Posts filed under ‘english’

THE OPTICIAN OF LAMPEDUSA by EMMA JANE KIRBY

The Optician of Lampedusa by Emma Jane Kirby- see the Guardian’s Review – Was a very detailed and moving portrayal of North African boat people being shipwrecked in the Mediterranean, and some of them being rescued by italian passersby – one being the optician of the title.

The book details the impact on the optician and his friends across a full year after the rescue. In this way it gives some insight into what the actual story is behind the news headlines.

The bookgroup was very split on it. One half of the group, predominantly the women, thought it was great. A great insight into one persons experience of a tragic event and an insight into refugee issues. The other half of the group mostly men felt it didn’t deal with the issues at all. They also questioned whether it was actually non-fiction. Feeling imstead that really it was fictional in the sense that it was the journalist imagining what was going on in the head of the optician. Whereas the pro group felt it was the journalist describing what the optician had said to her, and it was real. It was actually what the optician was thinking.

I confess to being in the anti group. My problem was that I’m not sure what the point of it was. We have all seen the headlines a lot and I don’t think it takes much imagination to imagine what the events are really like behind those headlines. What impact it has on the people on the scene. I guess maybe some people don’t make the effort to do that, so maybe for them it will really help imagine what it is like to be involved.

For me I didn’t think it added anything. It certainly doesn’t change the political response, so I’m not sure what the point is of spending time wallowing in the pain and sorrow of tragic events like this, which you do reading this book. It does nothing to really change anything.

To me it feels a little bit self-indulgent to wallow in the sorrow of it when there’s nothing we can really do anyway. There are so many other tragic events in the world every day, many on a much larger scale than the migrant boat wrecks in the Mediterranean. You could easily write a book like this on the sorrow of malaria, diarrhoea, TB, or one of the various wars going on around the world, or just just any neighbourhood of extreme poverty. so why wallow in this particular tragedy in this particular place. it doesn’t seem to serve any particular purpose.

However, it is really well written and it does really take you there in a vivid way and gives you stories about the background and the lives of people involved, and their responses. It’s good to get that level of detail behind a headline.

My reaction to the optician himself was similar to my reaction to the book. I was a bit annoyed at his focus on the individuals. he seemed almost incapable really of seeing the bigger picture and seeing the complexity. Instead he was constantly complaining about ‘europe’ not doing something as if it’s obvious what could be done. The best example of this really was his desire to go back and rescue more when told they are all dead. he seemed vey naive, wilfully so.

A good thing though about the book was the description of post-traumatic stress, the impact on the lives of the optician and his wife, their sleep and so on. Although it was a bit frustrating. They didn’t seem like they sought help for all of that which was the obvious thing to do

Another thing that i found annoying about the book was its focus on the optician and the Italians. it really didn’t say much about what the African survivors went through in the 12 months after the rescue covered by the book. It did not go into at all the reasons why they left Eritrea. it really could’ve said a lot about this issue. It really is interesting and makes the Mediterranean boat people a completely different issue from the Syrians coming into eastern Europe and from the boat people in Australia and elsewhere.

However I think in the end the pro group probably won me over. I think a lot of my issues are criticising the book or something it was not trying to be. In particular it says on the cover that it is a novella. That is the author admitting that it’s a work of fiction. Also inside the front cover it says the book talks about the optician and not about all the other issues, that’s its goal. Those are the answers to me and the other people who criticised it. So I think i could recommend it to people who want an eyewitness account of what it’s like to be involved in those very tragic scenes that you see on the nightly news, but not to someone wanting a broad account of the issues behind those tragic scenes.

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July 20, 2018 at 3:59 am Leave a comment

ELEANOR OLIPHANT IS COMPLETELY FINE by. GAIL HONEYMAN

Eleanor oliphant is completely fine is written in first person from the point of view of Eleanor. So we see her part of the world, which appears to be the inner suburbs of Glasgow, through her eyes. And what entertaining eyes they are.

Maddeningly eccentric, self perceived as entirely rational but deeply socially unaware, and populated with large and strange fantasies. It was like being in the company of someone a fairly long way down the autism spectrum, but also deeply damaged, and deeply romantic.

The explanation for this eccentricity turns out to be a childhood of abuse with no friends or family anywhere in the world, and none of the social skills needed to obtain any.

She had the intellect to get educated and now has a job. She has social housing to put a roof over her head, public transport to get her from home to work, and Marks and Spencer for food and booze. Most importantly she has a daily and weekly ritual of movement connecting all these elements of her life. Same routine each working day and then a specific weekend routine.

Hence the title – Eleanor is completely fine. This is what she tells the social workers who come to visit every 6 months.

However all this is about to change. A chance event where she bumps into the new IT guy from work outside of work. They are on the street and arrive on the scene to rescue an older man who has had heart attack. As a result she ends up spending some time with the IT guy and his family, and the older man and his family. These are simple everyday things but entirely new experiences for Eleanor. And seeing them through her eyes makes them new for us to.

At the same time she develops a bizarre fascination for a local pub singer and decides he is ‘the one’. So, rationally in her eyes, she begins to prepare for their inevitable meeting and betrothal – her word.

