Monday, October 31, 2011

436. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie – Muriel Sparks

History: It first saw publication in The New Yorker magazine and was published as a book by Macmillan in 1961. The character of Miss Jean Brodie, brought Spark international fame and brought her into the first rank of contemporary Scottish literature. In 2005, the novel was chosen by TIME magazine as one of the one hundred best English-language novels from 1923 to present.
Plot: In 1930s Edinburgh, six ten-year-old girls are assigned Miss Jean Brodie, self-described as in her prime, as their teacher: Sandy, Rose, Mary, Jenny, Monica, and Eunice (only the first two of them are major figures). Miss Brodie, intent on their receiving an education in the original sense of the Latin verb educere, "to lead out", gives her students lessons about her personal love life and travels, promoting art history, Classical studies, and fascism. Under her mentorship, these six girls whom Brodie singles out as the elite group among her students—known as the "Brodie set"—begin to stand out from the rest of the school. However, in one of the novel's typical flash-forwards, we learn that one of them will later betray Brodie, causing her to lose her teaching job, but that she never learned which one.
In the Junior School, they meet the singing teacher, the short Mr Gordon Lowther; and the art master, the handsome, one-armed war veteran Mr Teddy Lloyd, a married Roman Catholic man with six children. These two teachers form a love triangle with Miss Brodie, each loving her, while she only loves Mr Lloyd. Brodie never, however, overtly acts on her love for Mr Lloyd except once to exchange a kiss with him, which is witnessed by Monica.
During a two week absence from school, Brodie enters into an affair with Mr Lowther on the grounds that a bachelor makes a more respectable paramour: she had renounced Mr Lloyd as he was married. At one point during these two years in the Junior School, Jenny is "accosted by a man joyfully exposing himself beside the Water of Leith". The police investigation of the exposure leads Sandy to imagine herself as part of a fictional police force seeking incriminating evidence in respect of Brodie and Mr Lowther.
Once the girls are promoted to the Senior School (in the seventh year of school, around age twelve) though now dispersed, they hold on to their identity as the Brodie set. Brodie keeps in touch with them after school hours by inviting them over as she used to do when they were her pupils. All the while, the headmistress Miss Mackay tries to break them up and compile information gleaned from them into sufficient cause to fire Brodie. Miss Mackay, in the novel (but not in the 1969 film) younger than Brodie, had more than once suggested to Miss Brodie that the latter seek employment at a 'progressive' school; Brodie declined to move to what she describes as a 'crank' school. When two other teachers at the school, the Kerr sisters, take part-time employment as Mr Lowther's housekeepers, Brodie tries to take over their duties. She sets about fattening him up with extravagant cooking. The girls, now thirteen, visit Miss Brodie in pairs over at Mr Lowther's house, where all Brodie does is ask about Mr Lloyd in Mr Lowther's presence. It is at this point that Mr Lloyd asks Rose, and occasionally the other girls, to pose for him as portrait subjects. Each face he paints ultimately resembles Miss Brodie, as her girls report to her in detail, and she thrills at the telling. One day when Sandy is over visiting Mr Lloyd, he kisses her.
Before the Brodie set turns sixteen, Brodie tests her girls to discover which of them she can really trust, ultimately settling upon Sandy as her confidante. Miss Brodie, obsessed with the notion that Rose (as the most beautiful of the Brodie set) should have an affair with Mr Lloyd in her place, begins to neglect Mr Lowther, who ends up marrying Miss Lockhart, the science teacher. Another student, Joyce Emily, steps briefly into the picture, trying unsuccessfully to join the Brodie set. Miss Brodie takes her under her wing separately, however, encouraging her to run away to fight in the Spanish Civil War on the Nationalist side, which she does, only to be killed in an accident when the train she is travelling in is attacked.
The original Brodie set, now seventeen and in their final year of school, begin to go their separate ways. Mary and Jenny quit before graduating, Mary to become a typist and Jenny to pursue a career in acting. Eunice becomes a nurse and Monica a scientist. Rose lands a handsome husband. Sandy, with a keen interest in psychology, is fascinated by Mr Lloyd's stubborn love, his painter's mind, and his religion. Sandy and Rose model for Mr Lloyd's paintings with Sandy's knowing that Brodie expects Rose to become sexually involved with Lloyd. Rose, however, is oblivious to the plan crafted for her and so Sandy, for five weeks during the summer, now eighteen and alone with him in his house while his wife and children are on holiday, has an affair with Mr Lloyd herself. Over time, Sandy's interest in the man wanes while her interest in the mind that loves Jean Brodie grows. In the end, Sandy leaves him, adopts his Roman Catholic religion, and becomes a nun. Beforehand, however, she meets with the Miss Mackay and blatantly confesses to wanting to put an end to Brodie. She suggests that the headmistress accuse Brodie of encouraging fascism, and this tactic succeeds. Not until her dying moment a year after the end of World War II is Brodie able to imagine that it was her confidante, Sandy, who betrayed her. After Brodie's death, however, Sandy, now called Sister Helena of the Transfiguration and author of The Transfiguration of the Commonplace, maintains that "it's only possible to betray where loyalty is due". One day when an enquiring young man visits Sandy at the convent because of her strange book on psychology to ask what were the main influences of her school years, "Were they literary or political or personal? Was it Calvinism?" Sandy says: "There was a Miss Jean Brodie in her prime."
Review: Spark unfolds her plots not sequentially, but piece by piece, making extensive use of the narrative technique of prolepsis (flash-forward). For example, the reader is aware early on that Miss Brodie is betrayed, though sequentially this happens at the end of their school years. Gradually Spark reveals the betrayer, and lastly all the details surrounding the event are told. Spark develops her characters in this way, too: Joyce Emily is introduced right away as the girl who is rejected from the Brodie set. With this technique, the narrator of the story is omniscient and timeless, relating the entire plot all at once.
Spark creates deep characterizations which are realistic in their human imperfections. Hal Hager, in his commentary on the novel, writes of Sandy and Miss Brodie: "The complexity of these two characters, especially Jean Brodie, mirrors the complexity of human life. Jean Brodie is genuinely intent on opening up her girls' lives, on heightening their awareness of themselves and their world, and on breaking free of restrictive, conventional ways of thinking, feeling, and being".
Opening Line: “The boys, as they talked to the girls, from Marcia Blaine’s school, stood on the far side of their bicycles holding their handle bars, which established a protective fence of bicycle between the sexes and the impression that in any moment the boys were likely to be away.”
Closing Line: "There was a Miss Jean Brodie in her prime."
Quotes: “Give me a girl at an impressionable age and she is mine for life.”
Rating: Very Good.

435. The Sorrows of Young Werther – Johann Goethe

History: This book was first published in 1774; a revised edition of the novel was published in 1787. Werther was an important novel of the Sturm und Drang period in German literature, and influenced the later Romantic literary movement.
Goethe distanced himself from The Sorrows of Young Werther in his later years. He regretted his fame and making his youthful love of Charlotte Buff public knowledge. He wrote Werther at the age of twenty-four, and yet most of his visitors in his old age had read only this book of his and knew him mainly only from this work, despite his many others. He even denounced the Romantic movement by calling it "everything that is sick."
Goethe described his distaste for the book, writing that even if Werther had been a brother he had killed, he could not have been more haunted by the vengeful ghost. Nevertheless, Goethe acknowledged the great personal and emotional impact that The Sorrows of Young Werther could exert on those forlorn young lovers who discovered it. In 1821, he commented to his secretary, "It must be bad, if not everybody was to have a time in his life, when he felt as though Werther had been written exclusively for him."
The book made Goethe one of the first international literary celebrities. Towards the end of his life, a personal visit to Weimar became crucial to any young man's tour of Europe.
The Sorrows of Young Werther was Goethe's first major success, turning him from an unknown into a celebrated author practically overnight. Napoleon Bonaparte considered it one of the great works of European literature. He thought so highly of it that he wrote a soliloquy in Goethe's style in his youth and carried Werther with him on his campaigning to Egypt. It also started the phenomenon known as the "Werther-Fieber" ("Werther Fever") which caused young men throughout Europe to dress in the clothing style described for Werther in the novel.
It reputedly also led to some of the first known examples of copycat suicide. The "Werther Fever" was watched with concern by the authorities and fellow authors. One of the latter, Friedrich Nicolai, decided to create a satiric—and happier—ending called Die Freuden des jungen Werthers ("The Joys of Young Werther"), in which Albert, having realized what Werther is up to, had loaded chicken blood into the pistol, thereby foiling Werther's suicide, and happily concedes Lotte to him. And after some initial difficulties, Werther sheds his passionate youthful side and reintegrates himself into society as a respectable citizen.
Plot: The majority of The Sorrows of Young Werther is presented as a collection of letters written by Werther, a young artist of highly sensitive and passionate temperament, and sent to his friend Wilhelm.
In these letters, Werther gives a very intimate account of his stay in the fictional village of Wahlheim (based on the town of Garbenheim, near Wetzlar). He is enchanted by the simple ways of the peasants there. He meets Charlotte, a beautiful young girl who is taking care of her siblings following the death of their mother. In spite of knowing beforehand that Charlotte is already engaged to a man named Albert, who is in fact 11 years her senior, Werther falls in love with her.
Despite the pain this causes Werther, he spends the next few months cultivating a close friendship with both of them. His pain eventually becomes so great that he is forced to leave and go to Weimar. While he is away, he makes the acquaintance of Fräulein von B. He suffers a great embarrassment when he forgetfully visits a friend on the day when the entire aristocratic set normally meets there. He returns to Wahlheim after this, where he suffers more than he did before, partially because Lotte and Albert are now married. Every day serves as a torturous reminder that Lotte will never be able to requite his love. Out of pity for her friend and respect for her husband, Lotte comes to the decision that Werther must not visit her so frequently. He visits her one final time, and they are both overcome with emotion after Werther's recitation of a portion of "Ossian".
Werther had realized even before this incident that one of them — Lotte, Albert or Werther himself — had to die. Unable to hurt anyone else or seriously consider committing murder, Werther sees no other choice but to take his own life. After composing a farewell letter (to be found after he commits suicide), he writes to Albert asking for his two pistols, under a pretence that he is going "on a journey". Lotte receives the request with great emotion and sends the pistols. Werther then shoots himself in the head, but does not expire until 12 hours after he has shot himself. He is buried under a linden tree, a tree he talks about frequently in his letters, and the funeral is not attended by clergymen, Albert or his beloved Lotte.
Review: Eighteenth-century German literature was propelled by a revolution in romanticism, and writers such as Goethe celebrated their most cherished ideals in as ornate and eloquent a manner as possible. While the tendency of American and British writers to ignore the sublime and the romantic in favor of stark realism does have its place, that does not mean that the sublime and the romantic should be casually tossed aside.
The Sorrows of Young Werther is comprised, for the most part, of letters written by a hopelessly romantic young man named Werther to a friend named Wilhelm. These letters not only detail Werther's doomed love for the beautiful Charlotte, they also contain the most beautiful meditations on just about everything important in life: love, beauty, nature, philosophy, art, religion.
Werther’s story is a simple enough one. It’s been told many times before and in many guises. It’s a tale of unrequited love that ends, tragically, in suicide. The experience of this kind love – not just a minor crush, but an intense, passionate yearning – is virtually universal at some point in life.
Opening Line: “How happy I am that I am gone!”
Closing Line: "No priest attended."
Quotes: There would be far less suffering amongst mankind, if men -- and God knows why they are so fashioned -- did not employ their imaginations so assiduously in recalling the memory of past sorrow, instead of bearing their present lot with equanimity.
Rating: Okay

