Monthly Archives: August 2011

Book 12: Mrs Dalloway, Virginia Woolf

‘She had a perpetual sense, as she watched the taxi cabs, of being out, out, far out to sea and alone; she always had the feeling that it was very, very dangerous to live even one day.’

Virginia Woolf is a bit like Marmite. Not a conventional way to open a discussion about Mrs Dalloway, perhaps, but I stand by it. Her distinctive, stream of consciousness style tends to polarise readers – you either love it or you hate it (see the Marmite connection now?). I have to admit that, having previously read and enjoyed To the Lighthouse, I fall firmly into the love camp.

That’s certainly not to say that Woolf is always an easy read. Her style often requires an effort of concentration, but any work put in more than pays off. Thought processes are compared more than once throughout the course of Mrs Dalloway to a bird hopping from branch to branch – the exact quotations elude me – and that is a very fitting simile for the experience of reading Woolf. She is a master at replicating the rapid, flighty and sometimes random fluctuations of thought, transporting readers deep into the minds of her characters while maintaining a third person narrative voice. How she does it I’m not quite sure, but it is an art to be marvelled at.

Reading Woolf reminds me of a speech from the end of the first act of Alan Bennett’s The History Boys. It is one of the most moving and insightful moments of a play that tends to focus – quite brilliantly, it must be admitted – on being simultaneously funny and clever. Hector, giving an individual lesson to Posner, describes the way in which literature can reach out to you and communicate a thought that exactly mirrors a thought you have had yourself, ‘as if a hand has come out and taken yours’.

Woolf is continually extending hands to readers, showing human nature in all its conflicting and complex reality. We are complicated beings with contradictory and often selfish motivations, something that Woolf is remarkably honest about. Her characters are all slightly eccentric, but they are realistic in their eccentricities. Individuals in Woolf are laid completely bare, revealing how we are all essentially slightly odd in our own unique ways.

Clarissa Dalloway, the central protagonist, appears controlled and conventional on the surface, but hidden beneath that polished exterior is a rich emotional life. She is a politician’s wife, perfect hostess and confident socialite, but during a day in the company of her thoughts we learn how much she lives in the past and discover some of her buried psychological issues. By delving into the thoughts of her heroine, Woolf can be far more frank than would otherwise be possible, disclosing details such as Clarissa’s occasional attraction to other women and her continuing attachment to a childhood sweetheart – scandalous thoughts for a respectable married woman to be having in 1923.

Contrasted with Clarissa and also presented as a sort of double is Septimus Warren Smith, a First World War hero who is suffering from deep psychological damage. He is an illustration of what happens when the internalised becomes external, when control is not maintained and a person becomes classified as mad. It is clear to readers that Septimus is suffering from a classic case of shell-shock, but he is either misdiagnosed or shamefully neglected by doctors. While Woolf’s portrayal of a traumatised character is skilful, her point is slightly lacking in subtlety. Very much as the pointed Oedipal relationship between James and his father in To the Lighthouse picks up on Freud’s theories, Woolf is clearly taking up a very current issue in a Britain still painfully feeling its war wounds.

For a novel that encompasses less than twenty four hours, Mrs Dalloway is extraordinarily rich and textured. Rather than plot, what becomes important in this mini masterpiece is the tide of memories, which pull particularly strongly on Clarissa. Woolf’s book, although it seems on the surface to be a closely focused study of a few characters, deals with a number of wider questions: the difficulty of recovering after an event on the scale of the First World War, both for individuals and the nation, how to cope with emotional scars, what love really means, how a relationship is sustained – I could go on and on. But most of all it reaches out that hand and pulls you head first into a perfectly constructed psychological world.


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Book 11: Brighton Rock, Graham Greene

Betwixt the stirrup and the ground,
Mercy I ask’d; mercy I found’

Graham Greene’s vivid, grubby vision of Brighton’s seething underworld gives a whole new dimension to the sunny – or more often than not leaden-skied – seaside town. Amusements, seagulls and fish and chips on the pier it ain’t. And it will make you look at those innocuous sticks of candy in a whole new way.

Greene’s tense thriller traces the fallout from the murder of Hale, a journalist with links to the town’s criminal network. He is killed by seventeen-year-old Pinkie, all curdling resentment and soured youth, desperate to prove himself as newly established leader of his small gang. The murder seems to come off without a hitch, but Pinkie had not counted on two very different but equally dangerous obstacles.

The vivacious, life-embracing Ida Arnold was the last person to see Hale alive and is not one to let a mystery drop, taking up the scent faster than a prize bloodhound. Rose, meanwhile, is a young innocent who becomes unwittingly tangled up in the crime when she stumbles across a piece of incriminating evidence and is increasingly drawn in by Pinkie’s cold attempts to silence her. All the while, rival mob leader Mr Colleoni is closing in and he doesn’t like anyone else causing a stir on his patch …

What distinguishes this from any other edge-of-your-seat crime thriller, however, is the quality of Greene’s evocative, occasionally even poetic prose and the high plane on which his protagonists’ moral battles are fought. For Pinkie and Rose, both Roman Catholics with a rudimentary religious education, their crimes are lofty matters of mortal sin and eternal damnation – never can these children of bleak council estates quite envisage a heaven, but the flames are all too real.