The result of these two plot lines is that Eleanor starts to learn about people, and starts to learn about her own abilities, starts to enter the world.

The language with which this story is told is Eleanor’s – because she is the narrator. The character of Eleanor that the author has created has spent her whole life reading high end books, and nothing else, because she has no friends or family but studied English literature at university. As a result the language is rather formal in an olde worlde 19th century style. She admits at one point that Jane Austen is her favourite and she has read and reread them all many times. So she speaks quite a lot like a character from an Austen novel. I found it very entertaining. I found myself starting to speak that way after reading the book for quite some time. It was most amusing i must say. Rather like a diverting afternoon spent in the company of one’s acquaintances in the drawing room.

It was also a really interesting juxtaposition with her every day life, which was filled with working class Glasgow accents, and the lifestyles and family complexities that go with it. It was also great to compare her obviously rational but cold descriptions of these behaviours with her emotional reactions to these behaviours. It was obvious to the reader that being part of this world, for the first time really, clearly made her feel good, even though she says she doesnt value all this strange behaviour, and she makes it sound like she doesn’t understand it and thinks its all silly – tight jeans, high heels, hair dos, Brazilian wax jobs, family pictures on the wall – you name it.

if you want to quibble about the book you would question whether the kind of abuse Eleanor suffered in her childhood, and then constantly moving schools and moving foster homes, would really result in someone with the personality characteristics that she has – autism spectrum type character.

But really that would be missing the point. The point is that it is easy, and a lot of fun, to spend quite a few hours in the company of this eccentric and damaged character. Her outsiders view on the world is really interesting because its alien, but ultimately it is also surprisingly sympathetic.

This gives the book a feeling of redemption. At the end it seems like she will be getting better and coming into the world. It also seems like she is giving us permission to be forgiving and affectionate towards ourselves, despite all our irrational obsessions and inexplicable emotions.

So I would recommend it. For me it was a lot of fun and most bookgroupers agreed.

March 11, 2018 at 11:21 am Leave a comment

SATURDAY by IAN McEWAN

Firstly lets state the obvious – McEwen is a genius. His books are so easy to read and yet so complex, both the issues they address, and the complexity of the characters they create. Reading this book is like going to the best university you can imagine. Science, philosophy, politics, ethics, literature, psychology – its all here, seamlessly blended and beautifully presented.

He is a master of his art and i think he knows it. In this book he deliberately takes on two of the biggest names in the literary business – James Joyce and Virginia Wolff. Like their acknowledged classics, Ulysses and Mrs Dalloway respectively, Saturday takes place in one 24 hour span, and is largely comprised of internal mental dialogue. To me the blatant choice to use that form is a declaration – I’m as good as them, put me in that category. And as they say in basketball – it ain’t bragging if you can back it up. He does so in spades.

However, there are a couple of key differences from those books. Some things do happen in this one. Meaning there is a plot of sorts. And it is entirely from the perspective of one character, Henry Perowne.

He is a brain surgeon living London with his lawyer wife, and oddly – his jazz/blues guitarist son. They are expecting his left leaning poet daughter to arrive for dinner that evening. They are a little nervous because Henry’s elderly father in law, is coming. He is also a poet, well known, but drunk and egotistical. Last time he and his granddaughter met they had a major falling out. Perowne is hoping for a reconciliation over dinner.

The plot though is not driven by this family drama. Rather the purpose of these very carefully designed family members seems to be to provide Perowne, and McEwen, with excuses throughout the book for lengthy and erudite debates with himself about the merits of various writers, jazz and blues musicians, politics – especially the Iraq war of 2003, and many other issues. In every case McEwen not only shows off his scholarly grasp of these issues but his gift as a writer to show how Perowne’s positions on all these things are influenced by his personal experiences, and current events in his life and that of his family.

The book manages to blend the personal current events of its main character, with both global current affairs and the history of ideas, in a way i found uniquely insightful. For example at one point Henry is in a traffic jam

“He lowers his window to taste the scene in full, the bovine patience of a jam, the abrasive tang of icy fumes, the thunderous idling machinery in six lanes east and west, the yellow street lights bleaching colour from the body work, the jaunty thud from entertainment systems, and red tail lights stretching way ahead into the city, white headlights pouring out of it.”

This is a remarkable description but what makes it genius is what follows

He tries to see it or feel it in historical terms. This moment in the last decades of the petroleum age when a 19th-century device is brought to final perfection in the early years of the 21st. When the unprecedented wealth of masses at serious play in the unforgiving modern city makes for a sight no previous age can have imagined. Ordinary people. Rivers of light. He wants to make himself see it as Newton might – or his contemporaries Boyle, Hooke Wren Willis. Those clever, curious men of the English enlightenment who for a few years held in their minds nearly all the Worlds science. Surely they would be awed. Mentally he shows it off to them. This is what we’ve done, this is commonplace in or time. All this teeming illumination would be wondrous if only he could see it through their eyes. But he can’t quite trick himself into it. He can’t feel his way past the iron weight of the actual to see beyond the boredom of a traffic tail back, or the delay to which he himself is contributing, or the drab commercial hopes of a parade of shops he’s been stuck beside for 15 minutes. He doesn’t have the lyric gift to see beyond it – he’s a realist, and can never escape. But then, perhaps two poets in the family enough.

