Thursday, February 28, 2013

531. The Leopard - Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa

History: Published posthumously in 1958 by Feltrinelli, after two rejections by the leading Italian publishing houses Mondadori and Einaudi, it became the top-selling novel in Italian history and is considered one of the most important novels in modern Italian literature. Tomasi was the last in a line of minor princes in Sicily, and he had long contemplated writing a historical novel based on his great-grandfather, Don Giulio Fabrizio Tomasi, another Prince of Lampedusa. After the Lampedusa palace was bombed and pillaged by Allied forces in World War II, Tomasi sank into a lengthy depression, and began to write Il Gattopardo as a way to combat it.
Plot: The Leopard is the story of Don Fabrizio, Prince of Salina, at the time of the main action a man in his forties, with several children. He is a sort of benevolent tyrant in his household, a man of a very old family, accustomed to knowing his place and to having those about him know their places. The Prince is also a man of great sensual appetites, careless with his money (though not wasteful or dissolute), politically knowledgeable but completely apolitical in action, and also an amateur astronomer of some note.
When the story opens, the Risorgimento is ongoing, but it is clear that it will be ultimately successful, and that the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies will be absorbed into the newly unified, somewhat more democratic, Italy. Don Fabrizio, out of loyalty, is nominally supportive of the old regime, but he realistically stays out of the conflict. His favorite nephew, Tancredi, the penniless but charismatic son of his sister, is an ardent supporter of Garibaldi (leader of the revolution).
Several long chapters, separated by months, follow the progress of the Risorgimento at a distance, and more closely follow events which impinge directly on Don Fabrizio's life, yet which reflect the coming societal changes. These include the plebiscite to confirm popular support for the unification of Italy, his nephew Tancredi's love affair and eventual marriage to the daughter of a wealthy but decidedly lower class neighbor, his daughter's reaction to the attentions of a friend of Tancredi's, and Father Pirrone's visit to his home village. Finally, the action jumps forward some decades to the Prince's death, in a very moving and beautiful chapter, then still further forward to the household of his unmarried daughters in their old age.
Review: The Leopard was published 50 years ago, following a war that had devastated Europe. The aristocrat di Lampedusa wrote it as an elegy to past times amid the ruins of the capital city Palermo, smashed by Allied bombing raids. It tells the story of the noble Salina family in the late 19th century, as the shoots of democracy sprout in the parched feudal island. It richly evokes the sights, sounds and smells of Sicilian high life, the parties, the rabbit hunting, the vendettas, the courting, the politics.
The 'Leopard' of the title is Don Fabrizio, patriarch of the family, a measured, middle-aged Hamlet. He ponders the fleeting nature of life, the nobility's loss of power to Garibaldi's revolution, and muses melancholically on the way the nobility have squandered that power.
But the book is not only about political change, far from it, but tells many human stories, not least the marriage of his nephew Tancredi who makes what at first seems to be an unsuitable match which causes considerable upset among his relatives. We read of the family’s chaplain, and the impact of change on his own life, and also of the effects on the peasants and townsfolk too, as their fortunes go up and down.
Perhaps the main character after Fabrizio is Sicily itself. Lampedusa describes the arid summers and the almost desert-like landscapes of this baking country. The city of Palermo features in all its squalor, and also the smaller towns on which most of the narrative occurs.
Opening Line: “Nunc et in hora mortis nostrae.”
Closing Line: “Then all found peace in a little heap of livid dust.”
Quotes: 'They had passed through crazed-looking villages washed in palest blue; crossed dry beds of torrents over fantastic bridges; skirted sheer precipices which no sage or broom could temper. Never a tree, never a drop of water; just sun and dust.'
Rating: Not that good, sorry.  

530. Tropic of Capricorn – Henry Miller

History: The novel was subsequently banned in the United States until a 1961 Justice Department ruling declared that its contents were not obscene. It was also banned in Turkey. It is a sequel to Miller's 1934 work, theTropic of Cancer.
Plot: The novel is set in 1920s New York, where the narrator 'Henry V. Miller' works in the personnel division of the 'Cosmodemonic' telegraph company. Although the narrator's experiences closely parallel Miller's own time in New York working for the Western Union Telegraph Company, and though he shares the author's name, the novel is considered a work of fiction.
The book is a story of spiritual awakening. Much of the story surrounds his New York years of struggle with wife June Miller, and the process of finding his voice as a writer.
Review: Miller's two tropics – Cancer and Capricorn- are essentially manuals for the creative life. They present Miller's transformation from lay-schmuck working in the belly of the beast that is the American economy - jobs such as his position with the Western Union Telegraph company, which he refers to as the "Cosmococcic / Cosmodemonic Telegraph Company" - to his evolution as en expatriate writer living in Paris. The books are really designed to be read together to magnify the metamorphosis, the rite of passage. While Cancer chronicles the latter portion of Miller's experience abroad, the prequel, Capricorn, written five years later in 1939, is the more developed and more seminal of the two and elucidates with much greater detail the affects of his epiphany.
