Monday, July 26, 2010

366. The Radiant Way – Margaret Drabble

History: This book was published in 1987.
Plot: For the first time in her career, Margaret Drabble is writing about a group of friends rather than a single heroine. Liz Headleand, the hostess of the New Year's Eve party, is a psychiatrist married to an electronics executive. Alix Bowen teaches English literature at a psychiatric prison where economic cutbacks threaten the progressive administration. Esther Breuer, an art historian, lives in a rundown neighborhood where the victims of an elusive murderer turn up year after year.
Having found each other as scholarship students at Cambridge, their twenty-odd years of friendship have caused them to resemble each other.
Liz learns that Charles, her husband of 20 years, plans to divorce her and marry a lady with a title. Maybe it is just as well. Now a stuffy television executive, Charles has left the '60s and '70s, his pioneering documentaries and his idealism, not to mention Liz, behind: "A male world, a world of suits and ties and speeches, of meetings and money. Charles had conquered it. First he had mocked it, then he had exposed it, then he had joined it, and now he represented it." But Liz can support herself in the new economic climate: "She is not threatened by cuts in public spending, by the decline of the National Health Service, by the new and growing emphasis on privatization: her income is derived from a judicious blend of public and private practice."
Not so Alix, who watches her part-time jobs topple in a crusade of cost cutting and bears witness to the demoralization of her husband Brian, a true son of the working class who has moved upward through teaching adult-education courses into white-collar unemployment. She muses, "Brian would turn sour. Already he had become unreasonable; later, he would, like everyone else, become sour." Esther too must face straitened circumstances, once the funds for her occasional lectures on art and evening seminars dry up.
These characters struggle with their fates against a crowded background: rising joblessness, the Falklands war, national strikes by steelworkers and miners, inner-city race riots, the appearance of AIDS. What is more, Drabble's heroines can secure scant sanctuary for their domestic lives amid the din of external change. Alix finds the severed head of a former student on the front seat of her battered old Renault; Esther discovers that she has been living for years in an apartment one floor below a mass murderer. Liz, the best insulated of them all by virtue of financial well-being, must still unearth a childhood secret that the past, perhaps mercifully, had hidden from her long ago.
Review: Her book begins with a grand New Year's Eve party, as if to welcome back her readers. The party, with echoes of the balls in Tolstoy, takes place in an opulent cream-and-gold house on Harley Street in London. The conversation is clever and wide-ranging, and the presence of Anthony Keating and Kate Armstrong, characters from earlier novels, has a comforting effect. But before the party is over, a political argument ends in a bloody nose and an overturned houseplant. And as the novel picks up momentum, it becomes plain that The Radiant Way will be anything but a drawing-room entertainment.
In earlier books, particularly The Needle's Eye, Drabble chronicles the shabbiness of England in decline: the failure of businesses, the brutalization of architecture, the diminishing of expectations. In the ironically titled The Radiant Way, which deals with the first half of the 1980s, the situation is even bleaker. What is new here is the way fear and violence have come to replace resignation in English life. Avoiding, for the most part, the easy target of Margaret Thatcher and her party, Drabble describes the influences, big and small, of this ruthless decade on the lives of her characters.
Opening Line: “New Year’s Eve, and the end of a decade.”
Closing Line: “The sun stands still.”
Quotes: "They have pooled their discoveries, have come back from outer regions with samples of leaf, twig, fruit, stone, have turned them over together. They share much. The barriers between them are, they think, quite low."
Rating: Awful, hated it.

