Monday, April 09, 2012

28. Kafka on the Shore - Haruki Murakami


I expected something strange and surreal from this novel, and I got it! Starting out with Kafka Tamura “the world's toughest fifteen year old” as he runs away from home, moving in with him into a secluded and private library where he can read to his heart's content, and fantasise that his new friend, the remote head librarian, Miss Saeki, might be his long-lost mother... while at the same time spiralling through the wilder narrative of Nakata, an elderly man who can't read or write, but who can talk to cats, trying to turn himself in for murder and having his attempted confessions dismissed as dementia... it is complicated, it is weird, but it great fun to suspend disbelief and just go for a ride with the author...
"So you can talk, huh?" the cat, a black and white tabby with torn ears, said a bit hesitantly as it glanced around. The cat spoke gruffly but seemed nice enough.
"Yes, a little," Nakata replied.
"Impressive all the same," the tabby commented.
"My name's Nakata," Nakata said, introducing himself. "And your name would be?"
"Ain't got one," the tabby said brusquely.
"How about Okawa? Do you mind if I call you that?"
"Whatever."
"Well then, Mr. Okawa," Nakata said, "as a token of our meeting each other, would you care for some dried sardines?"
"Sounds good. One of my favorites, sardines."
Nakata took a saran-wrapped sardine from his bag and opened it up for Okawa. He always had a few sardines with him, just in case. Okawa gobbled down the sardine, stripping it from head to tail, then cleaned his face.
"That hit the spot. Much obliged. I'd be happy to lick you somewhere, if you'd like."

Multiple story lines, fantasy elements, unexplained mysteries and metaphors abound... it's like reading a dream... neither easy or comfortable but phew what a rush!!! Themes? Isolation... whether it is possible to be master of your own fate... metaphysics, metafiction, metamorphoses... all very vague but what can you say about a book where fish and leeches rain from the sky, UFO's cause a group of school children hunting for mushrooms to lose consciousness, amazing sex is experienced with a ghost who knows you are asleep, where Johnny Walker cuts open stray cats to eat their hearts and collects their souls to make flutes, and Colonel Sanders attempts to restore order to the universe by pimping a philosophical prostitute ...
"It's not something you can get across in words. The real response is something words can't express."
"There you go," Sada replies. "Exactly. If you can't get it across in words then it's better not to try."
"Even to yourself?" I ask.
"Yeah, even to yourself," Sada says. "Better not to try to explain it, even to yourself."

It's a novel that draws you in, takes you over and makes you part of itself for a while. You don't understand where, or why, or even how... but the dreamlike otherwordliness of it all leaves you asking – can't you just dwell in the strangeness for a while? Suspend yourself and just observe? do you really need to understand?
“It’s as if when you’re in the forest, you become a seamless part of it. When you’re in the rain, you’re a part of the rain. When you’re in the morning, you’re a seamless part of the morning. When you’re with me, you become a part of me.”

As the author himself explained in an interview,
"Kafka on the Shore contains several riddles, but there aren't any solutions provided. Instead, several of these riddles combine, and through their interaction the possibility of a solution takes shape. And the form this solution takes will be different for each reader. To put it another way, the riddles function as part of the solution. It's hard to explain, but that's the kind of novel I set out to write".

Indeed.

Sunday, April 08, 2012

74. Everything You Need - A.L.Kennedy


Everything You Need is a beautifully written tale of love's endurance. It also masterfully captures the ongoing struggle for self-mastery and self-expression in an innovative and entertaining way.

Nathan and Mary circle each other warily throughout the novel, tentatively stepping together then startling apart. Their relationship constantly spirals inwards towards the final moment of revelation, when Nathan delivers his novel to Mary – his last novel, his serious novel, the novel which chronicles his romance with Maura and his delight in Mary's childhood. Nathan is, after all, Mary's father... although he is afraid to admit it.

Although he has had no contact with her for maybe 15 years or more, Nathan is still obsessively in love with his ex-wife, Mary's mother. He yearns for her with every atom of his being and it is her memory – the thought that she might be out there somewhere, reading, that keeps him writing.

Nathan lives on Foal Island, a small, strange, isolated community of writers led by the enigmatic and empathetic lighthouse keeper, Joe. When one of the seven writers dies, Joe and Nathan invite Mary, Nathan's long-lost daughter, to join them. Mary aspires to be a writer and Nathan is to be her mentor. Mary has been told by her mother that her father is dead, and she finds Nathan alternately frustrating and attractive. Meanwhile, Nathan is paralysed by his fear of losing her again and avoids every opportunity to reveal the true nature of their relationship. In private, he pours his memories of her childhood into what he swears will be his last and greatest novel. These memories are so honest, sweet and tender, it is impossible to imagine Mary not understanding and forgiving him.

