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Posts Tagged ‘English novels’

My bookclub read Mrs. Dalloway this month. I read it, and other work by Virginia Woolf, in college, but re-reading it was enjoyable. I remembered the book generally, but re-reading it I was struck once again by Woolf’s creativity and daring. She addressed things that we are still struggling to talk about today — gender roles in society, mental illness, post traumatic stress, income inequality and its impact on opportunity. And she did it in a beautiful, poetic book with some very memorable characters who are also reflecting on what they’ve done with their lives, and how they’ve fared in terms of love and family.

To me, the way that Woolf juxtaposes Clarissa Dalloway’s inner life with the other characters’, is brilliant. She compares the constricted life of Clarissa as a society hostess with the limits that restrict Septimus Smith, a shell-shocked WWI veteran whose promising future is strangled by mental illness; Miss Kilman, whose class, intellectual ability and fervor, and appearance place her firmly outside Clarissa’s and her daughter Elizabeth’s social orbit; and Peter Walsh, whose passions and probably bad luck seem to have limited his ability to achieve his full potential in life.

The minor characters are also wonderful — Septimus’s Italian wife Rezia, Clarissa’s husband Richard, Hugh Whitbread, Sally Seton, Lady Bruton. While the style of the book doesn’t call for full character development, I feel Woolf paints exquisite miniatures of each, and we get glimpses of their humanity, their longings, their minds, their limitations in the details she portrays — Peter with his pocket knife, Clarissa mending her dress, Richard bringing Clarissa flowers, Rezia making a hat, Lady Bruton holding court at lunch before consulting Richard and Hugh about her letter and then, snoring on her couch. Woolf creates these portraits with prose that is somewhat strange and quite lovely, a little like poetry, a little like a dream sequence in a film, such as this passage where Septimus is in a park waiting until it’s time to go on to Harley Street to see a new doctor:

“He had only to open his eyes; but a weight was on them; a fear. He strained; he pushed; he looked; he saw Regent’s Park before him. Long streamers of sunlight fawned at his feet. The trees waved, brandished. We welcome, the world seemed to say; we accept; we create. Beauty, the world seemed to say. And as if to prove it (scientifically) wherever he looked at the houses, at the railings, at the antelopes stretching over the palings, beauty sprang instantly. To watch a leaf quivering in the rush of air was an exquisite joy. Up in the sky swallows swooping, swerving, flinging themselves in and out, round and round, yet always with perfect control as if elastics held them; and the flies rising and falling; and the sun spotting now this leaf, now that, in mockery, dazzling it with soft gold in pure good temper; and now and again some chime (it might be a motor horn) tinkling divinely on the grass stalks — all of this, calm and reasonable as it was, made out of ordinary things as it was, was the truth now; beauty, that was the truth now. Beauty was everywhere.”

Mrs. Dalloway is a sad book, but that was the point — to help readers feel. As writer and scholar Maureen Howard wrote in her forward to the 1981 Harcourt paperback edition, “As readers of Mrs. Dalloway fifty years after its publication, we see that the novel endures. We admire the originality of concept, the brilliance of style, but it is the feelings in the book that remain so very fresh and we wonder that Virginia Woolf had to ask herself ‘How can one weigh and shape dialogue till each sentence tears the shingles in the bottom of the reader’s soul?'”

 

 

 

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If you’ve followed this blog for any time you know I’m a Margaret Drabble fan. At some point in the last year I came across the 1967 paperback edition of her 1963 debut novel, A Summer Bird-Cage. I read it over the past few days. It’s marvelous, and shows that she was already a powerful, insightful, beautiful, feminist writer at age twenty-four. It makes me both very glad she became a writer and very irritated with my own twenty-four year old self. I was still pretty silly at that age. And had certainly not come into my own thinking by then.

A Summer Bird-Cage is about two sisters. Louise, the elder of the two, who has been “down from” Oxford for a couple of years, and Sarah, who has just come down and then spent some time in Paris. She gets a letter summoning her home to be a bridesmaid for Louise’s wedding — a surprise, since she had no idea Louise was engaged. The rest of the book is comprised of Sarah’s reflections on that time and the months that followed, and what it’s like to be young, well educated, and female at a time when society’s expectations of women are still pretty limited.

