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Archive for June, 2013

To the LighthouseSeveral years ago, my dad bought me a Penguin boxed set of twentieth century novels that included the likes of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Animal Farm, something by D H Lawrence; this is the first that I’ve read. I’d never read any Virginia Woolf; I won’t be hurrying to read anything else by her, I think.

First impressions of the book were quite good. It’s a portrait of a fairly disparate group of more or less socially awkward people all brought together by the Ramsays to stay on their summer home on a Scottish island, along with their various children. Mr and Mrs Ramsay are the focus of the novel (and are based on Woolf’s parents, the blurb assures me), but they are by no means the dominant viewpoint characters.

There is a strong sense, now that I think about it, of the fleetingness of life. The narrative does a lot of head-skipping – jumping around from viewpoint to viewpoint. I found it rather annoying, actually. There are various places where, for instance, there are two female viewpoint characters, maybe in successive paragraphs, each of whom may be thinking about the other or other women in the house, and too liberal use of pronouns, making it hard to identify exactly who is being referred to.

But where this technique does work, it shows a group of people who are all thinking about each other and who don’t really understand each other. However, you don’t necessarily get an in-depth portrayal of any one character – at least, until the end of the book.

The structure of the novel increases the sense of transitoriness. The main, first part of the book is as I’ve described; the second, very brief section shows time passing (it’s entitled ‘Time Passes’) and various events happening to the Ramsays and their friends; in the third part, some of the characters return to the house and revisit their earlier activities or intentions. This latter segment is quite melancholy, as various characters have died or moved on, and, while the viewpoint is more stable, alternating between just two characters for the most part, it’s quite dull; I missed some of the more interesting people.

Some of the writing is quite beautiful and evocative, like this from the second part of the book:

Nothing stirred in the drawing-room or in the dining-room or on the staircase. Only through the rusty hinges and swollen sea-moistened woodwork certain airs, detached from the body of the wind (the house was ramshackle after all) crept round corners and ventured indoors…. And so, nosing, rubbing, they went to the window on the staircase, to the servants’ bedrooms, to the boxes in the attics; descending, blanched the apples on the dining-room table, fumbled the petals of roses, tried the picture on the easel, brushed the mat and blew a little sand along the floor. At length, desisting, all ceased together, gathered together, all sighed together; all together gave off an aimless gust of lamentation to which some door in the kitchen replied; swung wide; admitted nothing; and slammed to.

There were a couple of moments when the characters’ reactions and motivations struck me as being perfectly realised – such as James Ramsay’s hatred for the father whose pronouncements about the weather deny him the chance of a trip to the lighthouse (and who, much later, takes him and a sister). Charles Tansley’s pride at holding Mrs Ramsay’s bag made me stop reading and think, Wow – that’s exactly right:

… all at once he realised that it was this: it was this:—she was the most beautiful person he had ever seen.

With stars in her eyes and veils in her hair, with cyclamen and wild violets—what nonsense was he thinking? She was fifty at least; she had eight children. Stepping through fields of flowers and taking to her breast buds that had broken and lambs that had fallen; with the stars in her eyes and the wind in her hair—He had hold of her bag.

“Good-bye, Elsie,” she said, and they walked up the street, she holding her parasol erect and walking as if she expected to meet some one round the corner, while for the first time in his life Charles Tansley felt an extraordinary pride; a man digging in a drain stopped digging and looked at her, let his arm fall down and looked at her; for the first time in his life Charles Tansley felt an extraordinary pride; felt the wind and the cyclamen and the violets for he was walking with a beautiful woman. He had hold of her bag.

In addition to the aforementioned head-skipping, the long sentences were often difficult to process and made reading the book an often frustrating experience. In this passage, the first paragraph consists of one short (or non-long) sentence and one incredibly long one (this excerpt comes just after the previous quote where Tansley realises his love for Mrs Ramsay, so the second paragraph not only clarifies the first, but also sets the young man’s thoughts in context):

But here, as she turned the page, suddenly her search for the picture of a rake or a mowing-machine was interrupted. The gruff murmur, irregularly broken by the taking out of pipes and the putting in of pipes which had kept on assuring her, though she could not hear what was said (as she sat in the window which opened on the terrace), that the men were happily talking; this sound, which had lasted now half an hour and had taken its place soothingly in the scale of sounds pressing on top of her, such as the tap of balls upon bats, the sharp, sudden bark now and then, “How’s that? How’s that?” of the children playing cricket, had ceased; so that the monotonous fall of the waves on the beach, which for the most part beat a measured and soothing tattoo to her thoughts and seemed consolingly to repeat over and over again as she sat with the children the words of some old cradle song, murmured by nature, “I am guarding you—I am your support,” but at other times suddenly and unexpectedly, especially when her mind raised itself slightly from the task actually in hand, had no such kindly meaning, but like a ghostly roll of drums remorselessly beat the measure of life, made one think of the destruction of the island and its engulfment in the sea, and warned her whose day had slipped past in one quick doing after another that it was all ephemeral as a rainbow—this sound which had been obscured and concealed under the other sounds suddenly thundered hollow in her ears and made her look up with an impulse of terror.

