Category: literary classics

Let’s Celebrate! The Magic Wagon – A Classic Joe R. Lansdale Tale is Available Once Again

The Magic Wagon by Joe R. Lansdale - Kindle edition cover
Click on the book cover to buy this Kindle edition for $2.99

This new edition is a cause for celebration. First published in 1986 when Joe R. Lansdale was little known, and re-issued in 2001 by Subterranean Press, the wonderful US indie publisher, The Magic Wagon has sadly been unavailable since then.  Well, not only is it now easily available because it’s a Kindle edition, the price is a mere $2.99. It’d be worth it at triple the price.  And, even better, this early Lansdale fiction remains one of his very best.  In fact, it’s worthy of the title classic: a funny, quirky and utterly charming literary fiction, brilliantly told.

Set in Texas at the turn of the 20th century, The Magic Wagon is the tale of Buster Fogg’s life as well as other eccentric characters that he encounters. By the time he’s 17, his life has been pock-marked by tragedy, yet Buster tells you about each sad event in such a way as to make them Candide-like – tragic-comic, even farcical.

It reads like a combination of an S. E. Hinton novel (Rumblefish, The Outsiders), in its convincing account of a boy’s youth and, throughout, a feeling that if Jorge Luis Borges had ever written a literary, magical Western, I think he’d have been proud to have the result that is The Magic Wagon.

Celine’s existential nightmare novel on the human condition

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This was Celine‘s second novel after Journey to the End of the Night and is a prequel to it. It focuses on Ferdinand Bardamu‘s (Celine’s fictional alter ego) troubled childhood and youth in Paris.

Reading Celine, you experience his incredibly intense emotional and intellectual understanding of our desperate, existentialist and unresolved – conundrum – human condition.

Celine makes it clear he sees no escape and that humanity – what there is of it – is pathetic, disease-ridden and without hope. The one consolation? To grasp a few moments of joy in a life of poverty and hardship. It is a story that is powerfully told, and you can’t help but be overwhelmed by it.

His raw, unadulterated, yet poetic style of writing – the use of ellipses and hallucinatory scenes mixing with the gutter and destitution – worked powerfully with his themes of desperation and poverty. In the 1930s there was no one with whom to compare him or to match him for the depth, complexity and violent negativity of his impoverished world.

You find yourself being drawn into and compromised by Bardamu’s viewpoint, anger and hatred. You drown with him and his constantly argumentative father and are at a loss to help his exhausted-to-the-bones mother.

You also can’t forget Celine’s deep and abiding compassion and that he later qualified and practiced as a doctor who worked only in the poorest, most deprived neighbourhoods of Paris (about which he writes so effectively in Journey to the End of Night). Nor, too, the fact that he was himself persona non grata before and after his “profession”; and you are further troubled by knowing that, besides, he lost his reputation as a writer – shunned by the literati of Paris – in his own lifetime because of his fascistic views (even though it’s important to note that in practising his medicine, he attended to everybody, irrespective of whether the person was Jewish or otherwise).

And while Celine and Bardamu both hated “humanity”, both were always specific, explicit and thankful for those few people that made a difference in their lives, including the wonderful characters of certain women, who plied the trade of prostitution, Violette, Lola (in Journey), and others.

It is a compelling novel, and in some ways is even darker and more troubling than his first, and most famous novel. If you come to this having been impressed by Journey, you will be all the more so when you finish reading this prequel.

To sever your head from your heart: Dangerous liaisons & Iris Murdoch

A Severed Head by Iris Murdoch
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A prolific, brilliant author, intellectual and philosopher, the remarkable Iris Murdoch wrote 26 novels.  The Severed Head was the second fiction of hers that I’d ever read (my first was the overwhelming Philosopher’s Pupil, also reviewed in this blog – click here).  More reviews of her terrific novels will follow (whether you like it or not – ahem).

Plot: Martin Lynch-Gibbon, established wine merchant, and happily dedicated two-timing sophisticate (he has betrayed his wife, Antonia, by having an affair for some time with Georgie, a friend, and LSE lecturer), tells you the story of the collapse of his marriage, his wife’s affair with no less than two men (one of which, with the manipulative, obnoxiously patronising, slimy psychoanalyst, Palmer Anderson, began even before Martin’s marriage with Antonia; the other with Martin’s sculptor brother, Alexander) and his stormy entanglement – and eventual (well, potential) resurrection, with the devilish, deeply disturbing brilliant academic Honor Klein (sister to Palmer).

So is it any good? God, yes. It is beautifully, compellingly written and from the viewpoint of Martin’s narration. (The notion that men can’t ‘write’ women characters, or vice versa, or one ethnicity can’t ‘write’ another, or sexuality, etc., I think is total nonsense.  Imagination has only the limit of one’s mind and preconceptions. Any other judgement is a prejudgment of the reader, surely?)

The author’s intelligence heats every page and the deft, brilliant drawings of her characters – she can do men and women with equal aplomb, by which I mean their psychology, self-deceptions, quirks, temperaments and dialogue – are always powerfully evoked, even – perhaps, especially – when their natures are most troubling.

Martin clearly finds himself falling into an almighty mess. Having thought he was the one in control of his life, it becomes clear he is the more easily duped – and cuckolded, while deceiving himself and others (as do the other characters). Murdoch understands the vicissitudes and muddle, confusion and self-deception of what it can often mean to be human.

Amazingly, while it is difficult to care for or certainly empathise with any of her characters (besides Georgie, who doesn’t display any of the obnoxious characteristics of the others), as a reader you are drawn in relentlessly, and you find from the outset that you just can’t wait to turn over each page, desperate to find out what other levels of hell will transpire in the telling of the tale (Murdoch is clearly a fan of Dante, and often evokes him, as she does in The Philosopher’s Pupil).

Besides Georgie, then, the characters to a tee are pretty much loathsome. Antonia is foul – full of meaningless platitudes, always insistently and with pressure pleading, demanding, coaxing that others comply with her notions of love and consideration (which prove to be more about pleasing herself, rather than others). She’s a true narcissist, with her monstrous need to be loved and loving; in her case, the latter experience is simply an opportunity to cement the prospect of her being loved.

What troubled me most in the novel was the portrayal of Honor Klein, because of Martin’s anti-Semitic, obsessively hateful – even on one occasion, violent (until towards the end of the narrative) way of describing her. While it is vital to keep in mind that this anti-Semitism is clearly Martin’s – he associates her `Jewish’ looks (the word is in single quotation marks to highlight the absurdity of this notion) with ugliness, and hardly a scene in which she is present takes place without the smell of sulphur in the atmosphere; never mind him literally describing her as a devil, as a demon, and the seeming cold, clinical, monstrous nature of her (compounded by Honor committing a taboo that still shocks, for any reader, to this day). But because the hatred is so absurdly over the top, as a reader you realise soon enough that Martin’s negative obsession with her, coupled with your knowing that his happy two-timing world has utterly collapsed, is a reflection of his deeply troubled self. This is confirmed when, regaining his sense of self and a more balanced view, Martin’s perception of Honor as ugly and demon-like transitions slowly but surely into a sort of moving beauty to him (like a ‘Hebrew angel’, he writes towards the end).  Anyway, if you read biographies of Murdoch, you’ll know  she was probably the least prejudiced (of any kind) person you could hope to have met and most definitely not anti-semitic.  (To learn more about her life, click Iris Murdoch – Biographical profile, which includes sources/resources, and is written by the estimable Peter J. Conradi, one of the authorities on her life, work and letters.)

Still, amid this awfulness, you are addicted to learning more about her; she is utterly fascinating and a force to be reckoned with. I loved, for example, the scene in which Martin – drunk, as usual – note: if you don’t appreciate your narrator being a relentless whisky and wine drinker, you will probably need to stay clear of this novel – sitting alone in a candle-lit drawing-room, asks Honor to show how to use the samurai sword she owns (she has trained with a master for several years in Japan, but states simply that she is only a `beginner’). She refuses to do so but then, moments later and in a flash, she slices in half two handkerchiefs with the blade, and so fast Martin doesn’t even see the blade as it whisks through the air.