At one point one of Louise’s friends asks Sarah what she’d like to do with her life, and she answers immediately, “Beyond anything I’d like to write a funny book. I’d like to write a book like Kingsley Amis . . . .” But she goes on just a few lines later, after the friend calls her “a little egghead,” arguing the term but owning the sentiment and then protesting, “But if you think that implies that my right place is sitting in some library, you couldn’t be more wrong . . . .” But she immediately misses the library. All this after a page or two earlier she told her sister she couldn’t teach at a college because “You can’t be a sexy don.” Sarah is seriously conflicted, in other words. She and Louise talk about wanting it all — love, freedom, intellectual challenge, satisfying work, etc.

In addition to being a novel of social commentary, it’s also, as all of Drabble’s work seems to be, a gorgeous examination of relationships. There are Louise and Sarah, sisters who haven’t been close but come together as they begin to understand each other as adults in a way they didn’t when they were younger. And there is Sarah and her fiancee, absent the entire book, a fellow scholar who’s studying at Harvard. And Sarah and her close friend Gill, who she tries living with in London after Gill’s marriage of equals turns out to be drudgery and falls apart. And Sarah and her cousins, the boring and unattractive Daphne and her brother, the far more attractive Michael.

Drabble is so insightful about human nature. Take this passage, after Sarah and Gill have had a routine roommates’ quarrel about washing the dishes:

Sarah begins, “But I really wanted to tell you about Louise.” And Gill replies, “So you did . . . . You came in full of Louise, and I shut you up like a clam, and here I’ve been going on about you not telling me things. Isn’t it strange how in this kind of thing everything seems to be its own opposite? You know what I mean?”

Sarah thinks, “Again, I did know what she meant, and the joy of having had so many intelligible things said to me during one morning sustained me for the rest of the day. Odd, that one doesn’t mind being called insensitive, selfish, and so on, provided that one can entirely understand the grounds for the accusation. It should be the other way round; one should not mind only when one knows that one is innocent. But it isn’t like that. Perhaps the rare and simple pleasure of being seen for what one is compensates for the misery of being it.”

Think of that, the next time you get into a spat with your roommate.

A delightful read, short but just lovely. The final page has one of those Drabble specialities, an anecdote one character shares and the other thinks something insightful about. I loved every word.

 

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This was another of the books I bought with my job leaving gift card. Bookconscious regulars will know I read another of Russell Hoban’s novels, Linger Awhile, not too long ago. I’d had Turtle Diary in mind for a while. Incidentally, this is another New York Review of Books classics title.

This short novel is about two Londoners in their 40s, William G. and Neaera H., and is set in the 1970s. William is a divorced former advertising executive who works in a bookstore and rents a room in a house, thinking to himself, as he cleans up after the other male tenant before he can use the shared bath and kitchen, “I’d had a whole life, a house and a family!” Neaera H. is a children’s book author and illustrator, successful by most measures, but lonely, and stuck, not just with writer’t block, but life block.

Their lives intersect because they both have an interest in the sea turtles at London Zoo. Unknown to each other at first, they each think the turtles deserve to be freed into the ocean, and each talk to George, the keeper in the aquarium area of the zoo. Through George they realize they are both thinking the same thing, and are drawn together. As William notes, “Funny, two minds full of turtle thoughts.” How can they not join forces? The story is told in alternating chapters from William’s or Neaera’s point of view, and sometimes their thoughts are worded nearly identically.

Besides this central story, Hoban writes beautifully of the pain of being lonely, unhappy, stuck, perhaps a little more sensitive to things than others. Both William and Neaera are close observers, who notice more than other  people do in the world — the letters and numbers on a manhole in his neighborhood (K257) is to William the number of Mozart’s Credo Mass in C. Neaera notices, as she passes a train, “the sky successively framed by each window as the carriages passed.Each window moving quickly forward and away held briefly a rectangle of blue. The windows passing, the blue remained.”

Or do they notice more? William, towards the end of the story realizes he’s been too much in his own head, “I’d always assumed that I was the central character in my own story but now it occurred to me that I might in fact be only a minor character in some else’s.” And that, to me is what Turtle Diary is about: getting out of ourselves and into the world enough to see, as both of them think in almost identical words: “I didn’t mind being alive at the moment. After all who knew what might happen?”