365. The Moonstone – Wilkie Collins

History: Published in 1868, it is a 19th-century British epistolary novel, generally considered the first detective novel in the English language. The Moonstone was originally serialized in Charles Dickens' magazine All the Year Round. The Moonstone also represented Collins' social opinions by his treatment of the Indians and the servants in the novel.
The Moonstone of the title is a diamond (not to be confused with the semi-precious moonstone gem). It gained its name from its association with the Hindu god of the moon. Originally set in the forehead of a sacred statue of the god at Somnath, and later at Benares, it was said to be protected by hereditary guardians on the orders of Vishnu, and to wax and wane in brilliance along with the light of the moon.
Franklin Blake, the gifted amateur who eventually solves the mystery, is an early example of the gentleman detective. The highly competent Sergeant Cuff, the London policeman called in from Scotland Yard (whom Collins based on the real-life Inspector Jonathan Whicher who solved the Constance Kent murder),[4] is not a member of the gentry, and is unable to break Rachel Verinder's reticence about what Cuff knows to be an inside job. The social difference between Collins' two detectives is nicely shown by their relationships with the Verinder family: Sergeant Cuff befriends Gabriel Betteredge, Lady Verinder's steward (chief servant), whereas Franklin Blake eventually marries Rachel, her daughter.
The Moonstone represents Collins's only complete reprisal of the popular "multi-narration" method that he had previously utilised to great effect in The Woman in White. The technique again works to Collins's credit: the sections by Gabriel Betteredge (steward to the Verinder household) and Miss Clack (a poor relative and religious crank) offer both humour and pathos through their contrast with the testimony of other narrators, at the same time as constructing and advancing the novel's plot.
One of the things that made The Moonstone such a success was its sensationalist depiction of opium addiction. Unbeknownst to his readership, Collins was writing from personal experience. In his later years, Collins grew severely addicted to laudanum and as a result suffered from paranoid delusions, the most notable being his conviction that he was constantly accompanied by a doppelganger he dubbed "Ghost Wilkie".
It was Collins's last great success, coming at the end of an extraordinarily productive period which saw four successive novels become best-sellers. After The Moonstone he wrote novels containing more overt social commentary, which did not achieve the same audience.
Plot: Colonel Herncastle, an unpleasant former soldier, brings the Moonstone back with him from India where he acquired it by theft and murder during the Siege of Seringapatam. Angry at his family, who shun him, he leaves it in his will as a birthday gift to his niece Rachel, thus exposing her to attack by the stone's hereditary guardians, who, legend says, will stop at nothing to retrieve it.
Rachel wears the stone to her birthday party, but that night it disappears from her room. Suspicion falls on three Indian jugglers who have been near the house; on Rosanna Spearman, a maidservant who begins to act oddly and who then drowns herself in a local quicksand; and on Rachel herself, who also behaves suspiciously and is suddenly furious with Franklin Blake, with whom she has previously appeared to be enamored, when he directs attempts to find it. Despite the efforts of Sergeant Cuff, a renowned detective, the house party ends with the mystery unsolved, and the protagonists disperse.
During the ensuing year there are hints that the diamond was removed from the house and may be in a London bank vault, having been pledged as surety to a moneylender. The Indian jugglers are still nearby, watching and waiting. Rachel's mother dies, increasing her grief and isolation, and she first accepts and then rejects a marriage proposal from her cousin Godfrey Ablewhite, a philanthropist who was also present at the birthday dinner and whose father owns the bank near Rachel's old family home. Finally Franklin Blake returns from travelling abroad and determines to solve the mystery. He first discovers that Rosanna Spearman's behaviour was due to her having fallen in love with him. She found evidence (a paint smear on his nightclothes) that convinced her that he was the thief and concealed it in order to save him, confusing the trail of evidence and throwing suspicion on herself. In despair at her inability to make him acknowledge her despite all she had done for him, she committed suicide, leaving behind the smeared gown and a letter he did not receive at the time because of his hasty departure abroad.
Now believing that Rachel suspects him of the theft on Rosanna's evidence, Franklin engineers a meeting and asks her. To his astonishment she tells him she actually saw him steal the diamond and has been protecting his reputation at the cost of her own even though she believes him to be a thief and a hypocrite. Now thoroughly bewildered, he continues his investigations and learns that he was secretly given laudanum during the night of the party (it was given to him by the doctor Mr. Candy who wanted revenge on Franklin for criticizing medicine and who wanted to sleep more easily due to quitting smoking); it appears that this, in addition to his anxiety about Rachel and the diamond and other nervous irritations, caused him to take the diamond in a narcotic trance, in order to move it in a safe place. A re-enactment of the evening's events confirms this, but how the stone ended up in a London bank remains a mystery only solved a year after the birthday party when the stone is redeemed. Franklin and his allies trace the claimant to a seedy waterside inn, only to discover that the Indians have got there first: he is dead and the stone is gone. Under the dead man's disguise is none other than Godfrey Ablewhite, who is found to have embezzled the contents of a trust fund in his care and to have been facing exposure soon after the birthday party. The mystery of what Blake did while in his drugged state is solved - he encountered Ablewhite in the passageway outside Rachel's room and gave the Moonstone to him to be put back in his father's bank, from which it had been withdrawn on the morning of the party to be given to Rachel. Seeing his salvation, Ablewhite pocketed the stone instead, and pledged it as surety for a loan to save himself temporarily from insolvency. When he was murdered, he was on his way to Amsterdam to have the stone cut; it would then have been sold to replenish the plundered trust fund before the beneficiary inherited. Cuff realized all of this independently after being dismissed from the case, but was reluctant to accuse Ablewhite without evidence or an official mandate.
The mystery is solved, Rachel and Franklin marry, and in an epilogue from a traveller the reader learns of the restoration of the Moonstone to the place where it should be, in the forehead of the idol.
Review: The book is widely regarded as the precursor of the modern mystery and suspense novels. The Moonstone is the perfect introduction to the Victorian novel. Written in the day of serialized fiction, when reading was still a primary form of entertainment, The Moonstone is a gem. Full of cliffhangers, written from multiple points of view, it's the tale of a stolen jewel whose original owners will stop at nothing to get it back. In the hands of a lesser author, The Moonstone would be confusing and rambling, but Wilkie Collins so adeptly drew his characters and gave his narrators such distinctive voices that the reader is drawn deeper and deeper into the story, anxious to read on to see what is going to happen. The tale is liberally strewn with clues, but it's the description and the characters who make it so readable. Who could ever forget the ominous and deadly Shivering Sands or Miss Clack's cheerful and relentless distribution of improving 'little tracts'?
Unrequited love, greed, jealousy, hypocrisy; valiant heroes, romantic heroines, exotic villains, comic relief and a mystery to tie them all together-everything we love to read about is present in lavish measures. The Moonstone is a book to curl up with on a winter weekend and get lost in. One of the best of Victorian novels, when a precise turn of phrase was appreciated and families eagerly gathered by the fireside each week to hear the latest installment read aloud, The Moonstone has been in print since 1868 for good reason. It's a great story told by a master storyteller and puts most romantic suspense novels to shame.
Opening Line: “In the first part of ROBINSON CRUSOE, at page one hundred and twenty-nine, you will find it thus written: "Now I saw, though too late, the Folly of beginning a Work before we count the Cost, and before we judge rightly of our own Strength to go through with it."
Closing Line: “So the years pass, and repeat each other; so the same events revolve in the cycles of time. What will be the next adventures of the Moonstone? Who can tell?”
Quotes: “The horrid mystery hanging over us in this house gets into my head like liquor, and makes me wild."
“Your tears come easy, when you're young, and beginning the world. Your tears come easy, when you're old, and leaving it.”
Rating: Extremely Tedious.

