Thursday, March 31, 2011

397. The Forsyte Saga - John Galsworthy

History: The Forsyte Saga is a series of three novels and two interludes (intervening episodes) published between 1906 and 1921. The Forsyte Saga earned John Galsworthy the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1932.
Plot: The Man of Property (1906) - In his first novel of the Forsyte Saga, after introducing us to the impressive array of Forsytes headed by the formidable Aunt Ann, Galsworthy moves into the main action of the saga by detailing Soames Forsyte's desire to own things, including his beautiful wife, Irene Forsyte (née Heron). He is jealous of her friendships and wants her to be his alone. He concocts a plan to move her to the country, to Robin Hill and a house he has had built, away from everyone she knows and cares about. She resists his grasping intentions and falls in love with the architect Philip Bosinney who has been engaged by Soames to build the house. However, Bosinney is the fiancé of her friend June Forsyte, the daughter of Soames's cousin Jolyon. There is no happy ending: Irene leaves Soames after he rapes her, and Bosinney dies under the wheels of a cab after being driven frantic by the news of Irene's rape by Soames.
Indian Summer of a Forsyte (1918) - In short interlude after The Man of Property, Galsworthy delves into the newfound friendship between Irene and Old Jolyon Forsyte (June's grandfather, and by now the owner of the house Soames had built). This attachment gives Old Jolyon pleasure, but exhausts his strength. He leaves Irene money in his will with Young Jolyon, his son, as trustee. In the end Old Jolyon dies under an ancient oak tree in the garden of the Robin Hill house.
The Chancery (1920) - The marital discord of both Soames and his sister Winifred is the subject of the second novel, the title being a reference to the Court of Chancery, which deals with domestic issues. They take steps to divorce their spouses, Irene, and Montague Dartie respectively. However, while Soames tells his sister to brave the consequences of going to court, he is not willing to go through a divorce himself. Instead he stalks and hounds Irene, following her abroad, and asking her to have his child, which is his father's wish. Ultimately, Soames remarries, wedding Annette, the young daughter of a French Soho restaurant owner. With his new wife, he has his only child, Fleur Forsyte.
As for Irene, she is left the sum of £15,000 after Old Jolyon's death. His son, Young Jolyon Forsyte, also Soames's cousin, takes care of Irene's finances. When she first leaves Soames, he offers his support. At the time of the death of Young Jolyon's son Jolly in the South African War, Irene has developed a strong friendship with Jolyon. Then, Soames confronts Young Jolyon and Irene at Robin Hill accusing them (falsely) of having an affair. Young Jolyon and Irene assert that they have had an affair since Soames has it in his mind already. That gives Soames the evidence he needs for divorce proceedings. That confrontation sparks an affair between Young Jolyon and Irene.
Review: This monumental trilogy by the Nobel Prize-winning author chronicles the lives of three generations of an upper-middle-class London family obsessed with money and respectability. The Forsyte Saga enormously influenced views held by Americans and Europeans of Victorian and Edwardian life and it remains an excellent contribution to social history and literary art.
Duty versus Desire: Young Jolyon was once the favourite of the family until he left his wife for his daughter's governess. He eschews his status in society and in the Forsyte clan to follow his heart. Soames, though it seems he is the polar opposite of Jolyon, has those same inclinations toward doing what he desires. For example, instead of finding a wife who is rich, he marries Irene and then later Annette, who have neither money nor status. When he takes Irene to a play about a married woman and her lover, he ironically sympathizes with the lover and not the husband. However, most of his decisions are on the side of duty.
Generations and Change: The many generations of the Forsyte clan remind everyone of what has come to pass over the years. However, as the old ranks begin to die, people are able to change. For example, after a few generations, the fact that they are nouveau riche does not matter as much. This is also the case with Soames and Irene's marital problems. Once they grow old, and their children can overcome their parents' past, Soames can finally let go of the past. Mortality is an important issue because it forces people to let go. Another change with generations is the diminished number of Forsyte offspring. Many of the second generation have fewer children.
Opening Line: "Those privileged to be present at a family festival of the Forsytes have seen that charming and instructive sight - an upper middle-class family in full plumage."
Closing Line: "And doggedly along by the railings of the Green Park, towards his father's house, he went, trying to tread on his shadow walking before him in the brilliant moonlight."
Quotes: "Love is no hot-house flower, but a wild plant, born of a wet night, born of an hour of sunshine; sprung from wild seed, blown along the road by a wild wind. A wild plant that, when it blooms by chance within the hedge of our gardens, we call a flower; and when it blooms outside we call a weed; but, flower or weed, whose scent and colour are always, wild!"
Rating: Very Good.