Getting through the dark times, the shark in the waters times as Neaera imagines them, requires getting out of our  heads. The way forward, Hoban seems to say, is to step away from our private way of tending the thoughts that keep our minds buzzing. I don’t know if he was interested in meditation — there is a scene where William goes with his coworker Harriet, to an “Original Therapy” demonstration with an American woman in a bikini holding eager volunteers in wrestling scissors holds until they experience the “primordial soup” or their own rebirth, that seems to be Hoban laughing a bit at the New Agey. But mindfulness is all about not allowing distracting thoughts to preoccupy you so much that you miss what’s right here now, in this moment.

William and Neaera get there, in their ways, in Turtle Diary without calling it mindfulness. It’s a lovely, wise book full of literary and musical references and myriad little details about London, and the Cornish fishing village of Polperro. It was the perfect read on my last day of vacation, sitting in a comfy chair looking out at the sea, not thinking of what lurks within, but just noticing the sun and the birds and the way the wind leaves itself behind on the sand.

 

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I picked up The Enchanted April from a library book sale shop in South Carolina. I knew it would be a fun read and it was. I’d never even heard of Elizabeth von Arnim (I had missed the reference in Downton Abbey). But I’ve read other New York Review of Books Classics titles, like Lolly Willowes and loved them, so I knew it was a good bet.

Now I want to track down other books by von Arnim. I loved The Enchanted April. It’s a simple story, but full of the trenchant observations about people and society that make many British novels so endearing. Von Arnim reminds me, in all the best ways, of Jane Austen, Margaret Drabble, Penelope Lively, Muriel Spark, and Jane Gardam: authors whose close (sometimes sharp) observations and skilled dialogue make the domestic situations they bring to life so vivid, so gently funny, and so easy to slip into, even if you’ve never been in the same situations.

In this novel, everything starts with the absolutely wonderful Lotty Wilkins. Mrs. Wilkins lives a desperately quiet existence in Hampstead, wife of Mellersh Wilkins, a “family solicitor” whose main interest in her is taking her to church, for the purpose of meeting old ladies in need of solicitors. The marriage is dreary, and Mrs. Wilkins’ life is dreary, and one very dreary, rainy day, she notices two things at her women’s club in London: an ad for a monthlong stay in April in a medieval Italian castle addressed: “To Those who Appreciate Wisteria and Sunshine” and a Hampstead resident she recognizes from church, a Mrs. Rose Arbuthnot. In a sudden burst of bravery, Lotty approaches Rose and before long, they are planning to rent the castle.

But being women of modest means — Lotty will be spending a fair bit of her “nest egg” saved from being thrifty with a clothing allowance — they determine that the most sensible thing would be to place their own ad, soliciting two more ladies to join their party. And that is how Lady Caroline Dester, a socialite tired of people admiring her, and Mrs. Fisher, a window in her sixties who is very proper and very cranky, end up sharing San Salvatore with Lotty and Rose for a month. Lotty has the sense that a holiday will help them be happy, something she perceives they need because “You wouldn’t believe, how terribly good Rose and I have been for years without stopping, and how much we now need a perfect rest.”

The imperious Mrs. Fisher and the aloof and conceited Lady Caroline are no match for Lotty’s infectious ideas. When Rose is thinking of her author husband, who has been estranged, although amiably, from her for some time, Lotty tells her, “You mustn’t long in heaven . . . . You’re supposed to be quite complete there. And it is heaven, isn’t it, Rose? See how everything has been let in together — the dandelions and the irises, the vulgar and the superior, me and Mrs. Fisher — all welcome, all mixed up anyhow, and all so visibly happy and enjoying ourselves.” When rose protests that Mrs. Fisher isn’t happy, Lotty predicts she will be — that even Mrs. Fisher can’t resist being happy in such a place.

You won’t be able to resist this happy little novel either, which had me laughing out loud in places. Von Arnim entertains, but she also slips in some social criticism, including a little feminism. A perfect read for a rainy afternoon, or a sunny day with wisteria — or whatever is blooming near you — in sight.

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