A Severed Head is disturbing, nightmarish and brilliantly depicts the shenanigans, deceptions and self-deceptions of having an affair. It is also clever, compelling, thought-provoking, powerful and thoroughly entertaining fiction. Reader, be warned, but I have no doubt you will find plenty to sink your teeth into (even if on occasion you feel you are helplessly staring at a god-awful car crash).

A Visit from the Sh*it Squad: Jennifer Egan’s novel about watching toxic paint dry on cr*ap music

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Ah, dear reader.  I can tell from this post’s title and you clicking on it that you’re obviously expecting a rave review of Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, aren’t you? (Ahem.)  In fact, this really is a brilliant, wondrous, stunning novel and one of the masterpieces of 21st century literature.

Actually, no. Sorry. It really is Sh*it.

Don’t leave yet!  Please allow me to tell you why, because this snapshot review will be sure to save a few hours of your precious time by helping you to avoid – I hope – making the same mistake I and many other horribly disappointed readers did by purchasing this novel and believing it was actually, really literature.

No, it’s not. I’ve read pulp fiction with more class and intelligence than this. And certainly more entertaining.

So why is this novel – notably a winner of prestigious literary awards, including the Pulitzer Prize – and recipient of rave reviews and accolades from The New York Times, The Guardian, The Village Voice and countless others; that was endlessly cited as one of the Best Books of 2010 (Oprah Winfrey’s O Magazine, The New York Times Book Review, Time Magazine, Village Voice and more, besides) – well, why is it so frickin execrable?!

Well, first, obviously disregard the positive reviews. They must have all been snorting washing up powder or something.

Egan’s attempts to be wry, clever and ‘with it’ – in this instance, the focus is on the American music industry, and the trials, shenanigans and viewpoints of some individuals within it and its periphery – leave you feeling nothing at all for her characters (because they’re all ego-inflated bores).

Sadly, pathetically (in every sense), her attempts at being clever amount to nothing more than sophistry, and two particular scenes/chapters highlighted by many reviewers to date as good are uninspired and tiresome. These involve a chapter in the form of a PowerPoint presentation, detailing in schematic/diagrammatic form a family matrix and its individuals’ views and connections; and an article written in the style of David Foster Wallace, including – of course – footnotes and digressions galore (arguably an homage, more in truth a dull-witted effort, with none of the brilliance or ingenuity or riffing, clever tangents that Wallace so effortlessly produced in his fiction and journalism).

You keep on hoping it will get better, but sadly, miserably, it doesn’t. Plodding stuff that will bore you to tears and, unless your proclivities include watching paint dry or wallpaper peel, I’d stay clear of this abysmal, contrived effort.  Spend a couple of hours with a friend. Call a family member you’ve not spoken to in a while and have been meaning to catch up. Paint your nails.  Do your hair. Take a long nap. Bunjy-jump.  Do a Tom Cruise backward jump onto a sofa (impossible spontaneously, so it’ll take you probably the same time as reading this novel to succeed). But don’t, under any circumstances, be fooled by this Empress’s New Clothes.

If you do, be sure to hold the book with a pair of kitchen or gardening gloves. Do not contaminate your skin!  Apart from that: enjoy!

A beautiful literary classic: The Neon Bible by John Kennedy Toole

A stunning rites of passage novel to rank with Catcher in the Rye,

Toole committed suicide at the age of 32, leaving behind two unpublished novels and an impressively determined mother who succeeded – after much badgering – in gaining the novelist Walker Percy’s interest and support in the manuscript of A Confederacy of Dunces.

Cover of
Cover of A Confederacy of Dunces. Published posthumously, the novel garnered instant and great acclaim and has been continuously in print ever since and translated into numerous languages.

While The Neon Bible was in fact written before A Confederacy of Dunces, it only came to light during the successful reception of the later novel, and its publication was delayed by some years because of legal wrangling involving Toole’s mother, the publishers and the courts.

Nonetheless, the novel is an astonishing achievement, not least because it was written, it seems, when the author was barely a teenager. It’s a classic of contemporary American fiction, and of Bildungsroman literature, offering a haunting and poetic evocation of a boy’s loss of innocence in the rural America of the 1930s and 40s. There are echoes of Mark Twain, John Cheever, J. D. Salinger and S. E. Hinton, to name but a few and, impressively, the ‘voice’ and identity of the central character, the young boy, Dave, are as distinct and compelling as any by those others.

In a series of linking memories we learn about Dave and his painful trials and tribulations growing up. His mother becomes emotionally unstable when her husband returns in a coffin, from fighting in Europe during the second world war; his Aunt Mae, an eccentric, once-travelling singer, and Dave’s only real friend and companion, discards him for the sake of her infatuation with a 70-year-old fiddle-playing boyfriend and the temptations of Nashville; and his local preacher inflicts a destructive hypocrisy upon him (in fact, it is this preacher’s church that displays the tacky, monolithic, ‘neon bible’). As if these weren’t enough, yet more troubles ensue, accumulating to the point that he is compelled to escape to the city, leaving innocence in his wake, and only the memory of bitter experience for reflection.

Juxtaposed, Toole’s two novels differ in style, language and humour – understandably, as he was just 13 or so when he wrote The Neon Bible, whereas he wrote A Confederacy of Dunces as an adult.

In the latter novel, we have the fantastic figure of Ignatius J. Reilly, towering, Rabelaisian and Falstaff-like, battling against the dim-witted and the short-sighted in his quest for truth, beauty, and a bountiful supply of hot dogs, his favourite food. Its language is rich and boisterous, its style sweeping in its intensity.

In The Neon Bible, Dave is the centre, holding the novel together with his rural speech; his gentle, graceful and easy language complementing the impression we have of him and his world. Even so, their lives and their principles are, arguably, the same: both value Platonic ideals above all else; both are outsiders, most often alone – feeling the loss of their innocence – and reflect a pervading sadness that is at the very heart of their lives. There is no question that the publication of this, his only other fiction, underlines the awful tragedy of Toole’s death.

Who’s Your Daddy? An appreciation of Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev

Fathers and Sons by Turgenev - Penguin book cover
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During his lifetime, Turgenev was the most popular Russian novelist in Europe, even taking into account Dostoyevksy and Tolstoy. Fascinatingly, he was also the most controversial.  (The controversy surrounding this novel continued at least up until the 1950s.)

While he spent most of his life abroad, living in Paris, in particular (he was a passionate Europhile), he remained throughout his life devoted to Russia and its people.

Turgenev’s greater popularity, compared with his two most famous counterparts, arguably rests on his lead characters’ deeper humanity and greater emotional complexity in his novella-length fictions. With Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, their own characters often begin in conflict and are riddled with anxieties that get progressively worse while often see sawing still between only two opposing viewpoints over many hundreds of pages .

Of the characters themselves, there is much about them to enjoy, be engaged with as well as challenged by. Bazarov and Arkady, university students, take a holiday together, visiting Arkady’s landlord and liberal-minded, caring father (Nikolai) and uncle (Pavel), formerly a distinguished army captain, at Nikolia’s farm and home, with whom Pavel also lives. The conflict between `fathers and sons’ is played out primarily in this holiday, arising because of Bazarov’s deep-seated nihilism and his insistent, relentlessly stern advocacy of such miserable, cynical views to Nikolai and Pavel.

The story is worth reading just for two characters alone: Bazarov, who is infuriating and an unforgettable anti-hero. Supremely arrogant and contemptuous of others, he respects no codes of conduct and appreciates nothing, save that which he defines and determines. He’s rude to his charming and much devoted friend, Arkady, who himself is in such awe of Bazarov he can’t help but appear to collude with his all-encompassing miserable and bitter worldview.

Bazarov’s nihilism confounds and upset Arkady’s father – and angers Pavel. Yet ironically it is Bazarov’s own rejection of Arkady’s friendship that brings Arkady to his senses, reconnecting him with a sense of humanity, empathy and love he always felt for both his father and uncle.

Pavel is another compelling character; he’s amusing, with a caustic sense of humour and irony and is superbly realised. He’s a Russian who, while now elderly, remains as he was from his youth: distinguished, handsome, with a reputation as a `lady-killer’, sustained by his aristocratic flair and his taste for colourful English bespoke tailoring and fancy accoutrements (handkerchiefs, cufflinks, neckerchiefs). He’s deeply civilised, graceful, yet in no doubt of his views, with a strong and independent perspective and depth of character. He is also deeply generous and caring, having given much of his money to Nikolai, to help his brother keep his farm and land. 