396. The Spy Who Came in from the Cold - John LeCarre

History: Published in 1963, the novel received critical acclaim at the time of its publication and became an international best-seller.
The Spy Who Came in from the Cold occurs during the heightened-alert politico-military tensions that characterised the late 1950s and early 1960s of the Cold War, when a Soviet–American war in Europe (Germany) seemed likely. The story begins and concludes in East Germany, about a year after the completion of the Berlin Wall.
At its publication during the Cold War (1945–91), the psychological realism of The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (1963) rendered it a revolutionary espionage novel by showing that the intelligence services of both the Eastern and Western nations practiced the same expedient amorality in the name of national security. Until then, the Western public imagined their secret services as promoters of democracy and democratic values; a view principally espoused in the popular James Bond thriller novels — romantic high adventures about what a Secret Service should be. John le Carré, on the other hand, shocked readers with chilling realism and detail, portraying the spy as a morally burnt-out case.
Plot: The West Berlin office of the British Secret Intelligence Service, (known in the Le Carre novels as the Circus), under the command of Station Head Alec Leamas, has been performing poorly. At the commencement of the novel, Karl Riemeck – his last and best double agent, a high-ranking East German political officer – is shot dead at the last moment whilst defecting to West Berlin.
Without any agents left, the disgraced Leamas is recalled to the Circus in London by Control, chief of the Circus. There, Control asks Leamas to stay “in the cold” for one last mission: to turn (defect) and provide false information to the East German Communists that would implicate Mundt as a British double agent — what his second-in-command, Fiedler (a Jew), already suspects — to result in Mundt being executed by his own people. Control tells Leamas that Fiedler, due to his paranoia about Mundt, would be the best man to depose Mundt. George Smiley, and his former assistant, Peter Guillam, brief Leamas for his crucial mission; Control tells Leamas that Smiley had not returned to the Circus after the events of Call for the Dead because of moral qualms about unethical Circus operations.
To make the East Germans believe him ripe for defection, the Circus sacks Leamas, with a pittance of a pension (rumored so, because of theft), and he gets a miserable job in a run-down library, and loses it for drinking while working. At the library, he meets co-worker Liz Gold, an unworldly young Jewish woman, who is the secretary of her local cell of the Communist Party of Britain. Despite her politics, they fall in love and develop an intimate relationship. Before taking the “final plunge” into Control’s scheme, Leamas makes Liz promise not to look for him, no matter what she hears, and says good-bye to her. Leamas also tells Control to leave Liz alone; Control agrees. Then, as planned, Leamas lands in jail after he assaults a local grocer.
After jail, an East German recruiter-in-England approaches Leamas; he is taken abroad, first to Holland, then to East Germany, en route meeting higher echelons of the Abteilung, the East German Intelligence Service. During his debriefing, he drops casual hints that point to British payments to a double agent in the Abteilung, whilst pretending not to see the implications. Meanwhile, in England, George Smiley and Peter Guillam appear at Liz Gold’s apartment, claiming to be friends of Alec, and question her about him, and offer her financial help.
In East Germany, Leamas meets Fiedler. They have many conversations in a hut in a forest clearing, where Fiedler seeks conclusive proof against Mundt and engages in ideological and philosophic discussions with the pragmatic Leamas. As observed by Leamas, Fiedler seems content to live in Mundt’s shadow, but is relatively young and brilliant. To Leamas, Fiedler is sympathetic: a Jew who spent the Second World War in Canada, and a Communist idealist who considers the morality of his actions. In contrast, Leamas sees Mundt as a brutal, opportunist mercenary, who was a Nazi before 1945, who then joined the Communists simply because they were the new bosses, and who remained an anti-semite. Leamas believes helping Fiedler destroy Mundt is a worthy act. Meanwhile, Liz Gold is invited to East Germany for a Communist Party information exchange.
The power struggle in the Abteilung comes into the open when Mundt orders Fiedler and Leamas arrested and tortured; however, the leaders of the East German régime intervene, because Fiedler had earlier applied for an arrest warrant for Mundt on the same day that Mundt arrested Fiedler and Leamas. They are released, and Fiedler and Mundt are summoned to present their cases to a Tribunal convened in camera, in the town of Görlitz.
At the trial, Alec Leamas documents a series of secret bank account payments that Fiedler matches to the movements of Mundt. Fiedler also shows that Karl Riemeck passed to Leamas information to which he had no formal access, but to which Mundt did. Fiedler also presents to the Tribunal other proofs implicating Mundt as a British double agent and explains that Mundt was captured in England, and allowed to escape only after agreeing to work as a double-agent for the British.
Mundt’s attorney calls the unsuspecting Liz Gold as a surprise witness for the defence. Although not wanting to testify against Alec Leamas, she admits that George Smiley paid for her apartment lease after visiting her and that she had promised Leamas to not look for him when he disappeared. She also admits that he had said good-bye to her the night before he assaulted the grocer. Realising that the operation is now blown, Leamas offers to tell all in return for Liz’s freedom. He admits that Control gave him the mission to frame Mundt as a double agent, but adding that Fiedler was not a participant at which the Tribunal scoffs. In cross-examination, Fiedler asks Mundt how he knew that someone had paid off Liz’s lease, because, Fiedler insists, Liz never would have spoken about it. Mundt hesitates before answering (“a second too long, Leamas thought”), then the Tribunal halts the trial and arrests Fiedler. Then, and only then does Leamas understand the true nature of Control and Smiley’s operation.
Liz is sent to a cell, but Mundt places her in a car with Leamas at the wheel. During their drive to Berlin, where an exit route from East Berlin awaits, he explains the operation to her, including the parts of which he was unaware until the end of the trial. The fake bank account payments were real, and Hans-Dieter Mundt was a double agent reporting to George Smiley and Peter Guillam. The operation was against Fiedler, not Mundt, as Leamas was deceived to believe, because Fiedler was close to exposing Mundt as a British double agent. Fiedler was too powerful for Mundt to eliminate alone; therefore, Control and Smiley did it for him. They placed him and her as co-workers to provide Mundt with the means of discrediting Leamas, and consequently discrediting Fiedler. By falling in love, Leamas and Liz made it easy for them. Liz is horrified that British Intelligence planned the death of Fiedler, an intelligent, considerate and thoughtful man, in order to protect the despicable Mundt. Fiedler’s fate is unrevealed, but Leamas, in answer to Liz’s question, says that he would most likely be shot.
Despite her moral disgust, Liz accompanies Leamas to the break in the wire fronting the Berlin Wall, where they are to climb the wall and escape to West Berlin. In the concluding chapter, “In from the Cold”, after Leamas climbs to the top of the Berlin Wall and reaches down to pull Liz up, East German spotlights suddenly turn on them, and she is shot. Her fingers slip from his grasp and she falls. From the Western side of the Wall, Leamas hears a Western agent calling to him, “Jump, Alec! Jump, man!” and among other voices George Smiley's. Seeing Liz dead, Alec Leamas climbs back down the Eastern side of the Berlin Wall. The border guards then shoot him dead.
Review: One forgets just how unsparing the book is, how the picture it paints of human motivations, human duplicities, human frailty seems presciently aware of all that we have learned and unlearned in the intervening decades. The world was, on the surface, a more innocent, more straightforward place in the early 1960s: there were good guys and bad guys and they were easy to spot. One of the shock effects of reading The Spy when it was published must have been the near-nihilism of its message. It is unremittingly dark – or almost so – and this fact, I believe, lies at the root of its greatness.
The Spy is the story, to put it very simply, of a complicated act of deadly triple-bluff perpetrated by the British Secret Service against its enemies in the German Democratic Republic, as communist East Germany was then known. At its centre is Alec Leamas, sent, he believes, on a clever under-cover mission of revenge but in fact the unwitting tool of even cleverer British brains with other motives. So much so relatively straightforward, but one of the sheer pleasures of the grade one espionage novel is in unravelling its multifarious complexities and Le Carré handles the unspooling web of narrative and motive with exemplary poise.
Opening Line: "The American handed Leamas another cup of coffee and said, "Why don't you go back and sleep?"
Closing Line: "As he fell, Leamas saw a small car, smashed between great lorries, and the children waving cheerfully through the window."
Quotes: "People who play this game take risks. Fiedler lost and Mundt won. London won — that’s the point. It was a foul, foul operation. But it’s paid off, and that’s the only rule."
"What do you think spies are: priests, saints, martyrs? They're a squalid procession of vain fools, traitors, too, yes; pansies, sadists and drunkards, people who play cowboys and Indians to brighten their rotten lives."
Rating: Very Good. I loved the trial scene.

395. The Ghost Road - Pat Barker

History: This book was first published in 1995 and winner of the Booker Prize. It is the third volume of a trilogy that follows the fortunes of shell-shocked British army officers towards the end of the First World War. The other books in the trilogy are Regeneration and The Eye in the Door.
The war poet Siegfried Sassoon, who appears as a major character in the first book, Regeneration, is relegated to a minor role in this final volume, in which the main players are the fictional working-class officer, Billy Prior, and the real-life psychoanalyst, William Rivers. Thus Barker explores possible relationships between real people and fictional characters.
Plot: Prior, despite his new-found peace of mind and engagement to munitions worker Sarah, has been affected by the war and therefore does not have a lot of concern for his safety. Going along with this theme, he has a lot of risky sexual encounters; his only rule is that he never pays for sex - a rule he eventually breaks. This episode is a symbolic capitulation to the inevitability of his death at the Western Front, a fate he shares with the poet, Wilfred Owen.
Rivers, concerned for Prior's safety, finally recognises that his relationship with Prior, and his other patients for that matter, is deeply paternal. In contrast with upper-class officers like Sassoon, with whom Rivers has been able to form warm friendships, he has always found Prior a thorn in his side. As Prior returns to the front, Rivers reminisces uncomfortably about his childhood and research expeditions as a young anthropologist.
Review: The Booker Prize recently awarded to Barker for this book, the culmination of her astonishing WWI trilogy that began with Regeneration and The Eye in the Door, persuaded Dutton to move publication ahead by eight months, which is good news for American readers. Though it would seem almost impossible to look at that appalling conflict with a fresh eye, Barker has succeeded in ways that define the novelist's art: by close observation as well as by deployment of a broad and painfully compassionate vision, all rendered in prose whose very simplicity speaks volumes. The present book can be read without reference to the others, but all are mutually enriching. They revolve around William Rivers, a psychologist who pioneered the treatment of shell shock, and some of his patients, who include such real-life figures as poets Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, as well as the fictional Lieutenant Billy Prior, a bisexual whose life as an officer is complicated by his working-class origins. The questions the trilogy addresses are profound ones like the nature of sanity, the politics of class, war and sex, and the struggle to maintain humanity in the face of meaningless slaughter. In The Ghost Road, the war is nearing its end, which renders the continuing horrors of trench warfare ever more futile. Prior is sent back to the front after Rivers's treatment, enjoys a strange idyllic interlude in a ruined village, rescues a horribly wounded fellow officer and then faces the stupidest massacre of all. Meanwhile Rivers takes on new nightmare cases?and begins to remember his anthropological researches in Melanesia years before, when he strove to understand the rituals of a people whose greatest pleasure, head-hunting, had been abolished by a British colonial administration. The contrast between the primitives' deeply considered approach to death and the pointless killing indulged in by supposedly more civilized people is only hinted at, but it gives the book, particularly in its deeply eloquent concluding pages, enormous resonance. The whole trilogy, which in its entirety is only equivalent in length to one blockbuster serial-killer frenzy, is a triumph of an imagination at once poetic and practical.
Opening Line: "In deck-chairs all along the front the bald pink knees of Bradford businessmen nuzzled the sun.
Closing Line: "A long moment, and then the brown face, with its streaks of lime, faded into the light of the daytime ward."
Quotes: "The war, he insited loudly, flushed with wine, was feathering the nests of profiteers. It was being fought to safeguard access to the oil-wells of Mesopatamia. It had nothing, absolutely nothing, to do with Belgian neutrality, the rights of small nations or anything like that."
Rating: Okay