Most artists will immediately recognize the struggle Miller endures. Married to the "wrong" woman and with a young child in tow - a relationship which he finds stifling to his creative development - Miller faces tenable employment situations to support this life. Those jobs he does find do little to allow him to prosper; rather he finds himself as a cog on a wheel of Hell. His transformation from the morass of what society deems sound and true is painful. Anyone who has ever made such sacrifices to pursue the unspoken dreams to create from what grows inside of them will sympathize with Miller's dilemma. To pursue a life of an artist is frightening enough: to do it behind the rancorous veil of the American dream is horrifying. Miller recognizes the banal existence of modern America with its machines, its backward corporate policies, its worship of the unthinking and mechanical and he also knows he must break from its fetters.
Part of Miller's disenchantment with America is organic to his being just as much as it is experiential. As a child, Miller feels a unique disassociation with his peers and even his family. This self-possessed knowledge of his unique intelligence leaves Miller with a feeling of disorientation. As an adolescent, he sees his drunken father convert to piety when wooed by the charisma of a local minister. Miller, Sr. then falls from grace when the minister is called to another location and as a result of this perceived abandonment, cycles back to his earlier state of crapulousness. The event seems to have intimated to Miller the importance of being self-reliant upon a constant wellspring of inspiration so that disappointment in other people does not interrupt the flow of creativity.
Miller describes the evolution of the artist as riding "on the ovarian trolley." In fact, those very words are what preface Capricorn. For Miller there are really two births the artist experiences before his final descent into a world riddled with isolation, hunger and anticipation. Of course, there is the physical birth but this is more a symbolic representation than Miller's actual recognition of his square-peg, round-hole emotional relationship with the world at large: this is the first stage of birth. The second stage comes years later out of the "Land of F@ck" as Miller coins it, the place where the "spermatozoon reigns supreme". These phrases, as they would first seem (and were seen for many years that the book was banned from U.S. publication), are not some sordid and gratuitous account of Miller's perceptions of the world or his conquests. Rather, he uses the extended metaphors and kennings to give the reader an understanding to the visceral almost primordial conditions from whence the artist arises. For Miller, spiritual ascension is a process biologic as well as intellectual.
"Once this fact is grasped there can be no more despair. At the very bottom of the ladder, chez the spermatozoa, there is the same condition of bliss at the top, chez God. God is the summation of all the spermatozoa come to full consciousness. Between the bottom and the top there is no stop, no halfway station" .
There is an almost funereal quality about Miller's cognizance here: this idea of exploring one's complete "Annihilation" before metaphysical resurrection. Miller understands the need for an eradication of the former self before the rebirth of the artist as he moves from the "terra firma" to the "terra vague." Along with this laying waste of the individual comes the erasure of connections to the self: friends, family, lovers - all abandoned to pursue the freedom to express unhindered utterance*. To this point, Miller's use of "Tropic of" in the titles of Cancer and Capricorn now begins to make more sense as he asserts himself to be on the boundary between this land of the physical and the spiritual; the place where men aspire to be God for a period of time just before the flash-point of creative impulse.
Tropic of Capricorn should be standard reading for anyone in the arts, for any artist who has ever felt the pang of isolation, who truly believes in the necessity of sacrifice, a higher calling and commitment to one's creative endeavors. Miller's importance to world literature is vastly underrated and in many cases. Writers are simply too intimidated to face the truth in what he espouses. Miller operates as an Overman and as such, it is right that he should pose a certain condition of tremulousness in his readership: he has forged his own society, he has forged his own being into something closer to what history had intended for him since his first phone call into the horn of the fallopian. This is discomfiting for most and is intended to show how the application of introspection for an artist can lead to becoming an acolyte of unconventional philosophy: how a writer emerges as "e pluribus unum." Henry Miller's doctrine is reserved for the initiate, the mad few who choose separation from the masses as a means for creative growth. Miller's epitaph should simply be, "My name? Why just call me God - God the embryo."
Opening Line: “Once you have given up the ghost, everything follows with dead certainty, even in the midst of chaos.”
Closing Line: “Tomorrow. Tomorrow.”
Quotes: "History may deny it, since I have played no part in the history of my people, but even if everything I say is wrong, is prejudiced, spiteful, malevolent, even if I am a liar and a poisoner, it is nevertheless the truth and it will have to be swallowed."
Rating: Difficult

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

529. The Music of Chance – Paul Auster

History: This book was published in 1990.
Plot: Jim Nashe is a fireman with a two-year-old daughter and wife who has just left him. Knowing he cannot work and raise a child at the same time, he sends her to live with his sister. Six months of sporadic visits pass and Nashe realizes that his daughter, Juliet, has begun to forget him. Suddenly, the father that abandoned Nashe as a child dies, leaving his son and daughter a large amount of money. Nashe, knowing that Juliet will be happier with her aunt, pays off all of his debts, buys a Saab and pursues "a life of freedom" by spending a year driving back and forth across the country.
His fortune now squandered, Nashe picks up a hot-headed young gambler named Jack Pozzi. The two hatch a plan to fleece a couple of wealthy bachelors in a poker game. Coincidently, the two marks, Flower and Stone, obtained their fortune by gambling (winning the lottery). In addition to purchasing a mansion, the two eccentrics also bought ten thousand stones, each weighing more than sixty pounds. The stones were from the ruins of a fifteenth-century Irish castle destroyed by Oliver Cromwell; Flower and Stone intend to use them to build a "Wailing Wall" in the meadow behind their mansion.