Friday, October 28, 2011

434. Dr. Zhivago – Boris Pasternik

History: Although it contains passages written in the 1910s and 1920s, Doctor Zhivago was not completed until 1956. The novel was submitted to the literary journal Novy Mir. However, the editors rejected Pasternak's novel because of its implicit rejection of socialist realism. The author, like Zhivago, showed more concern for the welfare of individuals than for the welfare of society. Soviet censors construed some passages as anti-communist. They were also enraged by Pasternak's subtle criticisms of Stalinism and his references to the GULAG.
In 1957, multi-billionaire Italian publisher Giangiacomo Feltrinelli arranged for the novel to be smuggled out of the Soviet Union by Isaiah Berlin. Upon handing his manuscript over, Pasternak quipped, "You are hereby invited to watch me face the firing squad."
Despite desperate efforts by the Union of Soviet Writers to prevent its publication, Feltrinelli simultaneously published editions in both Russian and an Italian translation. So great was the demand for Doctor Zhivago that Feltrinelli was able to license translation right into eighteen different languages well in advance of the novel's publication. In retaliation for his role in the novel's publication, Feltrinelli was expelled in disgrace from the Communist Party of Italy.
Meanwhile, as the novel topped international bestseller lists, the British MI6 and the American CIA commenced an operation to ensure that Doctor Zhivago was correctly submitted to the Nobel Committee. This was done because it was known that a Nobel Prize for Boris Pasternak would seriously harm the international credibility of the Soviet Union. As a result, British and American operatives intercepted and photographed a manuscript of the novel and secretly printed a small number of books in the Russian language. These were submitted to the Nobel Committee's surprised judges just ahead of the deadline.
On 23 October 1958, Boris Pasternak was announced as the winner of the 1958 Nobel Prize for Literature. The citation credited Pasternak's contribution to Russian lyric poetry and for his role in, "continuing the great Russian epic tradition." On 25 October, Pasternak sent a telegram to the Swedish Academy:
"Infinitely grateful, touched, proud, surprised, overwhelmed."
That same day, the Literary Institute in Moscow demanded that all its students sign a petition denouncing Pasternak and his novel. They were further ordered to join a "spontaneous" demonstration demanding Pasternak's exile from the Soviet Union.
Acting on direct orders from the Politburo, the KGB surrounded Pasternak's dacha in Peredelkino. Pasternak was not only threatened with arrest, but the KGB also vowed to send his mistress Olga Ivinskaya back to the GULAG, where she had been imprisoned under Stalin. It was further hinted that, if Pasternak traveled to Stockholm to collect his Nobel Medal, he would be refused re-entry to the Soviet Union.
As a result, Pasternak sent a second telegram to the Nobel Committee: "In view of the meaning given the award by the society in which I live, I must renounce this undeserved distinction which has been conferred on me. Please do not take my voluntary renunciation amiss."
Pasternak died of lung cancer in his dacha in Peredelkino on the evening of 30 May 1960.
Plot: Yuri Zhivago is sensitive and poetic nearly to the point of mysticism. Zhivago's idealism and principles stand in contrast to the brutality and horror of World War I, the Russian Revolution, and the subsequent Russian Civil War. A major theme of the novel is how mysticism and idealism are destroyed by both the Bolsheviks and the White Army alike, as both sides commit horrible atrocities.
Other major characters include Tonya Gromeko, Yuri Zhivago's wife, and her parents Alexander and Anna, with whom Zhivago lived after he lost his parents as a child. Later, he marries Tonya, and they have son Alexander together. Yevgraf Andreievich Zhivago, Yuri's half-brother (the illegitimate son of his father), is an Old Bolshevik who gains a General's post in the Soviet secret police. In this capacity, Yevgraf helps his brother evade arrest throughout the course of the novel.
Zhivago's great love is Lara, whose full name is Larissa Feodorovna Guishar. Born the daughter of a Belgian factory owner, Lara's family, like Zhivago's, has fallen upon hard times. She ultimately becomes engaged to Pavel "Pasha" Antipov, an idealistic student who sympathises with Lenin's Bolsheviks. Lara simulatenously has a discreet affair with her mother's lover, Viktor Komarovsky. A deeply corrupt lawyer, Komarovsky's connections extend to senior figures in both the Tsarist State and its revolutionary opponents. Despite her intense resentment of Komarovsky, Lara becomes very adept at using her sensuality to manipulate her besotted lover. Suspecting the worst, Lara's mother, Amalia Guishar, attempts suicide. Zhivago, along with his fellow medical student Misha Gordon, visit with a doctor and successfully save Amalia's life.
Obsessed with freeing herself from Komarovsky, Lara spends three years working as a governess for the children of Lavrenti Kologrivov, a wealthy industrialist with Marxist sympathies. Then, Lara's brother Rodion Guishar begs her to ask Komarovsky to lend him 700 rubles with he has stolen and gambled away. Infuriated, Lara instead obtains the money from Kologrivov and severs ties to her brother. However, when the children graduate, Lara resents that the Kologrivovs allow her to stay on out of charity. Blaming Komarovsky, whom she believes has ruined her life, she attends a party and shoots at him with a revolver. However, Lara insteads wounds a senior Tsarist prosecutor. Komarovsky secretly uses his political connections to shield her from prosecution.
Ultimately, Pasha Antipov is declared missing in action during World War I, but is captured by the Austro-Hungarian Army. After escaping from a POW camp, Antipov joins the new Red Army. He become notorious as General Strelnikov ("The Hangman"), a fearsome commander who summarily executes both captured Whites and many civilians. Meanwhile, Lara becomes a battlefield nurse in order to search for her husband.
Following the February Revolution, Lara and Yuri serve together in a makeshift field hospital and fall in love. Neither, however, is willing to admit their feelings for the other. As prepares to return to his wife and children in Moscow, Yuri expresses dismay to Lara that, "the roof has been ripped off," the nation he loves.
Following the October Revolution and the subsequent Russian Civil War, Yuri and his family flee by train to their estate at Varykino, in the Ural Mountains. During the journey, he meets with General Strelnikov, who informs him that Lara has returned to their daughter in the village of Yuriatin. Soon after, Lara and Yuri meet and consummate their relationship.
While returning from an encounter with Lara, Yuri is abducted by Liberius, commander of the "Forest Brotherhood", the Bolshevik guerilla band. Liberius is a dedicated Old Bolshevik and highly effective leader of his men. However, Liberius is also a cocaine addict, loud-mouthed and Narcissistic. He repeatedly bores Yuri with his longwinded lectures about the glories of socialism and the inevitability of its victory.
After Yuri deserts and returns to Lara, Komarovsky reappears. Having used his influence within the CPSU, Komarovsky has been appointed Minister of Justice of the Far Eastern Republic, a Soviet puppet state in Siberia. He offers to smuggle Yuri and Lara outside Soviet soil. They initially refuse, but Komarovsky states that Pasha Antipov is dead, having fallen from favor with the Party. Stating that this will place Lara in the CHEKA's crosshairs, he persuades Yuri that it is in her best interests to leave for the West. Yuri convinces Lara to go with Komarovsky, telling her that he will follow her shortly.
Meanwhile, the hunted General Strelnikov returns for Lara. Lara, however, has already left with Komarovsky. After having a lengthy conversation with Yuri, Antipov commits suicide. Yuri finds his body the following morning.
After returning to Moscow, Zhivago's health declines; he cohabitates with another woman and fathers two children with her. He also plans numerous writing projects which he never finishes. Meanwhile, Lara returns to Russia for Yuri Zhivago's funeral. She persuades General Yevgraf Zhivago to assist her search for her daughter by Yuri. Ultimately, however, Lara is arrested during Joseph Stalin's Great Purge and dies in the GULAG.
During World War II, Zhivago's old friends Nika Dudorov and Misha Gordon meet up. One of their discussions revolves around a local laundress named Tanya, a bezprizornaya or Civil War orphan, and her resemblance to both Yuri and Lara. Much later, they meet over the first edition of Yuri Zhivago's poems.
Review: In the shadow of all this grand political change we see that everything is governed by the basic human longing for companionship. Zhivago and Pasha, in love with the same woman, both traverse Russia in these volatile times in search of such stability. They are both involved on nearly every level of the tumultuous times that Russia faced in the first half of the 20th century, yet the common theme and the motivating force behind all their movement is a want of a steady home life. When we first meet Zhivago he is being torn away from everything he knows. He is sobbing and standing on the grave of his mother. We bear witness to the moment all stability is destroyed in his life and the rest of the novel is his attempts to recreate the security stolen from him at such a young age. After the loss of his mother, Zhivago develops a longing for what Freud called the "maternal object," (feminine love and affection) in his later romantic relationships with women. His first marriage, to Tonia, is not one born of passion but from friendship. In a way, Tonia takes on the role of the mother-figure that Zhivago always sought but lacked. This, however, was not a romantic tie; and while he feels loyal to her throughout his life, he never could find true happiness with her, for their relationship lacks the fervor that was integral to his relationship to Lara.
The Russian Revolution was at its core an ideological struggle, forcing young and old alike to align themselves or risk extermination. Its uncompromising nature put great strain on the ideals of individual thought and choice, represented in Yuri Zhivago's constant attempts to come to terms with the Revolution. Yuri is the ultimate individual, expressing himself through poetry and recognizing beauty in all aspects of life. He is frequently overcome by emotion, and is deeply introspective. His affair with Lara was primarily fueled by passion and romanticism. However, he gradually realizes that his commitment to his own unique philosophy is rapidly becoming untenable in the face of a crystallizing Soviet ideology. His attempts to exert control over his own individual self end in futility: in one pivotal scene, he wounds and possibly kills several White soldiers despite his best efforts to avoid doing so. The taking of lives is a betrayal of his personal core beliefs, and Yuri is horrified and demoralized by the incident. Ultimately, the revolution's refusal to acknowledge the fundamental nature of the individual ensured that regardless of which faction Yuri sided with, he would not be able to survive in the new Soviet era as a true individual.
When he was younger, Zhivago enjoyed having political discussions with educated people, like his uncle Nicholai. Zhivago's views were relatively neutral—though not a revolutionary zealot, he recognized that Russia needed serious reform. As the story progresses, however, Zhivago realizes that many political activists simply parrot the ideas they have heard, reciting their memorized lines in order to seem intellectual. Still others actively seek power for themselves, taking advantage of the people's thirst for betterment by promising more than they intended to deliver. Pasternak shows what he thought went wrong in the revolution: that initially, revolutionary leaders had good ideas, but because of human failings these ideas were warped or even forgotten as the revolution progressed. Pasternak's strategy to convey this point is to introduce seemingly obvious villains into the plot, but show that in the context of the entire novel, the results of their bad behavior pale in comparison to the harm caused by the corrupted revolutionary effort. Komarovsky and Strelnikov are both antagonists in the sense that they cause harm to other characters in the book, but Pasternak cleverly uses them to show that their damage was temporary and relatively minor, whereas the trauma and suffering caused by the misled train wreck of the revolution was more permanent, often fatal, and certainly more devastating to Russian society.
Opening Line: “On they went, singing “Rest Eternal,” and whenever they stopped, their feet, the horses, and the gusts of wind seemd to carry on their singing.”
Closing Line: “I shall go to the grave, and, on the third day rise, and, just as rafts float down a river, to me the judgment, like a caravan of barges, the centuries will come floating from the darkness.”
Quotes: “The great majority of us are required to live a life of constant, systematic duplicity. Your health is bound to be affected if, day after day, you say the opposite of what you feel, if you grovel before what you dislike and rejoice at what bring you nothing but misfortune. Our nervous system isn't just a fiction, it's part of our physical body, and our soul exists in space and is inside us, like teeth in our mouth. It can't be forever violated with impunity.”
“Oh, how one wishes sometimes to escape from the meaningless dullness of human eloquence, from all those sublime phrases, to take refuge in nature, apparently so inarticulate, or in the wordlessness of long grinding labor, of sound sleep, of true music, or of a human understanding, rendered speechless by emotion!”
Rating: Excellent