Friday, March 18, 2011

394. Less than Zero - Bret Easton Ellis

History: A novel published in 1985. It was the author's first published effort, released while he was 21 and still in college.
In the former child actor Danny Bonaduce's 2002 autobiography, Random Acts of Badness, Bonaduce notes the striking similarity between the fictional high school in Less Than Zero and the now-closed California Prep High School in Encino, California, where Bonaduce, recording artist Michael Jackson, film actor Christian Brando, and other children of wealth and celebrity went to school together.[3] In commenting on the novel, Bonaduce notes, "When the book Less Than Zero came out, all my classmates were pissed. Not because it was an exact portrayal of our school - but because we failed to get any royalties."
Plot: Titled after the Elvis Costello song of the same name, the novel follows the life of Clay, a rich young college student who has returned to his hometown of Los Angeles, California for the winter break during the early 1980s. He spends much of the novel going to parties and doing drugs with his friends. During this time, he must decide whether or not he wants to restart a relationship with Blair, for whom he is uncertain about his feelings. Meanwhile, Clay has one night stands with a few men and women on the side while his relationship with Blair goes downhill. At the same time, he attempts to renew his relationship with his best friend, Julian, who has become a prostitute and drug addict. Throughout his descent into the netherworld of the L.A. drug scene, he loses his faith in his friends, and grows alienated with the amoral party culture he once embraced. He is greatly disturbed by four events: first, his anorexic friend Muriel intravenously takes heroin whilst people watch and take photos; his friend Trent shows a snuff film at a party and only he and Blair seem to be disturbed by it; later, he is forced to sit in a chair for five hours to watch Julian sell himself to a businessman from Muncie, Indiana, in order to get money to support his heroin habit; finally, he meets friends at a concert, only to leave and not only find a dead body that everyone wants to see, but a naked 12-year-old girl who is tied to the posts of a friend's bed, and once again his friends are attracted to it. Eventually, these events lead him to leave Los Angeles, possibly intending never to return.
Review: The novel is a journal of Clay's wanderings in the city and in the loop of wealthy teens who are bored with life. Clay feels a chill in the hot desert wind and counts down the days until he will be through with his Christmas vacation and leave his friends behind again. Clay's friends elite but interchangeable in that nobody stands out as a unique character. We are to glean from the novel that their lack of personality is a product of their lifestyle of excess. The party scene of these friends is appealing at first glance with the swarms of beautiful people eager to please and infinite ways to have a good time, but the party scene gets old after a while and boring to read. The novel is most upsetting with the depiction of eighteen year olds who can have anything that they desire but use this power in sole purpose of drug consumption and sex.
Los Angeles is a scary city full of violence, which Clay witnesses firsthand with his friends. The city seems to numb their moral senses. The culture is saturated with pop songs, video games and pornography that is empty in content but sought after by teens driven crazy with it all. Los Angeles is a moral, mental and physical wasteland blasted by relentless, hot desert wind and sun.
Opening Line: "People are afraid to merge on the freeways in Los Angeles."
Closing Line: "After I left."
Quotes: "But this road doesn't go anywhere," I told him.
That doesn't matter."
What does?" I asked, after a little while.
Just that we're on it, dude," he said."
Rating: Okay.

