that made his seem a cardboard archtype.
Rastignac's character was, in contrast, very engaging. We saw him go through stages of self-delusion, discovery, ambition, self-doubt and loathing, realization, and finally acceptance of his lot. I particularly liked his attempts to remain naive; to ignore the banality around him and force himself to still see the world as he wanted to see it. I think we all do that when faced with trouble
Opening Line: “Madame Vauquer, nee de Conflans, is an old woman who for the past forty years has run a fmily boarding house in the rue Neuve-Sainte-Genevieve, between the latin Quarter and the Faubourg Saint-Marceau.”
Closing Line: “And as the first shot in the war he had thus declared on society, Rastignac went to dine with madame de Nucingen.”
Quotes: “"Holding this book in your hand, sinking back in your soft armchair, you will say to yourself: perhaps it will amuse me. And after you have read this story of great misfortunes, you will no doubt dine well, blaming the author for your own insensitivity, accusing him of wild exaggeration and flights of fancy. But rest assured: this tragedy is not a fiction. All is true."
Rating: Okay