The Half-Way-Through-Review. No.9: The Hand That First Held Mine

The Hand That First Held Mine. Maggie O’Farrell. 1943. (Headline, 2011)

If the middle-age, middle-class woman has a natural habitat it is surely the book club. Their hegemony over the organised reading of things is well-known, (and statistically corroborated) but the extent of this pre-eminence was not truly made clear to me until I took the trouble to actually join one. I’ve never really been that concerned to formally share my thoughts on literature with others beyond the medium of this blog, whereby I can shout nonsense into the ether, relatively cosy in the knowledge that little by way of belligerence will be forthcoming. What swayed me from my usual reticence on this occasion was the embarrassingly mundane carrot of a miniscule slot on a provincial UK radio station. And so, I find myself 2 weeks from broadcast D-Day reading a novel I would never have chosen, with the mounting suspicion that I’ve crossed an unspoken social divide, for which a suitable comeuppance is being prepared forthwith. Whilst it’s undoubtedly refreshing on a personal level that my worldview is now that much greater thanks to this largely useless insight into how the other half lives, I wouldn’t be wholeheartedly against the genie being returned to its bottle.

The nature of my group’s democratically nominated choice of book for our debut session did not initially leave me feeling less exposed, in a manner that is honestly pretty unusual as an educated white male. With florid purple cover, and endorsements from ElleMarie Claire, and Woman and Home, Maggie O’Farrell’s The Hand that First Held Mine stakes its claim to a particularly gendered audience pretty severely. At the halfway point I’m still not too sure why this should be the case. Sure, the book deals with relationships, with love, and with loss, and it does so in a manner less masculine cerebral and more maternally contemplative, but there is simply nothing here in the substance of the plot, the characters, or the narrative tone that need render it chick-lit, unless we accept that the notion of a character with post-natal depression is too alien a concept for the male psyche to comprehend. Maybe the publishers simply worry that female protagonists will not strike a chord with male readers, though in the age of Katniss, Hermione, and Arya that theory’s pretty hard to uphold. Whilst nowhere near as iconic (and somewhat older), the women of O’Farrell’s tale would fit well into such company, given that brooding, dislocated, Elena and combative, whirlwind Lexi are complex and layered individuals, rather than the one-dimensional caricatures of the female which would legitimately discourage readers of either sex. And given that we spend half our time with their male counterparts in any case, who are granted as much impetus and agency as their opposite numbers, worries over our developing a testosterone deficiency are plainly unfounded. It’s genuinely baffling that such regressive marketing exists well into the second decade of the 21st century.

Of course, the book has flaws, but again they’re refreshingly unisex shortcomings, bog-standard literary imperfections not solely borne, as far as I can subjectively tell, from any macho prejudices on my part. It would not be fair to say that any of the main group, Lexi, Elena, Ted or even Innes were totally one-dimensional. As referenced above, their depictions are nuanced and each individual marries a human unpredictability with their own personal variety of innate compassion. Innes is inescapably predatory, and I sense that the character works much better on the page than he might on a TV screen, (or indeed were he chasing real-life girls through real-life London) but even he maintains a certain naiveté and vulnerability that keep us on his side. But if the characters win our affection early on, it’s a shame they can’t build anything from this. There is no development of note in any of our four main players. This is most pronounced with Elena and Ted, whose mutual weary detachment, mental checkouts, and unconscious recriminations have all the variety of a Belgian landscape. In the case of Lexi on the other hand, her marooning from her past leaves her attached to Innes for both emotional and actual direction which, whilst central to the story O’Farrell presumably wants to develop for her heroine, leaves both our paramours in a form of dead-end limbo for the first 200 pages. Innes’ death ostensibly frees Lexi to grow and flourish away from the small world they inhabited together, but little that the author or character have done so far suggests such a radical alteration of course.

This lack of methodical progression seems to stem from the trait of O’Farrell’s which is both her strength and her weakness: her ability to write the realistic. Episodes such as Ted’s occasional miasmas of confusion or Elena’s cold terror at the surreal monotony of her world post-child are rendered so vividly that our inhabiting of their world need be nothing but effortless. When Lexi finds herself in a dingy London bar, her surroundings and its attendant denizens are presented with such clarity that it instantly gains the familiarity of one’s favoured local, even if there exists no resemblance whatsoever. Much as this authenticity helps us transcend the boundary between our own reality and that of the author’s fiction, it also leaves the journey feeling less like a holiday and more like a business trip. By focusing overlong on the humdrum, commonplace, and everyday aspects of existence, in both the 1950s and contemporary versions of our backdrop, the appeal of dipping in to either is greatly reduced. Again, Elena and Ted take this to a level beyond Lexi and Innes, as their dialogue in every interaction basically boils down to some mumbled, fumbled attempts at empathy and a collective shrug, this then repeated ad perpetuum. Every conversation is eminently believable, and exactly how I imagine a couple in their situation would communicate, but it’s not sustainable to the level attempted here without some form of modulation. As with The Glass Bead Game, this conscious choice of tone is central to the novel’s makeup. In Hesse’s work, Joseph Knecht’s academic aloofness remained to the very end. Conversely The Hand that First Held Mine seems to be rendering a tipping point unavoidable at the halfway marker.

