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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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The Secret AgentThe Secret Agent (1907) is the story of Mr and Mrs Verloc (along with the latter’s simple young brother). The former is ostensibly an anarachist in London, but he is also in the pay of the embassy of a European power (it’s never specified which). On being called in to see the new ambassador, he is given an ultimatum: provoke the anarchists into some act of terrorism or lose his income. The consequences of this are, without giving too much away, tragic and somewhat farcical.

The novel is subtitled ‘A Simple Tale’, and so it is. The book is centred on the terrorist action and takes a long time to really work up to it. Once it happens, indeed, the narrative takes a step back to work through the sequence of events from other characters’ points of view. Besides the Verlocs, there are Ossipon, an anarchist and ladies man, the Professor, an intensely dour little purveyor of explosives, Chief Inspector Heat, who is aware of all of London’s anarchists but takes quite a laissez faire aproach to them, and Heat’s superior, the Assistant Commissioner, who takes the investigation into his own hands for his own ends.

The storytelling is pretty inconsistent, moving from one character to another, perhaps in an attempt to give equal thought and prominence to each. The technique leaves the novel with no real focal character; the story is almost a baton passed from one protagonist to the next.

Joseph Conrad

There is lots of time given to the minutiae of each character’s personality and motivation, but none of them really comes to life before they’re forgotten by the narrative. In effect, the plot is less a story (in the literary sense) and more a series of consequences, a toppling chain of dominoes that leaves you with nothing but a mess of fallen dominoes. The two policemen are quite interesting characters, but their rôle in the outcome of the story is so slight as to call into question why so much time is spent in their heads; ditto the Professor.

Actually, all the characters were quite interesting and I would happily have read a longer book if there had been more story to go around. As the introduction points out, it’s a very dark tale; perhaps the narrative style was a way of diluting the impact of that darkness, to make it more palatable to Edwardian sensibilities. Having read and enjoyed Lord Jim earlier this year, I was disappointed by this book, although it contained lots that was worthy of reading (such as the descriptions of London as a wet and dismal place, the streets and buildings forming slimy chasms like the bottom of a drained ocean).

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I read perhaps Conrad’s most famous novel, Heart of Darkness (upon which Apocalypse Now is based), a few years ago and it didn’t make too much of an impression on me. (I read it because it was a book Stephen R Donaldson recommended in his Gradual Interview.) I saw this book in a bookshop in Reykjavik and I wanted to buy a cheap book to supplement my travel reading matter. After I bought it, I realised I already had a copy somewhere amongst my possessions back in Britain; for which reason, I handed it on to my friend Botond once I’d finished it.

The novel has many similarities to Heart of Darkness – mainly that is narrated (mostly) by the character Marlow. However, it begins as a third person narrative about the youth of a young seaman made known to the reader only as Jim. Without introduction by the authorial voice, Marlow begins telling Jim’s story to a group of listeners one night. Jim is afflicted – to the core of his being – by being involved in some shameful episode on board a ship for which he served as first mate. The tale is Jim’s attempt to flee from this shame and redeem himself from it.

The first part of the book tells, in a very indirect way, what happened in this shameful incident – revealing one fact crucial to its understanding only two-fifths or more of the way through the novel. In the second part, Jim has taken up work as a trading representative in a native village, apparently somewhere in Indonesia. He is virtually the only white man the locals have ever seen and, when he gains their respect, they start to call him Tuan Jim – Lord Jim. This latter part of the book resembles a kind of benign version of Heart of Darkness. Marlow breaks off his nighttime narrative and only resumes the story in a letter addressed to one of his listeners who took an interest in it.

In some ways, the text is extremely tedious – although it never falls short of an evocative (if slightly prolix) pulchritude. The story is constantly related in a series of sub-stories regarding the other characters from whom Marlow has learned Jim’s story. Even the long interview he has with Jim himself after his appearance at an inquiry flits back and forth between Jim’s words and Marlow interpretation. This is, of course, a crucial part of the author’s intention. The whole story is a matter of hearsay and ambivalence. Even the very moment that Jim commits himself to his shame is related in a way that suggests he wasn’t responsible for his own actions, that his own memory is a narrative he doesn’t quite believe.

The second part of the book is a little more to the point and the dénouement is inevitable and both satisfying and unsatisfying. Given all his self-doubt and the slings and arrows that the world throws at him, Jim finds the only peace he can find. Jim is an unlikely protagonist for a novel – he is continually described as, and shown to be, ineloquent by the loquacious Marlow. He stumbles over his words, he jumps to conclusions only to be embarrassed by them, he is full of juvenile imagination. If he was presented in a happier scenario he would be a lovable character – instead he is desperately pathetic.

So, although it’s slow and verbose (though ultimately not too long), Lord Jim is a great book. It tells a complex, human story in a complex, human way. It reminds the reader that all stories are interpretations – even memories. I enjoyed it a lot, in the end. I’ll have to dig out my copy of Heart of Darkness and give it another go.

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