They had ceased to talk; that was the explanation. Falling in one second from the tension which had gripped her to the other extreme which, as if to recoup her for her unnecessary expense of emotion, was cool, amused, and even faintly malicious, she concluded that poor Charles Tansley had been shed. That was of little account to her. If her husband required sacrifices (and indeed he did) she cheerfully offered up to him Charles Tansley, who had snubbed her little boy.

What I’ve cut and pasted from the text into my review show some very noteworthy writing. Ultimately, however, the lack of narrative focus and drive and the deliberately anti-climactic latter parts of the book made finishing it a real chore, even though it’s a mere 230-odd pages long. The last section, only a third of the book, with Lily Briscoe agonising over her painting and Mr Ramsay, oblivious to their spite, taking two of his children to the lighthouse, seemed interminable.

To the Lighthouse is not a terrible book, by any means, but it’s not an easy one to enjoy or appreciate.

Viginia Woolf

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It’s been over a month now since I turned 37. Life is going well in many respects – but it’s also pretty tiring.

I think it’s fair to say that my birthday celebrations were a great success. About twenty people came to the meal at a British-style fish and chips place in Sinchon in Seoul called Battered Soul. The menu wasn’t very diverse – the was little choice outside fish and chips – but they had plenty of beer and most people were satisfied with what they got (one American friend was somewhat disappointed by the fish cakes – she had never had them before). I got Guinness-battered cod and chips – along with a pint of Guinness.

After that, we headed off to Hongdae, where we went for drinks at a hookah bar (my sister had been rather confused when I told her this via Skype; my default pronunciation of ‘hookah’ is the same as ‘hooker’); after that, we went to Luxury Noraebang – a fancy karaoke place; and after that, those remaining went to a bar/club for another drink or two and dancing.

It was a long and tiring but very satisfying night. I’m very grateful to all those who came out with me – most of whom were friends that I’ve made since I returned to Korea in November. I think it’s a mark of how much I’ve developed as a person, even in just the last seven months, that so many people chose to celebrate with me.

And, although I’m not going on as many tour group trips as I did in my first few months back in the country, I’m continuing to meet new people. There have been several birthdays in the last six or seven weeks, and I’ve met new people at all of them – even my own; and there are more birthdays in the coming few weeks. I’m also continuing with my coffee mornings – I met several new people just yesterday – and I’ve attended a local language exchange group a couple of times. In Seoul, the meetings of the Tolkien discussion group are going well, and we’ll be talking about The Hobbit soon (stayed up far too late last night reading it – the hot weather is not conducive to sleep).

Finally, I’m organising little events of my own to try to bring some of my acquaintances together and develop those tentative relationships into more solid friendships. I got a few people together recently to see the new Star Trek film – an action-packed disappointment, by the way – and I will be getting some people together to go to a rose festival and modern art exhibition at Seoul Grand Park on Saturday.

I’ve been stepping up my efforts to learn Korean and, to this end, I’ve started attending classes twice a week. My teacher is a Korean woman who takes various lessons in the living room of her apartment near to where I live. She is very sweet and very patient – which latter quality is essential for teaching me, as my brain hates being forced to communicate in an alien tongue. I’m slowly getting there, though. I feel more comfortable speaking Korean with my Seoul-based language exchange partner – but she’s always off travelling the world, so I don’t get to see her as often as I’d like.

My cat, Acalia, is really starting to act like a real pet – as is her duty, of course. It’s been a slow process, but she has continually built up her confidence and her liking for me has grown and grown. Whereas previously, I’d come home and not see her, and she hardly ever made a sound, these days, she is generally keen to get attention. I always find her lying on the bed when I come back home. When I enter the living room, she hurriedly gets off the bed – she’s still quite skittish – but then she follows me around and meows continuously, though not annoyingly, until I spend some time petting her.

She still doesn’t like being picked up for more than a couple of seconds and, when I move to pet her, she will sometimes either avoid me or duck her head as if she’s afraid of being struck. But she purrs very readily once I start stroking her and she enjoys the attention. She also like to chase stringy things. I made a toy out of a pizza box ribbon and the handle of a spatula (the rubber head of which I use as a cat fur-remover) and it never fails to rouse her interest.

If I offer her a finger to sniff, she always bites it – which I have mixed feelings about. It’s cute, but it’s also a bad habit that I should maybe try to wean her off. She also has very watery eyes – a feature of her breed (exotic shorthair), apparently. It wouldn’t be too bad if her eyes were merely watery, but the liquid that gathers around her eyes is pretty gunky. She leaves spots of dried, brown fluid all over the place. I clean her eyes with damp kitchen towel, which, naturally, she doesn’t like, but she doesn’t fight against it too much.

I also made her a bed out of a big cardboard box that contained my new fan. The bed has an open compartment and a closed compartment. I cut my old bathmat in half to carpet each side of it, and I made an arch strut for the covered side so it doesn’t collapse when she sits on the top – or jumps on to it, as it’s right under the window.