The success of the novel really hinges on how successfully any change of pace is brought about. There is the seed of a really good novel here, for readers of either sex, if the meandering rootlessness and simmering resentment of the first half is a building block for something more, rather than an end in itself. The early results of the Half-Way-Through Review suggest we rarely change our feelings about a story drastically from those we hold at the end of the first half. Maggie O’Farrell’s slow-burner is the most obvious candidate to upset this apple-cart. Maybe the secret lies in those maligned marketing choices. I was so sure I’d hate the flowery, girly nonsense that surely lay within, that I’m progressively more ecstatic to find something completely different.

1/2 Way Rating: 6/10                                                                                                                                                                               Final Rating: 8/10

JC

The Half-Way-Through-Review. No.8: The Glass Bead Game

The Glass Bead Game. Herman Hesse. 1943. (Vintage Classics, 2000)

Writing in any form should always be challenging (though perhaps less so than this blog would make seem), but maintaining the concentration to produce a novel during a World War is presumably a wholly different kettle of fish. The fact that Hermann Hesse, ensconced in the relative tranquillity of neutral Switzerland for the duration of the second global conflict of the 20th century, might have dreamt of utopian futures is completely understandable given the destruction of not only human life, but also the artistic and cultural inheritance of central Europe taking place in the countries around his adopted homeland. That he used the Glass Bead Game to dissemble a flawed paradise rather than posit an unblemished plan for a better tomorrow shows however that Hesse’s literary and critical skills maintained the ability to rise about his immediate historical context and see a different and bigger picture, rather than a narrow band coloured by Nazism and warfare. Counterintuitively there is a lovely optimism in Hesse’s refusal to take us to an idealised future but instead to continue his investigation of the human quest for knowledge begun elsewhere in his canon in works such as Siddhartha. It’s simply impossible to read Hesse’s last work and maintain a negative view of the human race. Those peopling the Glass Bead Game are never perfect but are almost uniformly well-meaning and where humanity falls short of its abilities the culprit is always a lesser sin such as ignorance or over-confidence rather than any genuine manifestation of malice. Whilst ideas of good and evil are not central to the novel, the author’s unspoken yet tangible stance makes for a subtly and refreshingly uplifting read.

On the other hand, the nature of the world we find ourselves in also self-consciously lays bare the potential downside to Hesse’s positivity, and to my mind prevents this intriguing tale from soaring to the heights of a true classic. The world of The Glass Bead Game is painfully dull. The fact that this is a deliberate conceit on the author’s part doesn’t prevent it impacting on our enjoyment of the story. The debate about what gives meaning to an individual’s life, and whether the quest for cultural and intellectual pursuits can by itself bring definition to anywhere near the same degree as genuine suffering, is of course stimulating and Hesse presents both sides with precision, tact and wit. However, the fact that the landscapes presented to us are so one-dimensional is deeply problematic. The narrative exists in a sexless, airless vacuum devoid of tension or excitement, which on the one hand proves that any ahistorical, apolitical utopian society would be untenably mundane, but conversely is stifling within minutes of entering into it. In a novella this might perhaps be sustainable; in a full-blown novel it’s a genuine obstacle to enjoyment.

By the same token, whilst marooned in an environment of sterile placidity, we remain permanently welded to a likeable yet undeniably bland main character. Joseph Knecht is too perfect to inspire any sort of lasting place in the memory, regardless of his supposed multiple crises of faith throughout his life span. As a parody of multiple genres, amongst them overtly flattering biography and the bildungsroman of the prodigy, the manipulation of Knecht’s life story is an expert display of craftsmanship. Again though, this isn’t enough for us to span the ocean that divides us from a real empathy with our hero. It’s not merely that he has none of the regular drivers of a normal human being, be they sexual, financial, professional or otherwise. Nor is the banality of the few personal relationships he manages to maintain the real issue, though the thoroughly wet Tegularius and the would-be anti-Knecht Designori allow little room for interaction of the non-didactic variety. Really it’s the ease with which all this is accepted. The philosophical questions which Knecht wrestles with and which tempt him to stray from the accepted path, are meant to be accepted as manifestations of a deep and long-running battle for his soul but thanks to his cool detachment these chasms register as nothing more than a slight existential ennui. There is of course still half a novel for these conflicts to bear fruit, but the otherworldly, saintly nature of our protagonist suggests they will be resolved without involved philosophical or narrative satisfaction for anyone but Knecht himself.

That might seem damning but more than a few shafts of light persist. From the outset, as suggested above, the Glass Bead Game is steeped in the spiritual, well-meaning humanism of the author. Hesse imparts a wonderful love of learning, especially music throughout, yet never strays into the proximity of preachiness. It’s nothing less than a pleasant and wholesome read throughout. Moreover, the construction of the work, being two parts narrative of Knecht life, and one part Knecht’s own writings, leaves a lot of room for a change of pace, style and characterisation as we move into the latter pages. Indeed, it’s probable that these less straightforward structures might produce the bigger shift in HWTR grades, but it’s early in the experiment, and time will tell. In the meantime, we can only join our favourite Castalian in wondering how far we can subsist on wholesomeness alone.

1/2 Way Rating: 6/10                                                                                                                                                                               Final Rating: 6/10

JC

The Limerick Digest. No.1: LimEUricks

The news, for those who haven’t the time, as communicated by the ghost of Edward Lear.