To take the most ordinary moment – a traffic jam – and turn it into not only a brief history of ideas but also a piece of self help advice about how to remain positive is impressive enough. But to seamlessly conclude the thought by moving to a very personal reflective moment from the character, that ostensibly tells the reader something about the character, but really tells the reader about themself. That is the height of writing.

And there is much more. A great insight about what it was like as a boy to be raised without a father, which i know to be true. A very prescient description of our attitudes to media coverage of war and terrorism. A hot shower in which Perowne muses that this will be seen in future as the height of western achievement. A walk to his car that covers the history of ideas. It’s all beautifully done and nearly always seems to appear naturally from Perowne as a character, rather than McEwen as the show off author giving us lectures about this and that.

Stop now if you dont want spoilers

But the plot is not driven by Perownes musings or his family concerns. It is his encounter with a petty thug called Baxter following a minor traffic incident that keeps things moving. During the incident Baxter threatens and then punches Perowne. But it turns out Baxter has a rare genetic brain disease that Perowne can diagnose from looking at him. The disease will kill him over a period of some years. Perowne uses this knowledge on Baxter to save himself from getting further beaten up, and get out of the situation, but in the process humiliates Baxter in front of his underlings. Later there is a series of events involving Perowne and his family in which Baxter gets a brain injury and is taken to hospital. The hospital then calls in Perowne to operate on Baxter, not knowing of any background between the two.

Bookgroup had a lengthy discussion about whether it was appropriate for Perowne to operate after the night that he had had, including the trauma of a home invasion and quite a few drinks. Obviously the consensus view was that it was not appropriate. There was another view that this operation was an allegory for Western intervention in a Iraq in the sense that Perowne was intervening in this unknown land, the brain of Baxter, in his attempt to do good in this foreign land.

In hindsight I think this discussion maybe missed the obvious motivation for the operation which was revenge. Effectively by operating skilfully Perowne knowingly condemned Baxter to a dreadful death from his pre-existing condition. This is perhaps the most devastating revenge one could take.

After the bookgroup discussion i felt overlooking this was comparable in many ways to the way we search for complicated, and less objectionable more rational, socio economic causes to explain various political phenomena. Often, simple basic offensive human drives like racism explain these phenomena much more coherently, but less comfortably.

However, at the end of the book Perowne denies he acted out of revenge. He even sets out a plan in his mind to get his family not to press charges so Baxter will end his foreshortened life in hospital not jail. He seems to be thinking he is acting humanely by planning in this way. But in the same stream of internal dialogue he also acknowledges that ‘by saving his life in the operating theatre, Henry has committed Baxter to his torture. Revenge enough’.

Whether you believe Perowne on this and whatever view you take on his other actions and motivations, it is a great tribute to McEwen that he has constructed a scenario that is so rich and complex that it can be read in so many ways.

It is a wonderful book and highly recommended.

For this book group many of us read other McEwen books – everyone raved about them all as we did when we read black dogs and the children act.

December 24, 2017 at 7:08 am Leave a comment

THEME BOOKGROUP – DORIS LESSING

dorisfaceDoris Lessing is one of the great figures of 20th century english language literature. She published many short stories, novels, plays, operas, essays and some poetry over five decades, was shortlisted for the Booker, and ultimately awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2007 for lifetime of achievement.

As remarkable as all that is, her personal life is equally so. According to wikipedia she was born Doris Taylor in 1919, she spent her early childhood in what was then Persia in the 1920s. But she actually grew up in colonial Rhodesia. She was the child of a former British Army Captain, who had become an amputee in WW1, and an expat mother desperately trying to keep up appearances in the colonies.

She left high school at 13 and educated herself in Salisbury, the capital of Rhodesia, by reading books ordered from London.  She got married twice and had three children. She left two of them in Salisbury when she went to London to become a literary figure in 1949. She did this spectacularly, being awarded many major literary prizes until her death in 2013.

All of this is relevant to the books we read as much of her writing is autobiographical, either directly or metaphorically.

The books we did are listed below, and the dust jacket blurb for each is provided. These blurbs are taken from the Doris Lessing site. They describe very well what the books are about and their themes, but obviously in entirely positive terms. There is no place for negativity in a dust jacket blurb. Unfortunately none of us chose The Grass is Singing or The Golden Notebook which appear to be her most famous offerings.

So what i’ll do to add some value is report what the bookgroupers who read each of these said that is different from the blurbs, in particular the negative things, and some of the commonalties between the books that seemed to emerge from what bookgroupers said. Some of these commonalities also become obvious from reading the dust jackets, and they are reiterated in her obituaries.

Bookgrouper Mark said

Doris often strops aside and asks what is this person, these people really like? As a literary critic, in the smallness of a short story or as an emissary writing a report across the galaxy Doris was unafraid to leave orthodoxy behind.  This is why she is rarely considered a mainstream feminist. Some of her women do cruel, stupid and bad things….because they do. Sometimes men, Neanderthals and aliens have her sympathy. Mostly she wants to know who this human being is. Her universe can be captured in the sound of grass.