393. Delta of Venus – Anais Nin

History: A collection of short stories largely written in the 1940s while Nin was writing erotica for a private collector. The book was first published posthumously in 1978.
The collection of short stories that makes up this anthology was written during the 1940s for a private client known simply as "Collector"'. This "Collector" commissioned Nin, along with other now well-known writers (including Henry Miller), to produce erotic fiction for his private consumption. Despite being told to leave poetic language aside and concentrate on graphic, sexually explicit scenarios, Nin was able to give these stories a literary flourish and a layer of images and ideas beyond the pornographic. In the introduction, she called herself "the madam of this snobbish literary house of prostitution".
The stories range in length, and are tied together not just by their sexual premises, but also by Nin's distinct style and feminine viewpoint.
The Hungarian Adventurer - A Hungarian Baron seduces wealthy women then vanishes with their money. He can't control himself and eventually begins to have sex with his daughters, then his son. Eventually they abandon him.
Mathilde - a Parisian hatmaker named Mathilde, seduced by the Baron at a young age, leaves her husband for the opium dens of Peru. She is seduced by a slasher, but then rescued.
The Boarding School - A priest lusts after a sweet boy, but then he is raped by a gang bang.
The Ring - An Indian from Peru fell in love with a woman of Spanish descent, and they had to keep the love affair secret. So they exchanged rings, but he put the ring on his penis where it wouldn't be seen. They ran away together, but his penis still remained sensitive, and he was jealous.
Mallorca - A woman invites another girl to a lesbian skinny-dipping swim in the sea, but it is a trick to lure her to the attention of a man who is also naked in the water. The ruse works, and the seduced girl are happy with her male lover.
Artists and Models - Highly erotic classic short story in which a woman poses nude for a sculptor. At first their relationship is entirely professional and platonic, but the artist passes the time by sharing stories about less innocent relationships between artists and their models. The model, eager for more such stories, seeks storytellers among the rest of the artistic community of Paris. She learns of an artist who makes models pose in just a pair of slashed panties while he stares at her with his penis exposed, and only satisfies his lust on the panties once she has got dressed and left. The model realises that her sculptor friend is deliberately making mistakes in his work, so that he has to start again on fresh blocks of stone in order to keep her there. By this time however, she is dating a leading dramatist who is too polite to seduce her properly, as he is married and a celebrity. His cruel tendency to keep her waiting for his full affection infuriates her. Her artist friend, now becoming her lover, begs her to avoid seeing the man. The dramatist is jealous of the artist seeing her in the nude daily, and begs her to stop seeing him and making love to him. She continues to see both men, and uses the sexual teachings of each to satisfy the other.
Lilith - She is in a crumbling relationship with her husband. One night, he tells her that he has slipped a Spanish Fly aphrodisiac into her tea to make her more open to sex, but she is not due to stay in. She is going to a cinema with a girl friend, and once out, she imagines her uncontrollable passion turning her on to any man and even her lady friend, but the drug takes its time. Even back home with her husband, nothing seems out of the ordinary. Finally, he admits to a cruel joke. He gave her no such potion. Lilith now dreams of getting her hand on real sexual stimulants.
Marianne - The most autobiographical of the stories given that Nin wrote her stories for a mysterious figure called only The Collector. Here, The Collector sends her to a girl who can edit the work for her, and the narrator finds out that the girl has written her own story, inspired by what she has read. The girl is virginal, and also an artist. She is involved with a man who pays her to paint him naked, but never lets her touch him, causing her intense sexual anxiety.
The Veiled Woman - A man is offered a chance to earn money making love to a beautiful rich stranger, though he will never be allowed to know her identity. He accepts the offer and gets taken blindfolded to a fantastic and profitable sexual encounter. Months later, by chance he learns that she also invited men to watch him in action. He is left paranoid that all of his sexual encounters may have been secretly watched.
Elana - Elana has read D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, and feels as if her own love life is bland by comparison. A gay man, who will make love to her only up to a point, as he harbours a phobia about women’s vaginas, then seduces her. She also has an affair with Pierre, a fugitive anarchist, who is on the run for crimes against the state. Elana also experiments with lesbianism. She has so much sex without love that she feels hardened and immune, comparing herself to someone walking on hot coals without burning her feet. She knows that Pierre will move on out of her life, but she is content to make love to him before that day comes.
The Basque and Bijou - Bijou is a recurring character in Nin’s erotic stories. She is a renowned and notorious Parisian prostitute. The Basque is one of her clients.
Bijou is bought out of the brothel by the Basque, who cruelly makes her both wife and slave. He makes love to her with his friends watching at his house, and expressing approval. They later violate her and help the Basque to forcibly shave her vagina. Bijou is frightened as outside of her brothel she has lost control and allowed herself to be dominated. Bijou has one avenue of escaper. During the days when the Basque is away she works as an artists’ model, posing evocatively to turn the art students to passionate love for her. She then meets secretly with the most aroused student for sex. Bijou takes hypnosis with a hypnotist who molests and penetrates her while she is in a trance, though she is faking the trance. He collects samples of her underwear. When he starts talking of wearing her vagina skin as earrings she gets away from him quickly. Later, Bijou, the Basque, the hypnotist, and Elana (another recurrent figure in Nin’s stories) have a picnic together, where they have an orgy. The Basque allows Bijou to be raped by a passing dog, but forbids her physical contact with the hypnotist or himself. Soon afterwards, the Basque walks out on Bijou, reflecting on his old school mistress, whose clothes he liked to wear. Dark, sometimes nasty, but compulsive reading.
Pierre - The anarchist who appears in Elana has aback story of his own, in which his sexual awakening involved the necrophiling of a woman’s body rescued from a quayside. Chased and almost captured, Pierre receives a slow sexual education from other women but he remains haunted by his crime.
Manuel - A flasher who is danger of being arrested. He gets work for one woman who pays him by looking at his genitalia when he drops his trousers. He eventually meets a female equivalent to himself, and they go away happy to flash their private parts at each other.
Linda - A woman in a very open marriage, who told by her hair-dresser that she ought to meet men who treat her badly in order to more appreciate the men who treat her well, meets up with a man who refuses to have sex with her, but who is willing to make love to a handkerchief she has wiped her genitalia with. He does this right under her nose.
Marcel - An insecure man, who lacks self-confidence, gaining sexual education from the narrator and visiting can-can clubs, but the decadent beautiful free-love world is soon to be shattered by the impending Nazi occupation, and everyone senses it.
Review: Delta of Venus joyously explores the art of human sexuality. Anais Nin's writing style is at once lyrical and straightforward. While she leaves no doubt in the reader's mind just what is going on, her countless love scenes are imbued with so much warmth and dignity that one could scarcely find them offensive. But most importantly, Anais understood that sex is nothing without emotion, and it's the emotions of her myriad characters that cause the reader to turn happily florid with every page. She understood that while sex is not to be taken lightly, it's certainly not something to be restrained, either. Lastly, of all the locales depicted in this collection of stories, she lends a special affection to Paris. I suspect that of all of Anais' lovers, the City of Light was the dearest to her heart, to wit: "At five I always felt shivers of sensuality, shared with the sensual Paris. As soon as the light faded, it seemed to me that every woman I saw was running to meet her lover, that every man was running to meet his mistress." and "But we were enjoying an orgasm, as couples do in doorways and under bridges at night all over Paris."
Opening Line: "There was a Hungarian adventurer who had astonishing beauty, infallible charm, grace, the powers of trained actor, culture, knowledge of many ongues, aristocratic manners."
Closing Line: "Marcel was remembering this, too.
Quotes: "He asked the three men to hold her. Bijou squirmed at first and then realized it was less dangerous to lie still,for he was carefully shaving her pubic hair, beginning at the edges, where it lay sparse and shining on her velvet belly. The belly came down in a soft curve there. The Basque lathered, then -"
Rating: Good.