This week: Britain covers itself in glory, as direct democracy avoids the pitfalls of fact or reasoned debate. And millions around the globe wait to see if the inhabitants of the UK will get their country back, whilst asking what exactly it looks like, and where did they last have it?

No.1: The Owl and the Autocrat

 

There once was a man called Farage,

Who sailed down the Thames on a barge,

He declaimed: ‘But it’s true,

If it weren’t for the EU,

I’d have had a boat two times as large’.

 

No.2: Farage Redux

 

That mad former banker Farage,

Routinely the facts did massage,

He howled: ‘EU sods,

Stop us fishing our cods,

Though this clearly was nought but mirage

 

No.3: The UKIP strikes back

 

There was an old chap from UKIP,

Who sailed nary to sea in a ship,

Cried out he: ‘Why dwell so,

On news from 2 weeks ago?’

In this post’s case an apposite quip.

 

No.4: Unfair generalisations of the most toxic kind

 

An Isle in the midst of the sea,

Decided it’s need to be free,

From the EU’s red tape,

So it made it’s escape,

On the back of a racist or three.

 

No.5: Appease is a dirty word

 

The Honorable Member for Witney

Had a hard time campaigning though didn’t he?,

A bloke raised a hue,

Said he thought he could view,

Some resemblance to old Neville’s ministry.

 

No.6: No-score draw

 

That foolhardy bunch called Remain,

Couldn’t help but from facts go a-straying,

They said ‘Brussels goes halves,

On your tabs at the bars

And your mortgage they’re already paying’.

 

The-Half-Way-Through-Review. No. 7: The Luminaries

The Luminaries. Eleanor Catton. 2013. (Granta Publications, 2014)

Perhaps unsurprisingly for an 800+ page Booker Prize winning novel, The Luminaries is a tome with decided pretentions. One of the aspects of modern literature which this blog has occasionally considered in the past is the question of just how books are marketed to the public, and whilst today’s subject is not exactly in disguise, there is a certain considered coyness around elements of its constitution. Simply put, Luminaries is a crime novel, a complex historical whodunit, yet this potentially populist label is deliberately avoided. Coupled with the zodiacal seam running through its pages, (at some distance from the narrative itself), the end product is a book with an unusual but palpable aura. That we begin with a character chart, which divides our players into Stellar, Planetary and Terra Firma groups, does nothing to dispel the air of mysterious erudition, and yet the story itself could easily survive without such peripheral paraphernalia. I can’t think of too many novels whose stage is set so meticulously before the tale is begun when an absolute concrete need does not exist. Our author clearly wants us to enjoy the story against a very specific mental backdrop, which is a bold and interesting move.

I suspect that the temptation for most when reviewing such a confident book, steeped in international recognition and success, and with clear affectations from the onset, might be to find the inevitable flaws and go to town knocking the magnum opus off its lofty perch. On the other hand, maybe that’s only true for those, such as myself, with deeply uncharitable natures. In any case, whatever one’s natural predilection to build up or do down, the craftwork of The Luminaries is so strikingly apparent that to ignore it would be a callous dereliction. I am under no illusions about my own skills as a writer (exhibits A-Z for the prosecution can be found among this blog’s output) but oftentimes when I read I like to fancifully consider whether I could reasonably have fashioned even a single sentence which has gone into a work’s creation. Most of the time the answer is, obviously, an undiluted ‘no’, but even so the manner in which the cognitive wheels have turned in an author’s head to get to their end product is usually to some degree discernible, even if you can’t reproduce it yourself. With The Luminaries I found even this step outright impossible. The prose simply flows and ripples in such a unique manner as to render such analysis futile. This isn’t just because of the erudition which has gone into constructing a richly believable historical reality and its attendant denizens. Moreover, it’s testament to the fact that the author has really written a new type of novel, a page-turner which is as densely and unashamedly verbose as any classic of the Victorian era.

Nor have I come across too many books which offer such cutting insights into the fundaments of human nature.  Yet it would be a huge disservice to call it aphoristic, given that these observations are interwoven so naturalistically. The effect is a ready mine of epiphanies for readers who are so inclined to accept the philosophy on offer. My personal favourite is one character’s observation that given how much of our life is given over to the contemplation of death, the afterlife itself might be a strikingly boring and empty affair. It is simply astounding how many profoundly substantial musings spring from the author’s pen, and the reader will drop their attention, even for a second, at only their own expense.

Given that this isn’t a cover blurb we should make some attempt to temper our praise for The Luminaries to some extent, and for all its craftsmanship there are some obvious flaws therein. Some of these indeed derive from its own readability. Because it’s easy to see a few hours pass in the company of this novel, and consume a hundred or so pages in the process, a repetitive reliance on some limited formulations becomes more pronounced and noticeable. We have about 15 main players in the plot, which should in theory give rise to a whole host of possible constructions of interaction. Yet we see practically the same conversation repeat itself over-and-over. Two (usually male) characters will converse. We will receive fairly lengthy declamations on their characters, temperaments and predilections (not unusual practice but, given the number of male leads, difficult to remember in their finer detail), and once or twice per scene a protagonist will learn some new information which visibly shocks them. The book is almost Socratic in its devotion to the dialogue, perhaps unsurprising for a work which reads on occasion like a philosophical tract. Amazingly though, these dialogues without fail prove to be well constructed, they move the plot along at a perfect pace, and the characters retain their own unique identities despite any shortcomings in the system. The amount of reoccurrence is jarring and uncomfortable to our sensibilities, but if the pace and enjoyability of the narrative remains intact, does this matter?