It is no surprise, given the brilliantly drawn and vivid characters of Bazarov and Pavel, that it is their debates that make the novel such a compelling read. We witness Pavel regress from civilised decorum to bemusement, yet all the while becoming increasingly agitated, and failing in trying to stay true to his sense of honour and code of conduct. Bazarov mirrors him for integrity, yet insults by his bored manner, his steely, offensive and effortless cynicism. 

Their discussions constitute the heart of the novel and convey Turgenev’s conflict over the ever-deepening rift between his own generation of ‘fathers’ and that of Russia’s ‘sons’; a portrait of a country in turbulent times and anticipating even more troubled times ahead. Powerful, evocative and deeply thoughtful: it more than merits its status as a classic novel.

——-

A note on this edition:

There are several English editions of Ivan Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons (1861) including some cheaper than this (e.g., the Wordsworth edition), but this is by far the best to date for two reasons:

  • Rosemary Edmonds’ translation from Russian into English in this edition is elegant and smooth, and her own introduction is excellent – providing meaningful reflection and understanding not only of the novel, but Turgenev’s talent, other works, and the political and literary times he lived through.
  • The second reason is that as far as I can tell, this edition is the only one that has Isaiah Berlin’s brilliant, insightful lecture on the novel that he first gave in 1970, and was included in this edition from 1975 onwards. It has an invaluable review of the novel’s historical context and background in terms of philosophy and politics in Russia during Turgenev’s lifetime.

Hotel du Lac by Anita Brookner – A moving meditation on love and personal choices

Book cover Hotel du Lac
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Despite Anita Brookner winning the Booker Prize for Hotel du Lac, and her publishing a literary novel once a year – sort of like Woody Allen with movies, except in Brookner’s case the quality rarely falters – and excellent reviews, there still remains a view of her fiction that it is not quite literature. That is a false criticism and applied only because she doesn’t ‘do’ brick-sized, sprawling Franzen-type fiction. She’s also criticised for publishing the ‘same’ thing each time – true only in the sense that she always explores certain distinct themes certain – as do most of literature’s best novelists.

And then there’s the tiresome refrain that her middle-class female characters are too ‘minor’ to sustain a fiction or its hold on you as a reader. Again, not true: they are fully realised, complex, always true to life and well-drawn.

These contentions, all of which seem absurdly unjustified, remind me of the type of pejorative remarks you get about Austen’s and other female writers’ work as being lightweight and usually from those who’ve either read only Austen’s Mansfield Park (atypical of her oeuvre) or none and hence based on nothing but a sort of blinkered tenacity to insist on what is not evident at all.

So let me reassure you that if you do take the time out to enjoy her fiction, you should be rewarded.  She is superb at capturing the quiet, troubling, complicated patterns and moments of women’s lives, of feelings often unspoken but pervasive, of psychological depths to her characters and the closed world environments that they at times struggle within but none the less manage stoically.

You can expect from her the delicate, fine touch of a miniature portrait artist, rather than the broad brushstrokes of some modern fiction, and an appreciation of her style that is intelligent, reflective, understated and elegiac in tone, with a pervading sadness that runs throughout the story and its characters’ lives – arguably points which could apply just as well to most of Anita Brookner’s oeuvre.

Hotel du Lac is a charming and thoughtful novel focused on Edith Hope, a successful middle-aged novelist of romantic fiction (though a realist about the world of the living, she never denies her heroines the mythical joys of true romantic journeys and endings), who comes to stay at the genteel, select Hotel du Lac, an old world establishment in Switzerland, to reflect on recent events in her life.

Through the course of the novella, Edith comes to engage with the hotel’s other residents, all beautifully drawn. There’s Monica, with her tiny dog that she passes her hotel food to (she has an eating disorder, and focuses mainly on cakes, coffee and cigarettes to keep her going), while vaguely thinking about her marriage that has come to an impasse.

There’s the relentlessly self-obsessed, rich, always-on-display and well-dressed, elegant Mrs Pusey and her shadowy daughter, Jennifer (acting as a short-form silly Greek Chorus to Mrs Pusey’s endless exclamations about her own life and opinions).

We have stalwart, sad, alone, Mme de Bonneuil, dumped by her only son to live for part of each year at the hotel; and Mr Neville, charming, devilish, always insightful, but without sentiment or love.

He intrigues Edith and is her catalyst to consider making radical changes in her life. He does this by questioning her way of living, and the way she thinks about love, relationships and self – but from his self-interested yet disinterested viewpoint only (such that he proposes marriage but would never declare love).

Faced with a pattern and routine in her life that Edith finds both comforting and sad, including her affair with a married man, Mr Simmons, and for which she is typically pigeon-holed, she is seen by her friends and others as less than she really is in terms of character and depth.

These conflicts act as triggers that, combined, conspire to a decision that ultimately leads her to the Hotel du Lac.

The dialogue and characterisation are consistently rich, entertaining and often provoke the reader into reflecting on her or his own approach to love and a life worth living, and what this says about ourselves.

At the end of the story, Edith’s decision and next step reflect her complete self-awareness and the options available to her, including that of taking a radically different, perhaps more positive (self-interested) approach to her life. 

Her decision is very much feminist in spirit and likewise in action: it is solely her own and she is true to whom she is and what she needs in her life.

A thoughtful, moving meditation on personal choices, love and life-changing decisions and ways of living. If you haven’t read Brookner before, this is a great place to start and, I hope, you’ll enjoy it as much I did enough to read some of her later work.

Twelve 20th-Century Women Writers – a great book by Lorna Sage

Book cover Moments of Truth by Lorna Sage
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A wonderful collection. Sage, sadly no longer with us, was a phenomenal and thoroughly well-read essayist, journalist and critic of literature, not just about writers of the 20th century period, but from the 18th onwards. She not only understood what the writers and their work were about, but also knew about the culture and society within which they lived, engaged and often struggled.

This collection of some of her literary criticism/essays/journalism (there’s another fab, even larger selection titled Good As Her Word, also published by Fourth Estate) focuses on a number of great women writers of the 20th century. They’re not linked in any way, other than the writers are all female and brilliant each in their own way, and the fact all these articles reflect Sage’s tremendous insight, appreciation and sensitivity for the work of these writers, leaving you always with a deeper understanding of their psychological, intellectual and literary viewpoints as well as a passionate interest in the novels she discusses.

From an obituary of Iris Murdoch (both as a novelist and philosopher, and the relationship between these two), to intelligent essays on perhaps lesser known novelists Christine Brooke-Rose and Djuna Barnes (and certainly this applies to Violet Trefusis), to the well-known Edith Wharton, Angela Carter – I think she’s the best critic on Carter’s work and has written a book on her and edited a collection of essays on her – Virginia Woolf, Katherine Mansfield, Jean Rhys, Christina Stead, Jane Bowles, and Simone de Beauvoir, you will finish this collection with a passion to read the novels Sage discusses. What better recommendation is there for a literary critic’s work?

An appreciation of Iris Murdoch’s The Philosopher’s Pupil

This is a Dantesque tale of love: as in an Inferno of evil, not of Beatrice. Along the way, Murdoch introduces you to numerous sinners, from dishonest to honourable, self-defeating to masochistic, platonic to deviant, and never ever simply just one type at any one time.

Set in Ennistone, it’s a town renowned for natural hot water springs and baths, and is filled to the brim with the heat of gossip, anger, passions, and small-minded mischief makers.  

But this review is not about the plot, as that’s for you to enjoy in your own reading.

This is an homage to the vivid and remarkable characters that Murdoch’s genius has given life to in this novel.

She has a mature nineteenth century novelist’s depth to her characters; and is a match for Tolstoy, Trollope and Eliot, to name some of the giants of classic fiction.  

Her fictional beings are beautifully, fully realised in scope and complexity, and each draws you in with their own personal world view, reasoning as well as often troubled emotional life. You become captivated in observing and listening to them live and breathe and assert themselves in their muddled worlds.