433. Birdsong – Sebastian Faulks

History: This book was written in 1993. Birdsong has been one of the most consistent selling books of the last decade, continuously in the top 5,000 sales figures.
The literary retelling of the events and attitudes towards the Battle of the Somme and life in the trenches is highly acclaimed and is often grouped with work from writers such as Erich Maria Remarque and Ernest Hemingway as a modern contrast to World War I literature.
Plot: The first stage is set before the war in Amiens, France. Stephen Wraysford is sent by his wealthy but disempassioned benefactor to work with René Azaire at his textile factory. He stays with Azaire and his family (Isabelle, Lisette and Grégoire). He spends the early part of the novel experiencing the comforts of middle class life in industrial Northern France whilst around him Azaire's workers foment unrest and threaten strike. He also senses an unease in the relationship between Azaire and Isabelle and is curious about her. Their friends, Bérard, Madame Bérard and Aunt Élise come round for dinner on occasions but there is always distance between them and Isabelle.
It is revealed that Isabelle is substantially younger than Azaire and is his second wife. Azaire is embarrassed by his inability to father a child with her and beats her in erotic-consolatory anger. Lisette, who is 16 years old and from Azaire’s first marriage, makes suggestive remarks to Stephen but Stephen does not reciprocate.
Lucien Lebrun, one of Azaire’s workers, gives food to the families of workers which he gets from Isabelle. This occurs behind Azaire's back and a rumour stirs that they are having an affair.
Realising that their lives have been similar battles for self-determination which have now crossed, Stephen and Isabelle engage in a passionate affair which they believe is 'right' and will last forever. Isabelle confronts Azaire with the truth and he evicts Stephen, telling him that he will go to hell. Stephen and Isabelle run away but Isabelle, finding she is pregnant, momentarily loses faith in the relationship. Without telling Stephen, she flees, returning to her family home and the one constant in her life - her sister Jeanne. Later, Isabelle’s father makes a deal with Azaire for her return in exchange for her maintained honour; Isabelle is forgiven but soon realises her mistake. Stephen hears no more of her and knows nothing of his child that she bears (a girl called Françoise) and later raises with a German soldier called Max.
We rejoin Stephen some years later as a Lieutenant in the British Army and through his eyes, Faulks tells the reader about the Battle of the Somme and Messines Ridge at Ypres in the following year. The energetic character described in the first chapter of the novel contrasts with the depiction of Stephen hardened by his experiences of war. During his time in the trenches, we learn of Stephen's mental attitude to the war and the guarded comradeship he feels for his friend Captain Michael Weir and the rest of his men. However, Wraysford is regarded as a cold and distant officer by his men. Stephen refuses all offers of leave; so committed is he to fighting and staying involved with the war.
His story is paralleled with that of Jack Firebrace, a former miner, employed in the British trenches to listen for the enemy and plant mines under the German trenches. Jack is particularly motivated to fight because of the love he has for his deceased son John back home. Faulks describes how a soldier called Hunt is terrified of going underground as an exploding shell could trap the soldiers underground causing them to suffocate. Stephen is injured in this chapter but survives.
The troops are told to make an attack on the Hawthorne Ridge but the attack seems doomed to fail with the senior officers being blamed. Gray states that Stephen should not tell his men that the attack will fail but to pray for them instead.
Stephen feels lonely and writes to Isabelle, feeling that he has no one else that he can express his feelings to. He writes about his fears that he will die, and confess that he has only ever loved her. This section of the novel ends with a bombardment leaving many soldiers in no man's land.
Alongside the main story, there is the inquisitive narrative of Stephen's granddaughter, Elizabeth, who, whilst struggling with her married boyfriend, Robert, unearths the stories of World War I and the remaining links to Stephen's experiences at Marne, Verdun and the Somme. Elizabeth finds Stephen's journals and endeavours to decipher them.
Weir is on leave and finds it impossible to communicate to his family how bad the war is. Stephen meets with Isabelle after meeting with Jeanne, Isabelle’s sister, and convincing her to let him, and finds that her face has been disfigured by a shell. Stephen discovers that Isabelle is now in a relationship with Max, a German soldier.
Stephen is able to return to England and feels relief at being able to enjoy the Norfolk countryside away from the trenches.
When Stephen meets Isabelle’s sister Jeanne, he tells her how he dreads returning to the front line after leave.
Stephen’s closest friend, Michael Weir, is eventually killed by a sniper’s bullet while in a trench out of the front line.
Elizabeth continues researching the war and talks to war veterans (Gray and Brennan) about their experiences. During this period, she also becomes pregnant with Robert's child.
The novel ends with Wraysford and Firebrace being trapped underground; Firebrace dies but Stephen survives and as the war ends he is rescued by Levi, a Jewish German soldier. An ending which is clearly inspired by- and deliberately echoes- Wilfred Owen's 1918 poem "Strange Meeting". Some 12 thousand Jews died fighting for Germany in the First World War.
Elizabeth finally decides to reveal her pregnancy to her mother, who is surprisingly supportive. Over dinner, she learns her mother was raised by Stephen and Jeanne, who married and settled in Norfolk, after Isabelle’s premature death due to an epidemic of the flu. Elizabeth and Robert then go on holiday to Dorset, UK. There, she goes into labour and has a son, naming him John (after Jack Firebrace’s son), therefore keeping the promise which Stephen made to Jack when they were trapped in the tunnels under No Man’s Land, over sixty years before.
The book ends with Robert walking down the garden of the holiday cottage and having an immense sense of joy.
Review: There have been many fictional accounts of the First World War, so if you write a new one it had better be good. The descriptions of the events of World War I and the deaths and injuries are graphic and disturbing but nowhere near as disturbing as it must have been to have lived through it so it felt totally warranted.
The book is not, perhaps, an unqualified success.
The author starts with a mini-version of Flaubert's "Madame Bovary," oddly hybridized with Lawrence's "Lady Chatterley's Lover." While there is some nice writing here, it strikes me as self-consciously so, and the story lacks any freshness.
There are ridiculous improbabilities in this part of the book. Why would an English firm considering a business venture with a French firm send this young man, the protagonist, Stephen, to size up the opportunity? He isn't even educated in business. He is very young. And he proves emotionally unstable.
And why would the French proprietor - M. Azaire, husband of the beautiful woman, Isabelle, who becomes Stephen's lover - have Stephen spending time at lunches and other business of the floor workers in his plant? It's a genuinely silly idea.
The sentimentality begins shortly after Stephen and Isabelle become lovers, and, in cheap romantic fashion, Isabelle suddenly disappears with their young child, returning to her family.
When you get into the Great War, supposedly the real stuff of the book, you will wonder why you've had about ninety pages of rehashed Madame Bovary. You will find out towards the end, but it is a very unsatisfying idea of neatness and completeness that drives things.
Here and there in the war business, there are a few strong images and interesting stuff about the tunnel systems that were extensively used in the Great War.
But the author even manages to make the front sentimental and clichéd. Egad, there's even the proverbial friend who has never been with a woman and who is given the surprise present of a prostitute one night.
There's lots of hard drinking and calculatedly gruesome incidents - pure Hollywood. And the author has nothing fresh to say about the war we haven't all seen in movies or read in other books.
The end-of-war portion was clearly written with the hope of selling the book for movie rights. The idea of two men trapped in a huge tunnel far underground is gruesomely interesting, but the author draws it out to impossibly long time with an impossibly heroic series of efforts. People typically die after 3 or 4 days without water, but Stephen hangs in there for God knows how long.
Yes, he licks a bit of brackish water in a corner in his Herculean labors, but that just wouldn't do it.
His rescue would have been a good surprise - he is rescued by Germans digging in their own lines - had it been handled well. But we get an awkward effort by a couple of Germans, one of whom, we have explained at some length and repetition, happens to be Jewish. Why? Why is the author suddenly focusing on a man's religion? An intended irony about a good Jewish soldier in the German army? Whatever the intention, it simply does not work.
The ending is silly, the author bringing us what he regards as full circle.
I really do believe Faulks thought he was writing a racier, more action-filled "Gone with the Wind" for World War I in hope of a big movie contract.
I read this book wanting to like it, thinking from things I read that it might be another of those memorable books about people caught in the gears of war, but I found it impossibly flawed.
Opening Line: “The Boulevard du Cange was a broad, quiet street that marked the eastern flank of the city of Amiens.”
Closing Line: “In the tree above him they disturbed a roosting crow, which erupted from the branches with an explosive bang of its wings, then rose toward the sky, its harsh, ambiguous call coming back in long, grating waves toward the earth, to be heard by those still living.”
Quotes: “Perhaps human beings wer the natural continuation of the innocent goodness that all people brought into the world at their birth. If this was true, then his fellow human beings were not the rough flawed creatures that most of the them supposed.”
Rating: Good, but not that good.

