Archive for February, 2016

To the Lighthouse

February 24, 2016

to the lighthouse

One doesn’t think of Virginia Woolf as a war novelist, but reading To the Lighthouse shortly after Mrs Dalloway, it seems reasonable to consider whether she, above any other writer, best understood the effect the First World War had on the English. In the latter, we clearly see the damage caused to the individual mind in the character of Septimus Smith (and Woolf is certainly a novelist of the mind); in the former, the novel’s three-part structure is built around the war’s interruption, and the house’s decay and Mrs Ramsay’s death cannot help but seem connected to the conflict, though only the death of her son, Andrew, is directly caused by the war.

To the Lighthouse is largely about social change, of course, but social change was also a result of the war’s casualties, and the emergency conditions at home. In it Woolf’s recreates her parents’ marriage in the Ramsays: the needy, moody Mr Ramsay – “if his little finger ached the whole world must come to an end” – and the nurturing, giving Mrs Ramsay, mother of eight children, who, according to Lily Briscoe “gave him what he asked too easily.” The great fascination of the novel is that we see its characters through the eyes of so many other characters and the Ramsays are no exception. Lily describes Mr Ramsay as follows:

“…he is absorbed in himself, he is tyrannical, he is unjust…”

Even she must admit, however, that as a couple:

“Directly one looked up and saw them, what she called ‘being in love’ flooded them.”

We see this for ourselves as the novel opens: Mrs Ramsay, aware her husband is upset, watches him as she read her son James a story:

“She stroked James’ head, she transferred to him what she felt for her husband…”

James, on the other hand, has been put out since his father dashed his hopes of a trip to the lighthouse the next morning by insisting the weather would not allow it:

“Had there been an ax handy, a poker, or any weapon that would have gashed a hole in his father’s breast and killed him, then and there, James would have seized it.”

Such fierce feelings, though childish in this case, are not unusual, as Woolf explores the way our emotions rise and fall from moment to moment. Though little happens in her novels they are never still: like the flat surface of the sea, her plots conceal the restlessness beneath.

To the Lighthouse opens on a rather unconvincing Skye where the Ramsays regularly holiday, inviting a plethora of friends and acquaintances. When she is not mothering her children (and husband), Mrs Ramsay spends her time considering which couples might suitably marry – and indeed, there will be an engagement before the night is over. “Why is it that one wants people to marry?” she asks herself – presumably because so much of her life is invested in her marriage and her role as a wife.

Woolf’s portrait of her marriage is more nuanced than any relationship in Mrs Dalloway: we see its tensions and shifting moods in remarkable depth considering we have only a few hours exposure. The couple’s loyalty to each other is unquestionable, though heavily reliant on Mrs Ramsay accepting that her role is secondary to Mr Ramsay’s career, and includes assuaging his every self-doubt. Consider their final moments together in the novel:

“She knew what he was thinking. You are more beautiful than ever. And she felt very beautiful. Will you not tell me just for once that you love me?”

In the novel’s second section, Time Passes, the war prevents them from returning to the house. Important events are dealt with in brackets, like stage directions:

“Mr Ramsay, stumbling along a passage, stretched his arms out one dark morning, but, Mrs Ramsay having died rather suddenly the night before, he stretched his arms out. They remained empty.”

After the war, the party is reassembled at the house and the trip to the lighthouse takes place. Much is as it was: Mr Ramsay stalks around in a foul mood; James is angry at his father; and Lily resumes the painting she had abandoned. However, in insisting on a trip to the lighthouse, Mr Ramsay, consciously or unconsciously, is enacting his wife’s wishes, and perhaps, in some small way, admitting he has been an impediment to her.

When I began To the Lighthouse I feared I would not love it like Mrs Dalloway, where the stories of the two main characters collide to create something greater. However, this was simply because one must read the whole of To the Lighthouse to appreciate the achievement of its structure: the first half on its own is a masterful picture of a marriage, but it is the addition of parts two and three which make the novel something special. Woolf’s skill with stream of consciousness is exquisite, but it is her constant questioning that is to be most admired. “What was the value, the meaning of things?” wonders Mrs Ramsay at the end of The Window; while Lily Briscoe at the beginning of The Lighthouse asks:

“What does it mean, then, what can it all mean?”

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A Cup of Rage

February 20, 2016

cup of rage

Raduan Nassar’s A Cup of Rage, as its title suggests, is a slim volume which strains with the emotion contained within it. Nasser is a Brazilian writer whose fame rests on the short story (it is only 45 pages long) and a novel, Ancient Tillage, simultaneously published by Penguin Modern Classics this year. As far as I can tell, he has previously been unavailable in English, despite the two books in question having been written in the 1970s. (This does not mean there is lifetime’s worth of work yet to be translated, as Nasser gave up writing in 1984).