Unfortunately, Flower and Stone are not the suckers Pozzi takes them for and the plan backfires. Having run out of money Nashe decides to risk everything on "a single blind turn of a card" and puts up his car as collateral against the pot. He loses and the two indenture themselves to Flower and Stone as a way to pay back their debt. They will build the wall for Flower and Stone, a meaningless wall that nobody will ever see. For the rest of the novel, Flower and Stone are conspicuously absent. Nashe shrugs this off as fifty days of exercise, but Pozzi views it as nothing less than a violation of human decency.
The two men are watched over by Calvin Murks, the millionaires' tough but amiable hired man. When Pozzi takes a swing at Murks for cracking a joke about being too smart to play cards, Murks begins wearing a gun. Pozzi sees this as proof that he is nothing but a slave.
Even after the two men have completed working off their debt, the millionaires add on the charges the men have accrued as a result of living at the estate. Pozzi, convinced there is no way out of the contract, escapes the meadow. Nashe finds his young friend sprawled on the grass a day later, beaten into a coma. Murks claims innocence and takes Pozzi to a hospital while Nashe continues to work. Two weeks later, Murks tells Nashe that Pozzi checked himself out of the hospital and vanished, but Nashe is convinced that his friend died from his injuries.
Time passes, the wall grows and Nashe gets more and more obsessed with taking revenge on Murks, since Flower and Stone have become too distant to bear the immediacy of his hatred. When Nashe has completed enough work on the wall to pay off his debt, Murks and his son-in-law Floyd take Nashe out to celebrate. Nashe beats Floyd in a game of pool, but refuses the fifty dollars he has won; Floyd accepts this, saying that he owes Nashe a favor. Soon after, the three men pile into Murks's new car (Nashe's old Saab) with the slightly more sober Nashe behind the wheel. Nashe promptly takes the car up to eighty-five miles an hour and collides with another vehicle.
Review: There may be some doubt as to whether Paul Auster really means to be a novelist at all. Like Julian Barnes, though with infinitely greater success, he has used the form of the novel as a shell for intellectual speculation of one kind or another. His most brilliant effects have been achieved by his reworkings of the mystery in "The New York Trilogy," where the formalism of the genre also does much to specify the plot. Mr. Auster's latest novel, "The Music of Chance," seems however to have taken a picaresque model, whose form is less distinctly defined.
Jim Nashe, a Boston fireman, is catapulted into existential uncertainty by a couple of inadvertencies: his desertion by his wife, Therese, and the death of his estranged father, who leaves him a surprisingly sizable legacy. He sells all his possessions, parks his daughter, Juliette, with his sister's family in Minnesota, stocks his Saab with classical cassettes and takes to the road:
"Speed was of the essence, the joy of sitting in the car and hurtling himself forward through space. That became a good beyond all others, a hunger to be fed at any price. . . . As long as he was driving, he carried no burdens, was unencumbered by even the slightest particle of his former life. That is not to say that memories did not rise up in him, but they no longer seemed to bring any of the old anguish. Perhaps the music had something to do with that, the endless tapes of Bach and Mozart and Verdi that he listened to while sitting behind the wheel, as if the sounds were somehow emanating from him and drenching the landscape, turning the visible world into a reflection of his own thoughts. After three or four months, he had only to enter the car to feel that he was coming loose from his body, that once he put his foot down on the gas and started driving, the music would carry him into a realm of weightlessness."
All Nashe wants is to preserve this state of orbital nullity, which is inherently unstable and begins to decay as his money decreases. With $14,000 left in the stash in the Saab's glove compartment, he meets Jack Pozzi, a young and feckless down-on-his-luck gambler, who presents himself as "an opportunity in the shape of a human being, a card-playing specter whose one purpose in the world was to help Nashe win back his freedom." Nashe agrees to back Pozzi in a poker game against Bill Flower and Willie Stone, a couple of fabulously wealthy lottery winners, supposed to be easy marks.
This pair occasions the sort of tour de force of eccentricity and obsessionalism at which Mr. Auster most excels. During a tour of their baroque mansion in rural Pennsylvania, the fat and garrulous Flower, a former accountant, expatiates at length on the proposition that "numbers have souls" (so that what seems to be chance may not be at all), while the compact and monosyllabic Stone merely indicates the miniaturized City of the World that he is building, including replicas of his own house and minuscule figures of himself and his friend, and describes his plan to build a second model within the model, so creating an infinite recession.
There's something obscurely offensive to Nashe about "such extravagant smallness," and while the game is in progress he sneaks back and steals the miniatures of Flower and Stone. By chance or in consequence, Pozzi's luck fails; Nashe stakes the Saab on him and loses, then crashes $10,000 into debt on a single cut of the cards. Flower and Stone, whose model city includes images of both comical roguery and dire punishment, are not amiable about the situation. Nashe and Pozzi find themselves compelled to remain on the estate, hand-building a stone wall of Egyptian magnitude, working for an hourly rate until the debt is repaid.