Friday, October 21, 2011

432. What Maisie Knew – Henry James

History: This book was first published as a serial in the Chap-Book and (revised and abridged) in the New Review in 1897 and then as a book later in the same year. What Maisie Knew has great contemporary relevance as an unflinching account of a wildly dysfunctional family
Plot: When Beale and Ida Farange are divorced, the court decrees that their only child, the very young Maisie, will shuttle back and forth between them, spending six months of the year with each. The parents are immoral and frivolous, and they use Maisie to intensify their hatred of each other. Beale Farange marries Miss Overmore, Maisie's pretty governess, while Ida marries the likeable but weak Sir Claude. Maisie gets a new governess, the frumpy, more than a little ridiculous, but devoted Mrs. Wix.
Both Ida and Beale soon busy themselves with other lovers besides their spouses. In return those spouses — Sir Claude and the new Mrs. Beale — begin an affair with each other. Maisie's parents essentially abandon her in heartbreaking scenes, and she becomes largely the responsibility of Sir Claude. Eventually, Maisie must decide if she wants to remain with Sir Claude and Mrs. Beale. In the book's long final section set in France, the now teenaged Maisie maturely decides that the relationship of her new "parents" might well end as badly as that of her biological parents. She leaves them and goes to stay with Mrs. Wix, her most reliable adult guardian.
Review: It's not surprising from the book's title that knowledge and education form a major theme in this bittersweet tale of Maisie's up-bringing. Her keen observation of the irresponsible behavior of almost all the adults she lives with eventually persuades her to rely on her most devoted friend, Mrs. Wix, even though the frumpy governess is by far the least superficially attractive adult in her life.
The novel is also a thoroughgoing condemnation of parents and guardians abandoning their responsibilities towards their children. James saw English society as becoming more corrupt and decadent, and What Maisie Knew is one of his harshest indictments of those who can't be bothered to live responsible lives.
It might seem that such a book would become almost unbearably grim. But James leavens the sorry doings with a generous dose of admittedly dark humor. For instance, the dumpy Mrs. Wix falls victim to an unintentionally hilarious infatuation with the handsome Sir Claude. And James often plays Maisie's lightweight father for laughs, as when he gets involved with a woman he tells Maisie is an American "countess."
Opening Line: “The litigation seemed interminable and had in fact been complicated; but
by the decision on the appeal the judgement of the divorce-court was
confirmed as to the assignment of the child.”
Closing Line: “Mrs. Wix gave a sidelong look. She still had room for wonder at what Maisie knew.”
Quotes: “No themes are so human as those that reflect for us, out of the confusion of life, the close connection of bliss and bale, of the things that help with the things that hurt, so dangling before us forever that bright hard medal, of so strange an alloy, one face of which is somebody's right and ease and the other somebody's pain and wrong.”
Rating: Okay.

431, The Master and Margarita – Mikhail Bulgakov

History: Bulgakov started writing the novel in 1928. He burnt the first manuscript of the novel in 1930, seeing no future as a writer in the Soviet Union. The work was restarted in 1931. In 1935 Bulgakov went to Spaso House, the residence of U.S. Ambassador to the Soviet Union William Bullitt, which was transformed by Bulgakov into the ball of the novel. The second draft was completed in 1936 by which point all the major plot lines of the final version were in place. The third draft was finished in 1937. Bulgakov continued to polish the work with the aid of his wife, but was forced to stop work on the fourth version four weeks before his death in 1940.
Plot: The novel alternates between two settings. The first is 1930s Moscow, which is visited by Satan in the guise of "Professor" Woland, a mysterious gentleman "magician" of uncertain origin, who arrives with a retinue that includes the grotesquely dressed "ex-choirmaster" valet Koroviev (Fagotto the name means "bassoon" in Russian and some other languages, from the Italian word fagotto), a mischievous, gun-happy, fast-talking black cat Behemoth (a subversive Puss in Boots, the name referring at once to the Biblical monster and the Russian word for Hippopotamus), the fanged hitman Azazello, the pale-faced Abadonna ( a reference to Abaddon) with a death-inflicting stare, and the witch Hella. The havoc wreaked by this group targets the literary elite, along with its trade union, MASSOLIT (a Soviet-style abbreviation for "Moscow Association of Writers, but possibly interpretable as "Literature for the Masses"; one translation of the book also mentions that this could be a play on words in Russian, which could be translated into English as something like "LOTSALIT"), its privileged HQ Griboyedov's House, corrupt social-climbers and their women (wives and mistresses alike) – bureaucrats and profiteers – and, more generally, skeptical unbelievers in the human spirit.
The second setting is the Jerusalem of Pontius Pilate, described by Woland talking to Berlioz and later echoed in the pages of the Master's novel. It concerns Pontius Pilate's trial of Yeshua Ha-Nozri (Jesus the Nazarene), his recognition of an affinity with and spiritual need for Yeshua, and his reluctant but resigned submission to Yeshua's execution.
Part one of the novel opens with a direct confrontation between the unbelieving head of the literary bureaucracy, Berlioz, and an urbane foreign gentleman who defends belief and reveals his prophetic powers (Woland). Berlioz brushes the prophecy of his death off, only to have it come true just pages later in the novel. This fulfillment of a death prophecy is witnessed by a young and enthusiastically modern poet, Ivan Ponyrev, who writes his poems under the alias Bezdomniy (the name means "Homeless"). His futile attempt to chase and capture the "gang" and warn of their evil and mysterious nature lands Ivan in a lunatic asylum. Where Ivan is later introduced to The Master, an embittered author, the petty-minded rejection of whose historical novel about Pontius Pilate and Christ has led him to such despair that he burns his manuscript and turns his back on the "real" world, including his devoted lover, Margarita. An author who had written a novel about the meeting of Pontius Pilate and Yeshua Ha-Nozri (Jesus of Nazareth). Put away in a psychiatric clinic, where Bezdomny meets him. Very little is known about this character's past other than his belief that his life had no meaning until he met Margarita.
Major episodes in the first part of the novel include a satirical portrait of the Massolit and their Griboedov house;Satan's magic show at the Variety Theatre, satirizing the vanity, greed and gullibility of the new rich; and Woland and his retinue capturing the late Berlioz's apartment for their own use.
Part two of the novel introduces Margarita, the Master's mistress, who refuses to despair of her lover or his work. She is invited to the Devil's Walpurgis Night midnight ball, then made an offer by Satan (Woland), and accepts it, becoming a witch with supernatural powers. This coincides with the night of Good Friday since the Master's novel also deals with this same spring full moon when Christ's fate is sealed by Pontius Pilate and he is crucified in Jerusalem. All three events in the novel are linked by this.
Learning to fly and control her unleashed passions (not without exacting violent retribution on the literary bureaucrats who condemned her beloved to despair), and taking her enthusiastic maid Natasha with her, Margarita enters naked into realm of night. She flies over the deep forests and rivers of Mother Russia; bathes and returns with Azazello, her escort, to Moscow as the anointed hostess for Satan's great Spring Ball. Standing by his side, she welcomes the dark celebrities of human history as they arrive from Hell.
She survives this ordeal without breaking, and for her pains, Satan offers to grant Margarita her deepest wish. Maragarita selflessly chooses to liberate a woman from her eternal punishment she had met from her night at the ball. The woman was raped and had later suffocated her newborn by stuffing a handkerchief in its mouth. Her punishment was to wake up every morning and find the same handkerchief lying on her nightstand. Satan grants her first wish and offers her another, citing that the first wish was unrelated to Maragarita's own desires. For her second wish, she chooses to liberate the Master and live in poverty and love with him. Neither Woland nor Yeshua think her chosen way of life for Master and Margarita's likes. Azazello is sent to retrieve them. The three drink Pontius Pilate's poisoned wine in the Master's basement. Master and Margarita die, though their death is metaphorical as Azazello watches their physical manifestations die. Azazello reawakens them and they leave civilization with the Devil as Moscow's cupolas and windows burn in the setting Easter sun. The Master and Margarita, for not having lost their faith in humanity, are granted "peace" but are denied "light" – that is, they will spend eternity together in a shadowy yet pleasant region similar to Dante's depiction of Limbo, having not earned the glories of Heaven, but not deserving the punishments of Hell. As a parallel to the Master and Margarita's freedom, Pontius Pilate is released from his eternal punishment when the Master finally calls out to Pontius Pilate telling him he's free. And so he may finally walk up the moonbeam path in his dreams and up to Yeshua, where another eternity awaits.
Review: Ultimately, the novel deals with the interplay of good and evil, innocence and guilt, courage and cowardice, exploring such issues as the responsibility towards truth when authority would deny it, and the freedom of the spirit in an unfree world. Love and sensuality are also dominant themes in the novel. Margarita's devotional love for the Master leads her to leave her husband, but she emerges victorious. Her spiritual union with the Master is also a sexual one. The novel is a riot of sensual impressions, but the emptiness of sensual gratification without love is emphatically illustrated in the satirical passages. However, the stupidity of rejecting sensuality for the sake of empty respectability is also pilloried in the figure of Nikolai Ivanovich who becomes Natasha's hog-broomstick. The interplay of fire, water, destruction and other natural forces provides a constant accompaniment to the events of the novel, as do light and darkness, noise and silence, sun and moon, storms and tranquility, and other powerful polarities. There is a complex relationship between Jerusalem and Moscow throughout the novel, sometimes polyphony, sometimes counterpoint.
The novel is heavily influenced by Goethe's Faust, and its themes of cowardice, trust, intellectual curiosity, and redemption are prominent. Part of its literary brilliance lies in the different levels on which it can be read, as hilarious slapstick, deep philosophical allegory, and biting socio-political satire critical of not just the Soviet system but also the superficiality and vanity of modern life in general – jazz is a favourite target, ambivalent like so much else in the book in the fascination and revulsion with which it is presented. But the novel is also full of modern amenities like the model asylum, radio, street and shopping lights, cars, lorries, trams, and air travel. There is little evident nostalgia for any "good old days" – in fact, the only figure in the book to even mention Tsarist Russia is Satan himself. In another of its facets, perhaps showing a different aspect of Goethe's influence, the book is a Bildungsroman with Ivan as its focus. Furthermore, there are strong elements of Magical Realism in the novel.
Opening Line: “One hot spring evening, just as the sun was going down, two men appeared at the Patriach’s Ponds.”
Closing Line: “His ravaged memory quiets down, and no one will trouble the professor until the next full moon: neither the noseless murderer of Gestas, nor the cruel fifth procurator of Judea, the knight Pontius Pilate.”
Quotes: “Follow me, reader! Who told you that there is no true, faithful, eternal love in this world! May the liar's vile tongue be cut out! Follow me, my reader, and me alone, and I will show you such a love!”
“What would your good be doing if there were no evil, and what would the earth look like if shadows disappeared from it?”
Rating: Good.

