Mrs Dalloway (1925) Virginia Woolf

‘Life is not a series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged’ but a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end. Is it not the task of the novelist to convey this varying, this unknown and uncircumscribed spirit, whatever aberration or complexity it may display, with as little mixture of the alien and external as possible? (Virginia Woolf in the essay ‘Modern Fiction’)

 

I normally start my blog entries with an introductory quote from the text, but in this case I felt it necessary to let Virginia Woolf speak for herself. As you enter this novel, forget straight lines and total traditional narrative arcs. Think more of entering a bubble or a ‘luminous halo,’ in the words of the author. Reflect on the myriad thoughts that seem to appear in our minds during the course of a day, as we interact with our perceived external world. This is what is dramatised, in scintillating style, in ‘Mrs Dalloway;’ we each live in a self-contained ‘halo.’ So what do we do from here?

The novel does have a carefully worked structure, based on the immortal chiming of Big Ben, during the course of one London day in 1923. This fluid movement between internal and external experiences was Woolf’s attempt to more authentically record the experience of people, in the dislocated atmosphere of post war London. Any sense that we all live in a common perceptual world, which was underpinned by the social building blocks of the Church, the Houses of Parliament, traditional Educational Institutions and the Class Structure, was shattered forever by the cataclysmic events of World War One and the Influenza Pandemic which followed. This novel is set literally and metaphorically, in the still smoking ruins of the War. As embodied in the character of Septimus Warren Smith and the frail sensibility of Clarrissa Dalloway, the aftermath of the War is still in progress. Yet Woolf’s focus is absolutely on the consciousness of each character; how and what they experience on a moment to moment basis. Does this sound claustrophobic and insular? It may do, but Woolf balances her inward focus with a sparkling sensitivity to a profusion of sensory details

‘June had drawn out every leaf on the trees. The mothers of Pimlico gave suck to their young. Messages were passing from the Fleet to the Admiralty. Arlington Street and Piccadilly seemed to chafe the very air in the Park and lift its leaves hotly, brilliantly, on waves of that divine vitality which Clarissa loved. To dance, to ride, she had adored all that.’

 

The plot of the novel is effectively just a light skeleton for the intimate observations of character, social context, thematic exposition and personal exploration. Clarissa Dalloway is in the early stages of preparing for one of her regular parties, for a museum of wealthy and influential socialites, to be held that evening at her elegant London house. Septimus Smith is a young war veteran who is suffering a form of delayed shell shock, from the traumatic events of the War, especially involving the death of Evans, his former lover. Septimus and Clarissa never meet, but have social and coincidental links. They have a great deal in common in the pattern of their thoughts and their emotional crises. As the day develops, the reader is carried rapidly through the past and present of a varied collection of London society. This gradually builds an increasingly sharper view of each character, in a process of rapid accretion. This is a new technique in the construction of character. As a result partly of the events of the previous decade, and dissatisfaction with the representations of character of writers, such as Arnold Bennett, John Galsworthy and H.G. Wells, traditional characterisations became unsatisfactory for a number of artists. Combined with Woolf’s self-declared uncertain experience of a ‘perceived reality’, the main characters in ‘Mrs Dalloway’ embody a fluidity of sense of self. They need to reconstruct themselves each day, a task that for Septimus, and eventually the author herself, proved overwhelming. These characters appear and disappear with ease, unlike the stolid fixity of representation of the late Victorian novelists. This is only one element of this novel which gives it a contemporary freshness and energy. It feels like a 21st century narrative. Notice the sense of evanescence as Clarissa surveys both her party and herself.

And yet for her own part, it was too much of an effort. She was not enjoying it. It was too much like being – just anybody, standing there; anybody could do it; yet this anybody she did a little admire, couldn’t help feeling that she had, anyhow, made this happen, that it marked a stage, this post that she felt herself to have become, for oddly enough she had quite forgotten what she looked like, but felt herself a stake driven in at the top of her stairs. Every time she gave a party she had this feeling of being something not herself, and that everyone was unreal in one way; much more real in another’

This is a novel that has deservedly become a classic due to its narrative innovations, a new paradigm of the construction and representation of character, the authentic beauty of writing, and the personal courage of Virginia Woolf in revealing her internal patterns of thought, through both the major and minor characters. She is able to convincingly integrate the internal experiences of each character, into the events of a single day and the extended recollections and reflections of the past. The reading experience is sometimes one of breathlessly keeping up with the relentless, rhythmic forward motion of the hyper realised narrative voice. Also the constant internal referencing and the dynamic interplay between perception and response, enacts another element of the scintillating, sometimes manic energy of Clarissa’s sensibility. For those like myself who love stories written with poetic intensity, this is certainly one of the best. Why is it a classic? Please savour, slowly, for yourself.

