Developing a relationship: ‘Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay’

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In general, when I find an author or series that I like, I race through it uncontrollably.  It’s this kind of attitude that has lead to my uneviable position of never being able to read a new Christie Poirot or Marple novel, or Jane Austen, or Ann Radcliffe (to name a few exhausted authors).  In an attempt to learn from my mistakes I now ration favourite authors, so I know that I’ve still got at least one unread Margaret Atwood (‘Maddaddam’) and one Kate Aktkinson (‘Started Early, Took My Dog’) waiting for me.

Then, I discovered Elena Ferrante and decided to try a different approach.  In 2015 I read the first of her Neapolitan quartet ‘My Brilliant Friend‘; I read the sequel ‘The Story of a New Name‘ in 2016.  Now it’s about a year later and time for my next Ferrante hit.  Taking my time like this has been a new reading experience for me, but it does seem to be working, especially given the passage of time and developing relationships explored in Ferrante’s complex and conflicted novels.

In ‘Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay’ the title sets up a familiar tension between the enigmatic Lila and our narrator, the talented Lenù, whose education has enabled her to escape their vicious poverty-stricken neighbourhood in Naples for marriage into the middle class intelligentsia and a comfortable home in Florence.  With one controversial novel already a critical success, Lenù’s life appears to be moving on a positive trajectory away from her sordid roots.  As with the other books in the series, the title provides a helpful summary of the novel, in this case contrasting Lenù’s restless movements between the new and old worlds that claim her with Lila’s more settled, even claustrophobic, existence in a Naples.

There are other forms of leaving though.  Lila, whose charisma, intelligence and sense of self exploded off the page in ‘Our Brilliant Friend’, and were traumatically challenged in ‘The Story of a New Name’ has seemed to enter a new phase of existence.  More vulnerable than ever, we learn that Lila is suffering from ‘dissolving boundaries,’ where her body and mind seem untethered, moving away from the physical, real world.  In the meantime, her powerful intellect remains a force beyond her control.  Almost by accident she becomes one the most proficient computer programmers in the region, appearing to escape into a future hi tech world even while her reality is mired in the political turmoil and corruption of late 1960s Italy.

Lenù and Lila’s lives continue to dance around each other in ever more complex moves and choreographed sequences.  In what I’m taking as a teaser for the final novel in the series, we’re told early on that

This may be the last time I’ll talk about Lila with a wealth of detail.  Later on she became more evasive, and the material at my disposal was diminished.  It’s the fault of our lives diverging, the fault of distance.  And yet even when I lived in other cities and we almost never met, and she as usual didn’t give me any news and I made an effort not to ask for it, her shadow goaded me, depressed me, filled me with pride, deflated me, giving me no rest.
Today, as I’m writing, that goad is even more essential.  I wish she were here, that’s why I’m writing.  I want her to erase, add, collaborate in our story by spilling into it, according to her whim, the things she knows, what she said or thought …’

In about a year’s time I will learn for myself what a Neapolitan novel without ‘a wealth of detail‘ about Lila is like.  I can already identify at least three possible youngsters who could qualify to be the potential titular protagonist of the final book ‘The Story of the Lost Child.’  I also know that Lila is going to disappear – because that was how the first novel began.  Beyond that, I’m going to take my time, let this third instalment settle, and maybe consider which other novelists might we worth exploring for my next ‘taking it slow’ reading experiment.

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Posted in Elena Ferrante, Italian Literature, Reading in translation | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Oh, the misery and isolation … ‘Couples’ by John Updike

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John Updike is one of those Great American Novelists who have always left me cold. I was turned off by his modern classic ‘Rabbit Run’ and was delighted when, after reading it, I learned that Updike is now considered a misogynist dinosaur (meaning I didn’t have to feel guilty about not ‘getting’ his work).