Her dialogue alone is worth the price of the novel — and the prologue, relating the car ‘accident’ is by itself worth the price of the paperback.

(for it really isn’t one, but an incident resulting from a violent action), is a tour de force, introducing George, the novel’s devil in (barely) human form.  

He is scarily human: the most fully realised and horribly convincing, nightmarish psychopath and sociopath I have read in fiction. Far more disturbing than Hannibal Lecter as a fictional creation, and more believable than a real-life monster like Ed Gein.  

From the prologue on, you are witness To his extreme ranting and raving, his hatred and violent, misogynistic behaviour. He is apocalyptic in tone and revenge.  

Yet he could just as well be one of your neighbours who has by the by become utterly mad, while going through the motions of sanity

He is the strongest case and example — though there are several others in this novel — of Murdoch’s tremendous ability to create flesh-and-blood human beings that convey her passionate intellectual and creative interests, while never failing to be merely conduits or foils for her fictional plotting.  

There’s never any sense of novelistic Deus ex Machina at work, here — her creatures spring from the page, and are all tremendously personal in language, thought and action.

As if psychotic George wasn’t enough for one novel, there’s also the philosopher of the novel’s title as well, John Robert Rozanov (George was once one of John’s pupils). Manipulative, amoral, uncaring, soul-less, intellectual and emotionally moribund and, in many ways, he’s far more of a devil than George himself (though never committing physical acts of violence, or verbal, as George does with such relish and ease).

Then there are George’s brothers: Brian, who must be one of the most bloody miserable, whining sods in fiction but who, thanks to Murdoch’s scalpel humour, becomes a great doom and gloom comic character for our amusement.

And then there’s Tom: the youngest of the brothers, at university and who, to his teenage years, is naive, delightfully happy and at one with his world and his peers. That is, until he’s corrupted by a Faustian task that John compels him to take up.

Alongside them, you have Gabriel, Brian’s put-upon wife, poor, defeated, always tearful, troubled, and ready to blubber at the drop of the proverbial hat; and the intellectual, yet remote, and incredibly martyrish Stella, wife of the monstrous George.

And while George spews with murderous rage, violence and hatred if womankind, he also saves Zed.  

Now Zed is probably one of fiction’s most charming, delightful and convincing portraits of a clever little doggie. He’s Zen-like — “Zed” as a name is more than a hint, I think — and always understanding, even when he’s clueless; both part of the natural world, and yet connected with his human peers – including, most particularly, the other marvel in this novel: the boy Adam.

Adam is the offspring of Gabriel and Brian. Francis of Assisi-like, as well as Buddhist in his immediate and deep empathy with all living things. He is Schopenhauer’s ideal saint-artist, able to see beyond the veil of Maya.

Murdoch clearly knows her Varieties of Religious Experience, and if the Gabriel, Stella and Zed weren’t enough, you have Father Bernard.

An Anglican priest who’s also an atheist, he believes ultimately that the only hope and saviour for the world is religion without God. He ends up an ethereal ascetic-Russian hermit-ancient Desert Father-type, living on a remote Greek island with kindly peasants, birds, the sea and rocks.

This is a rare gem of a novel. It’s phwor and fab, funny and dark, with substance, yet as light as a perfect soufflé.

There’s also plenty here for lovers of Plato and Dante, yet such allusions are never done ostentatiously, but rather flow seamlessly within the events and thinking of the novel and her characters.  And all these riches are carried through with zest right to the end and beyond, with you being totally immersed in and absorbed by the mess and muddle of these human lives (a true Murdochian talent).

You are left joyous,  breathless and happy and utterly, utterly impressed by Murdoch for her philosophical wisdom, her mischievous wit, her darkness and light, her psychological insights and her innate appreciation of what it means to be human.  It is an extraordinary novel from a brilliant mind.

At last – The true heir to Kafka’s fiction – Metropole by Ferenc Karinthy

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Any number of modern, nightmarish novels are given the epithet of ‘Kafkaesque’, but the fiction of most contemporary writers pales in comparison to the disturbing, oppressive, claustrophobic work of Kafka.

Ferenc Karinthy, himself the son of a famous Hungarian satirist/novelist/journalist, is a contemporary of Hungary and, with Metropole, his first novel translated into English, you find a truly worthy successor to Kafka, not only for his most famous work, The Trial, but also (for its equally claustrophobic, trapped sense of nightmare without end) The Metamorphosis as well, familiar to readers as being his most  surreal and famous short story about the uncertainty of one’s identity and of being an outsider/alienated from those familiar to you, as well as to yourself.

The plot itself, as with most of Kafka’s stories, is actually simple and straightforward.  But it’s in the novel’s machinations, the relentless struggles and hurdles his character has to endure that he is most reminiscent of those Joseph K. faces in The Trial.  In place of Joseph K., you have Budai, a hugely talented multi-lingual linguist (he knows dozens of languages and has rudimentary knowledge of many more).  His first person narration draws you ever in alongside him, spiralling downwards into an alien, distressing world.

It begins with Budai on a plane journey to a linguists’ conference but, instead of landing in the country and city he expects, he arrives to find himself in completely unfamiliar surroundings; the classic stranger in a strange land. The city is  horribly overpopulated and everywhere he goes, on the streets, in a café, in his hotel, there are hordes of people jostling, struggling to get to the beginning of whatever mass group they’re in (one can hardly call them queues as most appear so arbitrary and overwhelming – like kids crowding to get onto a school bus).

To make matters worse, the language of the city/country is so truly alien, he doesn’t  recognise anything whatsoever of its etymology at all; there appears to be no discernible grammar or coherence to it; it really just appears to be gobbledegooking piffle twitter (ahem).  No one seems to engage with anyone else; in his hotel, there is nothing to face but queues and a sort of anarchic order, if that makes sense.  Without communication of any sort, where most sign and body language appears to make no sense to those with whom he makes such efforts, Budai is continually challenged to fend for himself, yet always facing what appears to be infernal defeat, alienation and incomprehension. This is an Orwellian/Dantesque hell by any other name.

It is an astonishing work of fiction, with a translation that appears seamless and reads beautifully.  Is there light for Budai at the end of the clichéd tunnel of this inferno? Ah, well; that’d be letting the meowing cliché out of the bag.  Trust me, it’s worth the read, right the way through.  The only caveat  is that there are many copy-editing/proof-reading errors, which as all readers know can jar and upset the suspension of disbelief necessary to stay fully immersed in the fiction reading process itself.  I’ve come to expect this from corporate-sized publishers who no longer have their own in-house and dedicated copy-editing and proof-reading teams, as they used to do in the 90s and before.  But I feel more chagrin when it’s a respectable indie publisher.  Perhaps this is unfair, given the size of resources available to the large publishers, compared with the indies; but surely one of the key points about being an indie is that you are so dedicated to your own list of fiction/non-fiction, that you do everything in your power to be an independent and to publish books worthy of the authors.  No?

Still, highly  recommended (as in phwor, “this is the dog’s proverbials and the bee’s knees”).  I’ve no doubt Kafka himself would have been envious of this wonderful novel or, based on his diaries and letters, would have absolutely admired Karinthy’s achievement and cheered him on as best he could.

Tours of the Black Clock by Steve Erickson – Great literary fiction

 book cover Tours of the Black Clock
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Unfair though it is, Erickson has gained only a small readership, despite achieving impressive reviews on both sides of the pond.

Sadly, Neither Erickson nor Tours of the Black Clock have ever been marketed or promoted properly, or with any real understanding, of how amazing and original a novelist he is.

Tours of the Black Clock is his third novel, and should have been the key to his literary stardom; his ‘breakout’ fiction that should have, but didn’t, take him to new and more popular heights, following his marvellous Rubican Beach and equally wonderful Days Between Stations.

Sadly, this has not been the case and his novels since, while still gaining some excellent reviews, have led him to a readership that is tiny by comparison to many other more popular contemporary literary novelists, such as Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo and Paul Auster. Tours compares favourably with any of the best of these authors and, frankly, his prose is much more intimate, graceful and moving. (FYI, a new paperback edition is quite expensive, but you can purchase it by clicking on the book cover to your left; however, if you want to buy a low-cost secondhand copy, then look no further than Bookfinder. That link is set already to search for the title and reflects results in US$ for delivery in the US; you can easily revise the search to adjust location and currency when you have allowed the site to process the initial click through.)