430. Zeno’s Conscience – Italo Suevo

History: The novel was self-published in 1923. The original English translation was published under the title Confessions of Zeno. Italo Svevo self-published the novel with his own money when various companies rejected the manuscript.
James Joyce was a friend of Italo Svevo, to whom he gave English lessons. La coscienza di Zeno was not highly regarded in Italy, but through the work of James Joyce, it became extremely popular in France.
Italo Svevo and Zeno Cosini share some common traits such as being bald, cigarette addicts, businessmen, and loving husbands.
Plot: The novel is presented as a diary written by Zeno (who claims that it is full of lies), published by his doctor. The doctor has left a little note in the beginning, saying he had Zeno write an autobiography to help him in his psychoanalysis. The doctor has published the work as revenge for Zeno discontinuing his visits.
The diary, however, does not follow the chronological order; instead, it is structured in large chapters, each one developing a particular theme (The smoke addiction, My father's death, History of my marriage and so on). Only the last chapter is a real diary, with pages related to single dates in the period of the First World War.
Zeno first writes about his cigarette addiction and cites the first times he smoked. In his first few paragraphs, he remembers his life as a child. One of his friends bought cigarettes for his brother and him. Soon, he steals money from his father to buy tobacco, but finally decides not to do this out of shame. Eventually, he starts to smoke his father's half-smoked cigars instead.
The problem with his "last cigarette" starts when he is twenty. He contracts a fever and his doctor tells him that to heal he must abstain from smoking. He decides smoking is bad for him and smokes his "last cigarette" so he can quit. However, this is not his last and he soon becomes plagued with "last cigarettes." He attempts to quit on days of important events in his life and soon obsessively attempts to quit on the basis of the harmony in the numbers of dates. Each time, the cigarette fails to truly be the last. He goes to doctors and asks friends to help him give up the habit, but to no avail. He even commits himself into a clinic, but escapes.
When Zeno reaches middle age, his father's health begins to deteriorate. He starts to live closer to his father in case he passes away. Zeno is very different from his father, who is a serious man, while Zeno likes to joke. For instance, when his father states that Zeno is crazy, Zeno goes to the doctor and gets an official certification that he is sane. He shows this to his father who is hurt by this joke and becomes even more convinced that Zeno must be crazy. His father is also afraid of death, being very uncomfortable with the drafting of his will. One night, his father falls gravely ill and loses consciousness. The doctor comes and works on the patient, who is brought out of the clutches of death momentarily. Over the next few days, his father is able to get up and regains a bit of his self. He is restless and shifts positions for comfort often, even though the doctor says that staying in bed would be good for his circulation. One night, as his father tries to roll out of bed, Zeno blocks him from moving, to do as the doctor wished. His angry father then stands up and accidentally slaps Zeno in the face before dying.
His memoirs then trace how he meets his wife. When he is starting to learn about the business world, he meets his future father-in-law Giovanni Malfenti, an intelligent and successful businessman, whom Zeno admires. Malfenti has four daughters, Ada, Augusta, Alberta, and Anna, and when Zeno meets them, he decides that he wants to court Ada because of her beauty and since Alberta is quite young, while he regards Augusta as too plain, and Anna is only a little girl. He is unsuccessful and the Malfentis think that he is actually trying to court Augusta. He soon meets his rival for Ada's love, who is Guido Speier. Guido speaks perfect Tuscan (while Zeno speaks the dialect of Trieste), is handsome, and has a full head of hair (compared with Zeno's bald head). That evening, while Guido and Zeno both visit the Malfentis, Zeno proposes to Ada and she rejects him for Guido. Zeno then proposes to Alberta, who is not interested in marrying, and he is rejected by her also. Finally, he proposes to Augusta (who knows that Zeno first proposed to the other two) and she accepts, because she loves him.
Very soon, the couples get married and Zeno starts to realize that he can love Augusta. This surprises him as his love for her does not diminish. However, he meets Carla, a poor aspiring singer, and they start an affair, with Carla thinking that Zeno does not love his wife. Meanwhile, Ada and Guido marry and Mr. Malfenti gets sick. Zeno's affection for both Augusta and Carla increases and he has a daughter named Antonia around the time Giovanni passes away. Finally, one day, Carla expresses a sudden whim to see Augusta. Zeno deceives Carla and causes her to meet Ada instead. Carla misrepresents Ada as Zeno's wife, and moved by her beauty and sadness, breaks off the affair.
Zeno goes on to relate the business partnership between him and Guido. The two men set up a merchant business together in Trieste. They hire two workers named Luciano and Carmen (who becomes Guido's mistress) and they attempt to make as much profit as possible. However, due to Guido's obsession with debts and credit as well as with the notion of profit, the company does poorly. Guido and Ada's marriage begins to crumble as does Ada's health and beauty. Guido fakes a suicide attempt to gain Ada's compassion and she asks Zeno to help Guido's failing company. Guido starts playing on the Bourse (stock exchange) and loses even more money. On a fishing trip, he asks Zeno about the differences in effects between sodium veronal and veronal and Zeno answers that sodium veronal is fatal while veronal is not. Guido's gambling on the Bourse becomes very destructive and he finally tries to fake another suicide to gain Ada's compassion. However, he takes a fatal amount of veronal and dies. Soon thereafter, Zeno misses Guido's funeral because he himself gambles Guido's money on the Bourse and recovers three quarters of the losses.
Zeno describes his current life. It is during the Great War and his daughter Antonia (who greatly resembles Ada) and son Alfio have grown up. He spends his time visiting doctors, looking for a cure to his imagined sickness. One of the doctors claims he is suffering from the Oedipus complex, but Zeno does not believe it to be true. All the doctors are not able to treat him. Finally, he realizes that life itself resembles sickness because it has advancements and setbacks and always ends in death. Human advancement has given mankind not more able bodies, but weapons that can be sold, bought, stolen to prolong life. This deviation from natural selection causes more sickness and weakness in humans. Zeno imagines a time when a person will invent a new, powerful weapon of mass destruction and another will steal it and destroy the world, setting it free of sickness.
Review: Italo Svevo was the pen name of Ettore Schmitz, a well-to-do businessman who was educated as an Austrian and a German but who lived in Trieste and wrote in Italian (even though he says the dialect of Trieste was his native tongue and that "with our every Tuscan word, we lie ... by predilection, we recount all the things for which we have the word at hand, and ... avoid those things that would oblige us to turn to the dictionary!"). Zeno's Conscience was published when Svevo was 62 years old, and to his delight, it became much celebrated. He remarked to a friend, "Until last year, I was ... the least ambitious old man in the world. Now I am overcome by ambition. I have become eager for praise. I now live only to manage my own glory."
The novel purports to be the journal of a man undergoing psychoanalysis, written at the behest of the analyst, and then published by the analyst to embarrass his patient and avenge his termination of the analysis. Zeno tells five interrelated stories: the story of his last attempt to quit smoking cigarettes, the story of the death of his father, the story of his marriage, the story of his mistress, and the story of his doomed business partnership with the husband of his wife's sister. Zeno's narrative style is plain and even ingenuous. He tells each story straight-forwardly. But as the novel progresses, its themes, along with Zeno's feelings, get complicated. Zeno acts - the complications do not paralyse him - but he becomes more and more unsure of the meaning and the rightness of his actions until the last chapter, where he contemplates his psychoanalysis and decides that his doctor's very attempt to cure him is wrong-headed and that the images and memories the doctor wants to do away with are the ones Zeno cherishes the most. At one point he remarks, "I believe that he is the only one in this world who, hearing I wanted to go to bed with two beautiful women, would ask himself: Now let's see why this man wants to go to bed with them."
Confessions are difficult to pull off, because, as Zeno himself says, "A confession in writing is always a lie", but a novel that takes the form of a confession doesn't have to be true, it only has to be alluring or intriguing, and Zeno's voice is both. His avowed motives are simple: to tell what happened and why. His actions don't speak well of Zeno. He is deceitful, lustful, envious, impulsive, lazy and easily distracted. But in fact, major sins like these are often acceptable to readers because they make for an interesting narrative. Zeno is honest and generous. He seems to be telling the truth, at least to himself and the reader, even if not to his wife and his friends. And even though he deceives his friends, he almost always speaks well of them. Such generosity in a narrator (who is simultaneously speaking ill of himself) is appealing.
The five stories have some surprising twists. The story of his marriage is the best one - he begins visiting the house of a businessman he is fond of and discovers four daughters, all of whose names begin with "A" and all of whom have reputations for beauty. He promises himself that he will marry one of the beautiful daughters, but one turns out to be too young; one has "a squint" (which I take to mean strabismus); one wants a career instead of a husband; and the fourth one, the eligible one with whom he falls in love, can't stand him. He ends up with the exact sister he vowed never to take, and as soon as they are engaged, he is filled with unexpected happiness. They have a very satisfying marriage, at least in part because he tells her about everything (except the mistress) and she trusts him. Admittedly, by modern standards this is an odd marriage, but in comparison with the other marriages in the novel, it is companionable and mutually loving, and the reader has the feeling that if Augusta, Zeno's wife, withholds judgment, then the reader might as well do so, too.
Another aspect of Zeno's charm is that while he is more than a little feckless, he is also quite observant. Above all, he observes the paradoxes of human behaviour, both his own and that of others. At one point he is asked to help someone he knows cannot be helped because the man won't take responsibility for his own affairs. Zeno says: "If I had been calmer, I would have spoken to her of my inadequacy for the task she was assigning me, but I would have destroyed all the unforgettable emotion of that moment. In my case, I was so moved that I had no sense of my inadequacy. At that moment I thought no inadequacies existed for anyone." Zeno is always doing something unreasonable, quixotic, even self-destructive just because he enjoys the largeness of the feelings involved.
Zeno's retrospection brings him to 1915, in the first world war. He sends his family to Tuscany and waits out the dangers of the war by himself in Trieste. By this time he has told his story in detail and also pondered the requirements of psychoanalysis. He considers introspection, war, memory, health and sickness and comes up with a remarkable peroration that casts a lyrical and reflective light backward over the whole novel and makes something profound of its apparently simple materials. I think it is justly celebrated, and forms, with Kafka's The Trial and Joyce's Ulysses, a trio of orthodox modernism wherein the consciousness of the passage of time and the parsing of consciousness itself are more important than the story or plot elements. Zeno's Conscience is the Italian version, with recognisable Boccaccio-like elements of wives, mistresses, business, speculation, trickery and sex that Ulysses and The Trial have less of, or have in a less shameless way. Perhaps it was inevitable that Boccaccio would meet Freud and that Boccaccio would win.
Opening Line: “When I spoke to my doctor about my weakness for smoking he told me to begin my analysis by tracing the growth of that habit from the beginning.”
Closing Line: “There will be a tremendous explosion, but no one will hear it and the earth will return to its nebulous state and go wandering through the sky, free at last from parasites and disease.”
Quotes: “I have just finished with psychoanalysis. After practicing it assiduously for six whole months I find I am worse than before.”
Rating: Very Good.