392. How Late it Was, How Late – James Kelman

History: This book was published in 1994. The Glasgow-centred work is written in a working class Scottish dialect. The book, amid some controversy, won the Man Booker Prize for 1994. One of the judges, Rabbi Julia Neuberger, threatened to resign if it won, and upon the book being granted the prize, stormed off the panel, saying, "Frankly, it's crap."
In his acceptance speech, Kelman countered the criticism and decried its basis as suspect, making the case for the culture and language of "indigenous" people outside of London. "A fine line can exist between elitism and racism," he said. "On matters concerning language and culture, the distinction can sometimes cease to exist altogether."
Kingsley Amis took offense to the book in his The King's English. In a section on "Four-letter Words", Amis contests that "The thinning-out of spoken ribaldry" is a bad thing for the worlds of literature, art, comedy, and culture. Amis said that "An entire way of being funny, an entire range of homourous effects, has been impoverished, except probably on the lower deck of society. At first sight, the case with the printed four-letter word is different, though here I detect a similarly unwelcome drift towards serious aesthetic purpose. A bit of that can be seen in one of the last and least of the big fuck-novels, the winner of the 1994 Booker Prize. The doggedness with which the author keeps on trotting out the great word and its various derivatives already has something old-fashioned about it. Time for a change."
Plot: Sammy awakens in a lane one morning after a two day drinking binge, and gets into a fight with some plainclothes policemen, called in Glaswegian dialect, 'sodjers'. When he regains consciousness, he finds that he's been beaten severely and, he gradually realises, is completely blind. The plot of the novel follows Sammy as he explores and comes to terms with his new-found disability, and the difficulties this brings.
Upon being released Sammy goes back to his house and realizes that his girlfriend, Helen, is gone. He assumes that she took off because of the fight they had before Sammy last left his house, but makes no attempt to try and find her.
For a while, Sammy struggles with the simple tasks that blindness makes difficult. Soon, Sammy realizes he will need something to indicate his blindness to other people. He cuts the head off an old mop and, with the help of his neighbor, Boab, paints it white. He also purchases a pair of sunglasses to cover his eyes.
Eventually, Sammy finds himself at the Central Medical waiting to get checked out for his blindness. He is instructed to the Dysfunctional Benefits floor and is questioned by a young lady who asks Sammy questions about his blindness. Sammy tells her 'about being beaten up by the cops, but immediately regrets telling her this and tries to take it back. She informs him that she cannot remove his statement from the record, but he can clarify if he wishes to. This upsets Sammy and he leaves the Central Medical without finishing filing for dysfunctional benefits.
Once home Sammy decides to calm down by taking a bath. While in the bathtub Sammy hears someone enter his apartment. When he goes to investigate he is cuffed by soldiers and taken to the department. They question him about the Saturday before Sammy went blind, and about the Leg (an old friend/associate). Sammy can’t remember much about that Saturday but admits to having met up with his friends Billy and Tam. Sammy says he can’t remember anything else, so they throw him in a cell.
Later Sammy is released for his doctor appointment. The doctor asks Sammy a series of questions about his vision, and in the end refuses to diagnose Sammy as blind. Upon leaving the doctors office, a young man, Ally, approaches Sammy. He seems to know all about how the doctor will not give out diagnoses and persuades Sammy that he should be his representation for a commission payment.
Bored at home Sammy decides to go down to Quinns bar, the bar Helen worked at. Sammy gets his neighbour, Boab, to call him a taxi to take him to the city centre. At the door of Quinns bar Sammy is told by two men that there is a promotion going on inside and Sammy cannot go in. Sammy gets upset at this and asks about Helen. The men tell Sammy that no one by the name of “Helen” has ever worked there. Upset, Sammy walks to Glancy’s bar—his favourite hang out—and is approached by his old friend Tam. Tam is upset because Sammy gave his name to the soldiers and now his family is being affected by it. Angry, Tam leaves Sammy who wonders what is going on.
Later, Ally sends over Sammy’s son, Peter, to take pictures of the marks Sammy has from being beaten by the soldiers. Peter arrives with his friend, Keith, and offers to give Sammy money. Sammy refuses the money but Peter keeps pestering him about it. Eventually Sammy agrees to take the money and meets with Peter and Keith at a nearby pub. After Peter leaves Sammy takes the money, flags a taxi, and leaves.
Review: The jumpy narrative is sometimes a bit impenetrable. Sentences go unfinished as thought processes are abandoned and then picked up again a paragraph later. Punctuation sometimes appears to be placed at random. Initially, this mix of dialectal expression and unconventional grammar are distracting. In fact, I had to read back a few times early on, because I found myself concentrating on the novelty of the words as written instead of their meaning. But as you learn to translate as you go, these features become little joyous idiosyncrasies that help give the novel its own voice.
Most of the terms, if not immediately guessable, are made clear through repetition. The unwary (that is, unScottish) reader will be forgiven for initial bemusement (and even glee) in the face of lines like: "ya fucking bampot fucking fuckpig grassing bastard."
At the heart of the story burns a undimmable passion for equality and justice, for the underdog of the ‘underclass’ – but Kelman’s great achievement is to render the book universal precisely as a result of this grounded and specific setting. Sammy’s blindness, too, enables him to address the very matter of reality and existence. Sammy relies on non-visual stimuli to make sense of the world, but the reader has only sight to rely on, which leads to the strange feeling of ‘seeing’ things in the sightless mind of Sammy more vividly than we would when looking up from the page into the real world.
We don’t even know if Ally is real – if any of it is real – even though it is meticulously realistic (and equally intended not to be). It is a book of paradox. In the middle of the savagery of life on the Glasgow streets – of life generally – there is unexpected humour.
Kelman maintains a highly imagined account of the ancillary difficulties of everyday blindness (keeping place in a queue, finding a seat on a bus, selecting clothes for a white wash) while keeping his voice sufficiently expressive for more abstract thinking.
Opening Line: "Ye wake in a corner and stay there hoping yer body will disappear, the thoughts smothering ye; these thoughts; but ye want to remember and face up to things, just something keeps ye from doing it, why can ye no do it; the words filling yer head: then the other words; there's something worng; there's something far far wrong; ye're no a good man, ye're just no a good man."
Closing Line: "Sammy slung in the bag and stepped inside, then the door slammed shut and that was him, out of sight."
Quotes: "He wasnay feeling so hot. Before he had been good. Now he wasnay. There was things out his control. There was things in his control but there were other things out, they were out his control, he had put them out his control."
Rating: Good.