We could ask a similar question about the crime (or at this stage a presumed misdemeanour) at the very heart of the story, in terms of whether or not it is of importance to us, and to what extent we can be invested in its solution. At the moment it seems that the primary antagonist is likely to be one of the individuals who has existed on the circumference of the main action heretofore. That shouldn’t matter of course, it all depends on the execution of the reveal. The interwoven connections between each character, including with those in whose direct company we spend precious little time, have been meticulously constructed, and are immensely complicated. It would be impossible to keep track of developments, were it not for the author’s good natured and subtly reminders dotted throughout. The intricate web of our players and the depth of their back stories, coupled with prose of such quality, promises a deeply satisfying pay off. Having set our sights so high, anything less would be a disappointment. And as always, for each 100 pages you add to a text, the contract between author and reader becomes that little less forgiving.

1/2 Way Rating: 9/10                                                                                                                                                                               Final Rating: 7/10

JC

The Half-Way-Through-Review. No. 6: Invisible Man

Invisible Man. Ralph Ellison. 1952. (Penguin Essentials, 2014)

Ideally, in the following scenario, I’d like to cast myself as the victim of circumstance and context. I had perused one copy of Invisible Man in my lifetime. This was a dusty volume tucked away in the bowels of an uninviting academic library, whose sombre black binding allied with a misleadingly severe synopsis inside the front cover led me to the callow conclusion that here was a worthy book, but probably not an enjoyable one. I scented exhortation and instruction and I balked. It was not until some years later that I came across Ralph Ellison’s magnum opus again, this time in the sunlit basement of a cosy, local bookstore. Gone was the dour binding, with the fresh, modern paperback instead carrying an arty, designer affect. More importantly, the misleading blurb had vanished. In its place one telling snippet of review purporting that the contents were nothing less than ‘savagely funny’.

Whatever part the contextual played, to have deprived myself of so fine a book for so long seems like just desserts for an approach to book selection so ill-advised as to be axiomatic. Ellison simply blurs so many of the boundaries inherent in most strands of literature that every new page is at once a surprise and a reward. Take our main character. On some level he is an everyman, an exemplar of the postwar black Americans who sought the decent life they were promised, and the path of his life, from an unfulfilling education through a jungle of inhospitable employment to the unavoidable heart of the city, is one which many millions must have undertaken in the same era. Yet throughout he remains a unique quantity, his actions not predictable to any template, but consistent to that singular consciousness discernible in both past and present iterations of our protagonist in spite of the vast oceans of experience which separate them.

By the same token the manner in which Ellison refuses to name our titular invisible man allows him to have his cake and eat it too. On the one hand we are forced to acknowledge the system which denies him name and personhood. On the other Ellison is explicit in repeatedly forcing us to flirt on the brink of a final knowledge of this name. These are light, playful, genuinely comedic moments, so palatable that we almost miss the nugget of truth inside, namely that identity involves much more than mere possession of forename plus surname. Yet they are instants that should make us profoundly uncomfortable also. We’re forced to confront the fact that, though we are familiar with, and comfortable in the presence of, our protagonist there is so much about him we do not know, and a chasm of experience which a reader such as myself, at such a remove of time and distance, can never truly cross.

This dichotomy gives the book a unique flavour but it one of a number which keep the book in a state of flux, and draw us away from assuming the Invisible Man’s life is one grey traverse. In a similar vein, the state of reality we experience in the book is rarely static. At one moment we are traipsing across the pristine lawns of the southern college anchored by the presence of the proud academic buildings surrounding, at the next we are thrust in to a surreal vortex of character and noise at the Golden Day. No sooner have we passed the time by literally watching paint dry, with all the attendant mundanities of trying to eke out gainful employment in the face of an obliviously ignorant employer, than this sombre semblance of routine is shattered by the industrial accident which lands our hero in hospital, via a jumble of senses and sounds which leaves us just as shell-shocked as its recipient, and renders the resultant interlude of semi-conscious drifting a welcome refreshment.

Ultimately it is this ebb and flow which gives life to the tale. Despite the narrator’s vantage point from the end of the tale, the trajectory of his immediate future seems as much to take him by surprise as it does ourselves. The action often accelerates out of nothing, and ceases motion just as fast, but when we restart it is always at a new pace, at a total remove from anything encountered before. The evolution of our hero is so bewildering and incomprehensible to him precisely because of this. He exists, through no design or desire of his own, outside of the normal experience even of time. His invisibility manifests itself again.

1/2 Way Rating: 8/10                                                                                                                                                                               Final Rating: 8/10

JC

The Half-Way-Through-Review. No. 4: The Well of Loneliness

The Well of Loneliness. Radclyffe Hall. 1928. (Penguin Modern Classics, 2015)

First things first, that’s one bleak title. There are, of course, a million and one depressing novels in the world, (you could fill a library with those of Thomas Hardy alone), but their gloom is rarely made so explicit before the cover has even been breached. Put plainly, Well of Loneliness is not a book you can happily read on public transport or in any workplace staff room, without enduring some worried glances and well-meaning enquiries as to your current state of mental wellbeing. It might be an alienating experience, which is entirely fitting.