429. Harriet Hume – Rebecca West

History: This book was written in 1929.
Plot: This novel, West’s third, tells the story of Harriet Hume and Arnold Condorex; we meet them first when they are young and in love with each other. On this particular day, Harriet discovers she has the power to hear Arnold's thoughts, which she sees as evidence of their deep love and connection. However, as they wander through the garden of her Kensington home, he contemplates how he will put her aside to marry someone rich who will help him gain the political power he so desires, a thought she can obviously hear. This thought of his ruins their budding relationship, and he leaves her, whilst trying to convince himself he has done nothing wrong.
This pattern continues, as they meet three more times over the next twenty years, as Arnold advances in his political career. Each time they meet Arnold has forgotten her power to read his thoughts, painting her in his head as a silly and helpless woman, an object to be admired. And each time she hears something in his thoughts that she dislikes concerning his unending quest for power and each time Arnold again attempts to deny his culpability to both her and himself and is more threatened than ever by her power. Later things come to a head as he finally faces his downfall and looks for someone to blame.
Review: this is a weird one, one I don’t quite know how to describe; and maybe it went over my head a bit too much! This novel tells the story of the relationship between two people: the free-spirited musician Harriet, who lives in a lopsided house in London, and her lover, Arnold, a politician The story takes their relationship/friendship through many years, at which they meet up periodically.
This was a very, very slow read for me, and one I didn’t enjoy very much. Part of my problem with this book was Rebecca West’s writing style; the only way I can describe it is bizarre! For example: “But the governess had turned her gaze on them, and had on seeing the marks of deep emotion on the faces made a long leap through the ether to some universe thickly upholstered with seductions.” (p. 106). At times, West’s prose style makes no sense, so much so that I had to go back and re-read bits and pieces here and there.
I enjoyed West’s characters; part of the charm of this odd couple is that they are so different. But Arnold is so clinical and detached that I really didn’t like him after a while; and Harriet was so flaky that I got frustrated with her. Also, the dialogue isn’t all that believable; these characters talk as though they come from a different time period, which makes this book quirky and charming, but I got tired of it quickly.
Opening Line: “Their feet, running down the wooden staircase from her room, made a sound like the scurrying of mice on midnight adventures; and when they paused on the landing to kiss, it was still whispers that they told each other how much they were in love, as if they feared to awaken sleepers.”
Closing Line: “And we would both, sir, like to wish you and the lady A Very Happy Eternity.”
Quotes: “You know them of course: They are the ladies Frances, Georgina, and Arabella Dudley. Sir Joshua Reynolds painted them. The result of his labors is in the National Gallery under the title “The Three Graces Decorating a Statue of Hymen.”
“Let the witch burn. For she had come between him and every human beings right not to know quite what he is doing.”
Rating: Okay.

428. The Glass Bead Game – Herman Hesse

History: Begun in 1931 and published in Switzerland in 1943, after being rejected for publication in Germany, the book was mentioned in Hesse's citation for the 1946 Nobel Prize for Literature.
"Glass Bead Game" is a literal translation of the German title, but the book has also been published under the title Magister Ludi, Latin for "master of the game," which is an honorific title awarded to the book's central character. "Magister Ludi" can also be seen as a pun: lud- is a Latin stem meaning both "game" and "school."
The Glass Bead Game is "a kind of synthesis of human learning" in which themes, such as a musical phrase or a philosophical thought, are stated. As the Game progresses, associations between the themes become deeper and more varied. Although the Glass Bead Game is described lucidly, the rules and mechanics are not explained in detail.
Plot: The Glass Bead Game takes place at an unspecified date, centuries into the future. Hesse suggested that he imagined the book's narrator writing around the start of the 25th century. The setting is a fictional province of central Europe called Castalia, reserved by political decision for the life of the mind; technology and economic life are kept to a strict minimum. Castalia is home to an austere order of intellectuals with a twofold mission: to run boarding schools for boys, and to nurture and play the Glass Bead Game, whose exact nature remains elusive and whose devotees occupy a special school within Castalia known as Waldzell. The rules of the game are only alluded to, and are so sophisticated that they are not easy to imagine. Playing the game well requires years of hard study of music, mathematics, and cultural history. Essentially the game is an abstract synthesis of all arts and sciences. It proceeds by players making deep connections between seemingly unrelated topics.
The novel is an example of a bildungsroman, following the life of a distinguished member of the Castalian Order, Joseph Knecht, whose surname translates as "servant" but can also mean "squire." The plotline chronicles Knecht's education as a youth, his decision to join the order, his mastery of the Game, and his advancement in the order's hierarchy to eventually become Magister Ludi, the executive officer of the Castalian Order's game administrators. The beginning of the novel introduces the Music Master, the resident of Castalia who recruits Knecht as a young student and who is to have the most long-lasting and profound effect on Knecht throughout his life. At one point, Knecht obliquely refers to the Music Master's "sainthood" as the Master nears death in his home at Monteport. As a student, another meaningful friendship develops with Plinio Designori, a student from a politically influential family who is studying in Castalia as a guest. Knecht develops many of his personal views about the good Castalia can do through vigorous debates with Designori, who views Castalia as an "ivory tower" with little to no impact on the outside world.
Although educated within Castalia, Knecht's path to "Magister Ludi" is atypical for the order, as he spends a significant portion of his time after graduation outside the boundaries of the province. His first such venture, to the Bamboo Grove, results in his learning Chinese and becoming something of a disciple to Elder Brother, a recluse who had given up living within Castalia. Next, as part of an assignment to foster goodwill between the order and the Catholic Church, Knecht is sent on several "missions" to the Benedictine monastery of Mariafels, where he befriends the historian Father Jacobus - a relationship which also has profound personal impact for Knecht.
As the novel progresses, Knecht begins to question his loyalty to the order; he gradually comes to doubt that the intellectually gifted have a right to withdraw from life's big problems. Knecht comes to see Castalia as a kind of ivory tower, an ethereal protected community, devoted to pure intellectual pursuits but oblivious to the problems posed by life outside its borders. This conclusion precipitates a personal crisis, and, according to his personal views regarding spiritual awakening, Knecht does the unthinkable: he resigns as Magister Ludi and asks to leave the order, ostensibly to become of value and service to the larger culture. The heads of the order deny his request to leave, but Knecht departs Castalia anyway, initially taking a job as a tutor to his childhood friend Designori's energetic and strong-willed son, Tito. Only a few days later, the story ends abruptly with Knecht drowning in a mountain lake while attempting to follow Tito on a swim for which Knecht was unfit.
The fictional narrator leaves off before the final sections of the book, remarking that the end of the story is beyond the scope of his biography. The concluding chapter, entitled "The Legend", is reportedly from a different biography. After this final chapter, several of Knecht's "posthumous" works are then presented. The first section contains Knecht's poetry from various periods of his life, followed by three short stories labeled "Three Lives." The stories are presented as exercises by Knecht imagining his life had he been born in another time and place. The first story tells of a pagan rainmaker named Knecht who lived "many thousands of years ago, when women ruled." Eventually the shaman's powers to summon rain fail, and he offers himself as a sacrifice for the good of the tribe. The second story is of Josephus, an early Christian hermit who acquires a reputation for piety but is inwardly troubled by self-loathing and seeks a confessor, only to find that same penitent had been seeking him.
The final story concerns the life of Dasa, a prince wrongfully usurped by his half brother as heir to a kingdom and disguised as a cowherd to save his life. While working with the herdsmen as a young boy, Dasa encounters a yogi in meditation in the forest. He wishes to experience the same tranquility as the yogi, but he's unable to stay. He later leaves the herdsmen and marries a beautiful young woman, only to be cuckolded by his half brother (now the Rajah). In a cold fury, he kills his half brother and finds himself once again in the forest with the old yogi, who, through an experience of an alternate life, guides him on the spiritual path and out of the world of illusion (Maya).
The four lives, including that as Magister Ludi, oscillate between extraversion (and getting married: rainmaker, Indian life) and introversion (father confessor, Magister Ludi) while developing the four basic psychic functions of Analytical Psychology: sensation (rainmaker), intuition (Indian life), feeling (father confessor), and thinking (Magister Ludi).
Originally, Hesse intended several different lives of the same person as he is reincarnated. Instead, he focused on a story set in the future and placed the three shorter stories, "authored" by Knecht in The Glass Bead Game at the end of the novel.
Review: This book earned Hermann Hesse his Nobel Prize for literature in 1946. World War II had just ended then, so the novel's depiction of a debellicized future for Europe no doubt had special appeal in the German-speaking world. “The Glass Bead Game” is not an arbitrary Utopia, however. (The renderings of the title for some editions are arbitrary, unfortunately; sometimes it's “Magister Ludi” or the English equivalent, “The Master of the Game.”)
“The Glass Bead Game” is about the education and career of one Joseph Knecht, whose surname means “serf” or “servant.” He rises through the elite schools of his society to the pinnacle of intellectual life, the position of Magister Ludi, the Master of the Game. Though Knecht's career as a scholar and a diplomat owes something to his native charisma, his life is the tale of how he masters and perfectly embodies the traditional role for which he has been trained. Then, having reached the summit, he walks away from the whole structure, making a resignation rather more shocking than a papal abdication would be. Hesse tries to show that this withdrawal was not a rejection of Knecht's upbringing, but its fulfillment.
Opening Line: “It is our intention to preserve in these pages what scant biographical material we have been able to collect concerning Joseph Knecht, or Ludi Magister Josephus III, as he is called in the archives of the Glass Bead Game.”
Closing Line: “He never again left the forest.”
Quotes: “The Game was at first nothing more than a witty method for developing memory and ingenuity among students.”
Rating: Awful.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

