Category: fiction

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