A Cup of Rage is delivered in seven chapters, six of them short, the other taking up around half the narrative. Each chapter is a continuous sentence, a stream of consciousness pouring from the head of a farmer, half of a couple (the woman is a journalist; neither is named) whose intense, violent relationship is at the centre of the story. The first five chapters tell of their desire for each other, a seemingly irrepressible, unquenchable lust. The woman has a “nightmarish obsession for feet”:

“so I sat on the edge of the bed and calmly started taking off my shoes and socks, holding my bare feet in my hands and feeling how lovely and moist they were, as if pulled out of the earth that very minute”

The “pulled out of the earth” is typical of the narrative voice – not only very physical, but timeless; unexpected, jarring even, but keenly conveying feeling. The ‘sex scene’ is presented entirely in terms of the man’s memories of past encounters while he waits in bed for the woman; in the next chapter it is morning.

Everything changes with the sixth chapter, ‘The Explosion’, when the man spots a gap in his hedge: the culprits are “bloody, fucking leaf-cutter fucking ants.”

“I was rigid as I surveyed the damage, I was livid about that gap”

He quickly pours poison into the anthills, but when he returns he sees something mocking in his lover’s look. What follows is twenty-seven pages of raging argument and insult:

“harnessed to my rage – like a horse, I only needed a starting shot, a reply, only a reply, any throwaway phrase”

The woman initially affects detachment – it is, after all, his irrational rage which has amused her; it is her irony which has so angers him. The argument, however, soon builds unstoppably, just as their lust did earlier, not only encompassing all the irritations of their relationship, but also wider social and political differences. He resents the way she defines herself by her education and at same time believes she is representative of the people, calling her a ‘fraud’; she retorts with ‘fascist’. This may not sound like the most edifying, or indeed interesting, subject matter, but Nasser conveys rage so eloquently that it demands to be read as one sentence, without stopping. Here, for example, the narrator criticises what he sees as his lover’s mistaken belief that she is rebellious in contrast to his conformity:

“I use to go rigid when I saw the fraud anointed with the spirit of the times, surrendering herself lasciviously to the myths of the moment”

In its language (and translator Stefan Tobler must take some credit for this) there is something almost Shakespearian – by that I mean it is poetic in a way that only someone who has little care for what poetry is meant to sound like can write. Modern readers may well find the narrator’s violence troubling (“I said ‘whore, it was an explosion in my mouth and my hand flying another explosion in her face”) but Nassar’s purpose is remain true to passions not sensibilities. That both the first and last chapters are titled ‘The Arrival’ suggests that is a scene which has played out before.

A Cup of Rage, like any explosive passion, may be brief, but is unlikely to be quickly forgotten.

The Typewriter’s Tale

February 17, 2016

typewriter

Though nothing on the cover of The Typewriter’s Tale declares it (except perhaps Zoe Wicomb’s endorsement), Michiel Heyns is a South African author with a number of novels to his credit, though only his first, The Children’s Day, has previously appeared in the UK. In fact, Heyns seems to have been published outside of South Africa largely as a translator – of Marlene van Nierkerk’s Agaat and Eben Venter’s Wolf, Wolf among others. To be fair, nothing within the covers of The Typewriter’s Tale suggests a South African origin either: set squarely in England between 1907 and 1909, it tells the story of Henry James’ (fictional) typist Frieda Wroth.

Frieda is the typewriter of the title (the word typist having presumably not yet come into use), hired by James as he prepares the revised New York edition of his works. Her career is an attempt at independence, and in particular an escape from “the chronic regard of Mr Dodds, whose placid but persistent courtship she had been fleeing in betaking herself to this small seaside town so far from Bayswater.” It is in James’ employment she meets Morton Fullerton, an old friend of James who pays a brief visit on his return journey from America to Paris. She agrees to meet Fullerton at the Burlington Hotel – which in the 1900s is apparently on a par with sexting pictures of your genitals – and in return for seducing her, he asks a favour: that she recover letters he has sent to James and either return or destroy them:

“You see, I have been accustomed, in the eighteen years I have known Mr James, to confide in him many of not all of the indiscretions that a young man on his own in a foreign country is tempted into.”