WoL, in terms of literary quality, is not a classic, despite several publishers branding it as such. Yet it is, at its best, a fantastic character study of just how different, and how difficult, any deviation from the traditional norms was, even in the relatively recent past. The prose is clunky, repetitive and staggeringly unsubtle in its crowbarring into place an infinity of less-than-sly suggestions as to the real cause of Stephen’s differentness (ie. her lesbianism), at every conceivable juncture. But to some extent perhaps, the context of the novel excuses this. Radcyllfe Hall’s inter-war audience, despite the First World War, was not too far removed from the stuffy morality of the Victorian era, and would largely have been shielded from any discussion of homosexuality whatsoever. Stephen’s recourse to her inversion as an explanation for her awkward traits deliberately recalls the work of early theorists of sexuality, and how far even the scientific community was ill-accustomed to considering such issues. The common reader would have had to be led by the hand towards something which, to us, would be in common view. If the resultant text is fatiguing, on the other hand it serves as a stark portrayal of how constant and consistent are the loneliness and self-doubt of those who stand outside the narrow band of social ‘normalcy’ in any era of history.

The book is undoubtedly worthy then. It’s also unavoidably dull. Stephen is a bland heroine, at once lovelorn milksop and bristling with starchy aloofness. Her social reticence means we spend an uncomfortable amount of time alone with her ponderous, narrow and oddly unilluminating thoughts. Nor are the one-dimensional supporting cast able to break the tedium. The parents might seem our best bet of engagement and meaningful exchange, but the monophonic nature of their respective personalities, the father all confused compassion, the mother so detached as to be a non-entity, means that they render many of the would-be pivotal moments of the first half of the novel devoid of impact or consequence simply by their presence. Of the remainder of the characters, only Williams and Rafferty manage to reach the half-way marker retaining any of the reader’s goodwill, and the former is an unashamed caricature and the latter a horse. We can hardly expect them to carry the plot.

Presumably the book was not dull to the eyes of Radclyffe Hall, but then the gap between author’s pen and the mind of the audience is a wide one. Never has it seemed wider than when Stephen begins declaiming on love. Whether it be the contentment she derives from Morton’s cosy interiors and the familiar, bracing countryside which surrounds it, or the ‘passion’ inspired by Angela Crosby, the depth of emotion presumably aimed at is never translated across. For the charms of the Worcestershire environs we are left to rely on bland platitudes, repeated on a semi-regular basis. Pacing is a problem, not just here but throughout (the first half of) the novel, with Stephen regularly repeating verbatim in reminiscence, events which the reader has experienced only 2 minutes previously. In terms of setting the scene, rather than reinforcing Stephen’s connection to nature and her home, this repetition merely deems inescapable the hackneyed nature of her vistas, valleys and brooding hills.

This penchant to recapitulate reaches its nadir in her relationship with Angela. Stephen’s beau is never shown as anything other than a selfish manipulator and we never truly get a handle on what Stephen sees in her, despite our place in her subconscious. Their dalliance has a tangibly rushed quality, which is curious given that it plays out over a fairly extended time frame, but this does not produce a sympathetically whirlwind romance. Given the static nature of Angela as a malignant foil for Stephen, and the paucity of development of the latter’s thoughts, we are left with an unvarying procession of token gestures and reactions, and stripped of any meaningful progression of sentiment we are once again subjected to repetitions which hammer us over the head with that which the narrative has failed to weave. Stephen must expound her heart-rending love for Angela on at least twenty occasions, yet cut free of all consequential context she is merely appears an automaton, and what should be the crux of the first half of the novel feels both perfunctory and manufactured.

It’s hard to embark upon the second half of Well of Loneliness with this in mind. The Angela Crosby affair is surely meant as the truly formative experience in Stephen’s youth, and one which brings both emotional and physical upheaval. The deep flaws inherent in this episode, which affect its very plausibility, can only cast a very large shadow over whatsoever should come after, and it’s hard to continue to place our trust in Stephen as a worthwhile narrator. But it is also very difficult to talk of a book such of this in such terms. Clearly the courage necessary to produce such a tale, let alone live such a life, means Radclyffe Hall’s work to some extent transcends literary critique. As a reminder of the intolerance that humanity is capable of, it remains a powerful exhibit. Yet in the character of Stephen, we are reminded that Hall’s deepest wish was to be judged not as a women, nor as a man, certainly not as an exception, but as Radclyffe Hall. She would neither want us to overplay her strengths nor ignore her weaknesses.

1/2 Way Rating: 4/10                                                                                                                                                                               Final Rating: 3/10

JC

 

The Half-Way-Through-Review. No. 3: Pere Goriot

Le Pere Goriot. Honore de Balzac. 1835. (Oxford World’s Classics, 1999)

In the course of its short lifespan this blog has already sampled of the delights of French literature. Whilst The Lost Estate was its author’s only novel, and Alain-Fournier exists very much on the periphery of any discussion concerning the country’s canon of writers, today by contrast, we find ourselves dead centre in that canon. Honore de Balzac’s Comedie Humaine contains an exhaustive 91 completed works and on his death a whole host of others remained unfinished. An influence on Flaubert and Zola in his homeland, and luminaries such as Dickens, James and Dostoyevsky abroad, Balzac should, in theory, be required reading even today. Yet he seems if not neglected, then supremely overshadowed, at least as far as current reading habits are concerned.