For Tours at least, there is no doubt that Erickson merited more serious attention as well as celebration, besides popularity. His fiction has a stark, poetic and haunting brilliance, reminiscent of Gabriel Garcia Marquez at his best (Love in the Time of Cholera, The Autumn of the Patriarch) and Toni Morrison (at her most intense and richly poetic; i.e., with her novels, Beloved and The Bluest Eye). It is a fantastic, fantastical work that cannot  —  should not  — be ignored and is a wonderful alternate 20th century history that ranks with Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle and easily surpasses Robert Harris’ Fatherland (Harris is great at plotting and pace, like Jeffrey Archer, but matches Archer for literary style as well; or, if that sounds rude, then how about as literary and moving as a boiled potato?).

The novel begins with Banning Jainlight, who is found dead in a boarding room, along with Dania, the obsession of his life, and Marc, their son  —  the offspring of surreality and magical realism. Dania’s and Marc’s presence acts as a sort of catalyst, enabling Banning to narrate his story and, by doing so, reveals the myriad and complex memories that connect them and shape their histories.

Banning’s life is experienced in a non-linear way; chronology and space become multi-dimensional as one memory merges with another. At the same time, his thoughts often assume a physicality, shaping the history of Dania’s life, and extending and weaving the web of characters and stories through the process of his imagination.

Without his at first realising, Banning becomes a writer of erotic, strange stories for Adolf Hitler’s consumption during WW2; stories which – unbeknownst to Banning – fuel Hitler’s megalomaniacal passions. History overturns itself, becoming a nightmarish Wonderland, and the world becomes bleak and decidedly Orwellian in this alternative reality.

The last several lines ending this tour de force are a match for (and an homage to) James Joyce’s ending in his most famous short story, The Dead (the link takes you to the complete story online), from his collection, Dubliners, when the main character Gabriel watches the snow fall.  Here’s Joyce’s, which I hope you find as moving as I did and continue to do (I never tire of re-reading the story, simply to anticipate reading this last paragraph; one of the greatest conclusions among short storytelling):

A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.

And I’ll just quote Erickson’s last line only— admittedly not just as a teaser, but first as proof that he does echo the sound and rhythm of Joyce’s ending:

Through the warm fog of his last breath, he watched the memories of a hundred ghosts drift skyward to finally and vainly burst.

The entire last paragraph of Erickson’s ending is brilliantly, beautifully written and moving; though you’ll just have to read it for yourself to be sure!

This is truly mesmeric modern fiction at its best. It portrays an overwhelming knot of obsessions of voyeurism, erotic desire, of the licentious nature of power unchecked, as well as the pain and anguish that make up the absurd time (black clock) that ticked away on the face of the 20th century. It is world-class literature.

Vengeance is mine. Want some? Hubert Selby’s Waiting Period

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Hubert Selby, Jr. is one of the true masters of 20th century literature.

An uncompromising, fearless and visceral writer from the outset with Last Exit to Brooklyn, Selby’s first novel arguably remains the most controversial fiction he ever published. It caused such outrage at the time of its publication, including being banned (in the UK) and there remain readers to this day that find it difficult to stomach. With an unrelenting power it conveys the lives of his overwhelmingly desperate characters: miserable, troubled, often extremely violent, amoral, women-hating, angry, self-loathing individuals. The novel remains an existential nightmare that most contemporary fiction can’t match for its intensity and dark vision of despair. (Click here to see my review of it on this site.)

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Waiting Period focuses on the huge frustration and anger that we all feel about the ‘forces’ in our life (read: bureaucracy, government and other institutions, suffocating status quo attitudes and behaviour, endless forms to fill in, a demanded subservience to authority).

There are several powerful reasons to read this novel: Most importantly, it gives a compelling, meaningful voice for those in society whom, for one or more reasons, are disenfranchised, struggling, oppressed, exploited; for those who are most often made silent by the oppressive forces and circumstances of their lives; the vast many who feel their lives are slowly in a state of entropy; wasting away, drained, the long-term neglected under-class; society’s invisible many.

The nameless first-person narrator of the story speaks directly to you, though the stream of words inside his head — frankly, it starts as a sluggish stream, reflecting his depression and evolves – regresses? You follow his thoughts and apparent actions as if in real-time; his Dostoyevskian his trough of despair; his unbearable state of being. 

As you “listen” to him, you soon understand he represents of the invisible whose lives are seeping away into nothingness.

Frustratingly for him, he has always been a responsible citizen: he’s served the government, done his duty (he’s a war veteran) and yet his life as we ‘meet’ him is consumed with the endless arbitrage of dealing with government bureaucracy to receive benefits that are rightly his.

Humiliated by facing this Dantesque nightmare, of having been continually ignored over too much time, and feeling, in conclusion, desperately suicidal, he decides to buy a gun and kill himself.

And this is where the novel suddenly takes a dramatic turn; a wild, lusting leap into the fantasy of revenge: When he applies to buy his handgun, there’s a glitch in the computer system for vetting those who buy them and the few days it takes for him to wait for delivery makes him radically re-interpret his future actions and purpose.

He decides, instead of killing himself, he should kill at least the principal figure who controls the finances of the government administration and who, automatically, continues to deny him his rightful claims to support.  Most especially, because you are reading the novel from his deeply personal, angry viewpoint, you are left with no choice as a reader but to figure out for yourself whether what he’s thinking, says he’s going to do and does, is simply fantasy and fiction or real truth, or a strange mixture of the two.

Is he enacting these thoughts in life as some sort of retribution for the tormented misery of his otherwise plodding, passive, lonely life, or has he in reality transfigured from potential suicide to an obsessive, relentless dark angel of destruction, a slayer of the demons who have made his life – and those of others — such a misery, as he thinks further on the matter, spiralling ever downwards into a more entrenched, visceral anger.

One aspect of Selby’s genius is that he enables you to experience these violent emotions, the narrator’s depression and sense of deprivation, frustration and anxiety of a Vet, changing over time to emotions that are manifestly pure vengeance.  And all the while you’re ‘hearing’ the narrator trying, always, to rationalise his behaviour, because he is determined to do the ‘right’ thing; he has always led an ethical, morally responsible and socially conformist life. 

You ask yourself during the course of reading the novel whether or not he’s ‘only’ unhinged from his terrible depression and miserable life, or is he becoming something/someone genuinely dangerous to others, as well as himself? 

What further draws you in — and again is a quality that Selby cleverly gives his narrator, is logic: whatever he’s thinking, he seems to do so with such unerring logic; but is it logic without a heart and therefore invidious, corrupt?  Or is it a logic that stems from a clarity of truth that leads him to such a violent conclusion in terms of action he feels compelled to take?

The novel’s sheer, unrelenting intensity and power of narrative — comparable to Celine, but more visceral, I think, going far beyond the nightmare quality envisaged by that superb modernist — seems to intend to draw you only to one conclusion and this point is yet another part of Selby’s genius: helplessly, as it were, inevitably, you feel — frankly, even justifiably — you should side with the narrator as he fantasises and commits acts of — well, what should we call them as we begin to find ourselves cheering for him, wanting him to commit these acts?  Have you, as the reader, become corrupted, being inside the narrator’s mind, or are you seeing things logically?  Is he actually seeing/doing these things he thinks of?  Are they thoughts or actions of ‘justifiable homicide with mitigating circumstances’?; Death Wish-like ‘executions’?  Well, Selby so cleverly reels you in that you can’t help but feel the character is not a vigilante but doing what is right and what is justified, period. (I know, scary thought, that.)

After all, consider for a moment those whom he claims to kills or intends to kill — keeping in mind, all the while a key question: if he is indeed actually killing or intending to do so, or simply day-dreaming; the dreams of a lost soul with nothing but fantasies to live for on his sad and sorry arse. He targets the person at the Veteran Association who smugly and shamelessly continues to deny him his right to his benefits; besides the most disgusting, sulphur-stenched unrepentant racists, who joyously celebrate together as an entire town for their peers who have sadistically murdered black people; the town folk thereafter glorifying such actions by yearly family festivities, fairground rides, barbecues, beer and hotdogs included.