‘The clock was striking. The leaden circles dissolved in the air. But she must go back. She must assemble. She must find Sally and Peter. And she came in from the little room.’

Death at Intervals (2005 in Portuguese. 2008 in English translation) Jose Saramago

death-at-intervals-186x300

The genre ‘Magical Realism’ has been defined by the ‘Wordsworth Companion to Literature’ as ‘characterised by the juxtaposition of apparently reliable, realistic reportage and extravagant fantasy.’ As well as other political contexts the genre draws heavily on traditions of political satire, fables, tall tales and the full range of comic writing. It usually deals with dialectics on the nature of truth, fate and the power structures of society. All of the joys of the genre of Magical Realism are utililised with relish by the brilliant Portuguese novelists Jose Saramago, in the delightfully provocative novel ‘Death by Intervals.’ The novel explores the startling proposition, ‘What would happen if people in a certain country stopped suddenly dying?

The following day, no one died. This fact, being absolutely contrary to life’s rules, provoked enormous and , in the circumstances, perfectly justifiable anxiety in people’s minds…

Thus starts a curious and eccentric excursion through a world where ‘death’ (lower case!) has stopped doing her job. The initial euphoria in this unnamed small country is soon countered by more practical self centred, economic and political concerns. This premise allows Saramago to unleash a full range of delicious satire on issues of Governance, the use and misuse of language, systems of power and the sinister idiosyncrasies of the free market structures. Sounds dry? In Saramago’s hand the tone is wry and dry; we enjoy chuckles and head shakes rather than superior sneering, as in the following;

‘Occupied as we were with explaining what happened after the fateful stroke of midnight to the sixty-two thousand five hundred and eighty people left in a state of suspended life, we put off for a more opportune moment, which happens to be this one, our indispensable reflections on the way in which the changed situation affected the eventide homes, the hospitals…’

 

After romping through the societal consequences of this strange turn of events, he alters the focus of the story towards the consequences for particular citizens. This is where Saramago reveals his compassion for individuals caught in a larger, impersonalised system.To personalise the consequences of the end of mortality, he introduces the character of ‘death’ as a skeletal, hooded personnel officer, who can turn into a beautiful a very alive young woman. This reframing of ‘death’ as a character of considerable appeal and human vulnerabilities, challenges the usual depiction of death as Thanatos, the remorseless arranger of dying, or the grim reaper, whose haunting visage occupies most representations of death. This is one transforming and powerful element, characteristic of the inventive mind of the author.

Saramago’s narrative style is unique and for some first time readers may be a little off putting. He mocks himself richly in the text. He faux accuses a subeditor of altering his style to contain “the absence of full stops, the complete lack of very necessary parentheses, the obsessive elimination of paragraphs, the random use of commas and, most unforgivable sin of all, the intentional and almost diabolical abolition of the capital letter.” Of course this is Saramago himself writ large. I humbly suggest very slow reading at first, to adjust to his convoluted, digressive sentence structures. Then listen well to the delightful yet penetrating musical language of Margaret Jull Costa’s translation. The richness of this text lends itself to the usefulness of rereading. I can’t help but wonder, as with any translations, if we are missing some of the poetic magic of the original Portuguese. This novel is a delightful combination of intellectual inquiry and whimsical characterisation and plotting, voiced with the wry, urbane humour of Jose Saramago. For those who wish to try something refreshingly bold, experimental and just serious fun, ‘Death at Intervals’ or any other Saramago is for you. Looking forward to your comments!

violet image

‘When he finished playing, her hands were no longer cold and his hands were on fire, which is why their hands were not in the least bit surprised when hand reached out to hand…’

Questions of Travel (2012) – Michelle de Kretser

Qu of Trav Pic

‘Away is hard to go, but no one/Asked me to stay.’