Part of this is surely the nature of his oeuvre. Multi-volume, sprawling uber-series, such as La Comedie Humaine can seem totally inaccessible, or at best severely daunting to modern readers and a far remove from the majority of serials, contemporary or otherwise, reliant on linear and sequential, plot-driven frameworks. Whilst the individual works reputedly stand alone, it’s alienating to suspect that the characters, settings and plotlines exist in a wider, concrete frame of reference which a one-volume reader can only half-inhabit and semi-comprehend. This might go some way to explaining why, of the three giants of French literature mentioned above, it is Flaubert, the author of a magnificently self-contained gem of a novel, who is by some distance the more popularly known and more widely read today than Balzac or Zola, the two masters of the exhaustive ‘cycle’. Such a reductive argument can only tell us so much and assuredly there are many other factors at work here, but it is not illogical or unreasonable to suggest that such comprehensiveness rarely breeds an inviting atmosphere.

Pere Goriot, as well as dealing with the shortcomings that go with existing alongside 90 inter-weaving siblings, has its own problems to contend with. The subject matter, centring as it does on an ambitious social climber, falls into what has always been a well-stocked category. From Bel-Ami to Becky Sharp, 19th century literature in particular abounded with the successes and failures of myriad devious parvenus and surely Pere Goriot’s protagonist Rastignac runs the risk of getting lost in the crowd, especially when we take into account that the fireworks that accompany the explosive likes of Thackeray’s anti-heroine are, (so far), absent from Rastingnac’s adventures. Sure he vacillates over Vautrin’s offer of a scandalous compact and causes some ripples in the Parisian social scene, disturbing a number of relationships along the way, but otherwise his progress is remarkably placid in its fruition.

The evolution of this success also creates problems. At the start we are dealing with an impressionable and naïve young man and everything we experience through him at this early stage is sharp, vivid and fresh. Rastignac’s first meetings with Madames de Restaud and de Beauseant are electrified by his irrepressible nervous anxiety. Every inch of the entrance halls and receiving rooms we find ourselves taken to radiate energy as a result. His first meeting with Delphine de Nuncingen however, whom he meets last of all, lacks some of this sparkle and their subsequent meetings quickly become commonplaces, both to ourselves and to Rastignac. This is, of course, to be expected. His easy complacency brilliantly highlights how successful Eugene has been in making this world his own, not to mention the fact that such bright-eyed wonderment as was displayed in his early ventures would get tiresome and illogical fast were it a lasting feature. There is also a good chance that the desire to climb even further and to transcend this monotony will be what actually pushes our protagonist into Vautrin’s grasp. Yet realistic and narratively necessary as this is, we can’t escape from the fact that the pacing of the plot, towards the middle of the novel, is sacrificed as a result.

This is not to fail to recognise that Pere Goriot is an exquisitely written text. The characters, even those we meet but rarely, are given their own depth of personality which stops the broader individuals, such as the slumlord Madame Vauquer or the charismatic villain Vautrin, from slipping into caricature. That Balzac has such success here is in part because he is not afraid to pause to paint in the finer details of a scene. This goes for the setting as much as the people who inhabit it. Our introduction to Maison Vauquer is so thorough that we are from the outset intimately connected to that place and imbued with its atmosphere, whilst the commitment and feeling poured into this description by the narrator means we are never fatigued by such a level of detail. Surprisingly, Paris itself is conspicuously low-key throughout, which is actually quite refreshing. We are not given lingering vistas of the city or rambling descriptions of its wonders but rather the metropolis exists as a backdrop, occasionally referenced. Its nature suffuses every inch of the text, no doubt, but with a masterly subtlety. Having explored the travails of the multi-volume work it’s nice to end on one of its upsides. The sheer length of La Comedie Humaine allows Balzac to share his love and knowledge of his city as an easy familiarity. If you want to experience 19th century Paris there can surely be no better way than viewing his world through the little windows that novels such as Pere Goriot afford us.

1/2 Way Rating: 7/10                                                                                                                                                                               Final Rating: 6/10

JC

The Half-Way-Through-Review. No. 2: Under the Volcano

Under the Volcano. Malcolm Lowry. 1947 (Jonathan Cape, 1967)

Writing about one’s own addiction of any kind must be hard, obviously. Writing about one’s own addiction to alcohol and producing an engaging yet fair and realistic portrayal must be damn near impossible. Given the timeless street-cred and general ubiquity of booze how can anyone peel away the glamorous façade of fun times and bohemian hangovers and not come across as anything but preachy, boring and sexless? John Leland wrote of On the Road that ‘we’re no longer shocked’ by depictions, however graphic, of drug and alcohol abuse. Perhaps we cannot be shocked outright but the best writers of addiction novels, often addicts themselves, have always sought to convey that outright shock is not how addiction works. Addiction, as they depict it, is not an event, or even a series of events, but the permeation of a cyclical disease. The best of the best, Kerouac, Bukowski et al, rather infuse addiction into every pore of their books, sometimes hovering in the background, on occasion dominating the foreground, interacting with every character and every scene and every sentence. At the halfway point of Under the Volcano it’s perfectly clear that Malcolm Lowry inarguably belongs in this esteemed company.