The rest of the story revolves around Nashe's gradual recognition that by following the appealing rhythms of chance he has landed in a rigidly determined system: "Sometimes, powerless to stop himself, he even went so far as to imagine that he was already living inside the model. Flower and Stone would look down on him then, and he would suddenly be able to see himself through their eyes -- as if he were no larger than a thumb, a little gray mouse darting back and forth in his cage." Within this sinister predicament, Nashe is eventually able to regain the zero state he most desires, "for even the smallest zero was a great hole of nothingness, a circle large enough to contain the world."
Mr. Auster has succeeded admirably in dressing up this very abstract situation. But, diverging from the tactics of his earlier work, he has also tried to mix the unreality of Nashe, Flower and Stone with a more realistic portrayal of other characters, and here the results are less fortunate. Nashe's sometime girlfriend Fiona, a hooker called Tiffany and especially Pozzi are not rendered well enough to convince. Pozzi's monologues are shakily, inconsistently written and, unfortunately, too much hangs on his role as a credible and engaging picaro, for Nashe comes to see him as a sort of alter ego: "Once a man begins to recognize himself in another, he can no longer look on him as a stranger." So the failure of this characterization is a serious flaw.
The haphazard wandering of the plot, random as the path of Nashe's Saab, may be less problematic, since it can be justified by the title and subject, though the reader may miss the elegant formal recursions of "The New York Trilogy." Still, its rambling path does lead the book to a convincing statement of Mr. Auster's insistent theme that Nashe's identity, or anyone's, is not an innate quality or even a fixed one, but is instead a product of surrounding circumstance.
Opening Line: “For one whole year he did nothing but drive, traveling back and for the as he waited for the money to run out.”
Closing Line: “And the light was upon him, and Nashe shut his eyes, unable to look at it anymore.”
Quotes: “You had to invent something. It's not possible to leave it blank. The mind
won't let you.”
Rating: Awesome

528. The Story of Lucy Gault – William Trevor

History: This novel was written in 2002. 
Plot: It begins with Lucy, on a night in 1921. She is the only child of an Anglo-Irish land owner on the coast of Cork County. It starts during the Irish War of Independence, when Protestant landowners caught in the battle between the IRA and the British army had their houses burned. The place is under martial law and Captain Gault is disturbed by young arsonists from the nearby village. When he fires a warning shot with his old rifle, he injures a boy in the shoulder. Out of fear, the family plans to move to England. Lucy is not told why her family wishes to move and longs for the house she was kept from and the sea close by. On the eve of their departure, she hides in the woods. Due to a series of events, her parents are led to believe that she drowned in the sea.
By the time she is discovered, her parents are gone. She thus gets what she wished for, to live in the house, being taken care of by the house servants turned caretaker-farmers. Lucy lives a very lonely life, reading books and keeping bees. She feels very guilty about running away and thus feels that she deserves her loneliness. When another character, Ralph, tries to relieve her of her sad life, she feels that she cannot let him love her without, one of the characters opines, getting forgiveness from her parents. Her father returns after the Second World War, having spent the previous years in Italy and Switzerland, too late to salvage her happiness. They settle into an uneasy companionship, with too much unspoken.
Having lost the love of her life, she forms a bond with the person who was wounded by her father. Lucy spends many years visiting the asylum where the person is incarcerated in his confusion and his silence. Lucy in old age sees people with phones to their ears and hears on the wireless about the Internet, and wonders what it is.
Review: "The story of" is a telling phrase for the title of this gravely beautiful, subtle and haunting Irish novel. It means not only what happens to Lucy Gault, but that what happened to her has become a story, first a local tale, told and retold, and then a legend, "waiting to pass into myth". And it's an ironic phrase, too, because no one in this quiet book is outspoken. Silence, secrets, muteness tell the loudest stories here.
To tell "the story of" the novel is to give it away, and readers who prefer to be startled when they read it should look away now: for this is the story (in its own rather formal, antiquated words) "of a great, and unexpected calamity". But it is also, over its 70-year spread, the story of how "calamity shaped a life".
It begins in the summer of 1921, in County Cork, during the Troubles, when the big houses of the Protestant landowners were being set on fire, caught in the battle between the IRA and the British army. This is the Ireland of Elizabeth Bowen's The Last September, where the isolated Anglo-Irish families saw their own and their neighbours' houses burn, and many of them left.
At Lahardane, Captain Everard Gault, a veteran of the great war, shoots at a group of intruders, and wounds one of them. A gentle character - "a simple man to whom a complicated thing has happened" - he is remorseful, not belligerent. He knows the family of the child he shot, an unstable boy called Horahan, whose life will shadow the Gaults for ever. He knows the bitter history of families like the Gaults in Ireland, of "the sins of the past", "the aspirations of the dispossessed ignored".
He and his wife Heloise (stoical daughter of an army widow) decide to abandon Lahardane to the care of Henry and Bridget, house-servants turned caretaker-farmers. But eight-year-old Lucy Gault, in love with her home, can't understand that the Gaults have to leave because "they don't want us here". She runs away, and, by a series of awful chances, is thought to have died. The parents leave for a nomadic life in Europe. Lucy returns, and is looked after by Henry and Bridget, while the local solicitor (very well done, like all Trevor's anxious, small-town professionals) tries, for years, to track down the Gaults.