Bookgrouper Don said

Greetings fellow bookgroupers…

It is with my ‘tale’ between my legs that I send out this apology, especially to Trish, for missing last weekend’s bookgroup meeting. Somehow the change in dates from Feb 1 to Jan 26 never made it to my diary and unfortunately I live and die by that diary so I have missed out.

I have since heard that it was a rousing discussion and I can understand why as I had been very much enjoying the experience of ready Lessing’s Short Stories. At first I found the style a little off-putting due to the severity of what appeared to be a constrained ‘Englishness’. That profound sense of understatement that often results in emotional miscommunication and confusion at first felt irritating until I began to see the depth of cultural commentary that Lessing was attempting in the context of her place and time. In fact it is the manner of her times, and perhaps that sense of social and psychological entrapment that seemed so much a part of English life both at home and abroad that lay most directly in her sights.

Some of her stories seemed to essentially be about nothing – the narratives were in many cases quite trivial, but this focused the reader’s attention where she wanted it to be, focused on how the characters succeeded and failed in communicating their own unique experiences of life. In many of the stories I read the characters seemed to pass by each other like two galleons in a sea battle firing cannons across each other’s bow but rarely scoring a direct hit. It felt as if they would spend a great deal of time manoeuvring their ships around each other before they could land a blow. And it was this dance that I think delighted Lessing the most.

You can imagine her analysing her own relationships in this light and of course using many as the basis for her writing. Hard to know whether she was satirising the dance at all times or perhaps on occasion celebrating it. I think fundamentally she was commenting on the dysfunction of that form of communication, however without those strange mannered behaviours where would her writing come from?

All that said I just want to confess how disappointed I am to have missed the discussion. Please strike me not from your dance cards…Originally I was thinking about explaining my absence with a made up a story that involved large mutant robotic monkeys who laid eggs filled with thousands of spiders emerging from embryonic fluids of sulphuric composition which upon hatching turned the sky the colour of beetroot blood and called down upon the earth an apocalypse of screaming horror, but Campbell Newman wouldn’t sell me the TV rights…

 

What these two poetic bookgroupers are getting at is the same thing we all picked up. She is deliberately, painstakingly, in great length and detail, trying to give an outsiders perspective. Its as if she wants to be the Earth correspondent for the Martian Broadcasting Service. To do this she invents for each book, or book series, characters that give an extreme outsider, or as post-modernists would describe it ‘other’, perspective. Unlike the post- modernists she is not trying to speak for these ‘others’ or make us see their world. I think she knows that is impossible. She doesn’t presume to speak for them, and she is careful to ensure they are not some identifiable category of real outsiders. Her outsiders are not the usual suspects, the disabled, indigenous or diagnosably mentally ill. Instead she creates fictional outsiders – neanderthals, aliens, cats – characters the reader understands are fictional.

This means the reader knows the subject of the book is not the outsider, its us. The outsider is just the vehicle she is using to make us look at ourselves.

And the ‘us’ she shows is a complex nuanced ‘us’. She is honest. Even though she is a mid-twentieth century woman of the left, the female characters are not universally good, and the poor characters are not all good hearted just driven to do bad things because they are oppressed. Everyone is all mixed up in Doris Lessing’s world – because if you were a Martian that is what you’d see.

Unfortunately there is a cost for this painstaking honesty. It can get tedious being inside the heads of these strange fictional others. You cant help thinking – what is the point of creating this character, empathising with it, seeing the world through its eyes when its a fantasy being? Most book groupers found the middle section of their books a bit slow for this reason, but worth the effort. Her books make you ask why do I behave like this or that, what really is important to me, why don’t I just go ahead and do that?

Book groupers also discussed the writing in the books but what emerged was a terrific variation in styles. She seems to have the ability, necessary for literary greats i imagine, to completely change styles depending on the character for whom she is speaking. For example the main character in the book i read, ben, is some kind on neanderthal throwback. he is not very articulate and many of the people he interacts with are fairly poor and uneducated. So the writing is predominantly simple and matter of fact, even if what is being described is extraordinary. Whereas the book groupers that read Descent into Hell and Love Again said the writing got very elaborate and meandering at times, which seems to fit in with the main characters in those books. So it seems she is not someone you read if you want one particular style.

Finally I’d say neither is she someone to read if you want one coherent ‘message’ or view on the world. It seems her one consistent trait is that she is a contrarian. As soon as you think you know what she is saying she is likely to contradict that and put the opposite view. If you want nuance and complexity, not simplicity or easy answers, she is your woman.

Martha Quest, the first volume of Children of Violence republished 11 times between 1952 and 1995

marthaFrom the book jacket:

In this full-scale portrait of a girl from adolescence to womanhood, Doris Lessing does for her sex what D. H. Lawrence and Arnold Bennett did for theirs in Sons and Lovers and Clayhanger. To feminine sensibility and perception Miss Lessing adds an unusual directness, vigour and energy to produce a remarkable combination of talents.