Our plot follows the British consul Geoffrey Firmin as he attempts to deal with the travails of divorce and existential ennui by drinking himself oblivious against the majestic backdrop of the twin volcanoes which tower over the Mexican town of Quauhnahuac. We don’t meet Geoffrey himself until p.43 but through Lowry’s deft manipulation of the landscape we are prey to the spectral penumbra cast by his demons right from the outset. Every second the author dwells on the alien terrain of Mexico, and M. Laruelle’s leisurely, introductory ramble gives him the perfect platform to do just this, the more we are gripped by an odd atmosphere of unique tension and have some tiny understanding of how Geoffrey’s existence must feel. It is endless, arid, without hope or time. Even the abundance of beauty and majesty becomes something sinister and antagonistic. And, like Geoffrey, this Quahnahuac feels trapped by an inescapable fixation with its past. From Maximillian’s palace to the Calle Nicaragua every aspect appears to have seen its glory days pass by. Even the dormant volcanoes no longer have the fire of old. Of course, alcohol is everywhere in a very real and material sense as well, be it in the countless cantinas, the bottle in the car of a passing tourist, or the grand Ceveceria in the park. Explicitly and implicitly we are in Geoffrey’s head just as much as we are in our corporeal Mexican pueblo.

Perhaps this accounts to a large extent for the novel’s only real imperfections. When we are with Geoffrey the narrative is in equal measures gripping and disorientating. We are never sure, as he can never be sure, of what his next action will be or down which tangent his physical and mental deficiencies will lead. He is in constant conflict with the world around him and as such there is rarely a dull moment. The accounts of Hugh, Yvonne and Jacques are far more coherent, better structured and keep a steadier pace, logically so given their greater lucidity. These chapters can be both hugely entertaining and exquisitely written, without even beginning to unpick the fantastic allusions, Faustian and otherwise, peppered throughout the book. Yvonne’s ride with Hugh to the aforementioned Ceveceria is a fantastic case in point, wonderfully illustrating the former’s wry-yet-playful humour playing off against the latter’s bubbling unease at coming events. They are rarely, if ever, dull and provide so much of the backstory, without which Geoffrey would be a far more monochromatic character. Still, we cannot escape the fact that Geoff’s absence weighs on every scene and as our secondary characters chart their courses according to him and are magnetically drawn back into his orbit, so we the reader wish to be drawn back also. It’s really up to the reader to decide whether this is a limitation, a feat of literary engineering at its finest or both.

 I can’t recall too many more captivating figures than Geoffrey Firmin and I could happily spend the rest of the novel sat on the stool next to him as he props up the bar at another dusty cantina and regales the barman with deep philosophies, non-sequiturs and half-formed thoughts. Yet at no point are we invited to join Geoffrey in his most solitary of pursuits. He remains at a distance from us, that rarest of men who we can neither laugh with nor at, though we care for him deeply. An abrasive, often rude, selfish man at such a remove should not invoke such compassion yet Geoffrey does just that because we see in him a naively innocent confusion at life and a mulish determination to muddle through along the known paths which is universally relatable. That is why, as the Day of the Dead approaches we hope, as perhaps even Geoffrey does not, for his salvation and redemption be that in life or through death. Both paths seem so totally barred to our protagonist that we cannot imagine anything other than the nightmarish status quo for him. At the midpoint of Under the Volcano it’s an exhilarating prospect to see how Lowry leads us through to the mire to the end which seems as impossible as it is inevitable.

1/2 Way Rating: 8/10                                                                                                                                                                               Final Rating: 9/10

JC

The Half-Way-Through-Review. No.1: The Lost Estate

The Lost Estate. Alain-Fournier. 1913 (Penguin Classics, 2007)

When the half-baked notion of the half-way-through review was thought up it became abundantly clear that the format would suit some novels a damn-sight better than others. Storytelling being as it is of course means that the arbitrary halfway marker that I’ll be routinely laying down, based on little more than blind optimism, gut instinct and a rough page count, will rarely correspond to anywhere near the midpoint of the narrative. Admittedly therein lies the fun in this inexact science and looking at plots, characters and events from a position of blind imbalance feels good in a basic transgressive way, comparable to the thrill-ride that is the wearing of odd socks. I can’t, however, shake the feeling that we’ll quickly come to yearn for those books which have a tangible intermission slap bang in the middle. Books where you can pause, take in the first act, and ponder the second safe in the knowledge that it’s not yet begun. I fear this will be the rarest of exceptions.

With this in mind, The Lost Estate is a godsend of a book. At little over 200 pages it is a compact novel which perhaps prizes economy of detail over elaboration of contexts but the end result is seemingly a work of superb balance. The plotline is fairly simple without being the less engaging for it. Our narrator Francois is joined at the schoolhouse his parents run in rural France by the enigmatic and slightly older boarder Augustin Meaulnes. The new arrival quickly becomes the ringleader of the school boys but through misadventure goes missing for three days during which time he inadvertently makes his way to a mysterious and seemingly derelict country house.  Here, after stumbling anonymously through strangers’ festivities he meets the young, recently jilted heir to the manor and falls in love after a brief encounter with his, somewhat detached, sister. Unhappily returning to the reality of the schoolhouse ‘the Great Meaulnes’ enlists our narrator’s help in retracing his steps and winning back his fleeting happiness. So we have, by the midsection of part II, a simple equation and the reappearance of the spurned fiancée gives us the tantalising hope of our heroes’ satisfaction, hope enough to persuade the reader to momentarily forget the remorseful air that ultimately pervades Francois’ reminiscence.