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This is without a doubt an amazing novel: incredibly focused, relentless, overwhelming, addictive. And it packs one helluva punch. Yet it’s also deeply moving and, as with all Selby’s lost souls who are his characters, while he never justifies their actions, he can get into their hearts and minds so you know them as if they were a part of you or vice versa.  He never judges, simply tells you the story from inside his characters’ own minds; that is his ultimate genius, because you have nowhere and no one to turn to when immersed in the reading, but your own self and perspective. 

Waiting Period is an important novel and a literary classic.  It’s a howl of despair, anxiety, alienation and frustration screamed at the powerful, the institutions and society that Celine first articulated in the 1930s onwards and whom, with Selby’s fiction, a literary heir to his legacy was realised.  But since his death, who is there now that continues such a legacy and that writes so well about the dispossessed and the lives of those who remain nameless, underground and invisible?  Please do let me now if you have any reading recommendations and/or thoughts on any of the above.

Ivy Compton-Burnett: Modernist, ironic, acid-sharp and clever as all hell

“People who have power respond simply. They have no minds but their own.” Likewise, “A leopard does not change his spots, or change his feeling that spots are rather a credit. Is that enough clever wit for you dear, because I’ve got to write, donchaknow.”  The brilliant, humble, formidable Ivy Compton-Burnett

What makes Ivy Compton-Burnett (abbreviated as CB from now on) such an important modernist writer? Only in the last few years has she begun to regain the recognition and stature she had during her lifetime as a published author. Here’s my nod of the hat to her, by way of an attempt to explain briefly why it matters to read her, what you can by doing so, who she has influenced and what is so distinctive and impressive about her fiction.

1. Her Brilliant Dialogue & Wit

CB is one of the truly remarkable modernist writers, with a span of resonant fiction that she wrote from the 1920s through to the 1960s. Save for her first novel, Dolores (1911), which she later disowned, her 19 other novels are all driven principally by the most amazing, multi-layered dialogue and which she used to convey in a dramatic way her characters’ individual personalities, tensions, complexities, resentments, repressions and, sometimes, truly savage irony. It’s the sort of irony and bone dry wit, scalpel-sharp, that is brutal, slicing and strikes at the receiver’s jugular in an instant. Yet at the same time, CB’s characters talk in a way that is deceptively light in tone and free, it seems, of any anguish or other negative emotions.  Don’t be fooled, however:  Jonathan  Swift and Alexander Pope would have kissed the hem of her skirts in recognition of the devilish humour and brilliance that shines through in her fiction and her characters.

2.  You have to be great to achieve such a broad and deep influence on your novelist peers and those who succeeded her. 

CB had – and continues to have – a significant impact on certain modernists, by the way she constructs and uses dialogue. I expect this influence to gain momentum, albeit slowly, as a result of the efforts of the New York Review of Books editions of her novels. It’s not just that she is incredibly adept at representing distinctive rhythms and patterns of tonality and pacing to show the character’s individual identities; it’s the way the dialogue occurs – most often among family members. There are multiple-threaded semi-conversations going on at any one time, where one of  a group may ask or say something, but it’s not responded to until later down the line, by which time there has been intercessions of other unrelated comments, questions and points of view. But not only that, CB uses pockets of silence, usually representing the one single authority figure in the household (inevitably, the man, who is also, without doubt, a domineering type, a full-blooded patriarch representative of the era her novels portray: the late Victorian/early Edwardian period in England, or just a bit later). Family conversations are usually ‘monologues in a void’; a sort of discordant chorus of discombobulated voices, disassociated and disconnected from each other in terms of empathy and love, yet compelled nonetheless to make such efforts at communication in the hope, later usually than sooner, of getting some sort of answer upon which one can act. If you’ve ever seem a Robert Altman film, you’ll know that what signposts to cinema goers that it is indeed an Altman film, is the way more than one person is talking at any one time; yet the script is so cleverly constructed, the fragmented pieces of unconnected dialogue you hear create a powerful effect of genuinely experiencing real-life conversations as we know they occur in a party or gathering of people; snatches of words, of exclamation and laughter, suddenly a bubble of silence only to be almost instantly popped by the myriad of other voices swirling around the room.  It’s one thing to be able to achieve this in a movie (and that in itself is an art; Altman is the only director I can recall who is able to imbue his audience with this somewhat surreal experience by his creating this ‘wall of sound’ (to quote Phil Spector)).

3. CB has influenced the writing of key authors in the 20th century with whom you can with relative ease discern her influence:

Most significantly is the renowned American writer, William Gaddis (all of his novels are relevant here, but just to cite my favourites, they are The Recognitions (1955, his first and most famous book, the new edition is available from Dalkey Archive Press), Carpenter’s Gothic (1985) and JR (1975)).

Henry Green, the English author of such classics as Loving, Living, Party Going, besides Nothing, Doting and Blindness (these are two volumes of three separate novels each, both sets at very competitive prices and with free worldwide delivery)

These two following I feel are perhaps unfair to cite, given the authors are both playwrights, yet I refer to them because they are both known — especially in their early works — for particular speech patterns, curt, sharp dialogue, and a peculiar estrangement of personality that is conveyed through exactly what and how they say it, and hence my referring to them: Harold Pinter’s early plays, Harold Pinter Plays 1: The Birthday Party, The Room, The Dumb Waiter, A Slight Ache, The Hothouse, A Night Out, The Black and White, The Examina: … v. 1 (Faber Contemporary Classics and The collected Plays of Edward Albee: 1958-1965 and Volume 2, 1966-1977.

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A Profile of A House and Its Head (1935; this edition by the New York Review of Books was published in 2001, with an excellent introduction by Francine Prose). One of CB’s two favourites of her own work.

As with CB’s 18 other novels she wrote (discounting Dolores, of course), CB has a set of themes she returns to time and again in her work. In fact, it wouldn’t be wrong to call them obsessions.  Because of these subject matters that, if you will, possessed her and she had to find release through the form of novel creation, I believe that by profiling one of her own personal favourite fictions — the other being Manservant and Maidservant (1947, with an outstanding introduction by the novelist Diane Johnson, which you can read here) — you will gain what I hope is a clear enough overview, a sufficient insight into what mattered to her most.  These include the Victorian repressive household settings, to the patriarchal, remote, powerfully domineering father/husband of the house, to the anaesthetised (dream-state-like) wives, and the children, who are fearful or sometimes wonderfully, mordantly insubordinate (as with Nance, the daughter in this novel), or otherwise self-serving, and monstrously deceptive (as with Sybil, here).

In the Edgeworth family in  A House and Its Head, you discover the archetypal representative CB fictional brood, with the mother twittering away and the father (a domineering, stern patriarch type) effectively ignoring her or rudely answering.  This conversation between husband and wife is so disjointed and senseless, you are put in mind of Pinter’s early work as referred to above (especially The Birthday Party and The Dumb Waiter).  While Duncan Edgeworth, the father, is without doubt a tyrant, dictating all terms to his family, there are worse things to come, in the form of two snakes in the grass in the apparently-servile daughter, Sybil, who in some ways is far more destructive than him; and Grant, Duncan’s nephew. While admittedly on some occasions you may stumble in realising who is talking, if you just relax into the flow of the novel, you should soon begin to identify the speaker of the dialogue, as CB rarely identifies the person. If that makes you think you won’t understand who is talking to whom, you can rest assured that, over only a matter of a few pages, you quickly come to recognise them through their individual natures and thereby the content of what they say. Rest assured I’m not asking you to take a chance on her; you shouldn’t be disappointed; but you do need to be alert when reading it, otherwise you may find yourself losing your natural focus and that will impact your understanding.  But the joys of such wicked wit and the complex clearly separate psychological and emotional behaviours of the parents and siblings will, I hope, make this and her other works a spellbinding read for you.  Or I’m a kumquat (erm, I’m not a kumquat!).