Placed in direct opposition is Ida, who has a no-nonsense, common sense moral compass of Right and Wrong with capital letters, combined with a rather earth-bound understanding of what exactly these concepts might involve. Murder is Wrong without doubt, but a few glasses of port in the afternoon and a quick grope in the back of a taxi are all part of life’s harmless pleasures.

Greene’s own standing in all of this is a little ambiguous. Famously Catholic himself, religion is a recurring theme in his novels (and his plays, such as the long neglected Potting Shed, though perhaps someone should have told him to stick to the day job). In Brighton Rock, however, it is difficult to identify with the principal believers, Pinkie and Rose. For all their contemplation of hell, they are still content to yield to their respective sinful desires – Pinkie’s for blood, Rose’s for Pinkie.

The one hope for salvation is confession before the end, but if an insincere act of repentance is sufficient to gain passage to heaven then what does this say about Greene’s God? As much as Greene emphasises the religious understanding of Rose and Pinkie, it is inevitably the rather lower motivations of Ida that readers find themselves sympathising with.

In addition to his moral ambiguity, Greene refuses to give us a hero in this novel. Pinkie is lost in a deep pool of hatred, fear and ambition, Rose is weak, naive and blinded by her irrational love for Pinkie, and even kind-hearted Ida is driven more by pursuit of physical pleasures than by any desire for truth or justice. For her, hunting down a murderer is no different to any other amusement that might be sought in the pleasure haven of Brighton.

Each character is a unique struggle to identify with, which should be a barrier to enjoying the novel but strangely isn’t. Instead the characters are alluringly intriguing and complex, puzzles to attempt in vain to solve. As the thriller reaches its climax and flows away like the tide over the pebbles on Brighton beach, you are left fixed with the stare of Pinkie’s cold, brutal, older-than-his-years eyes, continuing to muse frustratingly over this lost and damaged soul.

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Book 10: The Turn of the Screw, Henry James

‘If the child gives the effect another turn of the screw, what do you say to two children -?’

Next up in my challenge is that trickiest of genres to pull off: the ghost story. In the art of scaring there is a delicate balance between the said and the unsaid, the shown and the suggested, which if tipped off centre shatters the illusion of horror. In The Turn of the Screw, Henry James conducts a masterclass in this balancing act of fear and suspense.

The premise behind James’s fiction is simple enough and not unfamiliar. A young, naive governess is sent to care for two orphaned children in an isolated country mansion; at this point alarm bells are already starting to clang and you can almost hear the step of a mad woman in the attic (Charlotte Bronte has a lot to answer for). Ominous too is her mysterious employer’s request that she not bother him with any news of his young charges (say no girl! I mentally scream at the book). As the governess makes the journey to her remote new home, the scene is set for blood-chilling bumps in the night.

James, however, is much too subtle for this. The portent-laden opening is followed by a protracted lull, laying a blanket of false security over readers. The children are charming beyond words, the housekeeper is welcoming and friendly, the house and grounds are beautiful – everything is, in short, too good to be true.

The beauty of James’s prose is that it builds an almost claustrophobic tension, a calm that is heavy with foreboding. Small mysteries are loaded with significance, creating the uncomfortable feeling that they will return to (quite literally) haunt the protagonist. Before long, sure enough, ghostly presences have been witnessed by the governess, a scandalous affair between the valet and the previous governess – both, of course, dead – has been uncovered, and a sinister threat to the children is feared. Another of James’s brilliantly subtle touches is to never specify this dreaded evil; it remains too horrific to be fully articulated by the governess and is thus all the more chilling for readers.

The term ‘unreliable narrator’ might well have been invented to describe James’s governess, whose tale leaves readers in just enough doubt about the truth of the events she describes. The novella’s supernatural occurrences are only ever witnessed by the governess and we have only her account to testify to what has happened, leading a whole school of critics to speculate that the entire affair is purely in the mind of the narrator. Such a theory appears to have considerable support, as there are numerous incidents that don’t quite add up and the governess is hardly portrayed as the most stable character.

But perhaps the most disturbing element of the tale is James’s depiction of the two seemingly angelic children and their governess’s troubling relationship with this pair of apparent cherubs. There is an eerie quality to these ‘perfect’ youngsters right from the start; all blonde hair, courtesy and unnatural intelligence, they are both too charming and too knowing for their own good. There is also an increasing discomfort that arises from the governess’s overwhelming and at times almost sinister attachment to her charges. Is this a concerned young woman innocently endeavouring to protect two children or a dangerously unstable tutor?

The real point is that we can never know. Had James specified whether the horror was external or inwardly imagined, his unique and spine-tingling ghost story would have lost its potency. As with all the best chillers, James keeps us guessing right to the end.

Next on the list … Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock.