At a young age, Mary was left by her mother in the care of The Uncles! - Bryn, her mother's elder brother, and his life partner Morgan. The endearingly gentle if somewhat strange way these elderly Welshmen look after Mary is best illustrated by the scene following 19 year old Mary's first sexual encounter.
Fuck
The Uncles were here.
They'd padded into her unbuttoned room. They were here with her now, speaking. Finally, their reality yanked her dumb awake.
'Ah, there now, Mary. What should we do?'
They stood, Morgan holding the tea tray, Bryn's hands holding themselves, and each man gently but plainly alarmed by the way they had chosen to proceed. Still, they were trying to do right by Mary, to let her feel at home and approved of, loved. She lurched up and opened her eyes to Bryn's face: his puzzled eyes fighting not to seem lost. …
Bryn nodded through a carefully presented smile. 'We thought you might want a drink. Or a little to eat. We find that we do.'
'Afterwards.' Morgan drew away from the bed and back towards the door.
Mary and Jonathan lay rigid, sheet drawn to their chins, eyes dumbfounded, like a pair of bad Staffordshire figures - The Lovers Apprehended.
'It's as if...' Bryn pondered, also moving for the doorway, 'you'd been on a bus trip for a long time, so you're peckish. Something like that.' He blinked at Jonathan, his voice wavering, perhaps at the verge of laughter, perhaps only made unsteady by the strain of the occasion. 'We do wish you well.'
'We do.'
Mary finally found herself saying, 'I didn't know -'
'We were here. No.'
'We weren't. We had gone out. But then we came back.'
'Because you might need us.'
'You know.'
'We were here in case.'
As if they were taking their leave from royalty, Bryn and Morgan backed respectfully away.
'Mary?' Bryn waited until she turned to him, gave him her proper attention, 'We just wanted you to be comfortable. And, um, proud. Your first time should be something to be proud of, because you'll remember it. Perhaps this wasn't the best...' He huffed. 'Drink your tea, now, before it gets cold.'

There is a lot of swearing in this novel, but it is largely used appropriately, in context, and after a while I stopped noticing it so much. There is also a lot of poetry – not set off in rhyming stanzas, but inextricably part of the language in which the story is told. Words are important in this book and they have obviously been chosen with care – to amuse and entertain, to endear and entice, to shock and surprise. Nathan's melancholy musings and self obsession are depicted with a black macabre humour which I found quite appealing.
He was waiting and didn't like it. Never had. The wait, this particular wait: it was always so demanding, so predictably calculating and lecherous – give it an inch or a moment and it closed on him in a tingling swarm to his warmer parts. It bit round the cartilage lip of his ears, breathed close to the bare of his neck, it was brazen at his armpits and the quiet joints of his thighs, it made him sweat. His body weight stung down unfairly against his tensing prick, while his thoughts sank and dressed to the left with a stocky tick of blood.
Rubbing an opened wound with living wasps. My wound. My wasps.
Worse.
Or stapling my scrotum to the flesh of my inner thighs and then performing Scottish country dances until I feel my socks congeal.
I think that would be worse.

This was ridiculous. He was ridiculous. A figure of no fun at all, waiting for something which would not happen, could not happen, which should not be considered and surely to God had been set and settled a pathetically long time ago – put to rest on the much larger island near which his was fixed. Surely to God this was over with now, surely she was over with.
Being sodomised by an ill-tempered man using a plaster model of my own grandmother's arm.
That would be noticeably worse.

That's Nathan. Always looking on the bright side of life :P

All the characters in this novel are fascinating, from the other members of the writers community, each with their own personal obsessions, to Nathan's literary agent and publisher, Jack. Jack is worthy of a complete review in his own right, so I will leave you to discover him for yourself!

I did not expect to like this novel, but by the end I was thoroughly hooked.

437. A Clockwork Orange - Anthony Burgess


Well, my droogs...!

"Goodness is something chosen.. When a man cannot choose, he ceases to be a man."

A Clockwork Orange proved to be an inspired choice to follow Oliver Twist!