Then, I learned about the 1968 book club hosted by Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and Simon at Stuck in a Book.  A Google search of novels published in the year threw up ‘Couples’ as the second book (the first is Solzhenitsyn’s ‘In the First Circle,’ a book I love, but have already read).  In the spirit of giving it a fair try and of taking advantage of my local library, I though it was time to get past my prejudices and see if, bigotry aside, I might find something to enjoy in Updike’s presentation of the sexual revolution.

‘Couples’ is set within a small Massachusetts town where a clique of middle class inhabitants amuse themselves by giving parties, gossiping and sleeping around. They are presented as smug, amoral and selfish, with those outside the golden circle (such as their own children) treated as distractions, inconveniences and occasionally excuses for their own behaviour. This hardly seemed like the book to change my mind about Updike, and yet somehow the fluidity of the prose and unpretentiousness of the first pages drew me in.

The book begins just after a party in March 1962.  We first meet the Hanemas getting ready for bed, accusing each other of having affairs with their friends and gossiping  dismissively about a new couple who have recently moved to the area. The reader feels quite a lot like one of these arrivals, faced with so many new names its hard to keep track, especially as lies and extra-marital affairs pile up.

Updike uses the couples to section off and then explore a specific time and set within American society:

They belonged to that segment of their generation of the upper middle class which mildly rebelled against the confinement and discipline whereby wealth maintained its manners during the upheavals of depression and world war. Raised secure amid these national trials and introduced as adults into an indulgent economy, into a business atmosphere strangely blended of youthful imagery and underlying depersonalisation, of successful small-scale gambles carried out against a background of rampant diversification and the ultimate influence of a government whose taxes and commissions and appetite for armaments set limits everywhere, introduced into a nation whose leadership allowed a toothless moralism to dissemble a certain practiced cunning, into a culture where adolescent passions and homosexual philosophies were not quite yet triumphant, a climate still furtively hedonistic, of a country too overtly threatened from without to be ruthlessly self-abusive, a climate of time between between, of standoff and day-by-day, wherein all generalizations, even negative ones, seemed unintelligent – this this new world the Applebys and little-Smiths brought a modest determination to be free, to be flexible and decent. … Duty and work yielded as ideals to truth and fun.  Virtue was no longer sought in temple or market place but in the home – one’s own home, and then the homes of one’s friends.

I hope you’ll excuse the length of the above quotation, my only real excuse is Updike’s punctuation. As shown above, the novel is a tour de force when it comes to ambitious and self-conscious writing style and themes.  I could just as easily have quoted some of the Ulysses-like inner monologues of the neurotic and promiscuous male protagonist, but I also wanted to give an impression of the scope of the novel.  The bed-swapping takes place as the Vietnam war rages, through the Profumo affair and the Kennedy assassination and amid discussions of integration, illegal abortions and the pill. Even the structure of the novel is ambitious and effective, with each long chapter ending with a situation that is somehow more sordid than the last.

There is nothing to enjoy about Updike’s characters, but much to relish in his stylish take on 1960 America.  In fact, ‘Couples’ has nearly tempted me to try the Rabbit novels again – this time remembering their context and trying to see them as historical documents rather than reflecting an admirable view of American society and masculinity.  Or maybe I’ll just wait to see if any of them fit into Kaggsy’s and Simon’s next book club …

Posted in John Updike, Reading America | Tagged , , | 12 Comments

Power and Paranoia: ‘His Master’s Voice’ by Stanisław Lem

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One of the things I love about great science fiction is the way its never actually about the future, or the machines or the other worlds it depicts so much as it is about the precise historical moment of its writing.  I was looking out for this more that ever with my first Lem read, chosen as it was to fit in with the 1968 book club hosted by Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and Simon at Stuck in a Book.