Martha Quest is essentially the story of a rebel. When we first meet her, she is a girl of fifteen living on an impoverished African farm with her parents; a girl of passionate vitality, avid for experience and for self-knowledge, bitterly resentful of the conventional narrowness of her home life. From this background she breaks away to take a job as a typist in the local capital, and here, in the world of the +big city,, she begins to encounter the real life she is so eager to experience and understand.

The background to Martha’s story is the Africa that was Doris Lessing,s birthplace: the tough, spacious and yet circumscribed life of the veld farms; the all-pervading, corrosive atmosphere of racial fears and antagonisms; the superficial democracy and sophistication of city life. As a picture of colonial life Martha Quest fascinates by the depth and realism of its insight; but always at its centre is the figure of Martha, a character in the grand manner, conceived in sympathetic understanding but drawn with an unerring objectivity.

This is book 1 of the series: Children of Violence

African Stories republished 6 times between 1964 and 1981

african storiesFrom the book jacket:

Doris Lessing spent twenty-five years in Southern Rhodesia, for the most part on a farm. This was very different from the English idea of a farm, being 3,000 acres of unfenced scrub bush, kopjes, vleis, of which a couple of hundred acres were cultivated, and the rest left empty, but populated with all kinds of game – buck of many varieties, wild pig, jackals, wild cats, snakes, birds. The district was Lomagundi, not far south from Zambesi, hundreds of miles of empty bush where a couple of dozen white farmers grew tobacco and maize, where a small handful of miners dug for gold.

It was from this experience – perhaps best summed up, in her words, as Africa give you the knowledge that man is a small creature, among other creatures, in a large landscape – that a good part of her work has come.

The stories in this volume are a collection of four new ones and the whole of This Was The Old Chief’s Country, together with four tales from Five. These two books, probably the most popular of Mrs. Lessings work, are much reprinted and translated.

Of the new stories Mrs Lessing says she particularly likes The Black Madonna which is full of the bile she feels for white society as she knew and hated it. Traitors, another new one, owes its appeal to that particular quality or atmosphere which she says is Africas chief gift to writers… an inexplicable majestic silence lying just over the border of memory or thought.

About The Pig and The Trinket Box she comments in a preface which sums up her ideas on writing from Africa.

Particularly Cats republished 5 times between 1967 and 1978

catsFrom the book cover:

This little book is about the cats Doris Lessing has known or lived with, two in particular, Grey Cat and Black Cat, who are as different in character, temperament and tastes as two people, and who now share her life, mostly in London, sometimes in a Devon cottage. They are both half Siamese, and have Siamese traits: they talk, growl, complain, express themselves volubly in a number of ways.

The first serious cat in the author’s life was when she was three years old, in Persia, where she spent the first five years of her life. In Africa, her childhood on a bush farm was full of cats – at one alarming point, forty of them. In London they are a very different thing – complicated, intense, emotional, taking their patterns of behaviour from the humans they live with.

Mrs. Lessing holds the view that a good part of human behaviour, much more than it is flattering to believe, is no more evolved than cat behaviour – which gives us the clue to this book – casual, informal, and indeed, gossipy, about animals and people.

Briefing for a Descent into Hell republished 5 times between 1971 and 1995 and shortlisted for The Booker Prize.

descentFrom the book jacket:

Doris Lessing’s new novel – which she defines as inner space fiction – is an incomparably exciting voyage into the marvellous, terrifying, unexplored, yet sometimes glimpsed territory of the inner man.

Professor Charles Watkins (Classics), doomed to spin endlessly in the currents of the Atlantic, makes a landfall at last on a tropical shore. He discovers a reined stone city, participates – moon-dazed – in bloody rituals in the paradisiacal forest, witnesses the savage war of the Rat-dogs and is borne on the back of the lordly White Bird across the sea of the dead. Finally, the Crystal claims him, whirling him out into space on a breathtaking cosmic journey.

Yet this most exotic of trips is as firmly rooted in the reality of a mental breakdown as De Quinceys fantasies were in the chemistry of opium. Watkins is a patient of Central Intake Hospital, an enigma to the doctors who try with ever more powerful drugs to subdue his minds adventure, a candidate for electric shock treatment. In a series of extraordinary letters – brilliantly illuminating both the writers and their subject – Watkins is reconstructed by those who have known him: the forgotten women who have loved him, or been awakened by him; the pendant, incensed by his intellectual anarchy; the wartime colleague around whose exploits with the Yugoslav partisans Watkins builds an astonishing fantasy.

Doris Lessing believes that society’s treatment of the mentally ill is civilizations biggest and blackest blind spot, and that it is through the minds of the broken-down that truths we choose to shut out enter like the disguised messengers in myths and fairy tales. Developing themes central to The Golden Notebook and The Four Gated City, this book is her most astounding imaginative achievement – a rare work which explores new areas of thought.