This is a great novel! It is one of my favourite books of recent years. It is structured on the parallel stories of Laura and Ravi; she eventually leaving Australia as a traveller, and he coming as a refugee from the horrors of the Sri Lankan Civil War. It is a brooding and compelling investigation, a process of genuine inquiry; an enacting of the disjointed, nonlinear travel experience. ‘Questions of Travel’ features tremendous generosity of material, depth of cultural context, powerful use of rhetorical devices, crystalline descriptions, a cavernous subtext, and a raft of observations and epigrams from the scarily sharp intellect of de Kretser, in her role as a social commentator.

‘She kept her eyes from his heartbreaking maroon jumper with the too-long sleeves. ‘Winter must have been a shock.’People were leaving the kitchen. He held out his hand for her cup and binned it along with his. He said, ‘It is the winter in people’s hearts that is hard to bear.’

De Kretser’s narrative embodies themes such as the experience of Travel, the Construction of Identity, multiple experiences of Time, the Impact of Civil War, perceptions of Body Image, narratives of memory and the mundane nature of office politics. As she explores these ideas, her writing also turns on a pin to record the ordinariness of day to day life in intimate detail, miring her characters in the mistakes, misfortunes and serendipitous moments of existence. The narrative voice has a cool, detached tone, somewhat similar to the voice in Margaret Atwood’s ‘The Blind Assassin.’ Her social sensitivity and acuteness of observation are reminiscent of the clear eyed look at violence of Joseph Conrad’s political masterpiece ‘Nostromo,’ and Michael Ondaatje’s Sri Lankan Civil War account ‘Anil’s Ghost’, two other masterpieces of the devastation of War, Greed and Revolution.

‘Somewhere along this stretch of highway, dozens of students suspected of involvement in the first insurgency had been brought at night, stood at the side of the precipitous road and shot…These things-the bodies crumbling backwards in the dark, the reek-entered the child Ravi’s repertoire of horror, where they occupied a vivid niche.’

This is not a novel with wide open, welcoming arms into an engaging hero’s quest. It is highly confronting in its depiction of acts of violence; Laura and Ravi have to deal with several unlovely characters. There is a stimulating tension between the bleakness of de Kretser’s broader political vision, and the magnificence of simple connections between people who live in close connection to each other and their urban or rural surroundings.

‘Who can explain the sympathy that runs swift as a hound and as stubbornly between people and places? It involves memory, prejudice, accidents of weather.’

This novel is unapologetically serious literature, whose value and rewards may take repeated readings to fully appreciate, as it did for me. The study notes I have posted elsewhere on this blog are a tribute to the complexity and depth of this novel. I am an unabashed enthusiast for this magnificent work, and urge readers to give this Miles Franklin winner the sustained attention it needs and deserves, in exchange for the rewards it will deliver.


travel0613

‘But tourism existed to postpone such questions. It was the first day of Laura’s holiday, the country unknown, the morning pure potential. Rising to meet it, she was conscious of joy. The magic land existed. It had to – hadn’t Laura always known it? She would find it yet: in the depths of a wardrobe, at the top of a faraway tree.’

People of the Book (2008) Geraldine Brooks

haggadah

 

There had been a haggedah, also; he was sure of that. Hidden in that secret closet where they went to speak the forbidden language. Her face, when she lit the candles. So lined, so weathered in the flaring light. But her eyes, so kindly when she smiled at him. Her voice, when she sang the blessings over the candles. So soft, just a whisper.’

This novel tells the story of the survival of a priceless cultural icon, the ‘Sarajevo Haggadah’, a small but magnificently designed and illustrated book. Undecorated versions were used by Jewish families in their daily devotions, but this one would have been appropriate for palaces or cathedrals. This fictional version was made in 1480 as a present for a very important wedding. Brooks’ present day protagonist is Dr Hannah Heath, an independent minded Book Conservator. She is called to work on the legendary Sarajevo Haggedah at the end of hostilities in the Civil Wars of the 1990.

‘As many times as I’ve worked on rare, beautiful things, that first touch is always a strange and powerful sensation. It’s a combination between brushing a live wire and stroking the back of a newborn baby’s head.’