Heyns portrays James sympathetically, but also humorously. Much is made of his Fletcherising (chewing food excessively) which all but prevents conversation at the dinner table, and his generally fragile health. Particularly amusing are the exchanges which take place (inside Frieda’s head) during the pauses in his dictation:

“As if revitalised by the interruption…he now dictated more briskly: ‘And as she took it all in, comma, as it spread to a flood, comma, with great lumps and masses of truth it was floating, comma, she knew…she knew…inevitable…inevitable…’
Humiliation? Defeat?
‘…inevitable submission, comma, not to say…not to say…’
Humiliation? Defeat?”

Although it is a long time since I read any of James novels (a love of James’ work is certainly not necessary to enjoy this novel), I couldn’t help but feel that Heyns was using Frieda as a counterpoint to James’ female characters. Superficially her story seems dangerously close to that of a woman used by a man (Fullerton) both to satisfy his sexual desires and to gain access to something he wishes to retrieve. Yet Frieda never feels used: from the moment she decides to train as a typist she is seen to be making choices. Heyns portrayal of Frieda and Fullerton’s second sexual encounter is particularly interesting in this regard. Not only does she insist that he undresses completely, but:

“…she felt no compunction about directing his actions, controlling his movements by her own, increasing the intensity of the experience by pressing him into her, at first adjusting her movements to his thrusting and then gradually luring him into a slower, more rhythmical movement.”

Fulllerton’s reaction is revealing: “May I ask who taught you?”

Frieda’s occupation as a typewriter (the use of a word synonymous with the object seems more deliberate now) can be seen to represent the way women are made complicit with male narrative, and struggle to write their own stories. Frieda also uses her typewriter to ‘channel’ (appropriately over the Channel) Fullerton’s thoughts, opening up a dialogue with him as if she were a medium contacting the dead (spiritualism was, of course, popular around this time). Ultimately Frieda must break free from these male voices and find her own.

If this makes the novel feel very worthy, nothing could be further from the truth: in tone it is light-hearted and entertaining. Heyns not only has fun with James and his family, but with a series of guest stars like Hugh Walpole, and Edith Wharton, who sweeps through the novel like a force of nature at regular points. I can only imagine that Heyns’ novel has taken ten years to reach the UK as it had the great misfortune to be published around the same time as Colm Toibin’s The Master and David Lodge’s Author, Author, and while I wouldn’t go as far as to say we can’t have too many novels about Henry James, I am certainly glad we now have this one too.

Death is a Welcome Guest

February 13, 2016

death is a welcome guest

Death is a Welcome Guest is the second volume of Louise Welsh’s Plague Times trilogy (I reviewed the first part, A Lovely Way to Burn here). Its simple but terrifying premise is that an incurable disease known as the sweats has spread throughout the world leaving only a handful of survivors in its wake. Welsh takes a leaf from the equally apocalyptic television series The Walking Dead by beginning this sequel, not where the first part ended, but with a new character and story. While A Lovely Way to Burn followed journalist Stevie Flint, intent on investigating her boyfriend’s murder as the disease spread around her, Death is a Welcome Guest focuses instead on stand-up comedian Magnus McFall, again telling his story from the first appearance of the sweats. Welsh borrows a trick form an earlier end-of-the-world novel, The Day of the Triffids, by having Magnus spend the most devastating period of the outbreak in prison (in Wyndham’s novel it was hospital) awaiting trial after attempting to rescue a woman who was being attacked, only to be accused of being the attacker. (Justice, and the prompts of conscience, will continue to be themes throughout the novel).

We first meet Magnus on the London tube heading to the O2 where he will be the support act for Johnny Dongo, a thankfully fictional funny man. Signs of the disease’s threat and spread are already apparent:

“Magnus glanced over the man’s shoulder at the headline: ‘Mystery Virus Wipes Out Cruise Ship’. A photograph of an impressive-looking liner illustrated the article about the latest outbreak of the sweats…There had been cases of the virus in London but nothing on that scale.”

After the gig, Magnus sees a man in an alley with girl who is either drunk, or perhaps ill: “he saw the floppiness of the girl’s limbs, the way the man was bearing all her weight…” He intervenes, but, by the time the police get there, finds himself cast as the rapist. Once in prison things quickly deteriorate on the outside (as Magnus puts it to his cell-mate, Jeb, “things are getting a bit biblical”) – soon they are no longer being fed and all they can hear are the sounds of a riot elsewhere in the building. As they attempt to escape, soldiers are on the streets of London with a ‘shoot first’ policy.

