Thursday, August 16, 2007

2. Saturday - Ian McEwan

This novel continues in the footsteps of Virginia Woolf's Mrs Dalloway and James Joyce's Ulysses by encapsulating a single day in the life of its main character - in this case, a British neurosurgeon named Henry Perowne.

The edition I picked up from the library had 4 pages of "international praise" at the start of the book - quotes from many reviewers lauding the brilliance of McEwan's writing. It is certainly an achievement which any aspiring writer may envy and desire to emulate. A quick and easy read, it kept me turning the pages quite contentendly, but it somehow lacked that dazzling quality which would inspire me to want to read it again.

Perowne is generally an attractive and likeable, though somewhat apologetic character, and the action centres around him preparing for a small family reunion on a day when London is brought to a standstill by an immense peace demonstration against the war in Iraq.

Most of the novel's themes are summed up in the following passage, which takes place as Perowne chooses fish for the stew he plans to make that evening.

"He turns the corner into Paddington Street and stoops in front of the open-air display of fish on a steeply raked slab of white marble. He sees at a glance that everything he needs is here. Such abundance from the emptying seas. On the tiled floor by the open doorway, piled in two wooden crates like rusting industrial rejects, are the crabs and lobsters, and in the tangle of warlike body parts there is discernible movement. On their pincers they're wearing funereal black bands. It's fortunate for the fishmonger and his customers that sea creatures are not adapted to make use of sound waves and have no voice. Otherwise there'd be howling from those crates. Even the silence among the softly stirring crowd is troubling. He turns his gaze away, towards the bloodless white flesh, and eviscerated silver forms with their unaccusing stare, and the deep-sea fish arranged in handy overlapping steaks of innocent pink, like cardboard pages of a baby's first book. Naturally, Perowne the fly-fisherman has seen the recent literature: scores of polymodal nociceptor sites just like ours in the head and neck of rainbow trout. It was once convenient to think biblically, to believe we're surrounded for our benefit by edible automata on land and sea. Now it turns out that even fish feel pain. This is the growing complication of the modern condition, the expanding circle of moral sympathy. Not only distant people are our brothers and sisters, but foxes too, and laboratory mice, and now the fish. Perowne goes on catching and eating them, and though he'd never drop a live lobster into boiling water, he's prepared to order one in a restaurant. The trick, as always, the key to human success and domination, is to be selective in your mercies. For all the discerning talk, it's the close at hand, the visible that exerts the overpowering force. And what you don't see... That's why in gentle Marylebone the world seems so entirely at peace." (p 127)

This is not an environmental novel - and from memory, these fish are the only animals mentioned - but the ways in which human perceptions of our place in the universe have changed, the way in which world events and moral reactions to them are viewed broadly, ambiguously and with only partial understanding, and then narrowed to the realm of immediate individual decisions on how to act and think, how decisions are coloured by personality how they change and develop as events impact upon the characters - these concerns are typical of the novel as a whole.

Perowne is most human in his interactions with his family - his busy lawyer wife Rosalind, his poet daughter Daisy, and blues-singing son Theo. Poetry actually plays a major role in the novel - though Perowne has limited literary tastes, his cantankerous father-in-law is a published poet and his daughter has just had her first volume published. Perowne struggles to understand the fascination and is more interested in what Daisy's poems seem to reveal about her life away from the family. He forces himself to try and understand the art, both for her sake and because he worries he might have missed something worthwhile in his single-minded focus on a medical career.

"Novels and movies, being restlessly modern, propel you forwards or backwards through time, through days, years or even generations. But to do its noticing and judging, poetry balances itself on the pinprick of a moment. Slowing down, stopping yourself completely, to read and understand a poem is like trying to acquire an old-fashioned skill like drystone walling or trout tickling." (p129)

Poetry and literature and music are another element, just as the water was for Perowne's mother (a champion swimmer), or the physical structure of the human brain is for Perowne himself. There is a kind of escapist challenge in being able to immerse yourself in this 'other', abandoning your personality and temporarily forgetting the wash of events going on around you.

The only real action in the novel centers around a street thug named Baxter. Perowne narrowly escapes a violent confrontation with him by accurately diagnosing his medical condition, and the encounter leaves him physically and mentally uncomfortable for the rest of the day. That evening, when the family is finally gathered together, Baxter invades their home. There is potential for disaster, for Perowne's comfortable, luxurious world to be ripped apart, but in the end it is only Baxter who really gets hurt. Perowne assuages his guilt (feeling he should have handled the original altercation better) by operating to save Baxter's life, in the process deciding to forgive him and ensure he lives the rest of his short life expectancy with proper institutionalised care.