364. Seize the Day – Saul Bellow

History: Published in 1956.
Plot: Wilhelm is unemployed, impecunious, separated from his wife (who refuses to agree to a divorce), and estranged from his children and his father. He is also stuck with the same immaturity and lack of insight which has brought him to failure. Tommy Wilhelm in Seize the Day is both inspired and burdened by the American myth of success. At the age of twenty, he changes his name from Wilky Adler to Tommy Wilhelm, a name signifying the person he dreams of becoming. He thereby recalls James Gatz, who by calling himself Jay Gatsby thinks he can conjure up the man Daisy Buchanan will find irresistible. Unlike Gatsby, however, Wilhelm has not fled his past; he confronts it daily through his father, who still calls him Wilky. But he remains optimistic, though the distance between the man he is and the man he aspires to be is an endless source of despair.
Wilhelm's financial troubles have more than practical implications. He feels that "everyone was supposed to have money", and his conversations with Dr. Tamkin strengthen his belief that with just a modest amount of will and talent, he could rid himself of financial worry. Tamkin assures Wilhelm that it will be "easy" for him to make much more in the market than the fifteen thousand he needs. Just as Wilhelm believes that he will one day become the person his name represents, so he clings to the hope that easy money awaits him. He assumes that his father would accept him if he had more money. Like Willy Loman, Wilhelm links his self-worth to his financial situation. If it really is easy to have more money than one needs, then financial failure must result from some character flaw.
Having quit his longtime job, left his wife and children, and taken a room in a residential hotel, Wilhelm seems intent on unburdening himself of the attachments and responsibilities that limit his freedom. He shares with Huck Finn the belief that personal autonomy somehow leads to personal fulfillment. But he is far from content when the story begins, sensing that "a huge trouble long presaged but till now formless was due" (p. 4). Wilhelm is bewildered by the fact that he has gone to such lengths to set himself free yet still feels trapped. Images of confinement proliferate. Beneath them is Wilhelm's desperate loneliness. Tamkin's assertion that we are all slaves to our "pretender souls" only further confuses the issue for Wilhelm. Is freedom a state of mind, rather than a description of external conditions? He cannot be sure, just as he can never be sure if Tamkin's pronouncements are revelation or simply a means by which Tamkin gets what he wants.
Review: Tommy Wilhelm is divorced, unemployed, broke, undereducated, self-indulgent, and dependent (on pills and his father, among other things). He lives in a hotel in New York City and wants desperately to put his life in order. Tommy, like all Bellow protagonists, has trouble determining how to cope with the modern world.
One of the symbols of Tommy’s problems, and those of modern society generally, is his relationship with his father. Tommy’s father lives in the same hotel and is disgusted with his son’s weakness. He refuses to give the one thing Tommy wants most--sympathy.
Tommy makes one last grasp for success by investing in the commodities market under the dubious influence of Dr. Tamkin. His money quickly evaporates and with it his hopes.
At this lowest point, however, Tommy has an epiphany. He accidentally happens into a church during a funeral, and, after looking at the body of a man he does not know, breaks into uncontrollable weeping.
Tommy weeps for the man, for himself, and for the human condition. He is transported beyond his own particular problems to a cathartic suffering for all mankind.
Bellow sees the problems of the modern world as essentially matters of the spirit. In a high-pressure, pluralistic, threatening, materialistic world, people must find a way to live and to remain human. Tommy does this by recognizing that human beings, for all their weaknesses--or perhaps because of them--must accept and share one another’s burdens.
Bellow offers this important response to the modern condition in a comic tale that is a contemporary classic, one which later helped win for him the Nobel prize.
Opening Line: “When it came to concealing his troubles, Tommy Wilhelm was not less capable than the next fellow.”
Closing Line: “He heard it and sank deeper than sorrow, through torn sobs and cries toward the consummation of his heart’s ultimate need.”
Quotes: "Bringing people into the here-and-now. The real universe. That's the present moment. The past is no good to us. The future is full of anxiety. Only the present is real--the here-and-now. Seize the day."
Rating: Okay