Lucy Gault's strange, isolated life, a sleeping beauty in the Big House, reading all the old novels, wearing her mother's white dresses, cut off from the ordinary life of the nearby seaside town (a fictional Youghal), is intercut with the futile wanderings of her parents, "playing at being dead". Unable to talk about the past, they take what consolation they can in Italian art and life, and are tremendously, tenderly careful with each other.
Like them, Lucy suffers from terrible remorse. In the novel's heartbreaking middle section, she falls in love, but refuses happiness: she feels her life has to be on hold unless and until she is forgiven. Her love-scenes with Ralph, a poignant figure, are made up of negatives: "They would not have met if he had not lost his way: Lucy tried to think of that, of their never meeting, of not knowing that Ralph existed. It seemed to her that he had come out of nowhere, and she wondered if when he left Lahardane he would return to nowhere and not come back. She would never forget him."
Every sentence they speak has a "not" or a "never" in it: "I never want to go." "I could never not love you." Ralph's desperate letters are the only utterances that try to break through the silences in the book. After her accident, the child Lucy - like the traumatised child in Trevor's novella "My House in Umbria" - is unable to speak. Her parents live their exiled lives imprisoned by "what must not be spoken of".
When Ralph marries, he never tells his wife about Lucy, and when her father returns, they don't talk of her loss: "None of that was ever said." Henry, the cow-farmer, has the most undemonstrative face in the county: "More goes on in a ham," someone remarks of him. As a child, Lucy learns deaf-and-dumb language from a fisherman, and that's what these characters speak in.
Lucy's farewell to Ralph has the same heart-tearing quality as the loss of the beloved in Trevor's great novella, "Reading Turgenev", or in The Silence in the Garden, set in the same kind of past-haunted house. In all these stories, as it says in "Reading Turgenev", "only love matters in the bits and pieces of a person's life".
However, Lucy's renunciation isn't the end, or even the point, of the story. After the war, Everard Gault returns, just too late to salvage her happiness. They settle into an uneasy companionship, with too much unspoken. But in middle age, Lucy finds an unexpected resource. The Gaults' story has kept pace with the dark delusions of the boy who was shot, Horahan, who believes that he did set fire to the house and kill the child.
It looks as if this may turn out to be one of Trevor's ghoulish scenarios, of a maniac stalking his prey, as in Felicia's Journey. But The Story of Lucy Gault is, in the end, about consolation, not destruction. Lucy becomes a sort of Protestant saint, and spends many years visiting the asylum where Horahan is incarcerated in his confusion and his silence: like so many others in this story, he is "the man who didn't want to speak".
Both of them are victims of Ireland's politics. The inextricable link between the Catholic boy brought up to be a revolutionary and the isolated Protestant girl, both "petrified" in their past, could be read - if Trevor was that sort of explicit commentator - as metaphors for a colonial history. Certainly their fates are set against the changing, ordinary, vigorous life of the little town (scene of so many Trevor short stories), which is briskly moving into the 21st century.
Lucy in old age sees people with phones to their ears and hears on the wireless about the internet, and wonders what it is. Hers is an Ireland of keening fishermen, ruined graveyards, and John McCormack singing "Down by the Salley Gardens", not of tourism, dotcom businesses, real estate, and the euro. She is living in the past - and perhaps her author, long absent from Ireland, could be reproached for that, too.
This has a different tone from that other wonderful recent novel of provincial rural Ireland, John McGahern's That They May Face the Rising Sun. McGahern is bleaker and darker, less romantic, than William Trevor. There are fewer consolations for his characters, and they have to live in the present. Like so much of Trevor's work, this is a story of the past, of memory, and of how time works.
Time is the destroyer: "Time has settled our hash for us," Captain Everard says to Horahan. "The past was the enemy." But time is also the appeaser: "What happened simply did", Lucy comes to accept. A woman who "should have died as a child" outlives and survives what happened to her. "Instead of nothing there is what there is." Story turns into legend, as in the Gault family graveyard, now long overgrown: "Only the myths would linger, the stories that were told."
Opening Line: Captain Everard Gault wounded the boy in the right shoulder on the night of June the twenty-first, nineteen twenty-one.”
Closing Line: “Her companions, while she watches the fading of the day.”
Quotes: “Memories can be everything if we choose to make them so. But you are right: you mustn't do that. That is for me, and I shall do it.”
Rating: Okay

527. Absalom, Absalom – William Faulkner

History:  This book was published in 1936.  The title refers to the Biblical story of Absalom, a son of David who rebelled against his father (then King of Kingdom of Israel) and who was killed by David's general Joab in violation of David's order to deal gently with his son, causing heartbreak to David. The title derives specifically from David's anguished outcry: "O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! would God I had died for thee, O Absalom, my son, my son!" Another parallel to the Biblical story is that Absalom had his half-brother executed for raping Tamar, his sister. Faulkner's novel substitutes a seduction for the rape.