The turning point in the home invasion comes when Daisy, naked and vulnerable, quotes Mathew Arnold's poem 'Dover Beach' to Baxter (he had demanded she read something of her own from her book). I found this the most unconvincing moment of the story, perhaps because that poem has never been one that spoke to me.

"Daisy recited a poem that cast a spell on one man. Perhaps any poem would have done the trick, and thrown the switch on a sudden mood change. Still, Baxter fell for the magic, he was transfixed by it, and he was reminded how much he wanted to live. No one can forgive him the use of the knife. But Baxter heard what Henry never has, and probably never will, despite all Daisy's attempts to educate him." (p278)

Poetry, music, good food and wine - a comfortable existence transposed on a world of turmoil, of vaguely troubling thoughts and doubts about terrorism, war and genocide. At the end of the novel, Perowne stands at his window looking out at the pre-dawn, just as he did at the beginning, only now he thinks about what a doctor standing there a hundred years ago might have thought, about how lifestyles and expectations have changed over time. The novel was first published in 2005, but already it feels rather dated. I would be surprised if it endured to be a classic read in the next century.

Monday, August 06, 2007

723. Ulysses - James Joyce

When I first downloaded Ulysses from Gutenberg and started reading it, I was very much inclined to agree with Michelle from Scribbit's assessment of it as spam. Then I noticed that Alkeda the Gleeful (Saints and Spinners) counted it among her favourite books, and figured if a children's storyteller likes it, it must be worth another chance. There is also my renowned literary masochism. If I start reading something, I will finish it, no matter how bad it is (well, almost).After all, if I could wade my way through Something Happened (in which nothing happened except my increasing desire to throttle the narrator... and then hit him over the head with a sledgehammer... and maybe run him over with a garbage truck for good measure) then I ought to persist in finishing a classic text like Ulysses. I do want to read all 1001 on the "Books you must read before you die" list... and Ulysses is there at number 723.

Despite all this, the Gutenberg text was just not managing to attract my attention during my rare moments of computer time. Then my father's graduation present arrived. For some strange reason, knowing my love of literature, Dad carried an attractively boxed set of Joyce's complete works back to Australia from Amsterdam of all places. As Yeti said, of all the works in English literature, Dad managed to pick the one author whose works I had almost totally avoided studying (except for Dubliners, Joyce's collection of short stories, which I quite enjoyed). If it had been the complete works of Dickens, or Woolf, or any number of other authors, I would have been veraciously devouring it... but now, faced with a gorgeous green and gold copy of Ulysses in three tiny volumes, I had no excuse not to dive in.

To a large extent, I am still in agreement with Scribbit. I don't mind works being intellectually difficult, but I object when the lexicon needed to appreciate (or even begin to understand) a novel threatens to be three times the size of the actual novel! Not having such an aid to comprehension at hand, I found myself skimming pages with only a very very dim idea of what was being said (forget the Latin and French - half the time I can't figure out the English - even with a dictionary!).

However, in a way I can appreciate Joyce's experiment as a continuation of Virginia Woolf's view that "identity, rather than depending on the concrete circumstances of a person's life, is primarily constructed from within, through an individual's deployment of language." (Kate Flint, 'The Waves', in Julia Briggs (ed) Virginia Woolf - Introduction to the Major Works)

This is directly connected with one of my favourite Woolf quotes:

Supposing the looking-glass smashes, the image disappears, and the romantic figure with the green of forest depths all about it is there no longer, but only that shell of a person which is seen by other people - what an airless, shallow, bald, prominent world it becomes! A world not to be lived in. As we face each other in omnibuses and underground railways we are looking into the mirror; that accounts for the vagueness, the gleam of glassiness in our eyes. And the novelists in future will realize more and more the importance of these reflections, for of course there is not one reflection but an almost infinite number; those are the depths they will explore, those the phantoms they will pursue, leaving the description of reality more and more out of their stories, taking knowledge of it for granted. (Virginia Woolf, Mark on the Wall)

Despite my longstanding fascination with this quote, and my vague desire to one day put it into practice, I am finding myself reading Joyce purely for those momentary depictions of reality and avoiding (as much as possible) engaging with the characters musings in the 'mirror'. I must applaud Joyce's mastery, for each time I grow bored and my attention starts to drift, he tucks in a little gem of lovely poetic description which wins me back to his cause. I find some of these are too real for my taste. I will spare you the graphic picture of a dog investigating the decomposing corpse of another dog which is now indelibly fixed in my memory. Instead, here is a beautiful image of the sea:

It flows, purling, widely flowing, floating foampool, flower unfurling.
Under the upswelling tide he saw the writhing arms lift languidly and sway reluctant arms, hissing up their petticoats, in whispering water swaying and upturning coy silver fronds. Day by day: night by night: lifted, flooded and let fall. Lord, they are weary; and, whispered to, they sigh.