427. The Golden Notebook – Doris Lessing

History: This book was written in 1962. All four notebooks and the frame narrative testify to the above themes of Stalinism, the Cold War and the threat of nuclear conflagration, and women's struggles with the conflicts of work, sex, love, maternity, and politics.
Plot: The Golden Notebook is the story of writer Anna Wulf, the four notebooks in which she keeps the record of her life, and her attempt to tie them all together in a fifth, gold-colored notebook. The book intersperses segments of an ostensibly realistic narrative of the lives of Molly and Anna, and their children, ex-husbands and lovers—entitled Free Women—with excerpts from Anna's four notebooks, coloured black (of Anna's experience in Central Africa, before and during WWII, which inspired her own bestselling novel), red (of her experience as a member of the Communist Party), yellow (an ongoing novel that is being written based on the painful ending of Anna's own love affair), and blue (Anna's personal journal where she records her memories, dreams, and emotional life). Each notebook is returned to four times, interspersed with episodes from Free Women, creating non-chronological, overlapping sections that interact with one another. This post-modernistic styling, with its space and room for "play" engaging the characters and readers, is among the most famous features of the book, although Lessing insisted that readers and reviewers pay attention to the serious themes in the novel.[
Review: I would not call this book feminist. And, frankly, Lessing herself wouldn’t call this book feminist. Feminism is not about women complaining about the men they refuse to live without. I am a feminist because I care about gender, question power and work for equality.
Much to its author's chagrin, The Golden Notebook instantly became a staple of the feminist movement when it was published in 1962. Doris Lessing's novel deconstructs the life of Anna Wulf, a sometime-Communist and a deeply leftist writer living in postwar London with her small daughter. Anna is battling writer's block, and, it often seems, the damaging chaos of life itself. The elements that made the book remarkable when it first appeared--extremely candid sexual and psychological descriptions of its characters and a fractured, postmodern structure--are no longer shocking. Nevertheless, The Golden Notebook has retained a great deal of power, chiefly due to its often brutal honesty and the sheer variation and sweep of its prose.
This largely autobiographical work comprises Anna's four notebooks: "a black notebook which is to do with Anna Wulf the writer; a red notebook concerned with politics; a yellow notebook, in which I make stories out of my experience; and a blue notebook which tries to be a diary." In a brilliant act of verisimilitude, Lessing alternates between these notebooks instead of presenting each one whole, also weaving in a novel called Free Women, which views Anna's life from the omniscient narrator's point of view. As the novel draws to a close, Anna, in the midst of a breakdown, abandons her dependence on compartmentalization and writes the single golden notebook of the title.
In tracking Anna's psychological movements--her recollections of her years in Africa, her relationship with her best friend, Molly, her travails with men, her disillusionment with the Party, the tidal pull of motherhood--Lessing pinpoints the pulse of a generation of women who were waiting to see what their postwar hopes would bring them. What arrived was unprecedented freedom, but with that freedom came unprecedented confusion. Lessing herself said in a 1994 interview: "I say fiction is better than telling the truth. Because the point about life is that it's a mess, isn't it? It hasn't got any shape except for you're born and you die."
The Golden Notebook suffers from certain weaknesses, among them giving rather simplistic, overblown illustrations to the phrase "a good man is hard to find" in the form of an endless parade of weak, selfish men. But it still has the capacity to fill emotional voids with the great rushes of feeling it details. Perhaps this is because it embodies one of Anna's own revelations: "I've been forced to acknowledge that the flashes of genuine art are all out of deep, suddenly stark, undisguiseable private emotion. Even in translation there is no mistaking these lightning flashes of genuine personal feeling." It seems that Lessing, like Anna when she decides to abandon her notebooks for the single, golden one, attempted to put all of herself in one book.
Opening Line: “The two women were alone in the London flat.”
Closing Line: “The two women kissed and separated.”
Quotes: “Human beings are so divided, are becoming more and more divided, and more subdivided in themselves, reflecting the world, that they reach out desperately, not knowing they do it, for information about other groups in other countries. It is a blind grasping out for their own wholeness, and the novel-report is a means toward it.”
Rating: Good, important.