Love, Again republished twice in 1996 and 1997

love againFrom the book jacket:

Love, Again is Doris Lessing’s first novel since The Fifth Child in 1988. It is based around the discovery of the journals of Julie Vairon, an intelligent and lovely but wayward French girl from Martinique, brought to Provence at the end of the nineteenth century by one of her devoted lovers. Julie was a musician, a diarist, an artist, a free woman ahead of her time. Nearly eighty years after her death in 1912, her music and her art illuminate the lives of the characters of Love, Again, when Sarah Durham, a theatrical producer, commissions a play based on her life. The play captivates all who come into contact with it, and dramatically changes the lives of everyone involved. For Sarah – an old woman – the change is profound; she falls in love with two younger men, one after the other, causing her to relive her own stages of growing up, from immature and infantile love (the beautiful and androgynous Bill) to the mature love, Henry.

Lessing brilliantly captures the atmosphere of the theatre and the overheated atmosphere of any group of people continuously together or obsessively concerned with a long-running project. But the main themes of the book are different, and ones she has never tackled before. What happens to the sexuality of middle-aged, or older, men and women like Sarah? What happens when they fall in love, or lust, with people much younger than themselves? How do any of us cope (or not) with passion, real passion, with real pain, and when one part of our life overwhelms all the others? Where does our need for love come from, and does it ever disappear? Or are we condemned, or blessed, to fall in love again and again and again?

The force with which Doris Lessing confronts these questions makes this novel one of the most compelling and memorable she has ever written. In the course of it she shows she has lost none of her power to shock or surprise: she is a writer for whom there are no taboos. Nor has she begun to give easy answers: life is often messy, things don’t fit together as they should, we often don’t get what we want. But by going out unflinchingly in front of us she is able, without a trace of sentimentality or condescension, to reassure us – and to show us, like all truly great writers, that this, perhaps, is what life is really like.

Ben, in the World republished twice in 2000 and 2001

benFrom the book jacket:

Ben Lovatt can never fit in. To those he meets, he seems awkward – too big, too strong, inhumanly made. He baffles and he terrifies: those who do not understand him want him locked up.

His own mother locked him up; then, guilty, she liberated him. But her unyielding love for him corroded their family; the fifth child broke the home into bits. And now he is come of age, and again finds himself bewildered and alone. He searches in the faces of those he meets, to see the hostility there, or the fear, or, more rarely, the kindness. Occasionally, a gentler, less fearful person understands his need, how hard he is trying to fit in. Mostly, people make use of him, and he finds himself in the south of France, in Brazil, and in the mountains of the Andes, where at last he finds out where he has come from, who are his people.

The Fifth Child is one of Doris Lessing’s most powerful, most haunting books. In this sequel, Ben Lovatt is loosed on the wider world: how that world receives him, and how he fares in it, will keep the reader of this novel gripped and on tenterhooks until its dramatic finale.

Time Bites: News and Reviews republished three times in 2004 2005 and 2006

timeFrom the book jacket:

‘The approach to old age, that Via Dolorosa, is presented to us as a long descent after the golden age of youth… But now start the delightful surprises. Best of all, not ever predicted nor, I think described, as fresh liveliness in experiencing. This must be what a very small child feels, looking out at the world for the first time: everything a wonder. Old age is a great reviver of memories, in more ways than one.’

Towards the end of this long life, Goethe said that he had only just learned how to read. In this collection of the very best of Doris Lessing’s essays – never before published in book form – we are treated to the wisdom and keen insight of a writer who has herself learned, over the course of a long, rich, life, to read the world differently. From imagining the secret sex life of Tolstoy to the secrets of Sufism, from reviews of classic books to tales of her beloved cats, these essays span a huge range of subjects, cultures, periods and themes, but they are utterly consistent in one key regards: Lessing’s clear-eyed vision and clearly-expressed prose. This is a book about books and writers – Stendhal and Muriel Spark, Pride and Prejudice Bulgakov and Clarissa – but in its breadth and precision, Time Bites is also a map of the human spirit, of our hopes, fears and basic needs; and on a more personal level, a map of the wonderful, searching mind of one of our greatest living writers.

Stories published in 1978

doris

From the book jacket:

This major collection by one of the most important writers of our time contains all of Doris Lessing’s short fiction other than the stories set in Africa, from the beginning of her career until now.These stories, in their rich variety of background and mood, are set in London, Paris, the south of France, the English countryside; and the themes that have always characterized Doris Lessing’s work are vividly represented: men and women possessed by love or driven into obsessive encounters by lust or chance or needs they can barely trace; the bedrock realities of marriage in which serious, thoughtful, interesting people are trying to find out what they are doing with, and to, each other; what they really want, what they have to give; the fate of women; the crisis of the individual whose very psyche is threatened by a society unattuned to its own most dangerous qualities; the irrevocable moments of decision that somehow identify someone’s fundamental character or destiny. Lessing’s people are instantly recognizable and real – actresses, journalists, a T.V. producer, an aging rake, an old woman poorer than poor, a little diamond cutter, an elderly gentleman in Regent’s Park, and always the couples – married, having affairs, having ended affairs – whose emotional progress she traces with an uncanny and unerring intelligence about the ways in which relationships proceed and feel, how they alternatively repress and provoke that self-knowledge which is crucial to the development of character and spirit.

“Her grasp of what is actually happening in the world is ministerial,” wrote Margaret Drabble. “Doris Lessing is one of the very few novelists who have refused to believe that the world is too complicated to understand.”