Work is going well. I’m taking advantage of the relaxed regime to do some more creative but English-related things with my classes. For instance, in the past week or so, I’ve had many of my kids making wordsearches and crosswords. Now that I’m more than halfway through my contract and near halfway through the calendar year, I’m starting to think about what I will do in the next six months or so. Well, I’ve been thinking about it for a good while, and I pretty much know what my plan is; I’m just starting to worry more about what exactly to do. The downside of keeping busy at weekends is that I don’t have much time to dedicate to the thought and research needed for this planning. That’s something I should schedule for the coming weeks – before it’s too late.

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The SilmarillionThe Silmarillion is a curious book, in various ways. While many (though not all) love The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, not so many of those who do have a great liking for Tolkien’s part mythology, part history of Middle Earth. It is a book that could only be published on the coattails of a massively successful fantasy series – The Wheel of Time and A Sonf of Ice and Fire, for instance – and would probably only be of interest to people who really liked the original story.

It’s also strange in its narrative focus. The early part of the volume is distinctly biblical in its style of writing and concerns the pantheon gods and lesser primordial beings – the Ainur – which gives it very classical Greek overtones. After that, though, the story gradually expands to become more novelistic in style – events are described in increasing detail and characters are given more dialogue.

Some of those who have read the book prefer the later parts for exactly this more character-centred stle. However, I first read it a long time ago and it was the earlier, mythopoetic part of the volume that always stuck in my imagination; it shaped my attitude towards fantasy cosmogony in my own creations. That said, the tale of Beren and Lúthien also got lodged in there, although less inspirationally so.

Reading The Silmarillion a second time – for the Tolkien discussion group I attend – I was struck by a few things. Firstly, my memory is not very good for lots of the details of the various sub-plots and characters that occupy various chapters of the Quenta Silmarillion – the long central part of the book that deals with much of the history of the Elves. This is largely due to the nature of the narrative being related.

J R R Tolkien

It was the story of Fëanor, his jewels, his family and his people that especially interested me, but their story is dispersed throughout the Quenta. This arc story is interrupted by various notable episodes. There are a few chapters – that concerning Beren and Lúthien and the one about Túrin Turambar – where the narrative becomes rather more detailed than usual – and these are admittedly some of the best tales within the larger story. But, in some ways, they feel rather irrelevant, especially that of Túrin; Beren and Lúthien have a direct impact on the fate of the Silmarils, at least. It also occured to me that, if all three Hobbit films are successful, these individual tales from The Silmarillion might make excellent money-spinning successors.

Towards the end of the book, the attention shifts away from the Elves and towards Men. To me, this felt very anti-climactic. Men are lesser beings than Elves, having been given the crappiest gift imaginable – short lives and actual death – by Ilúvatar, the Creator. Even the villain of the latter piece, Sauron, is basically a cheap knock-off of his erstwhile boss, Morgoth. Much of what Sauron does has already been done by the disgraced god.

This relates to one of the overall themes of all the Middle Earth works – that of continual decline, a slow, inevitable fall from grace. The poignancy of this comes across extremely effectively in The Lord of the Rings, I think, but here, the sweep of history – and especially Man’s role in the latter parts of that history – render it a rather annoying kind of nostalgia.

My attitude towards the Ainur – the Valar, in particular – changed a lot over the course of reading the volume. At the start, they seem wonderfully noble and magical. By the end, however, they are distinctly haughty and uncaring – especially when it comes to Men. Their ban on anyone sailing west beyond sight of Númenor seems little more than divine racism and then tearing the world in two, punishing Elves and Men for the sins of Sauron is a fit of pique a two-year-old would be proud of.

Which observation segues into one of the more profound (and yet somehow irrelevant) critiques of Tolkien’s work: that it propounds a deeply reactionary message: some people are just better than others, some people’s ancestry gives them the right to rule their fellows. This is countered, of course by the fact that Frodo Baggins, a simple Hobbit from the Shire, saves the world in The Return of the King – but Frodo is also accompanied by his unquestioning servant, Sam; and, while Frodo sails off to retirement in the sky, Aragorn, descendant of the Kings of Númenor – a land that no longer exists – becomes king of Middle Earth (a large part of it, anyway).

All that being said, there is much that is good in The Silmarillion. The writing style, while antiquated – in different ways at different places – is carried off with an authority that makes you feel that you really are reading the collected myths and legends of a world. Many of the motivations of the human-scale characters are thoroughly believable and their often unpleasant ends have a sense of justice to them. And in terms of killing off characters, Tolkien definitely out-George R R Martined George R R Martin long before Westeros had been thought of.

I don’t think The Silmarillion is perfect, by any means, but anyone who’s enjoyed The Hobbit and TLotR should find their appreciation enriched by reading it. Or, given that the published form of the book was put together after Tolkien’s death by his son Christopher and Canadian fantasy writer Guy Gavriel Kay, they may just find it an example of barrel-scraping.

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