The 1983 Guinness Book of World Records claims the "Longest Sentence in Literature" is a sentence from Absalom, Absalom! containing 1,288 words. The sentence can be found in Chapter 6; it begins with the words 'Just exactly like father', and ends with 'the eye could not see from any point'. The passage is entirely italicised and incomplete.
Faulkner's short story "Wash" tells the story of the birth of Sutpen's illegitimate daughter to Wash Jones' granddaughter, and of Jones' murder of Sutpen, and then his own granddaughter, and his great-granddaughter (whereupon he sets fire to the house the mother and child are in).
Plot: Absalom, Absalom! details the rise and fall of Thomas Sutpen, a white man born into poverty in western Virginia who comes to Mississippi with the complementary aims of becoming rich and a powerful family patriarch. The story is told entirely in flashbacks narrated mostly by Quentin Compson to his roommate at Harvard University, Shreve, who frequently contributes his own suggestions and surmises. The narration of Rosa Coldfield, and Quentin's father and grandfather, are also included and re-interpreted by Shreve and Quentin, with the total events of the story unfolding in non-chronological order and often with differing details, resulting in a peeling-back-the-onion way of revealing the true story of the Sutpens to the reader. Rosa initially narrates the story, with long digressions and a biased memory, to Quentin Compson, whose grandfather was a friend of Sutpen’s. Quentin's father then fills in some of the details to Quentin, as well. Finally, Quentin relates the story to his roommate Shreve, and in each retelling, the reader receives more details as the parties flesh out the story by adding layers. The final effect leaves the reader more certain about the attitudes and biases of the characters than about the facts of Sutpen's story.
Thomas Sutpen arrives in Jefferson, Mississippi, with some slaves and a French architect who has been somehow forced into working for him. Sutpen obtains one hundred square miles of land from a local Native American tribe and immediately begins building a large plantation called Sutpen’s Hundred, including an ostentatious mansion. All he needs to complete his plan is a wife to bear him a few children (particularly a son to be his heir), so he ingratiates himself with a local merchant and marries the man’s daughter, Ellen Coldfield. Ellen bears Sutpen two children, a son named Henry and a daughter named Judith, both of whom are destined for tragedy.
Henry goes to the University of Mississippi and meets a fellow student named Charles Bon, who is ten years his senior. Henry brings Charles home for Christmas, where Charles and Judith begin a quiet romance that leads to a presumed engagement. However, Thomas Sutpen realizes that Charles Bon is his son from an earlier marriage and moves to stop the proposed union.
Sutpen had worked on a plantation in the French West Indies as the overseer and, after subduing a slave uprising, was offered the hand of the plantation owner's daughter, Eulalia Bon, who bore him a son, Charles. Sutpen had not known that Eulalia was of mixed race until after the marriage and birth of Charles, but when he found out he had been deceived, he renounced the marriage as void and left his wife and child (though leaving them his fortune as part of his own moral recompense). The reader also later learns of Sutpen's childhood, where young Thomas learned that society could base human worth on material worth. It is this episode that sets into motion Thomas' plan to start a dynasty.
Henry, possibly because of his own potentially (and mutually) incestuous feelings for his sister, as well as quasi-romantic feelings for Charles himself, is keen to see the two wed (allowing him to imagine himself as surrogate for both). When Sutpen tells Henry that Charles is his half-brother and that Judith must not be allowed to marry him, Henry refuses to believe, repudiates his birthright, and accompanies Charles to his home in New Orleans. They then return to Mississippi to enlist in their University company where they join the Confederate Army and fight in the Civil War. During the war, Henry wrestles with his conscience until he presumably resolves to allow the marriage of half-brother and sister; this resolution changes, however, when Sutpen reveals to Henry that Charles is part black. At the conclusion of the war, Henry enacts his father's interdiction of marriage between Charles and Judith, killing Charles at the gates to the mansion and then fleeing into self-exile.
Thomas Sutpen returns from the war and begins to repair his home, whose hundred square miles have been reduced by carpetbaggers and punitive northern action to one, and dynasty. He proposes to Rosa Coldfield, his dead wife's younger sister, and she accepts. However, Sutpen insults Rosa by demanding that she bear him a son before the wedding takes place prompting her to leave Sutpen's Hundred. Sutpen then begins an affair with Milly, the fifteen-year-old granddaughter of Wash Jones, a squatter who lives on the Sutpen property. The affair continues until Milly becomes pregnant and gives birth to a daughter. Sutpen is terribly disappointed, because the last hope of repairing his Sutpen dynasty rested on whether Milly gave birth to a son. Sutpen casts Milly and the child aside, telling them that they are not worthy of sleeping in the stables with his horse, who had just sired a male. An enraged Wash Jones kills Sutpen, his own granddaughter and Sutpen's newborn daughter, and is in turn killed by the posse that arrives to arrest him.
The story of Thomas Sutpen's legacy ends with Quentin taking Rosa back to the seemingly abandoned Sutpen’s Hundred plantation, where they find Henry Sutpen and Clytie, herself the daughter of Thomas Sutpen by a slave woman. Henry has returned to the estate to die. Three months later, when Rosa returns with medical help for Henry, Clytie starts a fire that consumes the plantation and kills Henry and herself. The only remaining Sutpen is Jim Bond, Charles Bon's black grandson, a young man with severe mental handicaps, who remains on Sutpen's Hundred.