391. The Heat of the Day – Elizabeth Bowen

History: This book was published in 1948.
Plot: The novel opens with an encounter between Louie Lewis, a London factory worker seeking self-identity, and Harrison at an outdoor concert at Regent's Park. After Harrison rudely leaves Louie he goes to visit Stella in her rented flat. He tells her of his suspicions that her lover, Robert Kelway, is a spy, while proposing that she leaves Robert to become his lover. While she is coping with the possibilities, her son, Roderick, visits her on leave from his army training. In her conversation with her son and the memories of her divorce from his father, Stella begins to doubt if she (or anyone) can ever really know anyone else. Roderick, meanwhile, is ruminating on Mount Morris, the house he has just inherited from an Irish cousin, Francis Morris.
The narration goes on to recount Cousin Francis's visit to his wife, Cousin Nettie, at Wisteria Lodge, a special care house for the elderly and the insane/mad. He is using this visit as an excuse to leave neutral Ireland and reach Britain in order to offer his services to the Allied effort. He dies just before the reunion with his wife. At Francis's lawyer's request, Stella attends the funeral, and is told that her son will inherit the estate, even though Roderick and Francis have never met. Here, Harrison, who is unknown to anyone at the funeral, and Stella meet for the first time. Harrison insists on accompanying her on the train back to London.
The narration then recounts Stella and Robert's first meeting two years ago and their subsequent romance. Back in the narrative present, Stella shows an interest in meeting Robert's family and so they go to Robert's family house, Holme Dene.
At Holme Dene, Stella meets Robert's authoritarian mother, his managerial sister, Ernestine, and their wards, Robert's other sister's two children. His mother reluctantly allows Robert to show Stella his room, in which is a collection of photographs of Robert throughout his life. Robert tells Stella about his troubled relationship with his emasculated father. That evening they return to London.
Harrison and Stella meet again. Harrison points out to her that in visiting his family, Stella is accepting the possibility that Robert is a spy. Harrison reiterates his insinuations that she should leave Robert and start a new relationship with Harrison. Stella does not accept his offer to stay the night.
The narration jumps back to Louie. Louie has made friends with Connie, an air warden. Connie and Louie are both newspaper fanatics; Connie is suspicious of everything she reads, while Louie believes everything she reads.
Returning to the main plot, Stella leaves for Ireland to visit Mount Morris and take care of affairs for Roderick. While there, she decides to confront Robert with Harrison's accusations. Robert and Ernestine pick her up in a car at the train station. After dropping Ernestine off, Stella finally asks Robert directly if he is a spy. Robert is angry that she could entertain such an idea, and is hurt that she has been harboring such thoughts for two months. Then he proposes marriage. She says no, after which they discuss their relationship and Harrison.
Roderick, who feels guilty inheriting Mount Morris without Cousin Nettie's permission, goes to visit her at Wisteria Lodge. In the course of their conversation, it becomes obvious that Cousin Nettie is not really mad, as she is pretending to be. Her feigned insanity is her excuse to never return to Mount Morris, which she hates. Nettie reveals the true story of Roderick's parents' divorce. Everyone assumed Stella was the guilty adulteress, but in fact Victor (Roderick's father) left her for a nurse. Roderick is stunned by the revelation and calls his mother to ask her about it as soon as he can.
Stella receives Roderick's call during one of Harrison's visits just before they leave for dinner. It prompts Stella to share her history with Harrison, which she hasn't done for many other people. At dinner, Harrison confirms that Robert fulfilled his predictions about exactly how Robert would change his behavior if Stella ever revealed that he was being watched. Louie happens to be at the restaurant and makes up an excuse to talk with them. In coded language in front of Louie Stella offers herself sexually to Harrison in exchange for Robert's safety. Harrison rejects the offer, and Stella and Louie leave the restaurant together. Louie is attracted to Stella, and tries to describe her to Connie.
Robert goes to Holme Dene because the family has received an offer to buy the house. Mrs. Kelway and Ernestine refuse to make a decision without him, but clearly he has no real influence. He is tense throughout the scene.
He returns to Stella in London and confesses that he is indeed a spy for the Germans. Robert tries to justify his actions and expounds on his fascist politics. Robert accuses Harrison of interfering in their relationship, which eventually leads to his confession. Although Stella still loves him, their relationship is marred. They know Harrison is waiting outside. Robert insists on leaving via the roof.
A couple days later Stella goes to visit Roderick and reveals that Robert is dead. Back in London, she gives a report to the coroner's office in which she comes out looking like a femme fatale and Robert's treachery is hidden. Louie reads the report in the papers and (mistakenly) believes her first impression of Stella was wrong. The narrative gives a sweeping overview of the next few years of the war. Harrison visits Stella again years later during another bombing. He tells her that his first name is Robert. Their resolution of their relationship is left ambiguous. Louie gets pregnant in the course of her extramarital affairs. Connie takes care of her, and Tom dies in combat without ever knowing. Louie leaves London to give birth to her son, Thomas Victor. She retires with him to her hometown, Seale-on-Sea, with the intent to raise him as if he were her heroic husband's child.
Review: In The Heat of the Day "everyone seems trapped in someone's else's story." Relationships of any type become dependent on language, on what is talked about and how: “The ‘story’ which Harrison tells Stella about Robert, and then the stories which this novel tells us about what both Stella and Harrison do with that story have their direct public consequences. Indirect language and code are often used, as is to be expected in a novel involving [espionage]. White information and propaganda, two different forms of telling, are discussed as to the way they are produced and consumed by Louie and Connie. Additionally, the war in London gains a fictitious dimension, seen as story-telling and as if out of a thriller.
Stella becomes especially sensitive towards the way certain events are narrated, such as her divorce. She also emphasizes that story-telling is the mechanism we have to perceive and remember the past: One of the strongest arguments Robert uses to justify his act of treachery is a critique of public and official discourses: “Don’t you understand all that nation-related language is dead currency?”
This book has several character parallelisms:
Stella and Louie: Stella and Louie are displaced women in London. Louie is from Seale-on-Sea and only came to London to be with her husband who is now away at war. Stella rents her flats and all her furniture, she has no place to call hers, no permanent home, and not even any things (all her furntiture etc. is in storage somewhere.)
Both are willing to have sex outside their monogamous relationships for monogamy’s sake. Louie carries on her adulterous affairs because she feels closer to her husband with any man than she does with no man. Stella ultimately offers herself sexually to Harrison to try and protect the man she actually loves, Robert.
Both are mothers who lie to their sons about the sons’ fathers. In both cases, the mother is making the father look better than he is. However, Louie is also making herself look better by claiming that Thomas Victor’s father is her husband, whereas Stella is accepting the blame for adultery that she didn’t commit in her lie to her son. Whether or not this makes her look worse is a matter of perspective—yes, she looks guilty, but she rejects the role of a victimized wife (which she really is).
Robert and Harrison: Both are attracted to Stella, and their simultaneous vying for her person (sexually and psychologically) is central to the plot.
Both are involved in espionage, Robert being a nazi spy and Harrison being a counterspy for England. Furthermore, both are betraying their home country—Robert by spying for Germany, Harrison by trying to buy Stella’s sexual favors with his influence as a counterspy.
Harrison has an uneven gaze with his off-balance eyes; Robert has an uneven gait because of his limp.
Both are named Robert.
Neither one has a proper home that we know about, and where they go when they are not with Stella is a mystery. Maud Ellmann argues that this means neither one is a proper “character” by the standards of realism, a deliberate move on Bowen’s part
Robert and Roderick: Both are men that Stella loves, one as a son and the other as a lover.
They have very similar sounding names—at Cousin Francis’s funeral, Colonel Pole accidentally calls Roderick Robert.
Roderick looks “more like himself” in Robert’s dressing gown.
Robert believes in fascism because he thinks people can’t handle freedom. Roderick eagerly accpets his destiny to be a landowner at Mount Morris, and Stella is relieved that her son has such a script laid out for him rather than being free to be nothing.
Cousin Nettie and Robert: Both come from houses that affect them negatively: Cousin Nettie from Mount Morris, where generations of Anglo-Irish women went mad or nearly mad, and Robert from Holme Dene, a “man eating house."
Both live duplicitous lives, Robert as a German spy in London and Cousin Nettie as a sane woman who feigns insanity.
Both are trying to establish gender identities by rejecting certain gender roles. Robert is not honoring his fatherland and running a household, but he tells Stella that being a spy in secret makes him a man again, meaning that he is a man, but only in secret. Cousin Nettie tries and fails to be a proper wife to Francis, and only is able to settle down and establish her own domestic space by feigning madness and leaving her married house for good.
The idea of Britain becomes prominent (usually in connection with the war) mostly when seen from outside the countryside. The characters that do leave the city to go either to Mount Morris, in Ireland, or to Holme Dene, in the Midlands, think of their country in rather gloomy terms. Except for reports provided by the narration, the consequences of the war upon the country are seen chiefly mainly from the outside too. On the surface, London during the Blitz is not particularly characterized by strong displays of nationalism; instead, life the present is celebrated by the imminence of the possibility of being killed during the bombings. However, the actions of the two main male characters seem to be motivated by their relationship with the nation. While Harrison tries to put an end to Robert’s act of treason to the country, the latter charges against [nationalism] and national pride as a reason to fight the war.
The novel poses general questions such as whether or not one can know somebody completely and whether two people can know a third person in exactly the same way, as illustrated by the triangle Stella-Robert-Harrison. Specifically, one of the main tensions in the book lies in the degree of knowledge that each of the male characters may or may not have about the other, using Stella as intermediary. As expected, propaganda plays an essential role in the book, as well as the disclosure of the concealed identities of the spies and intelligence agents. On her part, Stella is also concerned by her progressive detachment from her son Roderick and begins wondering if she in fact knows him as she thinks she does.
Roderick is determined throughout the narration to unbury the real story of Victor’s adultery, Cousin Francis’ actual reason for visiting to Britain and Nettie’s motivation to check herself in at Wisteria Lodge.
Opening Line: "That Sunday, from six o'clock in the evening, it was a Viennese orchestra that played."
Closing Line: "They passed overhead, disappearing in the direction of the West."
Quotes: "A rapture of strength could be felt in the rising tree trunks rooted gripping the slope, and in the stretch of the boughs; and there travelled through the layered, lit, shaded, thinning and crossing foliage, and was deflected downward on to the laurels, a breathless glory. In the hush the dead could be imagined returning from all the wars; and, turning the eyes from arch to arch of boughs, from ray to ray of light, one knew some expectant sense to be tuned in to an unfinished symphony of love."
Rating: Okay