For those who are keen to learn more about CB, I highly recommend these sources:

  • A dedicated, tremendously helpful and comprehensive website on CB, her work and her critics, is readily available and it is amazingly thorough, giving you everything you could want to know about the author’s life and works.
  • In this edition of A House and Its Head there is also a beautifully written, deeply thoughtful and intelligent afterword by Francine Prose, the National Book Award-nominated novelist. (The underlined text referring to Prose’s afterword takes you directly to a pdf version of it but I just wanted to cite as one tiny example of why to read the afterword, Prose’s wonderfully phrased, apposite comment about reading CB’s modernist fiction, declaring that it is: ‘[…] less like conventional fictions than like the laboratory notes of a meticulous and rather mad scientist.’ She means it in a positive, way, of course, highlighting how radical and remarkable, in fact, CB’s fiction was and remains to this day.)
  • Hilary Spurling’s masterful and, as of 2011, still definitive biography, Ivy: The Life of Ivy Compton Burnett (please note that this title is out of print, so I’ve embedded a link into the title which will do an automatic search for the book at Bookfinder; please also keep in mind this exact title represents the only one which is the combined two-volumes-in-one edition, as originally Spurling published each of them separately).
  • John Waters’ own appreciation of her, to be found in Role Models, his 2011 collection of essays and articles on his favourite role models, within which he includes CB as one of his favourite novelists.  You can see my review of his book, including his reference to and love for CB’s work here.

Jane Eyre – Wonderful, radical heroine or just uppity, loudmouth feminist?

Jane Eyre book cover image Penguin 2006 edition
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It’s astonishing to think or imagine that, of the two most intense, passionate heroines of 19th century literature, both are written by offspring of the same family. But this, as most readers of literature know,

Book cover of Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte
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is indeed the case, given we have Charlotte’s Jane Eyre, and her sister Emily’s  Wuthering Heights (1847).

Immediately you’re drawn into a first person narrative (and it stays entirely first person throughout the entire novel), which, from its beginning, is compelling and becomes evermore powerful, emotionally complex and engaging.  Many things have been written about Jane Eyre as a character: to me there is no doubt that reading her story from her own perspective means that you easily identify and empathise with this highly intelligent, independently minded personality.  Such identification includes specific psychological, intellectual and emotional experiences from her own female point of view (such a view nowadays should rightly be described as feminist, but I mean the term to be worlds away from its popular

“Now where’s my feminist shopping list for the day? Ah, yes: (1) find a man (2) cover him in honey, butter and herbs  and (3) feed him to the pigs, the bastard, cos I HATE MEN. AAAAAGH.”

mischaracterisation and just plain wrong definition as it’s used by the mainstream in today’s society, whereby it has sickeningly and sadly become synonymous with ‘man-hating’ and/or being a destructive and inflexible force in society.  Actual real-life feminists know, of course, this is sheer nonsense; an urban myth that is relentlessly perpetuated by a right-wing, conservative, sexist media, including a number of female journalists, academics and authors and which is accepted on such terms by what appears to be a majority of young people — not all, I hasten to add (I’ve met a number of great young feminists who are politically active and challenge the anti-feminist, sexist status quo).  Unfortunately, such widespread misunderstanding is further compounded by there appearing to be little or no basic education in schools about the history of women’s rights, their works both creative and academic, besides their hard-fought, hard-won political battles.

So what is a feminist viewpoint  of Jane Eyre?  Don’t worry — I’m not going to get all Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak on your brain and induce a violent headache by talking to you about “the margins at which disciplinary discourses break down and enter the world of political agency” (quoted from The Spivak Reader, 1996).  Nope, rather I think it’s actually straightforward and reasonable to characterise it as the following (which may sound suspiciously contemporary and akin to popular self-help literature written for women and men!): Be true to your own sense of integrity; manage your circumstances as best you can — but don’t give in to compromise that undermines your own authentic sense of self lest you are reduced to a shadow of yourself; speak up however and when you can, if possible, about circumstances and events that really matter to you; assert your independence of heart and mind; maintain your self-respect against the odds and the social/political/societal status quo and adhere to your own high standards, not ‘theirs’.  And how could I forget this one?  Never let the bastards grind you down (or at least not long enough for you to stay down).  Having said that, Charlotte unfortunately seemed oblivious to the implications of what little effort and depth she put into portraying the character of Bertha Mason, the white Creole heiress who is the ‘madwoman in the attic’.  The brilliant novelist and short story writer, Jean Rhys, with her own Creole background, felt Mason’s character reflected Brontë’s English imperialist, racialist attitude towards Britain’s colonies and its indigenous populations; hence Bertha is not a woman as such in her own right: she is disembodied; never having a voice of her own (apart from the occasions when she cries out like an animal) and is effectively silenced once forever to Mr Rochester.

Penguin student edition book cover for Wide Sargasso Sea
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I won’t go into further detail here about Rhys’ position on this matter, because I address it on this website with my review of Jean Rhy’s novelistic response to Jane Eyre, with her own award-winning novella, Wide Sargasso Sea (1966), which gives a voice and full identity for the first time to the original Mrs Rochester, from childhood to her death. That work also contributed to what became known as ‘post-colonial’ fiction (a term that you will see from the link embedded within it that has itself come under critical scrutiny for a number of reasons, including its Eurocentric approach) and, interestingly,

Maryse Conde’s novel interpretation of Wuthering Heights. Click on the image to buy the book with free worldwide delivery

Maryse Condé, the celebrated, distinguished Guadeloupean feminist writer, wrote Windward Heights (1998), a novelistic response/reinterpretation of Wuthering Heights (it is excellent, with an evocative atmosphere, characters and richly poetic, rhythmical prose.  It also challenges bias on race, gender and traditional relationships, while having her own distinct voice and perspective; in fact, for all these reasons, I was reminded of Zora Neale Hurstons fiction).

1857 photo of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the famous British civil engineer, in front of the launching chains of the ship he designed, The Great Western. As Mr Brunel reportedly said on the occasion, to one of his favourite Gilbert & Sullivan songs: “I am the very model of a modern Englishman, I’ve information technical, metal & engineerial.  I know the Queen of England Her Majesty the magisterial, to whom I often cite dazzling feats  original,  historically citing pyramids to Chinese walls imperial.” To which Robert Howlett, the photographer, replied eerily sincere and ill: “Erm, that’s nice, dear chap, you’re the  classic 19th century man with vision & a Master of all he does with will…Now can you bloody well hold still for the camera?”

To put Jane Eyre into a social and literary context, the 19th century in the West, while being an age of great industry and innovation, was essentially a deeply moralistic society, pious, conformist and judgemental on the surface and corrupt and compromised and hypocritical from within its own outspoken values.  The norm for women was that they had no independence, no rights, nor an identity or life of their own; society (read: men who dominated in power both at work and home) prescribed and enforced women (whether upper, middle or working class) to rigidly defined manners, conduct and employment (as governess, wife, spinster, worker, house maid, cook, cleaner, etc.). Jane, being poor and without parents, is forced into a tyrannical charity boarding school, the Lowood Institution — more a prison than a school; in fact, you could say that the headmaster, Mr Brocklehurst, in his demeanor and treatment of the children, as compared with the spoiling of his own brood, encapsulates all the horrors and hypocrisies of the 19th century.  If he is representative of all that is bad about the 19th century, by stark contrast, Isambard Kingdom Brunel (see the picture on the left, here) is the very epitome of what is right in that period (read: Empire); brilliant, a visionary, a pragmatist, a man of action and achievement always wanting to scale greater heights.

Even before Jane’s arrival at Lowood, Brocklehurst makes it clear what he thinks of her, calling her a child of the Devil (a charming man, eh?) and in no uncertain terms she must accept and obey all of his rules and regulations, while half-starving from the meagre portions and poor-quality of the food.  Yet while she conforms on the outside, she remains resilient and always inwardly defiant; in fact, even before  she is abandoned to the school by her loathsome aunt, when Jane is barely 10 years old, Jane’s intensity, integrity, independence of mind and action are already well-established; especially her passionate, deeply intelligent articulation of her perspective in conversation with her aunt; with her departing words to her comprising only devastating criticism that will haunt her aunt for years afterwards.  Keep in mind that Brontë published this during a time when it was absolutely unheard of for children to be seen and heard, never mind for them to challenge, criticise and protest to adults, but protest she does.  For these reasons in particular, and the way such behaviour and her honesty and integrity grows, as does her confidence, throughout the novel, Jane Eyre is a marvellously unprecedented, radical departure as a portrait of a heroine compared with novels published before 1847.