Here are thirty-five stories, ranging from short, resonant sketches to the superb novellas, The Temptation of Jack Orkney and The Other Woman (the latter never published before in America). They constitute a major aspect of Doris Lessing’s work, powerfully conveying the uncompromising vision of one of the most passionately admired writers in the world today.

 

 

February 3, 2015 at 9:25 am Leave a comment

THE BLOODY CHAMBER by ANGELA CARTER

 

BloodyChamber

The last thing the old lady saw in all this world was a young man, eyes like cinders, naked as a stone, approaching her bed.
Every womans’ dream way to go?

Wiki says

The Bloody Chamber (or The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories) is a collection of short fiction by Angela Carter. It was first published in the United Kingdom in 1979 by Gollancz[1] and won the Cheltenham Festival Literary Prize. All of the stories share a common theme of being closely based upon fairytales or folk tales. However, Angela Carter has stated:

My intention was not to do ‘versions’ or, as the American edition of the book said, horribly, ‘adult’ fairy tales, but to extract the latent content from the traditional stories.[2]

The anthology contains ten stories: “The Bloody Chamber”, “The Courtship of Mr Lyon”, “The Tiger’s Bride”, “Puss-in-Boots”, “The Erl-King”, “The Snow Child”, “The Lady of the House of Love”, “The Werewolf”, “The Company of Wolves” and “Wolf-Alice”.

If you are the kind of reader for whom words like florid, gothic, rich, dark, obscure, over the top and mysterious; generate interest and excitement,  then Angela Carter may be for you. I am one such. if on the other hand you infer from them that the the book is amateurish or old fashioned, trying too hard, or cliched;  then give her a miss.
I loved it for the joy of language. It is full of outlandish and inspired metaphors, similes and adjectives – all the things that have been outlawed from much of modern ‘literary’ fiction.
Count the the number adjectives in the following quote . The only writing of today in which you see such lavish use of adjectives is on the menus of ‘modern australian’ restaurants with their ‘organic, late-picked truss ripened heirloom barossa tomatoes’.
The sharp muzzle of a pretty, witty, naughty monkey; such potent and bizarre charm, of a dark, bright, wild yet worldly thing whose natural habitat must have been some luxurious interior decorator’s jungle filled with potted palms and tame, squawking parakeets
 But she doesn’t just dazzle with an avalanche of descriptors. Sometimes she does it with very few words. In these two cases with  inventive similes, another fabulous time-honoured  literary device now strangely abandoned by the literary although alive and well in football commentary. Going over-the-top as always, she uses two in the one sentence in the second example.
His wedding gift, clasped round my throat. A choker of rubies, 2 inches wide, like an extraordinarily precious slit throat.
He moved softly as if all his shoes had soles of velvet, as if his footfall turned the carpet into snow.

However this wasn’t appealing, or at least not sufficiently appealing, to many bookgroupers. As Wiki pointed out above, the stories are retellings of  fairy tales such as Bluebeard, Puss in boots, vampires,werewolves, and red riding hood. so they are dark and strange. In addition, she was a feminist writer from the seventies so she emphasises the sex blood and death aspects of these stories which means they become even darker and stranger than they were.

Some bookgroupers found this unappealingly obscure and violent, rather than attractively dark and strange. I think these criticisms are fair. If you don’t like the fantastic or the obscure its unlikely to suit you. Particularly towards the back of the book the stories seem to lose structure. The last few stories are a series of remarkable images rather than the coherent stories found in the earlier part of the book. I loved ‘the bloody chamber’, ‘the courtship of mr lyon’ and  and ‘Pusss-in-boots’ after that i felt they progressively dropped off in appeal. Puss-in-boots in particular is a great character and he has some great lines.
Describing the object of his masters desire
She looks out at the Plaza ad the shops shut up, the stalls go down, the night comes on. And that is all the world she ever sees, Never a girl in all Bergamo so secluded except, on Sundays, they let her go to mass, bundled up in black, with a veil on. And  then she is in the company an aged hag, her keeper, who grumps along grim as a prison dinner.
After a big night out gambling and drinking
The pious trot to church already with the little lanterns through the chill fog as we go ungodly rolling home.
At the conclusion of his masters serenade
Then bang! a stern hand pulls the shutters to. And it was as if all the violets in all the baskets of all the flower sellers drooped and faded at once; and spring stopped dead in its tracks and might, this time, not come at all; and the bustle and the busyness of the square, that had so magically quieted for his song, now rose again with the harsh clamour of the loss of love.
She was apparently a well known feminist writer of her day, and if you know that and you try to work it out, some of the feminist messages are strong and cutting. In ‘the snow child’, the count and his wife are an aristocratic and obviously magical couple. They go out riding and he creates the girl of his dreams. Why wouldn’t you if you could?  She immediately hates this creation and quickly conspires to destroy it. Its extremely bizarre and dark, but it does get at something true about the darker desires of men and equally dark jealousies of women, and the way these interact in the lives of  couples.
‘The Erl-King’ is equally bizarre and obscure on the surface. It seems to be about some magical forest king who has trapped a woman as he has trapped numerous birds. All the plants and animals of the forest seem to serve him, but he does not do anything for them in return. They just seem to serve him because he is who he is. It seems like a pretty clear representation of the way some men run their households, and the way some women treat some men, particularly handsome charismatic men.
Although these sorts of messages are there, i’m not sure you would see them if   you hadn’t heard people outline these sorts of arguments and attitudes before. Its not like the stories are just blasting out out an obvious message. If you didn’t know what to look for I think they would just be strange dark stories.
In the end I think its a matter of taste. If you love the fantastic, and you love rich ornamented gothic or Baroque sorts of things, you will probably like Angela Carter. If you prefer neat elegant clean things, you may not.
So I will finish with a  few more quotes to help you decide
Sympathy for a vampire
Now all shun the village below the Château in which the beautiful somnambulist helplessly perpetuates her ancestral crimes.
The baroque forest
There is always something to look at in the forest, even in the middle of winter – the huddled mounds of birds, succumbed to the lethargy of the season, heaped on the creaking boughs and two forlorn to sing; the bright frills of the Winter fungi on the blotched trunks of the trees; the cuneiform slots of rabbits and deer, the herringbone tracks of the birds, a hare as lean as a rasher of bacon streaking across the path where the thin sunlight dapples the russet brakes of last years bracken.
The child raised by wolves (Wolf-Alice) is a buddhist
She inhabits only the present tense, a fugue of the continuous, a world of sensual immediacy as without hope as it is without despair.