That hope is what we feel should be, to an extent, surprising. Both the narrator and new arrival Meaulnes are somewhat shrouded figures and certainly not ones we might instantly warm to. Meaulnes is arrogant, distant and immediately reckless. Francois is too passively meek. Furthermore we know precious little of their lives and histories before the story begins and little about the character and tone of their personal relationships with those around them. So, at the outset there is a distance between us and them which deeper context would surely break down. Yet this is a remarkably apposite device for allowing us to fully appreciate the magnitude of the situation in which our protagonists subsequently find themselves and their journey in getting there. They are of course both in their mid to late teens and this is crucial in any understanding of Francois and Augustin. This is the coming-of-age period, when young men truly discover who they are and who they want to be. The personalities and character traits which reveal themselves here are often unexpectedly new and seemingly separated from events of the past, even those of the recent past. Personal relationships are regularly re-forged or rearranged in light of a new understanding of life. The Francois and Augustin of the schoolhouse do not look back to any past for their guidance, nor are we given much chance to do so. Their relationships, like that of Meaulnes with Monsieur Seurel or that of Francois with his classmates, are shaped by events rather than vice versa and the personalities of both protagonists are similarly thus altered. Allain-Fournier truncates our field of vision both temporally and socially so that these events are given the same magnitude as they have in the eyes of our heroes. Only with this in mind are transformations such as Meaulnes sudden change from priggish arrogance to sullen detachment, or Francois’ new zeal for adventure made believable and relatable rather than contrived.

The magic of adolescence then is the major theme of the book and wielded expertly. It would be remiss, however, if we did not acknowledge that it is undoubtedly mixed with magic of a different, more fantastical kind. I must admit that on picking up the black Penguin Classics version of the book I was expecting a spiritual vibe to kick in at some point in the narrative. The ethereal, elfin figure captured blurrily on the front cover suggests fairies and sprites rather than straightforward schoolboy high-jinks. The sleepy village of Sologne sees little of this though. This hub of reality, schoolwork and hard graft is, usefully, geographically divided from the spiritual energy of the titular lost estate which comes to so alter Meaulnes and, through him, Francois too. And it is energy of this other, non-scholastic, non-domestic world rather than anything concrete that so defines the estate and its denizens. Writing in the age of paranormal enthusiast Conan-Doyle and a general mania for pixies and the like, it is impressive that Allain-Fournier weaves such a supernatural aura around his manor whilst actually maintaining complete diligence to logic and the natural order of things. Everything that occurs around Meaulnes is given a rational explanation, though often post facto; it is only appearances that initially deceive. Thus the children appear to run the world, the festivities seem to run unbidden and unending, and the estate seems to exist by itself, without owner, without time. The truth is revealed almost by-the-by and does nothing to dispel the atmosphere for ourselves or indeed for Meaulnes.

I realise I’ve been a little on the gushing side over Meaulnes and co. but I have certainly enjoyed the ride so far. Perhaps I don’t feel the same level of warmth and love for the boys as I have done for certain other characters in the past but I think what Francois rather asks is for our respect and understanding, which we can certainly give. I do see things ending badly for Augustin. I wouldn’t be all that surprised if he didn’t survive all the way to p.222 to be honest. The book has already given cursory short shrift to a man shooting himself in the head and I suspect a certain ruthlessness. Francois seems destined to end up back in the schoolhouse, geographically unaltered but mentally changed, which would be a fitting end for our narrator, a locus around which events revolve. And I haven’t completely ruled out that something explicitly magical might happen, though I hope it doesn’t.

1/2 Way Rating: 8/10                                                                                                                                                                           Final Rating: 7/10

JC

The Half-Way-Through-Review: Statement of Intent

Alongside other more general musings, assuredly of a much less engaging quality than those of my esteemed and more literate colleagues, I hope to use the space afforded to me herein to undertake an experiment of the most unparalleled variety.

The Half-Way-Through-Review will do what no other blog post of literary criticism has done before. For too long has the tyranny of the completed novel held sway over our book reviews. In this manic era who should be made to wait in line for some mangled appraisal of their favourite novel whilst somewhere, far-away the unheeding form of an inhumane hack picks the salty bones of chapter Z from between their putrid teeth. No more! The time has come for action. This hack, incomparably humane and irrepressibly heeding, will bring you your mangled appraisals twice as fast. The solution is simple comrades. Only by reviewing after 50% of the book has been read, rather than the decadent traditionalism of the 100%ers, can we readily achieve this utopian goal.

Who knows what obstacles lie in our way as we venture down this untrodden path? Will the spectres of endings unwritten cloud our premature judgements? Perhaps. Might we proffer outpourings of reverential praise on a solitary swallow whom summer does not follow? Indeed. Will the author screw everything up by bringing back that aunt who died in the first act, one page after the interval? Almost definitely. But perhaps along the way we’ll learn something about just how we read books. Or the first halves of books at least.

JC