Lem is best known for his Sci Fi classic ‘Solaris’ (still on my wish list, but not, alas, published in 1968).  If ‘His Master’s Voice’ is anything to go by, ‘Solaris’ is philosophical, ambitious and a telling commentary on the Cold War.  These things are certainly true of this lesser known work, in which the science fiction premise is an excuse for an intense and intelligent exploration of human morality.  ‘His Master’s Voice’ is a first contact story, narrated by a world famous mathematician. It begins with a deadpan ‘Editor’s Note’ in which we’re told ‘the manuscript was found among the papers of the late Professor Peter E. Hogarth. That great mind, alas was unable to put it into final form, though he had labored long over it.’ Next comes a preface in which Hogarth introduces us to to his failings and his personal philosophy.  It’s pretty dense and complex, but fascinating scene setting, ending as it does with the ominous promise:

The adventure I am to relate boils down to this: humanity came upon a thing that beings belonging to another race had sent out into the darkness of the stars.  A situation, the first of its kind in history, important enough, one would think, to merit the divulging, in greater detail than convention allows, of who it was, exactly, who represented our side in that encounter.  All the more since neither my genius nor my mathematics alone sufficed to prevent it from bearing poisonous fruit.’

The book that follows is in fact all about taking ‘sides’ in the encounter.  First there is the litigious start to the project, the discovery of the ‘thing’ sent to earth and the absorption of the resulting scientific research into the US military.  In a bugged and isolated repurposed nuclear research facility, an army of men (it’s the scientific future as imagined in 1968 and I’m not clear from the book if women still exist) fight against time to understand what the communication means.  Their competitors in this endeavour include:

  1. possibly, the alien life force who may be, at this moment, planning their attack on earth.
  2. probably, the Soviet scientists who are trying to get ahead in the race for knowledge.
  3. probably, the Soviet military who are researching how to use this knowledge to develop a super-weapon with which to win the Cold War.
  4. possibly, an alternative facility set up by the US military who don’t trust their hand-picked set of experts, especially as these civilians might not understand the importance of point 3 above and so will not look explicitly for the military potential in their findings.

You’ll have to read the book yourself to see how many of these fears are realised, as the novel continues we certainly learn which of them Hogarth was personally most frightened by.  My final comment is that, although very much of its time, the book is not limited by this.  Its conclusions about fear, paranoia, good and evil are equally relevant nearly fifty years later and I don’t think I’ve ever read such an intelligent and thought provoking first contact story.

Note: I read the 1983 English edition of the novel, translated from the Polish by Michael Kandel.

Posted in Science Fiction, Stanisław Lem | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

A classic horror for Halloween: ‘The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner’ by James Hogg (1824)

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I read this book on my Kindle and I think the only print edition I’ve ever seen is the no doubt excellent but very drab looking Penguin Classic paperback.  Overall, I was completely unprepared for the gothic splendour and psychological torment of Hogg’s classic horror story.

To explain the title, it comes from a religious belief in predestination – specifically, that those who are destined to be ‘saved’ have no reason to avoid sin. As Rabina, a fanatical follower of this theory, exclaims to the Reverent Wringhim, her favourite minister, ‘How delightful it is to think that a justified person can do no wrong! Who would not envy the liberty where with we are made free?‘ Rabina and her very close friend Wringhim, it goes without saying, are themselves saved, as is her second son Robert. This young man (unacknowledged by Rabina’s husband and brought up to call the minister father) is the central ‘Sinner’ in the story.

And what a story it is.  Told first through an ‘editor’s preface’ and then through Robert’s own testimony we learn of the sanctimonious hypocrisy attendant on the rigid beliefs of the central figures.  Robert is loathsome, a combination of nearly every Dickensian bully and villain, and he is equally despicable in his actual crimes, his attempted crimes and, frankly, his general demeanour in every situation.  So far so horrific, but this is not just a story about murder, abuse and misery, though it contains all three.  It is also either a psychological tale of madness and obsession or a supernatural story of the devil.  Or both (I’m undecided, but think it’s equally terrifying either way).