390. The Old Wives Tale – Arnold Bennett

History: This book was published in 1908. A facsimile edition of the manuscript has been published, which is a testament to Bennett's calligraphic skills. The original manuscript is in the Lilly Library, Indiana.
Plot: The book is broken up into four parts. The first section, "Mrs Baines" details the adolescence of both Sophia and Constance, and their life in their father's shop and house (a combined property). Sophia is beautiful, strong willed, adventurous, and courageous, and Constance is plain, humble, obedient, and cautious. The opening scene: their home in a small town in England. Sophia and Constance are in their teens, sharing a cozy afternoon; young, innocent, playful, and oblivious of their future. The father is ill and bedridden, and the main adult in their life is Mrs Baines, their mother. Sophia is mischievous and brave, and somewhat careless. She intentionally breaks the strict rules of the household, while Constance is continually looking on disapprovingly, however admires her spunk and finds her antics humorous. The tragedy occurs when Sophia is supposed to be taking care of her father, but is neglectful and he falls, leading to his death.
Sophia covers up her neglect, but is sorrowful and ashamed. She begins a flirtation with Gerald Scales, a traveling salesman. She was determined to leave her home, which had been unhappy to her since the death of her father, and eventually the two ran away together. Gerald promised to marry her, took her to Paris and, after trying to trick her, he eventually married her. She had stolen money from her mother's friend to escape, and was able to make her way in Paris.
Constance meanwhile marries Mr Povey, who works in the shop. He is much older and they settle into a quiet but content life together.
The second part, "Constance", details the life of Constance from that point forward up until the time she is reunited with her sister in old age. Her life, although outwardly prosaic, is nevertheless filled with personal incident, most frequently with her son, Cyril who is much like Sophia. She loves him dearly, and he is spoiled rotten. Cyril grows, becomes more independent and rebellious, and with Mr. Povey's attempts a discipline is somewhat controlled.
But Mr Povey, being so much older, dies when Cyril is a teenager. He leaves Sophia well taken care of, and her wealth is compounded when her mother also dies, leaving her very comfortable, but daily angst with Cyril takes up most of her thoughts. He eventually leaves home to study art in London, Constance is depressed in her loneliness.
The third part, "Sophia", carries forward the story of what happened to Sophia after her elopement. Abandoned by her husband in Paris, Sophia becomes very ill, and is taken by Chirac, her husbands acquaintance to live with some prostitutes until she is nursed back to health. She eventually becomes the owner of a successful pension. She starts a boarding house, and it becomes very successful. She has an intermittent relationship with Chirac but nothing comes of it. He eventually disappears in an air balloon.
A friend of Cyril's, visiting Paris, recognizes her face (who looks just like Cyril) and realizes she is his missing aunt Sophia. Sophia considers selling her business and returning home.
The final part, "What Life Is", details how the two sisters are eventually reunited. Sophia returns to England and the house of her childhood, where Constance still lives. They live together very closely, Constance putting all trust and faith into the head strong Sophia. Constance is bothered with sciatica, and takes to the bed frequently, usually for weeks. Sophia nurses her and takes charge of her and the household. There are tales of the servants attitudes, and the dogs, and Cyril of course.
In a letter, Sophia hears of her husbands illness, and visits him only to find him already dead. She is traumatized, and that night is stricken with probably a stroke. No matter what attempts the doctor made, she dies. Constance admits relief, and returns home alone. A time later, Constance also dies, leaving Cyril a fortune. He lives on, without a sentiment or thought.
Review: The Old Wives Tale is exactly that - a tale of three women who marry in very different circumstances. Mrs. Baines, the mother, is a life who is only briefly touched upon. However, the separate lives of the two sisters, Sophia and Constance, are the crux of the book. Each life takes its' turn. We are first told about Constance, then about Sophia, and finally, about their reunion. Constance, whose name is not a coincidence, lives a simple provincial life, and Sophia, whose name also matches her persona, chooses romance and adventure. There is only one villain, and yet, he is perhaps the most powerful and chilling of all villains, Time. His grasping, clutching, suffocating presence is ever felt throughout the book, and looms even larger once that final page is turned. In the end, Sophia and Constance each pay the price for their choices, and the true cost of those choices is left for the reader to decide. As unique as we are, we will each believe something different about Sophia and Constance in the end, and that is precisely the point.
In fact, it should be a large clue to readers when they see that the title of the fourth section is, What Life Is. It is here that something occurred which I totally unexpected, and it left me quite shaken - in fact, desperate. I found that I had been brought from the comfortable vantage point of observing these fictional lives, which are at times inexplicably amusing and heroic, to a sudden uncomfortable sensation that the characters were real and had turned toward me - the reader - begging the question "What of your life? What have you done with it? What have you accomplished?"
That subtle change of vantage point was shocking, and ingenious. Without criticizing his own creation, the author was able to communicate the importance of living our lives to the fullest without telling us how. This fact alone shows great wisdom. Sophia and Constance experience remarkable things, no more remarkable than most people, but remarkable just the same. Each reacts differently because they are different, and each has a different idea about how to find happiness and how to deal with life's disappointments. Both are frequently of the opinion that they could improve someone else's life, yet have not found real satisfaction in their own. Each makes mistakes, and each perform the heroic. The author will on the same page be blunt about their faults and tender with their plight. He tells their story without judgment, and yet in the end, you feel you have read a very wise judgment on the nature of the human race. Here, reader, you will find no prescription for life, but a question that begs a diagnosis. The author makes it starkly clear that the remedy, or whether a remedy is even required, is up to you.
The Old Wives Tale is not a dark story. It is not a comedy. It is not high adventure or mystery. In fact, it is many of these things put together to create something REAL.
Opening Line: "Those two girls, Constance and Sophia Baines, paid no heed to the manifold interest of their situation, of which, indeed, they had never been conscious."
Closing Line: "She glanced at the soup-plate, and, on the chance that it might after all contain something worth inspection, she awkwardly balanced herself on her old legs and went to it again."
Quotes: "Had they been accused of monomania they would have smiled the smile of people confident in
their commonsense and their mental balance. Nevertheless, they were monomaniacs. Instinctively they concealed the fact as much as possible; They never admitted it even to themselves. Samuel, indeed, would often say: "That child is not everybody."
Rating: Very Good