It is like the continuing story of the Artful Dodger, transported, not across the ocean, but through time and space to a not-so-brave new world. Witty, flamboyant, cynical and fastidious, 15 year old Alex is a classic teenage hoodlum of the sci-fi 60s, rebelling against the boring drudgery of his parent's life by indulging in extremes of ultraviolence and crime – vice for entertainment and the sense of power it provides, rather than in response to any pressure of poverty or lack of better opportunity. Some reviewers see it as an outbreak from a totalitarian regime, but in reality, the depicted society is less restrictive than the depiction of Dickens' Victorian England. As with Dickens, the focus is upon the way in which humans can be conditioned for good or ill, but Burgess makes more explicit both the importance of a free choice and the innate attractiveness of evil. Burgess explores this further in the preface to the version I read, where he laments the omission of the original ending from the American edition and from the movie (which, by the way, I have never watched).
“Unfortunately there is so much original sin in us all that we find evil rather attractive. To devastate is easier and more spectacular than to create. We like to have the pants scared off us by visions of cosmic destruction. … My own healthy inheritance of original sin comes out in the book and I enjoyed raping and ripping by proxy. It is the novelist's innate cowardice that makes him depute to imaginary personalities the sins that he is too cautious to commit for himself. But the book does also have a moral lesson, and it is the weary traditional one of the fundamental importance of moral choice.”

The important lesson is the human capacity to change. As the prison chaplain says to Alex:
“What does God want? Does God want woodness or the choice of goodness? Is a man who chooses the bad in some ways better than a man who has the good imposed upon him? ...”

The novel is narrated by Alex in Nadsac, the invented Russian/English/Cockney slang of his underworld youth culture. At first, this was disorienting, but I quickly picked up enough vocabulary to go with the flow of consciousness and appreciate its significance, as the colourful diction effectively created a vicarious distance between the reader and the graphic acts of brutality so enthusiastically described. I have chosen to share Alex's description of listening to a Mozart symphony and of how the power of the music accentuates his indulgence of violent and powerful fantasies...
“Then, brothers, it came, Oh, bliss, bliss and heaven. I lay all nagoy to the ceiling, my guliver on my rookers on the pillow, glazzies closed, rot open in bliss, slooshying the sluice of lovely sounds. Oh, it was gorgeousness and gorgeosity made flesh. The trombones crunched redgold under my bed, and behind my gulliver the trumpets three-wise silverflamed, and there by the door the timps rolling through my guts and out again crunched like candy thunder. Oh, it was wonder of wonders. And then, a bird of like rarest spun heavenmetal, or like silvery wine flowing in a spaceship, gravity all nonsense now, came the violin solo above all the other strings, and these strings were like a cage of silk around my bed. Then the flute and oboe bored, like worms of like platinum into the thick thick toffee gold and silver. I was in such bliss my brothers. … I knew such lovely pictures. There were vecks and ptitsas, both young and starry, lying on the ground screaming for mercy, and I was smecking all over my rot and grinding my boot in their litsos. And there were devotchkas ripped and creeching against walls and I plunging like a shlaga into them, and indeed when the music, which was one movement only, rose to the top its big highest tower, then, lying there on my bed with glazzies tight shut and rookers behind my gulliver, I broke and spattered and cried aaaaah with the bliss of it. And so the lovely music glided to its glowing close.”

It all goes pear-shaped eventually – and inevitably – Alex finds himself on the receiving end. After a few years in prison, an opportunity to get out of jail free appeals to him, and he volunteers for an experimental new rehabilitation program. Here, he is effectively brainwashed, drugged, and forced to watch hours of filmed atrocities set to music. Under the influence of the drugs, his previous impulses towards power and violence are reversed, so now the music fills him with pain and nausea as does the thought of any cruelty, a pain and nausea he will avoid at any cost. In the space of a fortnight he is turned from an eager aggressor to a pathetic victim. He finds the change demeaning and intolerable, but even the thought of self-harm sets off the Pavlovian response.

In both these stages of his life, Alex is likened to the clockwork orange of the title – a sweet and juicy natural object created to give pleasure to God but unnaturally activity by unthinking mechanical responses. There is seen to be little difference between mindless violence and mindless passivity – without conscious choice, right and wrong are simply different sides to the same coin.

In his new impotency, Alex is seized upon by political forces who use him for anti-governmental propaganda. The Government in turn backpedals and anti-brainwashes Alex as a public relations exercise. He finds himself back on the street, with all his faculties intact. He half-heartedly attempts to recreate his previous gangworld, but he soon realises something is different. At the ripe old age of 18, he is starting to realise that he has a choice and control over the direction of his life, and that he is no longer satisfied by the thoughtless gratification of violent impulses. The change is a little incongruous and I can see why some feel that the final chapter is tacked on and unconvincing.
“Give me that”, I snarled and grabbed it skorry. I couldn't explain how it had got there, brothers, but it was a photograph I had scissored out of the old gazetta and it was of a baby. It was of a baby gurgling...”

The introduction of this change, suddenly, shockingly, in the midst of a chapter in which one is watching Alex recreating his previous life and finding it doesn't fit is just a little bit too glib, too contrived... sure Alex justifies it, knows that his desired son is likely to repeat the same mistaken pattern of his own life, even if warned against it...
“youth is only being in a way like it might be an animal. No, it is not just like being an animal so much as being one of these malenky toys you viddy being sold in the streets, like little chellovecks made out of tin and with a spring inside and then a winding handle on the outside and you wind it up grrr grrr grrr and it is itties, like walking, O my brothers. But it itties in a straight line and bangs straight into things bang bang and it cannot help what it is doing. Being young is like being one of these malenky machines.”