 

 

July 23, 2014 at 11:49 am Leave a comment

THE SENSE OF AN ENDING by JULIAN BARNES

 

200px-The_Sense_of_an_Ending  .
It’s tempting to say it was like a car crash where no one gets hurt and no cars are damaged. It was notable but left no lasting impression – but that would not be true. Although there are no remarkable characters, nothing much happens, and it’s not set in a novel time or place, the book does leave a lasting impression, not because of its story but it’s message.

The central concept is an important one and it’s well explained. Barnes delivers his message early and often, through the words of his narrator, Tony, through his experiences, through the words of other characters, and the plot. He also clearly wants us to understand that his point is meant to be universal. He sets the story amongst ordinary characters in ordinary circumstances, so the reader cannot escape or excuse themselves on the grounds that it’s only an issue for the great, good or evil, that typically populate novels.

There are quite a few quotes that sum up Barnes’ message, but the one that stays with me is from very early in the book. Tony describes a scene in which his high school history teacher asks tony’s friend Adrian what history is. Adrian replies that it is where the inaccuracy of memory meets the inadequacy of documentation.

The cleverness of this is that the idea is easy for us to accept, obvious even, in the context of history with a capital H. How do we know what happened in the past, to the Greeks, Romans or cave men – only from what remains? But Barnes’ mission is to make us understand this is equally true of our own personal history – our memories. So he first gets us to accept it for History and then uses the rest of the book – the tale of poor old ordinary tony, our doppelgänger – to convince us that having agreed history is constructed from its remains we must also agree that we manufacture our memories from the fossils of our own past. That our memories can be, and should be, reconstructed when new evidence emerges.

It’s a great message but if you want to be critical you can ask the question – is it ok to use a novel in such an instrumental way – that is to deliver a message not a story? You could say the book is didactic, it wants teach us something and everything in it is aimed at that outcome. Whilst that is true I think its being unfairly over critical. The book is not a sermon interrupted by bits and pieces of story, it’s a story, however ordinary, told in such a way that it makes a point, over and over again. In that way it is like all literature, it’s just that in this case there is one message, not many, and the message is clear – we can only have a sense of an ending, one we construct from inaccurate memories and inadequate documents. It’s also a very short novel so you can’t can’t accuse Barnes of being self indulgent.

It’s arguable though that there is another message, and another meaning for the title. The second half of the book is devoted to Tony’s growing obsession with reconnecting with his first girlfriend whom his ex calls the fruitcake, and in doing so unravelling the events of 40 years before involving the fruitcake, her mother and Adrian. He persues this quest to such an extent that his ex says, echoing the thoughts of many readers, you are on your own now. On this quest he does learn a lot but all the details are never nailed down, tony just reaches a point and chooses to go back to his old life and give up his obsession. Neither he nor the reader gets that horrible Hollywood – Fox News cliche – closure. Rather, what we get is a renewed sense of the beginning and a range of possible endings.

If this book works as a vaccination against the global pandemic of desperate need for closure, that apparently every relative of every victim of every newsworthy tragedy suffers from, according all the news media at least, then I want to make it compulsory reading.

Most bookgroupers liked it, some a lot, some like me were a little lukewarm. If you are looking for action, or bizarre characters doing bizarre things in bizarre locations, this is not for you. If you want a short story, well told, with a clear message, characters that feel real and face everyday dilemmas, then you could do a lot worse than to go out and obtain your own sense of an ending.

 

 

June 3, 2014 at 12:45 pm Leave a comment

RANDOLPH’S PARTY by JOHN LENNON

In_His_Own_WriteRandolph’s Party is a short christmas story by John Lennon. It is delightful to begin with but has a very twisted ending. It is included in a book of drawings and musings by Lennon called In His Own Write.

December 23, 2013 at 1:04 am 1 comment

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