In alternating chapters, Brooks takes the reader further back in time to witness Hannah’s search for the origin and ongoing history of the book. The author cleverly interweaves the process of meticulous, sensuous, physical investigation with Hannah’s relationship with her powerful but emotionally distant mother. It also follows her quest to find a partner in a dislocated personal world of endless travel and short term affairs.

The considerable research undertaken by the author to capture the social and cultural contexts of each historical period does not overwhelm the narrative rhythm. What she does establish with sensitivity are the common desires and needs experienced across a diverse range of cultures by characters of varying sympathies and ethical codes. The often existential conflicts between individual desires and social and cultural obligations are acted out in each age. The agonies of Father Vistorini, the Pope’s Inquisitor in Venice in 1609, who is haunted by terrifying memories of the murders of his originally Jewish family, are recorded in powerful detail;

 

‘He dragged a hand through his greasy hair, as if he could drag the memories from his mind and cast them away. He knew now, perhaps he had known always, the truth of that past about which he must not think, must not even dream. He saw the smashed foot of the Madonna, the small roll of parchment in some rough grip, but through his tears, he had seen the words ‘Love the lord thy god with thy whole heart…’ He had seen the Hebrew letters, crushed into the dirt beneath the boot of the man who had come to arrest his parents and put them to death as crypto-Jews.’

Cuelties of the Inquisitors

The Sarajevo Haggedah is the link between the different ages, which at first glance have little in common with each other. Brooks has brought together people from different faiths who are striving to maintain their religious beliefs and cultural practices in often hostile or indifferent environments. They endure spiritual persecution and the brutal destruction of not only cultural icons, but entire peoples and ways of life. In this context, the survival of the real ‘Sarejavo Haggedah’ is celebrated in this fictional account, written in Brook’s characteristically crisp, detailed style. Her delicate imagery and swirling subtext of suffering and longing make this a rewarding and intriguing reading experience.

Of course, a book is more than the sum of its materials. It is an artifact of the human mind and hand. The gold beaters, the stone grinders, the scribes, the binders, those are the people I feel most comfortable with. Sometimes, in the quiet, these people speak to me…’

haggadah moses

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal (2011) Jeanette Winterson

For most of my life I’ve been a bare knuckle fighter. The one who wins is the one who hits the hardest. I was beaten as a child and I learned never to cry…’

young jeanette

 

This quote from early in the memoir shows both Winterson’s tough response to her brutal upbringing, and focuses on some key themes: the damage it caused both to her identity and her teenage and adult relationships. This memoir is a striking and wrenching account of Winterson’s response to the brutalities and injustices of her childhood. The ‘troubled childhood’ memoir is a common one, but in the hands of a fine writer, with the perceptive intellect of Jeanette Winterson, it becomes an exploration of identity and the nature of experience. It is the author’s quest to find a better life and a stable sense of self.

‘What I want does exist if I dare to find it…’

This gut wrenching process of coming to maturity took place in the context of living with an adoptive mother who had serious mental health issues – ‘My mother’s eyes were like cold stars. She belonged to a different sky.’ But for each of the brutalities and abuses suffered by the author, she mustered responses of great resilience and courage. After one particularly dramatic event she concludes, ‘only what is inside you is safe.’ Following further trauma she reflects:

‘I needed lessons in love. I still do because nothing could be simpler, nothing could be harder than love.’

Winterson finds much needed solace, then a life purpose, in narratives and creative writing, at the local library: ‘The library was my door to elsewhere.’  By reading through the A-Z fiction section of the Accrington public library, she discovers a community of fellow feeling, who share the love and power of words to transform her life.

‘I began to realize that I had company. Writers are often exiles, outsiders, runaways and castaways. These writers were my friends. Every book was a message in a bottle. Open it.’

 jeanette-winterson-outside-accrington-library

Winterson’s penetrating writing style and powerful sensibility make this memoir a mesmerising, edgy and confronting read; a book full of decisive personal insights, raw emotion, penetrating social observations and disturbing events. I was left with nothing but admiration for her ability not only to endure, but to reconstruct her personality and character, to become a more loving person and a widely admired writer of significance. Now I am keen to seek out and live in the fictional worlds, which derive from such a life.

