Category: fiction

The Reivers

Faulkner’s final novel The Reivers, written in 1962, is something of an uncharacteristic masterpiece.

The narrator, Lucius Priest, is an old man recounting adventures from when he was an eleven-year-old boy, in 1905, just as automobiles first arrived in Jefferson, Mississippi. His grandfather, Boss Priest, who owns one of the few cars then in existence, goes by train to a distant funeral, leaving Lucius to enter into an unspoken pact with his grandfather’s driver (and distant relative), Boon Hogganbeck. They conspire to steal the car and take it to Memphis, Tennessee, where gambling, scams, and prostitution await. To “reive”, by the way, is to steal, hence the “reivers”.

It remain a powerful narrative and worthwhile read for several reasons: Continue reading

Circe

Madeline Miller’s Circe is not a bad book, but it is disappointing in a number of ways. It takes for its first-person hero the witch of Aiaiai, Circe, a daughter of the sun-god Helios, turner of men into pigs, and eventual lover of Odysseus. It is a sort of riposte to The Odyssey so it’s unsurprising that it takes the time to dismantle the old heroes and gods one by one: Odysseus, Achilles, Hermes, Athena, Helios, most of the other nymphs, demigods, and gods, are portrayed as frivolous and vain, as well as Jason, Herakles, Ajax, who are depicted (amusingly) as hulking bores. This is all fair enough; the gods are mercurial and immature at the best of times, and quite pathetically petty at their worst, and the heroes are nothing if not unwise. On this level her treatment is welcome, humanising and critical of the often misogynistic and merely vacuous penchants of the gods. Continue reading

Mrs. Dalloway

It is difficult to pinpoint exactly why Mrs. Dalloway is so heartbreaking. Some of it is undoubtedly down to its manner of plumbing the depths of time, the way in which those strong moments of life, of violence and of youth, of youth’s violence, can so resolutely stand time’s test, can so indelibly inscribe one’s present, can last so long into age, can remain more real to us than our everyday existence; more familiar, sometimes, those faces from one’s youth, than the deepening lines in the mirror make us to ourselves. It conveys precisely how certain acquaintances can be cut for years, even decades, without their bonds on us weakening in the slightest. One might be forgiven for assuming, as I had, that this manner of recollection would come across as stream of consciousness. But the novel’s profound consciousness is not streamlike. As a cursory introspection into one’s own mind reveals, there is really nothing continuous about it at all, and it is its discontinuity, and, in sensitive and damaged individuals, its total susceptibility to environment, that is its defining characteristic. Continue reading

The Enchanted April

“Enchanting” and its close cousin “charming” are apt words for Elizabeth von Arnim’s novel The Enchanted April. It’s an outwardly unassuming meditation on how one’s surroundings can change one’s mind, and gives a fair amount of early (1922) insight into British attitudes towards the rigidity of society, as well as to the ameliorative effects both of holidays (and may even give some insight into today’s music festivals). The relaxation of strictures and class stratification empowers not just the destination sun but even the act of leaving England with an enchanting quality that slowly but surely changes its characters. In the book these qualities actually line up well with American philosopher William James’ categorisation of mystical experiences. First, he calls them ineffable, and indeed the characters have a difficult time putting into words precisely what is happening to them or what it is about the setting that is quite so transformative; they merely keep repeating the the name of the place, “San Salvatore,” which doesn’t really explain anything, though one gradually gathers an empirical understanding of its meaning. Second, he calls them noetic, meaning that they seem to reveal truth. Most of the characters feel that something inside them is awakening which is more true than their previous lives. Third, they are transient, and cannot be sustained for long. Although here the experience lasts a month, the characters worry that the effects will dissipate on their return to London. Fourth, they are passive. Certainly Mrs. Wilkins and the others feel like it is the environment acting upon them rather than vice-versa. In other words their experience is a retreat of sorts, leading to a quasi-religious transformation, with Mrs. Wilkins becoming saint-like, a more powerful harmony with nature, raptures of gratitude, the dissolving of old selves. This is an interesting representation of the effects of a new environment, representing a kind of primeval British holiday, providing what holidays were invoked to provide: not just a break and refreshment, but rediscovery, renewed vigour, and a new love for life, caused by the beauty and unfamiliarity of a new place, which one hopes will persist and bleed over into the everyday. It must also be said that certain scenes in this book are absolutely hilarious. An enchanting read. 

The Turtle Diary

Last week I read Russell Hoban’s The Turtle Diary (1975) which I quite liked. It’s an understated study of loneliness and a search for meaning in London in the 1970s, and many of its concerns remain of unwelcome relevance to today’s Londoners, however drastically the city has changed in the past four decades. The novel’s protagonists are two solitary characters, William H., a divorced man working at a bookshop, and Neaera, who writes and illustrates children’s literature. In an unlikely coincidence, both become convinced that they need personally to liberate sea turtles at the London aquarium. Despite having hardly spoken to one another, they also simultaneously intuit that the other is having precisely the same thought. Continue reading

CivilWarLand in Bad Decline

I first came across George Saunders in a New York Times piece on his new novel, and due to its high praise, I proposed his first book, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline (1996), to my book club a few months ago. I read it in two days, and even though many of the stories are a bit repetitive in theme and content, on the whole I thought it was worth a read. It’s taken me a while to put my thoughts together but here they are.

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The Untouchable

This week I finished John Banville’s The Untouchable, a moving chronicle of longing, reminiscence, and sadness. It is a book about memory and about the act of remembering, too personal to really be called a history, despite the fact that it’s based on real people and events. Memory for Banville is much sadder than it is for that most famous of literary recollectors, Marcel Proust, and not just because the concerns of The Untouchable are much graver than the frivolous happenstance of Remembrance of Things Past. Rather, it is because the act of remembering itself is a tragedy, a dirge for time irrevocably lost. From the title of Proust’s work, À la recherche du temps perdu, or In Search of Lost Time, one might expect the loss of time to be of primary concern. But in fact the emphasis is on the search, an inherently hopeful act: Continue reading

Sons and Lovers

D.H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers (1913) is a sort of bridge between two centuries of literature. Its length, breadth, and the length of time it narrates make it a close relative of the Victorian novel. However its concern with themes of sexual frustration, alienation, and meaninglessness place it thoroughly in the twentieth century.

If it’s not clear from that introduction, Continue reading

Hangover Square

I saw the 1945 film adaptation of Hangover Square long before I knew it was based on a 1941 novel of the same name by Patrick Hamilton. I’ve just finished reading the novel for my book club, and from what I remember of the film it’s quite a loose adaptation. The novel starts off a bit awkwardly, but does hit its stride as it moves along. This review contains spoilers, but not more than the J.B. Priestley introduction in my edition of the book. Continue reading