Review: Like other Faulkner novels, Absalom, Absalom! allegorizes Southern history; the title itself is an allusion to a wayward son fighting the empire his father built. The history of Thomas Sutpen mirrors the rise and fall of Southern plantation culture. Sutpen's failures necessarily reflect the weaknesses of an idealistic South. Rigidly committed to his "design," Sutpen proves unwilling to honor his marriage to a part-black woman, setting in motion his own destruction. Discussing Absalom, Absalom!, Faulkner stated that the curse under which the South labors is slavery, and Thomas Sutpen's personal curse, or flaw, was his belief that he was too strong to need to be a part of the human family. These two curses combined to ruin Sutpen.
Absalom, Absalom! juxtaposes ostensible fact, informed guesswork, and outright speculation, with the implication that reconstructions of the past remain irretrievable and therefore imaginative. Faulkner, however, stated that although none of the narrators got the facts right, since "no one individual can look at truth," there is a truth and the reader can ultimately know it. While many critics have tried to reconstruct the truth behind the shifting narratives, or to show that such a reconstruction cannot be done with certainty or even that there are factual and logical inconsistencies that cannot be overcome, some critics have stated that, fictional truth being an oxymoron, it is best to take the story as a given, and regard it on the level of myth and archetype, a fable that allows us to glimpse the deepest levels of the unconscious and thus better understand the people who accept (and are ruled by) that myth—Southerners in general and Quentin Compson in particular.
By using various narrators expressing their interpretations, the novel alludes to the historical cultural zeitgeist of Faulkner's South, where the past is always present and constantly in states of revision by the people who tell and retell the story over time; it thus also explores the process of myth-making and the questioning of truth.
The use of Quentin Compson as the primary perspective (if not exactly the focus) of the novel makes it something of a companion piece to Faulkner's earlier work The Sound and the Fury, which tells the story of the Compson Family, with Quentin as one of the main characters. Although the action of that novel is never explicitly referenced, the Sutpen family's struggle with dynasty, downfall, and potential incest parallel the familial events and obsessions that drive Quentin (??) and Miss Rosa Coldfield to witness the burning of Sutpen's Hundred.
Opening Line: “From a little after two o’clock until almost sundown on the long, still, hot, weary, dead afternoon, they sat in what Miss Coldfield still called the office because her father called it that.”
Closing Line: “I don’t hate it.”
Quotes: “Tell about the South. What's it like there. What do they do there. Why do they live there. Why do they live at all.”
Rating: Awesome

526. The Well of Loneliness – Radclyffe Hall

History: Published in 1928, he novel became the target of a campaign by James Douglas, editor of the Sunday Express newspaper, who wrote "I would rather give a healthy boy or a healthy girl a phial of prussic acid than this novel." Although its only sexual reference consists of the words "and that night, they were not divided", a British court judged it obscene because it defended "unnatural practices between women". In the United States the book survived legal challenges in New York State and in Customs Court.
Publicity over The Well's legal battles increased the visibility of lesbians in British and American culture. For decades it was the best-known lesbian novel in English, and often the first source of information about lesbianism that young people could find. Some readers have valued it, while others have criticized it for Stephen's expressions of self-hatred and seen it as inspiring shame. Its role in promoting images of lesbians as "mannish" or cross-dressed women has also been controversial. Some critics now argue that Stephen should be seen as transsexual.
In 1926, Radclyffe Hall was at the height of her career. Her novel Adam's Breed, about the spiritual awakening of an Italian headwaiter, had become a bestseller; it would soon win the Prix Femina and theJames Tait Black Prize.  She had long thought of writing a novel about sexual inversion; now, she believed, her literary reputation would allow such a work to be given a hearing. Since she knew she was risking scandal and "the shipwreck of her whole career", she sought and received the blessing of her partner, Una Troubridge, before she began work. Her goals were social and political; she wanted to end public silence about homosexuality and bring about "a more tolerant understanding" – as well as to "spur all classes of inverts to make good through hard work ... and sober and useful living".
In April 1928 she told her editor that her new book would require complete commitment from its publisher and that she would not allow even one word to be altered. "I have put my pen at the service of some of the most persecuted and misunderstood people in the world .... So far as I know nothing of the kind has ever been attempted before in fiction.
Plot: The book's protagonist, Stephen Gordon, is born in the late Victorian era to upper-class parents in Worcestershire who are expecting a boy and who christen her with the boy's name they had already chosen. Even at birth she is physically unusual, a "narrow-hipped, wide-shouldered little tadpole of a baby". As a girl she hates dresses, wants to cut her hair short, and longs to be a boy. At seven, she develops a crush on a housemaid named Collins, and is devastated when she sees Collins kissing a footman.
Stephen's father, Sir Phillip, dotes on her; he seeks to understand her through the writings of Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, the first modern writer to propose a theory of homosexuality, but does not share his findings with Stephen. Her mother, Lady Anna, is distant, seeing Stephen as a "blemished, unworthy, maimed reproduction" of Sir Phillip. At eighteen, Stephen forms a close friendship with a Canadian man, Martin Hallam, but is horrified when he declares his love for her. The following winter, Sir Phillip is crushed by a falling tree; at the last moment he tries to explain to Lady Anna that Stephen is an invert, but dies without managing to do so.