I’m not sure why this isn’t promoted as a gothic classic along with ‘Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde‘.  All I know is that is has brought an appropriately frightening chill to this year’s Halloween reading and that it is suitably ambiguous for me to look forward to reading it again next year to see if repeated encounters will change my opinion of the evil at the book’s core.  A horror of enduring worth and inventiveness, I say ignore the unwieldy title and throw yourself into a very unexpected classic tale of the dark forces that surround us.

 

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‘To Autumn’ by William Blake

When I think of Blake, I generally think of madness and intensity and gothic splendour.

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Blake’s ‘Ancient of Days’ illustration of the biblical book of Daniel

I tend to forget he also wrote poems of innocence and some really charming verses about the simple pleasures of nature.  Of course, one of the joys of keeping a blog is that all my literary resolutions can be recorded – this year, I want to remember some of the happiness in Blake as well as his awe inspiring oddness.  Just take his poem ‘To Autumn’

O Autumn, laden with fruit, and stained
With the blood of the grape, pass not, but sit
Beneath my shady roof; there thou mayst rest,
And tune thy jolly voice to my fresh pipe,
And all the daughters of the year shall dance!
Sing now the lusty song of fruits and flowers.

“The narrow bud opens her beauties to
The sun, and love runs in her thrilling veins;
Blossoms hang round the brows of Morning, and
Flourish down the bright cheek of modest Eve,
Till clust’ring Summer breaks forth into singing,
And feather’d clouds strew flowers round her head.

“The spirits of the air live on the smells
Of fruit; and Joy, with pinions light, roves round
The gardens, or sits singing in the trees.”
Thus sang the jolly Autumn as he sat;
Then rose, girded himself, and o’er the bleak
Hills fled from our sight; but left his golden load.

I’m currently in the middle of the third section of Powell’s ‘A Dance to the Music of Time’ so the image of the ‘daughters of the year’ in the first section fits right in to my seasonal mood, but more than that, I really wanted to share this joyful poem that so cheerfully subverts the dour symbolic treatment afforded autumn in too much of my reading.

For Blake, the season might be ‘stained’ at the start, but only with the wine used to celebrate its hurried glory.  Autumn here is, rightly, not a melancholy companion slouching after spring and summer, but their boisterous more-than-equal. Spring begins as ‘modest‘, before the world ‘breaks forth into singing‘ during the warmer months; it is autumn that speaks for them all, fulfilling the year’s promise.

With the wind gusting outside, I think I can really appreciate the way autumn is the season of joyful sounds.  I do love the way Blake’s poem shows me a vision of the year so rarely seen in literature.  Take the noise and liveliness of the poem for example, the number of references to autumn singing in the poem far supersede those of the quieter times of the year, indeed half the poem is put into the mouth of its protagonist.  Autumn is also referred to as ‘jolly’ not once, but twice, bracketing the poem with a bonhomie I usually associate with personifications of Christmas rather than of Halloween.

Ah autumn. Maybe if I was more reflective I could have chosen today to write about Keats’ ‘Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness’ but instead I’m going to enjoy Blake’s far more lively version of this golden time of year.

Posted in Poem of the Month, William Blake | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

A Fin de Siècle Fantasy: ‘Psyche’ by Louis Couperus

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“My gentle Psyche!” Said he.  “My child and my wife and my tender princess! Kneel not to me.  In love it is sweet to give and to suffer.  Love gives, and love suffers”

Oh, there’s nothing like a good, overblown, Freudian-inflected fairy tale.  What with quests, trials and a naked girl who falls in love with a winged horse (see the beautiful Jan Toorop cover above) ‘Psyche’ luxuriates in exaggerated emotions, settings and symbolism.  It is inspired by the classical story of Cupid and Psyche, and it was delightful to find Robert Graves’ translation of the original myth included in my rather wonderful Puskin edition.  Couperus clearly felt that there was no need to simply rehash a traditional tale though, he may have loved the name and a few of the themes, but his ‘Psyche’ is absolutely a stand alone work.