While I did not doubt Alex's desire and capacity to change, and being a firm advocate of happy endings, would not have been satisfied with anything less, the open-endedness left me doubtful. Alex suddenly wants a son, so tomorrow he will start looking for a girl to provide him with one, and on that he will base his new life. It may be cynical of me, but I am left doubtful of his chances of success, perhaps because he doesn't seem to see the need to work to bring about the change. I would have preferred to see him demonstrate more of the maturity and strength of purpose that he will need to make his new life a success. I choose (idealistically, optimistically) to hope, however, that like Charley Bates in Oliver Twist, Alex will go on beyond the novel's confines to demonstrate the redemptive power of intelligent humans to break free from mechanistic programming (whether internal or external) and choose anew to create a better future.

Saturday, April 07, 2012

918. Oliver Twist - Charles Dickens


Aaaaaaaaahhhhh. That is the huge sigh of satisfaction I always release after finishing a Dickens novel. Truly, if I were to pick my favourite author of all times, dear Boz would get the vote. This was the first time I had read Oliver Twist, and I was not in the least bit disappointed.

At its simplest, it's theme is that care for people makes you good and care for money makes you bad, but it is so much more than that, so many shades of grey in between the absolutes, so many struggles between good and evil, right and wrong. It is tragedy, comedy, high drama, farce and romance all tied up in one brilliant package. As an author, Dickens knows how to capture both his characters and his readers...
"...there he stood, reading away, as hard as if he were in his elbow-chair, in his own study. It is very possible that he fancied himself there, indeed; for it was plain, from his abstraction, that he saw not the book-stall, nor the street, nor the boys, nor, in short, anything but the book itself: which he was reading straight through: turning over the leaf when he got to the bottom of a page, beginning at the top line of the next one, and going regularly on, with the greatest interest and eagerness."

The plot is masterful in its unexpected twists and turns. Written in serial form, for monthly publication, it contains cliffhanger after cliffhanger, all winding inevitably to a wonderful happy ever after ending where the good and the bad each get what they deserve. There is poetic justice meted out to each larger than life character, and it is part of Dicken's genius that even the minor members of the cast attract our attention and sympathy. Poor little Dick, who wishes for nothing more than to join his little sister in heaven, where both can be innocent children together is as significant in his message as Oliver himself on his twisted path from rags... to riches... not material riches, for his eventual inheritance is quite moderate, but a surfeit of love, companionship and spiritual happiness which contrast so sharply with his earlier poverty, showing more truly than any dry sermon that man cannot live on bread alone. Dear, loyal Nancy, viciously murdered by her violent lover after sacrificing her chance of escape from the underworld for his sake, and hunted, hated Bill Sikes, dangling from a rope tied with his own hands when, in his attempt to escape from the bloodthirsty crowd, he finds himself condemned by his own guilty vision of Nancy's eyes. Rose, willing to sacrifice her love so as not to mar Harry's chance of fame and fortune, and Harry deliberately turning his back on worldly expectations to prove that Rose's love is the only treasure he desires...

More than anything else, I think I love Dickens for his dark sarcastic humour, the little digs and metafictional asides in which he pokes fun at the society, the characters, the reader and himself as the author. There are times when his moralising becomes overt and one is tempted to gloss over a few paragraphs and get back to the story, but it never intrudes for long, and there is so much symbolism to be unpacked from every element that long after the story is finished there is plenty to think about, connections to be made, contrasts to be appreciated and lessons to be learned.

As a historical and social commentary on the conditions prevalent at the time, it is educational, as a story that races the reader along from laughter to suspense to tears it is entertaining, and as an insight into the hypocrisy and heart of humanity it is enlightening... and above all, it is a purely enjoyable read that leaves me sorely tempted to plunge immediately into another of Dickens' tales... (although I think I will dole them out, saving them as the antidote for the next time a novel leaves me feeling that it had no meat on its bones - or should that be gruel in its golden bowl lol).

In the immortal words of Oliver: "Please, sir, I want some more."

Thursday, April 05, 2012

775. The Golden Bowl - Henry James


The plot of this novel would not be out of place in a Mills and Boon romance, but whereas it could be argued that the M&B would leave little to the imagination, Henry James leaves just about everything!

This is the quote which for me summed up the reading experience:
"The young man, in other words, unconfusedly smiled - though indeed as if assenting, from principle and habit, to more than he understood."