‘In my work I found a way to talk about love – and that was real. I had not found a way to love. That was changing.’

 

More-and

The Slap (2008) Christos Tsiolkas

227941-the-slap
‘…The boy’s face had gone dark with fury. He raised his foot and kicked wildly into Harry’s shin. The speed was coursing through Hector’s blood, the hairs on his neck were upright. He saw his cousin’s raised arm, it spliced the air, and then he saw the open palm descend and strike the boy. The slap seemed to echo. It cracked the twilight…’

This is a very powerful ‘slam’ of a book, which is, on the surface, a harsh and damning portrait of three generations of middle class Australians, from mainly Greek heritage. This novel is a brilliant portrait of dysfunction – a group of individuals who are struggling, desperately at times, to carry on and continue in lives of sometimes quiet and not so quiet desperation. The author portrays a group of people he clearly feels strong empathy with, but is also willing to expose to harsh scrutiny, for their manifest failings. They are consistently off balance; in a state of tension which frequently explodes into violence, narcissism or resorting to drug abuse or brutal sex. Tsiolkas’ achievement in this novel is to portray the interior angst of each character, as they battle conflicting desires and allegiances. This novel has been highly controversial and has had a very polarised critical response. Moments of fine self reflection and sensitive consideration of past events, especially in Manolis’ heartfelt chapter, sit side by side with casual violence, drug use and some brutally described acts of sex.

One excellent feature of this novel is the clever structure. By positioning the ‘slap’ barbeque and introducing all characters in the first chapter, Tsiolkas entices the reader into making critical judgements about an unappealing group of people in action. The rest of the novel is allocated to single chapters presented from the viewpoint of the key characters. So the reading process is one of gradually learning the backstory of these characters, and having to gradually reflect, reframe and possibly dismantle the initial readings of this cast. This is a challenging and painful process for the reader, but one that embodied the theme of avoiding shallow judgements and prejudices. How long can we hold on to our prejudices, in the presence of new information and self awareness?

‘Manolis struggled to find words. ‘I saw so many people from the past, and it made me ashamed of how long it had been since we had seen each other. Forgive me, forgive me, Dimitri…
Dimitri turned back to him, smiling…’I should ask your forgiveness for not coming to visit you and Koula. There, we’re even…Life went too fast and fucking death goes too slow…’

images

This ‘class’ of men are depicted as sex obsessed, egotistical and unfaithful in their relationships with their partners. Both Hector and Harry take excessive pride in their physiques, their sexual prowess and in their ability to be visually attractive to younger women. Manolis, the aged patriarch who possesses more nobility, still fantasises of sleeping with the young women of his dreams. Gary is an angry and frustrated anglo Australian, under enormous pressure from his own self hatred and the difficulties of being married to his fragile and obsessional wife Rosie.
The women vary more in being a differing spread of self obsession and manipulation. Hector’s veterinarian wife Aisha gains strength from her career, and refusal to obey all of Hector’s expectations of how she should act as his wife. Yet she finds her values under siege in a conference she attends in Bangkok. Sandy plays the fearful, repressed and obedient wife to the constantly angry and brittle Hector. Rosie reacts to her disappointment in Garry by developing and unhealthily indulgent relationship with her four year old son Hugo. Anouk, Hector’s sister, is a single career woman who is struggling with scripting for a soap opera, while nursing a desire to write literature of greater self expression and power. The younger characters of Connie and Richie get caught up in the cycle of unhappiness as each battles with their own issues of identity and sexuality.

Like any portrait of dysfunctional characters or people in turmoil, the reading experience is distinctly uncomfortable and disturbing, as is watching a car crash or train wreck. But what lifts this novel well beyond the level of a voyeuristic experience of watching ‘the others’ from a safe distance, is the tone of respect the author pays to each character, no matter how much he may see them as self destructive. Tsiolkas gradually undermines any sense of superiority and disconnection we may feel after reading the dramatic first chapter where ‘the slap’ occurs. The following chapters, each narrated from a different perspective, forces the reader to reflect on the hasty judgements made in the first chapter, when we are presented with a roll call of all characters at the barbeque.
This is a timely novel in a social and political context where we are sometimes urged or dog whistled to believe stereotyped views of people, who are not of our social class, personal experience or political affiliation. Tsiolkas shows us that ‘the other’ is in fact ourselves, and in a context of increasing social segregation and exclusion, this is a timely challenge.