‘Psyche’ begins with the three daughters of the King of the Past.  The oldest is of surpassing beauty and pride, the second ‘possessed all the wisdom of the earth‘.  Meanwhile, the youngest has the privilege of nakedness (seriously) and makes friends with flowers, birds and butterflies.  Her joys, sorrows, loves and tribulations will take her to the ends of the earth and it is an indication of the magic of Couperus’ prose that while my 21st century brain wanted nothing better than to poke fun at the whole misogynistic mess, I couldn’t help but be enthralled by Psyche’s story.

The book is made up of dreams and nightmares, with every fantastical setting so precisely and beautifully written my cynicism melted away.  While images of butterflies might seem clichéd, the repeated symbols of stones and fire felt new and original as they get used in ever more frightening scenarios.  Even the naked girl and winged horse moments become staggering set pieces evoking fear, danger, love and loss.  As a fan of the Gothic, I’m no stranger to literary descents into hell, but I think Couperus may have given me a new favourite towards the end of this novel.

Couperus is most famous for his novel Eline Vere, which I haven’t yet read but am determined to get my hands on.  Meanwhile, if you want an English translation of ‘Pysche’ you’re in luck.  I read a paperback edition translated by B. S Berrington and have since learned that this version is in the public domain and can be found online at https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Psyche_(Couperus).  We can’t all escape reality on the back of a mystical flying horse, but I can think of no better way to delve into a magical world than through Couperus’ enthralling fairy tale.

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A Classic Western: ‘Lonesome Dove’ by Larry McMurtry

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I never would have called myself a fan of Westerns.  As a bookish woman who loves living in London, I felt that even the premise of epic escapism would not be enough to make me want to spend imaginary time in the Wild West.  It was reading ‘The Authentic Death of Hendry Jones‘ and ‘Close Range: Wyoming Stories‘ earlier this year that made me realise I was missing something.  It is true, I would never actually want to experience the harsh, cruel lives depicted in such novels, but I that didn’t mean I couldn’t thoroughly enjoy hours spent in the company of these fictional cowboys and outlaws as they stoically faced all kinds of adversity.

‘Lonesome Dove’ takes its name from a tired corner of Texas, home to a couple of retired rangers, and their ragged band of employees.   The two pass their time lazing (Augustus) and working (Call) and seem to spend their lives bickering.  A sample cause of contention gives an wonderful indication of the tenor of their days:

There was not even a respectable shade tree within twenty or thirty miles; in fact, the actual location of the nearest decent shade was a matter of vigorous debate in the offices – if you wanted to call a roofless barn and a couple of patched up corrals offices – of the Hat Creek Cattle Company, half of which Augustus owned.
His stubborn partner, Captain W. F. Call, maintained that there was excellent shade as close as Pickles Gap, only twelve miles away, but Augustus wouldn’t allow it.  Pickles Gap was if anything a more worthless community than Lonesome Dove…

Personally, I would have happily spent the whole of the close-to-850-page of the novel at Lonesome Dove, along with Gus, Call, the cook Bolivar and the hands Pea Eye, Deets and Newt.  I and the characters however were all shaken out of the heat induced stupor when an old acquaintance rides up with news of opportunities up North.  It seems like no time at all before the men have packed up the ranch and acquired hundreds of cattle and a motley array of sought and unsought human companions to start a monumental trek up to the fertile highlands of Montana.

Friends, lovers and enemies are found and lost as they all take part in their individual quests across America.  Along with those who survive the deadly conditions (the variety and number of deaths is quite staggering) I fell in love with the landscape and scale of the American wilderness.  As its characters make their way across the country, ‘Lonesome Dove’ engages with complex notions of identity, ownership, liberty and power, providing escapism without any sugar coated fantasy.  Whether you’re considered trying out Western fiction, or are simply on the look out for a hearty and satisfying autumn read, I recommend settling down, in shade or sun, with this (officially) Great American Novel.

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