In a nutshell, a smooth Italian prince (Amerigo) and an American beauty (Charlotte) enjoy a connection. They click. I can't call it an affair, because that much information is not provided. All we know is that they delight in each others' company for a time, but that neither has the financial resources to commit to any more permanent association. Then, each of them is "bought" in as gentle, quiet and loving a way as possible.

An older English matchmaker (Fanny Assingham) who witnessed their connection and who has a soft-spot for the Prince proposes him to a sweet and innocent American Daddy's girl (Maggie). Maggie and her very rich, very wonderful widowed father (Adam) worship each other, and when Maggie's marriage sees fortune hunters beginning to move in on Adam, Fanny and Maggie both propose Charlotte (who just happens to have been a girlhood friend of Maggie, and of whose 'connection' with her husband Maggie is blissfully unaware) as the perfect solution.

Charlotte and Adam get married, while Maggie and Adam continue their previous close and exclusive filial relationship. This leaves Charlotte and Amerigo space to reform their own connection (some reviewers call it adultery, but the extent of their connection is so airy, it is impossible to imagine them doing anything so excrutiatingly impolite).

Maggie eventually has her suspicion of their growing infidelity confirmed through a chance encounter with a dealer in antiquities who had witnessed an exchange between Charlotte and Amerigo on the eve of Maggie's wedding... an exchange centering around an exquisite golden bowl with a crack in it... a bowl the Prince refuses to purchase (the crack being a bad omen), which Charlotte cannot afford to purchase, which Maggie does purchase, and which Fanny (deliberately and symbolically) smashes. Amerigo is told of Maggie's discovery, but Charlotte is deliberately kept in the dark by them both. Meanwhile Maggie maneuvres her father into taking Charlotte off to America, leaving her in full possession of the Prince, who now has eyes only for her (apparently supremely impressed by the smooth diplomacy and manipulative skill she has suddenly demonstrated).

So much for the action. The real story exists in the vague and ambiguous interwoven tangles of selfishness and selflessness which make up each character. For me the whole story is about getting what you want without rocking the boat... it's all about reading between the lines, manipulating the others (and your own feelings) without ever coming right out and saying directly what is meant... and ultimately, I found the artificiality of this discourse - both internal and external - quite unsatisfying.

As an example, here is a passage in which Charlotte and Amerigo convince themselves that in going with the flow and gratifying their own desires, they are selflessly clearing the path for their spouses to do the same.
"A large response, as he looked at her, came into his face, a light of excited perception, all his own, in the glory of which – as it almost might be called – what he gave her back had the value of what she had given him. ‘They’re extraordinarily happy.’

Oh Charlotte’s measure of it was only too full. ‘Beatifically.’ [...]

‘I’m not afraid.’

He wondered for a moment. ‘Not afraid of what?’

‘Well, generally, of some beastly mistake. Especially of any mistake founded on one’s idea of their difference. For that idea,’ Charlotte developed, ‘positively makes one so tender.’

‘Ah but rather!’

‘Well then there it is. I can’t put myself into Maggie’s skin – I can’t, as I say. It’s not my fit – I shouldn’t be able, as I see it, to breathe in it. But I can feel that I’d do anything to shield it from a bruise. Tender as I am for her too,’ she went on, ‘I think I’m still more so for my husband. He’s in truth of a sweet simplicity – !’

The Prince turned over a while the sweet simplicity of Mr Verver. ‘Well, I don’t know that I can choose. At night all cats are grey. I only see how, for so many reasons, we ought to stand toward them – and how, to do ourselves justice, we do. It represents for us a conscious care –’

‘Of every hour, literally,’ said Charlotte. She could rise to the highest measure of the facts. ‘And for which we must trust each other – !’

‘Oh as we trust the saints in glory. Fortunately,’ the Prince hastened to add, ‘we can.’ With which, as for the full assurance and the pledge it involved, each hand instinctively found the other. ‘It’s all too wonderful.’

Firmly and gravely she kept his hand. ‘It’s too beautiful.’ [...]

‘It’s sacred,’ he said at last."

I will leave the final word on this book to Gore Vidal, who pointed out the real deficiency in this novel... it is a tale of forces, but it contains no Love. The characters skirt around the edges of talking about love all the time, but ultimately, it is their own selfish desire for internal security and selfish desire to appear externally selfless which leaves them feeling as hollow, empty and flawed as the golden bowl itself.

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

809. The Picture of Dorian Gray - Oscar Wilde


“The studio was filled with the rich odour of roses, and when the light summer wind stirred amidst the trees of the garden, there came through the open door the heavy scent of the lilac, or the more delicate perfume of the pink-flowering thorn.”