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

389. Erewhon – Samuel Butler

History: This book was published anonymously in 1872. The title is also the name of a country, supposedly discovered by the protagonist. In the novel, it is not revealed in which part of the world Erewhon is, but it is clear that it is a fictional country. Butler meant the title to be read as the word Nowhere backwards, even though the letters "h" and "w" are transposed, therefore Erewhon is anagram of nowhere. It is likely that he did this to protect himself from accusations of being unpatriotic, although Erewhon is a satire of Victorian society.
The first few chapters of the novel, dealing with the discovery of Erewhon, are in fact based on Butler's own experiences in New Zealand where, as a young man, he worked as a sheep farmer for about four years (1860–1864) and explored parts of the interior of the South Island.
One of the country's largest sheep stations, located near where Butler lived, is named "Erewhon" in his honour.
The greater part of the book consists of a description of Erewhon. The nature of this nation is intended to be ambiguous. At first glance, Erewhon appears to be a utopia, yet it soon becomes clear that this is far from the case.
As a satirical utopia, Erewhon has sometimes been compared to Gulliver's Travels (1726), a classic novel by Jonathan Swift; the image of utopia in this latter case also bears strong parallels with the self-view of the British Empire at the time.
Plot: Higgs, a young man of twenty-two years, worked on a sheep farm. From the plains, he looked often at the seemingly impassable mountain range that formed the edge of the sheep country and wondered about the land beyond those towering peaks. He learned from an old native named Chowbok that it was forbidden to visit that land. Chowbok assumed a strange pose when questioned further and uttered unearthly cries. Curious, Higgs persuaded Chowbok to go on a trip with him into the mountains.
They were unable to find a pass through the mountains. One day, Higgs came upon a pass that led into the mountains.. to a gorge far off but he felt he could make it. However, Chowbok left him running home and without supplies. Higgs journeyed several days through the gorge, across the river... Eventually he comes to large statues that make whistling noises when the wind blows. This leading him to the settlement of Erewhon. He met the residents, and was astounded at their beauty. He was interviewed.. examined by women and then put in jail for up to 3 months. Eventually he was let out, and he was allowed to journey.
In this country, illness is considered a crime. Sick people are thrown in jail; sickness is their own fault. Even sad people are imprisoned, for grief is a sign of misfortune and people are held responsible for actions that made them unfortunate. People who rob or murder, on the other hand, are treated kindly and taken to the hospital to recover. No machines are allowed in Erewhon as one philosopher thought that machines could rapidly evolve and take over the world.
Higgs is invited to dinner with Nosibor, a recovering embezzler. He stays with his family and falls in love with his youngest daughter Arowhena. Nosibor insists that the eldest daughter marry first, so Higgs goes to study at the University of Unreason, where students study anything that has absolutely no practical purpose. Arowhena and Higgs meet there secretly and when Nosibor finds out, he is very angry. Higgs and Arowhena fly away on a balloon. They land in the sea and are taken to England where they marry and plan a missionary trip to Erewhon.
Review: In Butler's Erewhon, characters are ciphers and narrative an afterthought—they exist just as an excuse to present the alternative society and allow the author to comment on it. Or rather, give the author an way to present his own ideas as though they are someone's else's.
Erewhon is really more a work of philosophical, religious and scientific speculation. The novel is often called dystopian—since it purports to describe a bad imaginary society—but really Butler is more concerned with showing us our own world. Each aspect of the ridiculous nature of the state of Erewhon has its counterpart in our own society, or at least in Western society of Butler's time
Opening Line: "If the reader will excuse me, I will say nothing of my antecedents, nor of the circumstances which led me to leave my native country; the narrative would be tedious to him and painful to myself."
Closing Line: "Address to the Mansion-House, care of the Lord Mayor, whom I will instruct to receive names and subscriptions for me until I can organize a committee."
Quotes: "Let us be grateful to the mirror for revealing to us our appearance only."
Rating: Okay.

388. The Book of Daniel – E.L Doctorow

History: Published in 1971, this book is a semi-historical novel by E. L. Doctorow, loosely based on the trial and execution of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg.
Plot: Writing his thesis ('The Book of Daniel') Daniel investigates the background to his parents' conviction and execution with his adoptive parents (the Lewins). The final dénouement is the revisiting, in flashback, of the death of his parents, and in due course the death from nervous disorder (and attempted suicide) of Daniel's sister. The novel closes with the library in which Daniel is working being closed by student unrest, and Daniel closing his work with a parody of lines from Chapter 12 of the Biblical Book of Daniel.
The book is written in four parts, and in each Daniel is the principal narrator; the narrative moves fluidly and rapidly between 1967 ('the present') and flashback (to the late 40s/early 50s), and between first and third person:-
1. Memorial Day - Opens, in 1967, with Daniel, his young wife, Phyllis and baby Paul, walking to the sanatorium to see Susan; closes with the dropping of atom bomb in Japan
2. Halloween - closes with the lawyer, Ascher, telling Daniel and Susan of the forthcoming start of the Isaacsons' trial
3. Starfish - closes with Daniel's bruising involvement in an anti-draft march, whilst his sister (the starfish of the title) is lying dying from complications following her suicide attempt. Daniel says with irony to Phyllis through broken teeth '...It looks worse than it is. There was nothing to it. It is a lot easier to be a revolutionary nowadays than it used to be.'
4. Christmas - recalls the closing moments of the trial, including the key evidence from their co-accused, Selig Mindish; Daniel's later search for, and discovery of Mindish, now senile, in Disneyland; and the funerals of Daniel's parents and his sister Susan.
Review: Doctorow displays an encyclopedic and detailed knowledge of both of those political periods, capturing the tone of the rhetoric, the pop music, the posters, the idealism, the hypocrisy, and the dilemmas confronting human beings caught up in political movements that seem more powerful than the people themselves. He is as unsparing in his treatment of sixties radicals as he is in his treatment of the cold government executioners who sent the Rosenbergs to their death.
One of most remarkable things about this book is the character of Daniel himself: sharply intelligent yet confused and conflicted, someone who sees all the angles yet cannot bring himself to act -- a modern-day Hamlet. The title's allusion to the biblical Daniel is reflected throughout the text in a number of clever ways as the narrative leaps between historical reflections, allegories, and vivid evocations of moments and events in the life of Daniel, his sister, and their families. It poignantly evokes the relationship between the two children and the various guardians who are assigned to care for them after society has arrested and executed their parents.
The other remarkable thing about this book is its use of language. Doctorow is a great prose stylist. To get an idea of how great he is, you should read both this book and Ragtime, which is a very different work. Ragtime is written in a style reminiscent of an old children's primer--simple, quaint sentences, gentle imagery. The Book of Daniel, by contrast, is full of incendiary language and is a very complex narrative full of jarring transitions -- language ideal, in other words, to capturing the feel of the political periods and events that are the subject of the book.
Opening Line: "On Memorial Day 1967, Daniel Lewin thumbed his way from New York to Worcester, Mass., in just under five hours."
Closing Line: "Go thy way Daniel: for the words are closed up and sealed till the time of the end."
Quotes: "You went out and took your stand, and did what had to be done, not because you expected anything from it, but because someday there would be retribution and you wanted just a lettle of it to bear your name."
Rating: Okay.

387. Fear of Flying – Erica Jong

History: Published in 1973, the book became famously controversial for its attitudes towards female sexuality, and figured in the development of second-wave feminism.
Plot: The novel is narrated by its protagonist, Isadora Wing, a twenty-nine-year-old poet who has published two books of poetry. On a trip to Vienna to a psychoanalyst conference with her husband, Bennett, Isadora decides to indulge her sexual fantasies with another man who’s name is Adrian, a psychiatrist from London. Meanwhile, Isadora reveals her past experiences with men, her family, the marriage to her first husband, the marriage to Bennett, her childhood, psychoanalysists, her first period, and mainly her fear of being alone.
Adrian coaxes her into his bed, encourages her to travel Europe with him. She realizes that Adrian really does not care about her when he leaves her in Paris to meet up with his girlfriend in London.
She travels to London alone and scared, finds Bennett there, and the story ambiguously ends at that point, the plot is not about which man she ends up with, but that she is no longer afraid to be alone.
Review: Originally published in 1973, this uninhibited story of Isadora Wing was a national sensation: fueling fantasies, igniting debates, and even introducing a notorious new phrase to the English language. In The New York Times, Henry Miller compared it to his own classic Tropic of Cancer, predicting, "This book will make literary history, that because of it women are going to find their own voice and give us great sagas of sex, life, joy, and adventure." It went on to sell more than twelve million copies. Today, Fear of Flying is a classic--a timeless tale of self-discovery, liberation, and womanhood.
Opening Line: “There were 117 psychoanalysts on the Pan Am flight to Vienna, and I had been treated by at least six of them.”
Closing Line: "I hummed and rinsed my hair. As I was soaping it again, Bennett walked in."
Quotes: “The zipless fuck is absolutely pure. It is free of ulterior motives. There is no power game . The man is not "taking" and the woman is not "giving." No one is attempting to cuckold a husband or humiliate a wife. No one is trying to prove anything or get anything out of anyone. The zipless fuck is the purest thing there is. And it is rarer than the unicorn. And I have never had one.”
…it is "zipless" because "when you came together, zippers fell away like rose petals, underwear blew off in one breath like dandelion fluff. For the true ultimate zipless A-1 fuck, it was necessary that you never got to know the man very well."
Rating: I loved it.