The success of Joyce's experiment in Woolf's theory also shines through the contrast between the inner worlds of Dedalus and Mr Bloom. We are catapulted from Stephen's shoreside symphony to the mundane musak of Leopold's thoughts, while making breakfast for his wife and feeding his cat.

As I read on... and on... and on... I became less enamoured with the experiment. Stephen Dedalus's long narrative in which he discourses on Shakespeare seemed interminable, and even Leopold Bloom's narrative became tedious over time, particularly when I realised he was engaging in what must be one of the longest descriptions of a fart in English literature.

There were moments of brilliance. I enjoyed the voyeurism of the scene with the three girls on the beach in the chapter called Nausicca, but then we were back to Bloom's musings on the event, which were less than inspiring. Once again, however, Joyce managed to tuck in that little poetic description that kept me reading for more - Bloom sees a bat in the evening air: "Like a little man in a cloak he is with tiny hands. Weeny bones. Almost see them shimmering, kind of a bluey white."

With most 'adult' books, when my one year old gets bored with Mummy reading, I can read a bit aloud to him and he is happy. My major grudge against Ulysses is that it is absolutely impossible to read aloud - even some of the bits that look like real words!!! Honestly, I thought lawyers were guilty of writing the most convoluted english, until I came upon this sentence (which is just one example among many):

Universally that person's acumen is esteemed very little perceptive concerning whatsoever matters are being held as most profitable by mortals with sapience endowed to be studied who is ignorant of that which the most in doctrine erudite and certainly by reason of that in them high mind's ornament deserving of veneration constantly maintain when by general consent they affirm that other circumstances being equal by no exterior splendour is the prosperity of a nation more efficaciously asserted than by the measure of how far forward may have progressed the tribute of its solicitude for that proliferant continuance which of evils the original if it be absent when fortunately present constitutes the certain sign of omnipollent benefaction.

This little snippet is followed, so far as I can gather, by a number of men (some of them doctors, but also including Bloom & Stephen Dedalus) holding a drunken feast in the dining room of a maternity hospital - an episode told in the language of medieval epic. Throughout Ulysses, Joyce borrows from various kinds of 'high-flown' discourse, covering almost every genre you can think of since the english novel began - but there's so much of it, it really gets incredibly tedious.

At the end of the chapter entitled Eumaeus, Joyce makes his clearest reference to the modernist thinking that I believe underlies this novel. Bloom and Dedalus are staggering back to Bloom's house when they see a sweeper horse. What follows is another of Joyce's classic moments of epiphany.

Bloom looked at the head of the horse ... suddenly in evidence in the dark quite near, so that it seemed new, a different grouping of bones and even flesh, because palpably it was a fourwalker, a hipshaker, a blackbuttocker, a taildangler, a headhanger, putting his hind foot foremost the while the lord of his creation sat on the perch, busy with his thoughts. But such a good poor brute, he was sorry he hadn't a lump of sugar, but as he wisely reflected, you could scarcely be prepared for every emergency that might crop up. He was just a big foolish nervous noodly kind of a horse, without a second care in the world. (my emphasis)

In addition to these moments of epiphany - the clear-seeing and clear-saying - my other reason for persevering with Ulysses right to the end is for the feel and flow of Dublin life at the start of the twentieth century.

I did regret my decision a number of times during the Circe chapter. There were several scenes in that which I would rather not have fed into my imagination. Uggghhh. In contrast, Molly Bloom's rambling amorous musings in the final chapter, Penelope, were at least slightly amusing and generally inoffensive so I was able to put the novel down having somewhat assuaged my general distaste.

The major flaw with Ulysses, in my opinion, is that it is too long - although the narrative covers only a single day, it also incorporates the entirety of english literature! If it were condensed into just one of these volumes, it would be a highly enjoyable novel! The great catch cry of the modernists was "make it new". This Joyce has certainly done. However, in my opinion, he has not managed to make it readable - and it is definitely not in the language of the common man!!!