So opens Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray. What really captured my attention in this novel was the exquisite descriptions of external settings in what is essentially a novel of internal focus. Handsome young Dorian thinks it such a pity that the portrait which his friend has painted of him will remain young and fresh forever, while he is doomed to age and change. He vainly wishes for the opposite and his vanity is rewarded when his wish comes true. Encouraged by the worldly Henry Wotton, Dorian indulges every passion and vice, searching always for new sensations and sinking into ever greater depravity. He remains superficially beautiful, while the picture locked in the attic displays every mark of his growing perversion.

I often grew frustrated with Dorian's lack of depth, the scorn he and Lord Henry express for anything that fails to accord with and support their cynical quest for superficial pleasure:
“Always! That is a dreadful word. It makes me shudder when I hear it. Women are so fond of using it. They spoil every romance by trying to make it last forever. It is a meaningless word, too. The only difference between a caprice and a life-long passion is that the caprice lasts a little longer.”

Humph. By the end I was quite fed up with Dorian's determination to sacrifice his own real potential for a good life to Lord Henry's insistence that any experience is better than boredom. Faced with a choice between living well and aging gracefully, or giving in to every passing desire, Dorian chooses desire – on the condition that he can hide it successfully. For me, Dorian is a coward who lacks the conviction to stand up and admit to his own choices. Lord Henry is perhaps the main character in the novel – Dorian is his pawn, a challenge for him to corrupt, the evil genius who encourages Dorian to go further and further astray.
“Because to influence a person is to give him one's own soul. He does not think his natural thoughts, or burn with his natural passions. His virtues are not real to him. His sins, if there are such things as sins, are borrowed. He becomes an echo of some one else's music, an actor of a part that has not been written for him. The aim of life is self-development. To realize one's nature perfectly -- that is what each of us is here for. People are afraid of themselves, nowadays. They have forgotten the highest of all duties, the duty that one owes to oneself. Of course they are charitable. They feed the hungry, and clothe the beggar. But their own souls starve, and are naked. Courage has gone out of our race. Perhaps we never really had it. The terror of society, which is the basis of morals, the terror of God, which is the secret of religion -- these are the two things that govern us.”

This is not a story with a moral of redemption. There is no saving Dorian. He kills everything that loves him and comes to hate himself – both the perfect self that he sees in the mirror, and the imperfect, internal damnation embodied by the portrait. He finally decides to destroy the portrait, blaming it for all that is wrong with his life, the wrong for which he refuses, right to the end, to accept responsibility for. When he stabs and slashes at the portrait, he does end the spell, but not in the way he intends. The novel ends with Dorian's body, ugly and debauched, lying at the foot of the once more pristine and youthful portrait.

Much as I like happy endings, I was not disappointed by this one. The climax is perfectly timed and justly deserved, while the complete lack of authorial moralising lets the reader draw their own conclusions about the ambiguities so cleverly presented. Why must youth and beauty be ephemeral? What are the wages of sin? Why is living to excess a bad thing? It is a quick read with questions that linger long after the last page is turned.

68. Blonde - Joyce Carol Oates

Catching up with a review on a book read previously (I finally found my pack of notes)...


This novel is a fictionalised biography of Marilyn Monroe. I don't know much about the real person, so I won't comment on the accuracy or otherwise of its portrayal. I did however find it quite readable and very interesting as a work of fiction.

Although it tries to pay tribute to her intelligence and endurance, overall, the emphasis is on Marilyn's vulnerability. Emotionally scarred by her psychopathic mother, institutionalised and then forced to marry at the age of 16 because her foster father was starting to look at her the wrong way, Blonde is largely the story of a delicate, creature – a hummingbird heart is the recurring imagery used – who is exploited as a physical object by just about every male who crosses her path.

Struggling to construct and retain some sense of self-worth and self-identity, Norma Jean is portrayed (no matter what her age) as a small scared child, hiding behind the glamour mask of Marilyn, at first sheltered by it, then increasingly consumed by it as she loses herself in a whirlpool of addiction and depression. The need to feed Marilyn's ego, and the barely submerged fears of Norma Jean's past combine to ruin every relationship which might give her the chance to feel normal.

Far from being a nymphomaniac, Norma Jean is portrayed as being a passive partner in all her sexual encounters, allowing herself to be used almost like an unresisting doll. As she gets older, she emphasises this passive role by calling all her husbands and lovers “Daddy”, trying to satisfy her sense of loss for the father she never met, preserving a fairytale belief that one day he would ride into her life and rescue her by providing the unconditional affection she desires.

The novel is LONG - over 700 pages, which the omniscient narrator never fails to remind us is going to end in tragedy. There is a constant tension between the impersonal legend – the Fair Princess, the Dark Prince, the Ex-Athlete, the Playwright and the President – and the personal story, told in Marilyn's own breathless, sweet, naivety.

