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

 

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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