Stephen begins to dress in masculine clothes made by a tailor rather than a dressmaker. At twenty-one she falls in love with Angela Crossby, the American wife of a new neighbor. Angela uses Stephen as an "anodyne against boredom", allowing her "a few rather schoolgirlish kisses". Then Stephen discovers that Angela is having an affair with a man. Fearing exposure, Angela shows a letter from Stephen to her husband, who sends a copy to Stephen's mother. Lady Anna denounces Stephen for "presum[ing] to use the word love in connection with ... these unnatural cravings of your unbalanced mind and undisciplined body." Stephen replies, "As my father loved you, I loved ... It was good, good, good – I'd have laid down my life a thousand times over for Angela Crossby." After the argument, Stephen goes to her father's study and for the first time opens his locked bookcase. She finds a book by Krafft-Ebing – assumed by critics to be Psychopathia Sexualis, a text about homosexuality and paraphilias – and, reading it, learns that she is an invert.
Stephen moves to London and writes a well-received first novel. Her second novel is less successful, and her friend the playwright Jonathan Brockett, himself an invert, urges her to travel to Paris to improve her writing through a fuller experience of life. There she makes her first, brief contact with urban invert culture, meeting the lesbian salon hostess Valérie Seymour. During World War I she joins an ambulance unit, eventually serving at the front and earning the Croix de Guerre. She falls in love with a younger fellow driver, Mary Llewellyn, who comes to live with her after the war ends. They are happy at first, but Mary becomes lonely when Stephen returns to writing. Rejected by polite society, Mary throws herself into Parisian gay nightlife. Stephen believes Mary is becoming hardened and embittered and feels powerless to provide her with "a more complete and normal existence".
Martin Hallam, now living in Paris, rekindles his old friendship with Stephen. In time, he falls in love with Mary. Persuaded that she cannot give Mary happiness, Stephen pretends to have an affair with Valérie Seymour to drive her into Martin's arms. The novel ends with Stephen's plea to God: "Give us also the right to our existence!"
Review: A lesbian novel was banned after official medical advice that it would encourage female homosexuality and lead to 'a social and national disaster'.
In 1928 Radclyffe Hall's The Well of Loneliness, which got no more racy than 'she kissed her full on the lips like a lover', led to an obscenity trial which considered the implications of the national shortage of men and 'two women in bed making beasts of themselves'.
Stanley Baldwin, the Prime Minister, his Chancellor, Winston Churchill, and Home Secretary Sir William Joynson-Hicks went to great lengths to suppress the book.
Hall, a flamboyant lesbian, wrote The Well of Loneliness to 'put my pen at the service of some of the most misunderstood people in the world'. She attended the trial in November 1928 dressed in a leather driving coat and Spanish riding hat. Sir Chartres Biron, the chief magistrate at Bow Street, ruled that the novel was an 'obscene libel' and all copies should be destroyed. Its publisher, Jonathan Cape, launched an appeal which proved abortive.
Documents show how Sir Archibald Bodkin, Director of Public Prosecutions, feared that the publisher would mobilise eminent writers to defend the book. He wrote to several doctors asking for a clinical analysis of what he called 'homo-sexualists'. In a letter to one of them, Sir Farquhar Buzzard, he explained: 'I want to be able to call some gentleman of undoubted knowledge, experience and position who could inform the court of the results to those unfortunate women (as I deem them) who have proclivities towards lesbianism, or those wicked women (as I deem them) who voluntarily indulge in these practices - results destructive morally, physically and even perhaps mentally.'
To Dr J.A. Hadfield of Harley Street, he wrote that a large amount of curiosity had been excited among women, 'and I am afraid in many cases curiosity may lead to imitation and indulgence in practices which are believed to be somewhat extensive having regard to the very large excess in numbers of women over men.'
Bodkin got the testimony he wanted from Sir William Henry Willcox, consulting medical adviser to the Home Office and physician at St Mary's Hospital in London. '[Lesbianism] is well known to have a debasing effect on those practising it, which is mental, moral and physical in character,' he said. 'It leads to gross mental illness, nervous instability, and in some cases to suicide in addicts to this vice. It is a vice which, if widespread, becomes a danger to the well-being of a nation ...'
Publication of the book, he said, would risk its being read 'by a large number of innocent persons, who might out of pure curiosity be led to discuss openly and possibly practise the form of vice described'. The book was finally released in Britain in 1949, after Hall's death.
Opening Line: “Not very far from Upton-on-Severn - between it, in fact, and the Malvern Hills- stands the country seat of the Gordons of Bramley, well timbered, well cottaged well fenced and well watered, having, in this latter respect, a stream that forks in the exactly the right position to feed two large lakes on the grounds.”
Closing Line: “ God give us also the right to our existance.”
Quotes: “The world hid its head in the sands of convention, so that by seeing nothing it might avoid Truth. ”
Rating:   Very Good