"I saw that I must be sold. For there I would be desired, and I would be loved."

By the end, the lingering sense of a beautiful fairy tale possibility has been lost beneath all the gory details of the little girl's destruction. The universal myth recedes and the sordid reality takes over. The writing was powerful, or I wouldn't have made it to the end. She almost lost me a few times, but by the end I was crouching by torchlight, desperate for it to finish. In a way this struck me a betrayal of Marilyn (meaning Marilyn the character in the novel, and possibly also Marilyn the real person and Marilyn the symbol). While seemingly promising to set her free from the glittering cage of legend, the novel actually confines her as an impotent songbird with the focus of the story really being a condemnation of the forces surrounding her – instead of an investigation of feminism mystique, it came across as a scathing and unforgiving condemnation of masculine insensitivity. It left me feeling that Norma Jean had been exploited just one more unnecessary time.

I am glad I found my notes on this one - I really don't want to ever read it again.

52. The Devil and Miss Prym – Paulo Coelho


This book would be an interesting companion piece for high-school students to read beside Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter...

A stranger arrives in an isolated mountain village and makes an astounding offer: a fortune in gold for every resident if someone - anyone - in the town is murdered within a week! The outcome will answer the question - are people inherently good, or inherently evil?

You can imagine the chaos that ensues... first inside Miss Prym, the barmaid to whom the offer is first revealed. Should she just forget she ever heard such a deal? Should she dig up some of the gold, and run away from her dead-end life? Should she trust her friends to do the right thing... or is she rightfully afraid of the mob-mentality?

It's a short and simple story, easy to speed through, but worthy of stopping to consider its after effects. The ultimate answer is that there is no answer - there is no inherent good or evil in humanity, it is all a matter of individual choice. We are all tempted by evil. The issue is whether we are prepared to struggle against it.
"It was all a matter of control. And choice. Nothing more and nothing less."

Each person has their own demon and angel on their shoulder... who will they listen to?
It is a novel full of cliches - the old story about the man who dies on a journey and doesn't realise he is dead, suffers horribly from thirst but refuses to enter the first gate with the lovely fountain, as his animal friends aren't allowed, continues on to the second gate where all are welcome and finds that this is heaven - the first gate being hell, which weeds out anyone who would slake their own thirst while leaving their faithful companions to suffer... the story of Midas who wished to turn everything he touched into gold and ended up regretting the result...

The townspeople decide they will drug and shoot a crazy old woman whom nobody will miss... they'll make it a Russian roulette so no one individual will bear responsibility... they are all gung ho and ready to go... but then Miss Prym raises some financial realities. How are they going to convert the gold into modern currency? The bank will want to ask questions about where it came from, how they got it... will they trust each other to keep the secret of their shame? The risk is too great, they can't trust each other, and so good prevails overall - through cowardice if not through conviction.

In many ways, the novel is unsatisfying, for the one-dimensionality of its characters, for the way in which the narrative skips around from one to another without much sense of direction, the archetypal, allegorical aim that was just a bit too obvious... the ending which just fizzled away into nowhere (Miss Prym gets to start a new life with the gold, the villagers must pay for Berta's fountain after all, but nothing is really answered, no-one has really changed)... meh. The premise was good, but I think it lost something in translation.

The only character I really liked was old Berta, the victim chosen by the townspeople, sitting on her doorstep chatting with her long-dead husband, and waiting for the devil to arrive.
Berta was watching the sun setting behind the mountains when she saw the priest and three other men coming towards her. She felt sad for three reasons: she knew her time had come; her husband had not appeared to console her (perhaps because he was afraid of what he would hear, or ashamed of his own inability to save her); and she realised that the money she had saved would end up in the hands of the shareholders of the bank where she had deposited it, since she had not had time to withdraw it and burn it.
She felt happy for two reasons: she was finally going to be reunited with her husband, who was doubtless, at that moment, out and about with Miss Prym's grandmoth er; and although the last day of her life had been cold, it had been filled with sunlight - not everyone had the good fortune to leave the world with such a beautiful memory of it.
The priest signalled to the other men to stay back, and he went forward on his own to
greet her.
'Good evening,' she said. 'See how great God is to have made the world so beautiful.'
'They're going to take me away,' she told herself, 'but I will leave them with all the world's guilt to carry on their shoulders.'

Tuesday, April 03, 2012

Ooops

Darn it, I read a pile of these - mainly modern and pre-1700s... but didn't find time to write up my response, and now I can't remember them well enough (stupid aging memory and pregnancy brain lol)... here's to starting again!