Magnus’ first thought is to get to his family on Orkney where he hopes the relative isolation will have allowed them to survive (hence his name, that of the Orcadian saint, and Welsh’s use of Edwin Muir’s apocalyptic ‘The Horses’ to epigraph the novel). Travelling north with Jeb they are rescued from attack by an army chaplain, Jacob Powe, who takes them to the new community he is attempting to establish at Tanqueray House. As with A Lovely Way to Burn, Welsh employs her skills as a crime novelist here as we discover two of the house’s residents have recently died, apparently by their own hand. Jacob, however, is not convinced:

“No one cuts their wrists in one clean slice. It takes a few goes before the natural instinct for self-preservation is completely overcome. Henry didn’t commit suicide, he was murdered.”

Once again, Welsh’s murder mystery unfolds with great craft and guile, all the while enhanced by the wider setting of the novel. For here, in this new territory, morality has yet to be defined, and Welsh is able to explore moral questions on a blank canvas. Can Jeb, given his prison background, ever be trusted or forgiven? When is killing justified? If the murderer is caught, how should he or she be punished?

All narratives which envision the world’s destruction seek to test humanity under extreme conditions, both as individuals (Magnus) and as groups (Jacob’s new community). They exemplify the novel as laboratory and the best of them teach us new things about what it means to be human. Welsh’s Plague Times trilogy is shaping up to be among the best: not only is it a gripping read but, just as the characters’ certainties fall away, so do the readers’.

The Cyberiad

February 11, 2016

cyberiad

Stanislaw Lem is a writer who has not been well served by UK publishers or (apparently) translators – a number of his books having been translated into English via other languages. It is therefore a pleasure to discover Penguin Modern Classics releasing The Cyberiad (which was followed this year by The Star Diaries). Both are translated by Michael Kandel who clearly, judging from the amount of word play involved, has a very good grasp of Lem’s intentions. (They are not new translations, however, the English language version of The Cyberiad appearing in 1974, nine years after its Polish publication).

Hopefully the Classics imprint will attract new readers who may previously have been scared off by the pigeon-holing of Lem’s work as science fiction. While it certainly contains many of the elements we associate with the genre (robots, space travel, alien planets) it doesn’t read like any other science fiction I have come across. The writer I was most reminded of was Italo Calvino: the same playfulness, one minute embracing, the next disregarding convention, and an imagination constantly punching through to the next dimension. The Cyberiad is a series of stories centred on two ingenious inventors, or ‘constructors’ as they are called, Trurl and Klapaucius, friends, colleagues and rivals, whose ability to create seems only to be limited by Lem’s imagination. In the first story, Trurl invents a machine which can create anything beginning with n; once satisfied it works he invites Klapaucius to inspect it. His friend sets to work testing the machine eventually asking it to “do Nothing.”

“The constructors froze, forgetting their quarrel, for the machine was in actual fact doing Nothing, and it did it in this fashion: one by one, various things were removed from the world and the things, thus removed, ceased to exist, as if they had never been.”

In the second story Trurl builds a thinking machine but when he tests it with the traditional inquiry as to what two plus two is, it replies seven. Even with Klapaucius’ help the machine cannot be fixed, and when Trurl loses his temper and kicks it, the machine takes offence and is soon chasing them through the town leaving devastation behind it:

“For the machine, in stubborn pursuit, was plowing through the walls of the buildings like a mountain of steel, and in its wake lays piles of rubble and white clouds of plaster dust.”

Throughout the stories it is the constructors very human flaws and reactions, despite their genius, that create much of the humour, whether directed at their creations, or at each other. In ‘A Good Shellacking’ Trurl presents Klapaucius with a “Machine to Grant Your Every Wish.” Suspecting that Trurl has hidden inside the machine in order to spy on him, Klapaucius asks it to create a Trurl whom he proceeds to beat on the basis that it isn’t the real Trurl.

Much of the book consists of a series of ‘sallies’ were the constructors “sally forth” into the universe and offer their services to various rulers. (At one point they rearrange the stars to create an advert). As well as serving these rulers, Trurl and Klapaucius frequently have to outwit them. Beginning with two warring kingdoms, they decide to separate and each offer his genius to one, but agree on a plan to ensure that neither of them has to destroy the other. This is not the only engagement which leads them into danger: a request from King Krool to create a beast worthy of his hunting skills reveals he does not liked to be left disappointed:

“I only know that no-one yet has satisfied me, and the scream of terror they invariably give as they plummet to the bottom doesn’t last quite so long as it used to.”

And so it goes on. The Cyberiad seems to be not so much a celebration of science but of fiction. Trurl and Klapaucius’ machines are creations rather than inventions, relying on imagination not scientific discovery. Their plans rely on the logic of narrative rather than reason. On this basis it seems almost accidental that Lem wrote something that looked like science fiction; whatever genre he chose it seems likely he would have transformed and transcended it.