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’.

 

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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. 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