Books read but not yet reviewed:

999.Chaireas and Kallirhoe – Chariton
997.The Golden Ass – Lucius Apuleius
996.The Thousand and One Nights – Anonymous
995.Gargantua and Pantagruel – Françoise Rabelais (part read)
993.The Unfortunate Traveller – Thomas Nashe
991.The Pilgrim’s Progress – John Bunyan
990.The Princess of Clèves – Marie-Madelaine Pioche de Lavergne, Comtesse de La Fayette (part read)
989.Oroonoko – Aphra Behn

28.Kafka on the Shore – Haruki Murakami
52.The Devil and Miss Prym – Paulo Coelho
68.Blonde – Joyce Carol Oates

I think I made notes for some of them... I will try to refresh my memory and catch up on the reviews!

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

675. Orlando - Virginia Woolf

I had thought (this was a while ago) that I would read Woolf's Mrs Dalloway, to compare it with Ulysses and Saturday, since they are all novels which trace a single day in the life of their main character. While searching for my copy, however, I rediscovered Orlando and I was unresistingly hooked once more. If you never read anything else by Virginia Woolf, read this - it won't take long and if you're anything like me, as soon as you reach the end you will be tempted to start again.

Orlando sparkles. It is a love letter to a dear friend that laughs at itself from beginning to end. It brings history to life in a way that makes you wish you were there. It makes the impossible seem not only possible, but as natural as breathing. It is one of those rare texts that prompts me to slow down and read every word, simply to prolong the enjoyment. If the modernist's credo was to 'make it fresh', Orlando is the wheatgrass juice, still growing in a little box on the juice-bar.

What is Orlando about? Orlando is about... Orlando! When the story starts, Orlando is a 16 year old boy, in the Elizabethan age, swinging his sword at a shrunken head in the attic of his ancestral home. By the end of the novel, Orlando is a young woman who has given birth to a son. It is now 1928, but despite the passing of time and alteration in gender, it is essentially the same Orlando. Don't ask me to explain how or why - read the book to see how Woolf achieves it.

From a thematic point of view, Orlando examines (but only in the most entertaining way) the difference between masculinity and femininity, and changes in those definitions over time. It is dedicated to Vita Sackville-West, with whom Woolf had a lesbian affair (though both were 'happily' married at the time). The Wikipedia article shows how Orlando is closely modelled on Vita, using the conventions of fiction and fantasy "to write a well-documented biography of a person living in her own age." I find, however, that these details of 'reality' actually detract from the story. It is not necessary to know who Vita was or what was her relationship with Virginia. The story stands perfectly well by itself as a magnificent, humorous fantasy. To try to tie it to history is to deny its imaginative power.

As an example, here is a passage where Orlando lies thinking about the meaning of life. I love the way we can hear the echo of Woolf wrestling with her own thoughts in Orlando's frustration!

Every single thing, once he tried to dislodge it from its place in his mind, he found thus cumbered with other matter like the lump of glass which, after a year at the bottom of the sea, is grown about with bones and dragon-flies, and coins and the tresses of drowned women.

'Another metaphor, by Jupiter!' he would exclaim as he said this (which will show the disorderly and circuitous way in which his mind worked and explain why the oak tree flowered and faded so often before he came to any conclusion about Love). 'And what's the point of it?' he would ask himself. 'Why not say simply in so many words - ' and then he would try to think for half an hour - or was it two years and a half? - how to say simply in so many words what love is. 'A figure like that is manifestly untruthful,' he argued, 'for no dragon-fly, unless under very exceptional circumstances, could live at the bottom of the sea. And if literature is not the Bride and Bedfellow of Truth, what is she? Counfound it all,' he cried, 'why say Bedfellow when one's already said Bride? Why not simply say what one means and leave it?'

So then he tried saying the grass is green and the sky is blue and so to propitiate the austere spirit of poetry whom still, though at a great distance, he could not help reverencing. 'The sky is blue,' he said, 'the grass is green.' Looking up, he saw that, on the contrary, the sky is like the veils which a thousand Madonnas have let fall from their hair; and the grass fleets and darkens like a flight of girls fleeing the embraces of hairy satyrs from enchanted woods. 'Upon my word,' he said (for he had fallen into the bad habit of speaking aloud), 'I don't see that one's more true than another. Both are utterly false.' And he despaired of being able to solve the problem of what poetry is and what truth is and fell into a deep dejection.'

It is rare for me to appreciate a movie adaptation of a book that I love, but in this case, I heartily recommend the film of Orlando made in 1992, starring Tilda Swinton as Orlando, for the sheer beauty of the costume design and settings. This movie is an inspired adaptation and its visualisation of the book's magic has meshed seamlessly into my love of Orlando, so that when I am reading or thinking about this book, these are the images that I see.

You can download Orlando as a free ebook from Project Gutenberg Australia.

I'm giving Orlando my first PERFECT score!