426. The Player of Games – Iain M. Banks

History: First published in 1988, this book written under Iain M. Banks. He writes mainstream fiction under the name Iain Banks, and science fiction as Iain M. Banks, including the initial of his adopted middle name Menzies. In 2008, The Times named Banks in their list of "The 50 greatest British writers since 1945".
Plot: Jernau Morat Gurgeh, a famously skilful player of board games and other similar contests, lives on Chiark Orbital, and is bored with his successful life. The Culture's Special Circumstances inquires about his willingness to participate in a long journey, though won't explain further unless Gurgeh agrees to participate. While he is considering this offer, one of his drone friends, Mawhrin-Skel, which had been ejected from Special Circumstances due to its unstable personality, convinces him to cheat in one of his matches in an attempt to win in an unprecedented perfect fashion. The attempt fails, but Mawhrin-Skel uses his recording of the event to blackmail Gurgeh into accepting the offer and insisting that Mawhrin-Skel be admitted back into Special Circumstances as well.
Gurgeh spends the next two years travelling to the Empire of Azad in the Small Magellanic Cloud, where a complex game (also named Azad) is used to determine social rank and political status. The game itself is sufficiently subtle and complex that a player's tactics reflect his own political and philosophical outlook. By the time he arrives, he has grasped the game but is unsure how he will measure up against opponents who have been studying it for their entire lives.
Azad is a game played in the Empire of Azad. In the language of the fictional Empire, the word "Azad" translates to mean "machine" or "system", but is applied to any complex entities such as animals, plants or artificial machines.
Although the actual rules are not given in the book, the game is primarily tactical and played on three-dimensional boards of various shapes and sizes. Typically the boards are large enough for players to walk around inside them to move or interact with their pieces. The number of players differs from game to game and also influences the tactics, as players can choose to cooperate or compete with one another. As well as skill and tactics, random events may influence gameplay (often as card or other games of chance), and sometimes may change the outcome critically.
The game consists of a number of minor games, such as card games and elemental die matching, which allow the players to build up their forces for use on the game's three giant boards (in order; the Board of Origin, the Board of Form, and finally the Board of Becoming) and a number of minor boards.
The game uses a variety of pieces to represent a player's units (military, resource or even philosophical premises). Some of the pieces are genetically engineered constructs, which may change form during the game according to their use and environment. These respond to their handling by a player and appear difficult to understand — at one point in the book Gurgeh is encouraged to sleep while holding some of the more important pieces so he can better understand them in play.
In the empire, the game is the main determinant of one's social status. The game is played in a tournament every "Great Year" (roughly every six Culture years), initially consisting of some 12,000 players in the main series. Through the various rounds, these are all whittled down until the final game, the victor of which becomes emperor. Players knocked out from the main series may take part in further games to determine their careers. The complexity of the game aims to represent reality to such a degree that a player's own political and philosophical outlook can be expressed in play (the idea being that rival ideologies are essentially "tested" in the game before the winners can apply them in reality). In point of fact, as the protagonist discovers, the game embodies the incumbent preferences of the social elite, reinforcing and reiterating the pre-existing gender and caste inclinations of the empire, putting the lie to the "fairness" which is generally perceived to govern the outcome of the tournament and thus the shape of Azadian society.
In the novel, the protagonist ultimately finds that his (successful) tactics reflect the values of his own civilization, The Culture, though he also recognises that his own thought and behaviour have been markedly influenced by the manner in which he has been forced to compete. In a private audience with the emperor on the penultimate eve of the tournament, when confronted with the seeming absurdity of the possibility that a novice with a mere two years of experience at the game could systematically defeat players' whose whole lives were devoted to its mastery, the protagonist comes to understand that his proficiency is merely a reflection of his experience with strategic games of all sorts. Given that, the Culture had intended all along to use him to discredit the brutality of the Azadian system by dismantling the illusion of the uniqueness of the fidelity of the game's representation of social reality.
Gurgeh lands on the Empire's home planet of Eä, accompanied by another drone, Flere-Imsaho. As a Culture citizen, he naturally plays with a style markedly different from his opponents, many of whom stack the odds against him one way or another, such as forming backroom agreements to cooperate against him (which is allowed by the game's rules). As he advances through the tournament he is matched against increasingly powerful Azad politicians, and ultimately the Emperor himself in the final round. Faced with defeat, the Emperor attempts to kill Gurgeh, but is himself killed by a shot from his own weapon, deflected by Flere-Imsaho (who later refuses to tell Gurgeh if it was coincidental).
Flere-Imsaho reveals that Gurgeh's participation was part of a Culture plot to overthrow the corrupt and savage Empire from within, and that he, the player, was in fact a pawn in a much larger game. Although Gurgeh never discovers the whole truth, it is ultimately revealed to the reader that Flere-Imsaho was the same drone as Mawhrin-Skel, who was also the narrator of the novel itself.
Review: The Culture is a galaxy-wide civilization, so far advanced that it has solved most problems that afflict humanity. The great concerns of our time are all resolved. No longer planet-bound, no longer concerned with meeting needs; the Culture is a utopian, decadent paradise. A mix of wildly evolved humans and super-intelligent machines, including intelligent spaceships, it is very nearly all-powerful and omniscient.
But there are still parts of the galaxy, or at least parts of the Magellanic Clouds, where the Culture has not yet gained influence. Those parts of the Galaxy are the business of Contact, the part of the very loose government of the Culture that deals with alien civilizations. And in the difficult cases, Special Circumstances steps in to solve the problem. "Special Circumstances," like most names in Banks' books, is a euphemism: "Special Circumstances" isn't bound by the legal, moral or cultural constraints that bind the rest of the Culture.
Gurgeh, the protagonist, is recruited, perhaps blackmailed, by Special Circumstances to help Contact with an awkwardly difficult alien culture. The Azadians present a space-faring civilization, less advanced than the Culture but still powerful, whose entire ethos is based on The Game. Social position, military rank, governmental power, wealth; all of Azad is based on one's performance in The Game. Gurgeh is one of the Culture's best games players. Special Circumstances sends Gurgeh to Azad to compete in The Game.
At one level, Banks is writing about the effect of an advanced culture on a less advanced one. At another, he is having fun with a traditional space opera culture that is in contact with his more subtle and sophisticated one. At another, he is poking fun at traditional SF authors. Because as the story progresses, the underbelly of Azad is revealed to be disgusting and horrific; in some ways, the Culture's efforts to undermine Azad are morally justified.
But most of what Contact tells Gurgeh is a lie. He himself is an unknowing pawn in another game. When is it right to cheat? What is cheating? As ever, Banks asks the questions but doesn't really answer them, making you ask yourself instead, "Am I asking the right question?"
Banks' Culture is ironic and self-mocking. The intelligent ship that takes Gurgeh to Azad is the size of an asteroid but calls itself "Little Rascal." The equally vast ship that takes him back is named "So Much for Subtlety." But the Culture is deadly, too, as evidenced in _Consider Phlebas_, set a few hundred years earlier than _Player of Games_. The Culture is peaceful and principled; that doesn't mean non-violent or honest.
Opening Line: “This is the story of a man who went far away for a long time, just to play a game.”
Closing Line: “Would I lie to you? As ever, Mawhrin-Skel.”
Quotes: “All reality is a game. Physics at its most fundamental, the very fabric of our universe, results directly from the interaction of certain fairly simple rules, and chance; the same description may be applied to the best, most elefant and both intellectually and aesthetically satisfying games.”
Rating: Okay, not fascinating.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

425. The Green Man – Kingsley Amis

History: Written in 1969, a Times Literary supplement reviewer described The Green Man as “three genres of novel in one”: ghost story, moral fable, and comic novel.
Plot: The novel is set in and around The Green Man, an inn between London and Cambridge owned by Maurice Allington, a 53 year old man with a second wife, a teenage daughter and an 80 year old father living with him in the inn’s upstairs apartment. The inn and its name date back to the 14th century, and the inn’s charm is further embellished by a history of haunting related to a 17th century owner, Thomas Underhill, a Cambridge scholar who dabbled in the occult. Underhill was associated with two unsolved murders, including that of his wife, which could not be traced back to him.
As the novel unfolds, Allington is beset by a number of difficulties, including his father’s death by stroke at dinner one night, and a drinking problem that causes hypnagogic jactitation and hallucinations; Maurice compounds his problems by pursuing an affair with his doctor’s wife, neglecting his daughter Amy, whose mother, Maurice’s first wife, was run down in an automobile accident, and attempting to seduce both his current wife and his mistress into a menage a trois, which backfires when the two women take an enthusiastic interest in each other and effectively shut him out of the orgy.
During this time Maurice begins to see ghosts around the inn – a red-haired woman, presumably Underhill’s wife, in the hallway, a small bird floating above his bathtub, the specter of Thomas Underhill himself in the dining room – and yet has a difficult time communicating this to his family and friends, who assume that heavy drinking and the stress of his father’s death are causing him to hallucinate. Maurice’s own investigations take him to All Saints’ College, a fictional Cambridge college (modeled on All Souls’ of Oxford) of which Underhill was a fellow, and at which his papers are secreted. There he sees Underhill’s own record of having used his black arts to entice and then ravish young girls from the village.
In the meantime Maurice has discovered his own notes of a drunken, and forgotten, midnight conversation with Underhill, during which Underhill begins to enlist Maurice’s help in his as yet undisclosed scheme. This involves Maurice’s unearthing of Underhill’s nearby grave, in which he finds a pre-Columbian figurine of silver that Underhill requests be brought to another midnight meeting in the inn’s dining room.
That afternoon, having left the scene of the failed orgy, Maurice finds himself in a strange time warp, as it were, in which all molecular motion outside of his drawing room ceases. He finds himself in the presence of a young, suave man who it comes to be understood is God himself. The purpose of the visit is to warn Maurice against Underhill and ask him to aid in Underhill’s destruction, but during the conversation Amis has the young man elaborate an interesting sort of theology, explaining the Creation and God’s powers within it. The young man leaves Maurice with a silver crucifix, as a sort of counter-weight to the silver figurine.
When the midnight meeting comes about, Underhill attempts to delight Maurice with a sort of holographic, yet primitive pornography show; Maurice feels himself as in damp, murky cave, on the walls of which are projected bizarre sexual scenes. As the show becomes more terrifying, Maurice realizes that Underhill has absented himself; when he hears his daughter crying out from the road in front of the inn, he realizes Underhill’s intentions. In the climactic scene, Maurice uses the crucifix to stun Underhill and runs outside, where he confronts the entity Underhill had used the figurine to conjure: the green man, a collocation of branches, twigs and leaves in the form of a large and powerful man. The thing is bent, evidently, on killing Maurice’s daughter Amy. By hurling the figurine back within the graveyard Maurice saps Underhill’s power and destroys the green man. Underhill’s purpose had been, apparently, to have Amy killed as a sort of experiment in lieu of the sexual depredations which are now forbidden him by his lack of corporeality.
A final scene wraps up the novel’s loose ends: Maurice destroys the figurine, and he employs the modish, cynical and repellent parish priest (who makes God out to be, in the young man’s words, a “suburban Mao Tse-tung”) to exorcise Underhill and his green man. Maurice’s wife leaves him (for his mistress), but his daughter proposes, and he agrees to, a plan to move away from The Green Man and get a fresh start. Maurice is somewhat relieved, while recognizing that he will remain until his death trapped in all of the faults, petty and otherwise, that constitute him as Maurice Allington.
Review: The novel is in one sense slight – an enjoyable ghost story laced with the sort of witty and crusty obiter dicta common in Amis novels – and yet it constitutes a more than negligible statement about personality, purpose and ethics in the late-20th century world of its setting. Thomas Underhill’s lust for pubescent girls still dominates him after three centuries of extra-corporeal existence – his mastery of the black arts and his circumvention of death have not released him from his banal perversions. Thus Maurice sees something of Underhill in himself when his wife throws up his orchestration of the orgy as just a way of “experimenting” with other people, just as Underhill intended to experiment on Amy, and looks forward, as the novel closes, to the release from his personality that death will bring him. It is not a stretch to see in this Amis’s view of the baby-boomer generation, with its proclivity for “experimental lifestyles” of all sorts that mainly take account only of the individual conducting the experiment (well-represented in the novel by the pseudo-radical priest Tom Rodney Sonnenschein). Indeed, God, as the young man, is seen in the novel as being a sort of experimenter Himself, which earns Him more than a whiff of Amis’s contempt.
Opening Line: “Fareham Harts half mile off A595, The Green Man, Milland 0043.”
Closing Line: “I put on my dinner jacket, swallowed a strong whiskey, and went downstairs to begin the evening round”
Quotes: “I imagined myself not noticing myself for the rest of my life, losing myself, not vainly struggling to lose myself, in poetry and sculpture and my job and other people, not womanizing, not drinking… I have often wondered since whether what made up my mind for me was not the unacceptability of the offer as such, whether we are not all so firmly attached, in all senses, to what we are that any radical change, however unarguably for the better, is bound to seem a kind of self-destruction. I shook my head.”
Rating: Very Good