This finally, was love. This was its shape and essence, once the lust and ecstasy and danger and adventure had gone. Love, at its core, was negotiation, the surrender of two individuals to the messy, banal, domestic realities of sharing a life together.

3 on bench

Angle of Repose (1971) Wallace Stegner

‘What interests me in all these papers is not Susan Burling Ward, the novelist and illustrator, and not Oliver Ward the engineer, and not the west they spend their lives in. What really interests me is how two such unlike particles clung together, and under what strains, rolling downhill into their future, until they reached the angle of repose where I knew them. That’s where the interest is. That’s where the meaning will be if I find any.’

Angle of repose

The title ‘Angle of Repose’ is a powerful metaphor. It represents the compromises necessary for the survival of both the mining pioneers and the incapacitated, aged narrator Lyman Ward. It also forms a fascinating nexus between the narrator’s circumstances and the results of his historical researches. This raise the novel above the level of being just a fine chronicle of the tough living conditions in mid 19th century pioneering mine sites. Lyman uses his researches to do nothing less than reframe his life perspectives, and try to decide whether he can reconcile himself to accepting the return of his unfaithful wife.

This dynamic is what gives the Pulitzer Prize winning novel, ‘Angle of Repose,” the power and intrigue of an authentic inquiry. It becomes a search by Lyman Ward into the links between the ability of his grandparents to hold a marriage together, through the most adverse of circumstances, and his confrontation of ‘if I am man enough to be bigger than my grandfather.’

In his wheelchair bound condition, he churns over the potential return of his wife, Ellen, by studying the past; ‘I chose to look back…that is the only direction we can learn from.’ She had previously left him to live with Lyman’s own medical specialist. On his mysterious death, Ellen had returned to see if Lyman would take her back. These events form the psychological backdrop and the contemporary relevance to his semi-historical recreation of the life of his much admired grandmother, Susan Burling Ward. Can he, an academic historian, mine the past (sorry!) for answers to his present dilemma? Absolutely he can, and in the most courageous, authentic and revealing manner possible. It is the striking descriptions, fully created characters and cleverly sequenced transitions between past and present, which engage the reader and creates empathy both for Susan Ward in the 19th century and Lyman himself in the present.

‘I skip over that summer, in which nothing much happened but the passage of time, and jump to a chilly night in September 1883. The four of them sat around a big fire on the beach. Under a wide river of sky the river of water went with wet splashings, sunk in the rock, and above and along the river of water, down the beaches and around corners of worn stone, flowed a river of cold air that was sucked into the draft of the fire and spewed upward as sparks that multiplied the stars. Susan felt it numb on the back of her neck, and pulled up the collar of Oliver’s sheepskin coat and tightened the rebozo around her hair.’

Wallace Stegner has used the letters of the 19th century artist and social historian Mary Hallock Foote as the basis for the character of his grandmother. His extensive quotations from these letters ground the novel in the brutal realities of life in frontier mining towns. They also record a story of the displacement and melancholic yearning experienced by women of higher social standing in the alienating cultural deserts of the west. Despite these conditions, Susan musters tremendous courage and resilience in trying to make the most of her circumstances. (quote?) But Lyman starts to see that the seeds of the difficulties in her grandparent’s marriage were sown in Susan’s acceptance of a good honest man, whom she could never fully love and accept for his own virtues.

‘You married me…but you didn’t marry what you could make out of me.’

The greatness of this novel is that its tone of quiet intensity builds into a powerful tribute to those who pioneered the American West, and the compromises and sacrifices they made in spreading civilization to the new lands. Stegner’s atmospheric descriptions of these various landscapes are a feature of this story. It also foregrounds the challenges of recording the fractured narratives and lives of the present day, where meaning, value and significance have to be written everyday on a newly blank canvas of doubt. There is so much to admire in this powerful, meditative novel.

 

Homestake Mine South Dakota
Homestake Mine South Dakota

‘I must remember who I am. I am a historical pseudo-Fate, I hold the abhorred shears…And now I really must get down to it. No more of this picking a random card. Let me find the crucial one-the first crucial one. Here it is.’