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Book 9: Never Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro

‘All children have to be deceived if they are to grow up without trauma’

Once again, before I go any further I have to ‘fess up. As with a few other titles in my book challenge so far, I have seen the film of Never Let Me Go before reading the book, and in fact even reviewed it. At the time, despite a core of brilliant performances from Carey Mulligan, Keira Knightley and Andrew Garfield (who I might just have a slight soft spot for …), I felt there was something missing from this fairly good film that might easily have been great. Not so with Ishiguro’s novel.

In fact I experienced that usual sinking feeling of wishing I had read the book first. Not that the film is bad, and in many ways it is skilfully adapted from the novel, maintaining much of the tone, but this is a book that really benefits from a hefty punch of brutal shock. To give away the horror that gradually becomes apparent in the first few chapters would be to spoil the experience for other readers, but I can imagine that this slow unveiling would be effectively harrowing for those without as little as an inkling beforehand.

To give the plot in a nutshell without any spoilers, Ishiguro’s novel is narrated by the sensitive and insightful Kathy, who is looking back over her past and trying to come to terms with painful memories. Her life has always been closely wound up with the lives of her two best friends, Ruth and Tommy, ever since their childhood together in Hailsham, an isolated and seemingly idyllic country boarding school. As they grow up, however, all three become aware of a dark shadow hanging over their future, a looming fate that is entangled throughout with the complex relationships between the trio.

While Ishiguro’s dystopian twist is a menacing and dominant presence throughout, it serves more as a constant backdrop than as the main feature. Where the novel could have been crudely moralistic, Ishiguro subtly probes the horrifying issue he has exposed, using the material around it to prompt difficult questions rather than ever directly confronting it. Although his message is important and should act as a chilling warning to all readers, this is a book that is just as much about love, friendship and the nature of memories.

A similar feeling that niggled while watching the film adaptation, however, also gnaws at me during the reading of this book. Perhaps I am too used to the prisoners of literary dystopias rebelling against their fate, but the resignation that permeates this novel was the most bitter pill to swallow. As I wrote in my review of the film, ‘the sacrificial lambs yield all too willingly to their fate’. Despite her other appealing qualities, Kathy’s passivity sometimes made me want to slap her, while even the feisty Ruth cannot summon the spirit to fight against the path laid out for her.

But perhaps, after all, it is this disturbing acquiescence which really gives the novel its eerie air of horror. Often it is the quiet, hidden away, swept under the carpet without any fuss sort of atrocities that are the most chilling and this is certainly the case in Never Let Me Go. People go on with their lives without a care and the whole haunting world portrayed by Ishiguro is suffused with Britishness. What hits the hardest about Ishiguro’s horrifying creation is that it seems all too plausible.

Next up … The Turn of the Screw by Henry James. I’m still playing catch up with the blogging but the challenge remains on course!

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Book 8: The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien

‘One Ring to rule them all,
One Ring to find them,
One Ring to bring them all
and in the darkness bind them.’

Before I go any further, I have a confession to make: I adore Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings film trilogy. I saw each film more than once (*cough* three times) at the cinema and own, loathe as I am to admit it, the extended version DVDs. To complete the self-humiliation, I even own up to spending much of the time during which I should have been revising for my GCSEs gorging myself on hour after hour of behind-the-scenes special features.

So it’s rather shameful that until now I had not experienced the literary source. I read The Hobbit as a child, although admittedly I remember little more than the description of Bag End – which for some reason made quite an impression – and slowly trudged my way through The Fellowship of the Ring at around the time the film came out. But clearly at thirteen I could not appreciate the genius of Tolkien’s creation, because having returned to it and read the whole trilogy at the ripe old age of twenty one, I do think it might just deserve that prestigious label.

It is not so much the writing itself that bears the marks of brilliance, though Tolkien is also none too shabby a wordsmith, but rather the imaginative range and depth of the world he created that begs for applause and open-mouthed awe. The man dreamed up not just a whole fantasy realm but also a collection of different languages for the various creatures inhabiting it. The more cynical among us may be tempted to say that he had a little too much time on his hands, but what he achieved in this trilogy of books (not to mention all his other works of fiction set in this universe) can only be admired.

To summarise the plot would be a pointless and quite frankly near-impossible exercise; suffice to say that there’s a ring, and not the lovely, happy, wedding kind. It’s your classic battle of good versus evil, although Tolkien does mix in a few shades of grey with his stark black and white. But what is perhaps even more appealing about these novels than the good old-fashioned clash of goodies and baddies is their moving portrayal of the bonds of friendship. Or, to put it less elegantly and risk comparing it to the likes of I Love You Man (hilarious if quite silly film, in case you haven’t seen it), it’s basically one long bromance.

To really analyse these novels would require a mile-long essay that I am sure readers of this blog would not particularly appreciate, so I will give up here and not attempt to give any great insight. It is enough to say that they are a triumphant feat of imagination that set the bar for fantasy and remain a masterpiece. Now go and have a read for yourself.

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