That last point may be seen as contentious or perceived as doing a disservice to the many superb women writers who came before Charlotte Brontë, when taking into account the marvellous female heroines of Jane Austen in the early 1800s — the most well-known, course, being Elizabeth Bennet of Pride and Prejudice (1813); besides those of other wonderful novelists who bridged the 18th and 19th centuries in their lives, including in the work of Fanny Burney, Ann Radcliffe and Charlotte Lennox, and indeed those who published before them.  All of these writers in various ways, both through their fiction and non-fiction, challenged male preconceptions of women’s roles and their prescribed social/intellectual identities.  You could say, in fact, that they were challenging what is now called ‘evolutionary psychology’, which increasingly strikes me as being an excuse for anti-feminists to insist that women who speak up and work are distorting the ‘natural order’ of the sexes.  What gargantuan bollocks.

A superbly researched study of 100 women novelists before Jane Austen. Click on the image to do an instant search for secondhand copies of the title on the Bookfinder website

(BTW, an outstandingly well-researched and -written  book on neglected pre-19th century women novelists was published by Dale Spender in 1986, entitled Mothers of the Novel: 100 Good Women Writers before Jane Austen; sadly, it’s out of print, but you can click on the image of the book, on your right here, and the link will automatically take you to a search of the title on the excellent Bookfinder website.  It’s likely you’ll be able to buy it for pennies, and it remains a fantastic work in the field of literature studies.)

But I think within the 19th century, Jane Eyre is the novel most noteworthy for expanding the possibilities and potential of what women’s characters could do and be, how they could behave and talk, what they could become, in novels by both men and women (William Makepeace Thackeray, for one, was decidedly impressed and influenced by the novel).  I also think you can see some of the psychological qualities inherent in Charlotte Bronte’s writing in later Dickens and George Eliot.  Both Charlotte and Jane, together, as it were, became a benchmark to contrast and challenge traditional attitudes and thinking about women’s lives; in particular for two key reasons: that women do indeed have their own interior lives and consciousness and, of equal importance, that women had legitimate viewpoints and intelligence to express on equal terms with men.  While it may be overstating the case, I believe Jane Eyre’s character was one of the many social contributing factors for women increasingly to recognise opportunities for and empowerment of themselves; to express themselves using their own voices with their own thoughts; to be passionate and determined to challenge their straightjacketed lives that in turn evolved into the suffragette movement.

The only other novel that springs to mind in the 19th century that is as passionate and as vivid as Jane Eyre, is Emily Bronte’s novel, Wuthering Heights, and her character, Catherine Earnshaw (and anyone who’s read that will know the passion reflected through the characters and descriptions of nature are far more vivid and intensely alive than that of Charlotte’s/Jane’s own viewpoint; certainly Emily’s/Catherine’s intensity of expressed feelings about nature and Heathcliff are far more radical and deeper when compared with Charlotte’s/Jane’s.  As one critic put it, Emily Brontë “captured the zeitgeist of romanticism despite her physical and cultural isolation”.  Nevertheless, Jane Eyre’s  sense of her own integrity and character remains intact, despite her circumstances and the many challenges she has to suffer and overcome; whereas Catherine, according to Emily’s narrative, is never given such a choice, or options of such freedom; the fatalistic qualities that drive Wuthering Heights are both one of its huge strengths and its claustrophobic weaknesses as a novel (but it’s still brilliant).

Jane Eyre is an astonishing novel and, besides her sibling’s unique work, it remains one of the most vivid, dramatic, compelling and emotionally rich fictions published in the 19th century.  I suspect if you’ve read this far, you’ll already know my answer to the question-posing title of this article: Jane Eyre – Wonderful, radical heroine or just an uppity loudmouth feminist?  She is, of course, a wonderful, feminist radical heroine; there’s nothing whatsoever that is uppity or loudmouth about her and she is only perceived that way by those who themselves are obnoxious and badgering.  I suspect the evolutionary psychologists would present a different answer, but then I’m bloody well jolly delighted to say I’ve never believed in the ‘natural order’ of things; to paraphrase de Beauvoir, we are made, not born, into our gendered lives, and what we make of them is, ultimately, up to us.  Who better for us modern readers, than Jane Eyre as the representative motivational standard-bearer of this truth, who ultimately achieves true happiness in her life by learning, always thinking and, when she can, challenging the status quo on a journey defined not by any sense of achieving an ultimate goal, but by finding meaning and understanding in response to the journey itself by being true to herself.  Jane Eyre the novel, and Jane Eyre the character, are remarkable achievements, irrespective of genre, sex of author or century and, as with all classics, remains in print and continues to be lovingly read and widely loved.

Note on a Great Edition
First, if you don’t mind, let me highlight an important point about the choice of what particular edition of Jane Eyre (1847) to buy/loan.  Obviously there are a number of perfectly respectable cheaper paperback versions available, instead of the one I’m recommending to you — the Penguin Classics paperback edition of 2006 (not earlier; see the image on your left, which you can use to buy the book) — such as this one from the wonderful Wordsworth Classics publisher and which is less than half the price of the Penguin version, even after discount.  Sorry!

However, the very good reason I’ve selected this one is because of the excellent and unmatched introduction and other editorial material, commissioned by Penguin Classics for its 2006 edition, written by Stevie Davies, the well-respected novelist and academic.  Not only does she write with grace and style, but also she delivers much insight, wisdom and appreciation about the novel, its themes, symbolism, psychological perspectives, as well as on Charlotte Brontë and her historical, social and literary contexts; in addition to which, as you’d expect from an authoritative edition, Davies provides excellent notes, further reading, appendices and more besides. Okay, so moving on …

Dirty Weekend by Helen Zahavi – A fable-like novel of feminist power and revenge

Do you love and relish great opening lines to fiction?  Then how about this:

“This is the story of Bella, who woke up one morning and realised she’d had enough . . .”

Fantastic, eh? This is strong, provocative fiction whose style is reminiscent of such distinctive writers and their fiction as — sadly many of whom are now either discarded or vastly under-appreciated — Gordon Lish (Peru: A Novel, Dear Mr. Capote), early Jenny Diski (Nothing Natural) and Andrea Dworkin (Mercy, Ice and Fire), in terms of its honesty to consider and portray the disturbing realities of society through the experiences of its female characters and the chameleon forms of violence perpetrated against women. Dirty Weekend, an account of 48 hours of violence against one woman, and her retributions, is by turns bizarre, poignant, powerful and empathetic.

The plot

From the outset, the story of Bella takes on the level of a fable or parable. By the opening pages, she has already been threatened with sexual violence by a man who lives opposite her. He promises to pour acid on her skin. But then ‘Fate found Bella one night … and whispered in her ear. And when she woke up, she knew she’d had enough’. It is from this point that she is empowered; no longer wishing to stay persecuted and victimised by the ignorance and violence so common in so many men. She decides, with the help of a mystic, that – since men seem only to view her as a victim – she is unable to at least act even as a bystander and avoid their glare, so concludes that she has no other choice than to take action.

In a series of explicitly and clinically described episodes, Bella enacts her ideas of retribution upon one violent man after another. If these extreme scenes are powerful, it is because of the brutal honesty in the evocation of Bella’s pain and outrage, and the attitudes of the men that only wish to threaten and oppress any iota of self-regard that she may have.

Recommendation

It is an uncompromising, powerful novel, working as it does within the ugly, hypocritical shadows that our supposedly moral society casts.  Occasionally clichés do spill over the overall quality of the writing, yet Zahavi’s key strength and great talent that is to be celebrated — and ridiculous to deny — is in her fluidity and razor-blade precision to evoke a dark vision; a sinister fable-like version of feminist understanding and empowerment.  Unfortunately, this novel is sadly, unforgivably, out of print, but you can buy it from Amazon as a Kindle edition (for the US and UK markets). However, for those without a Kindle, you should be able to borrow a copy from your local library (or through their inter-library loan system), or otherwise buy a low-cost copy from one of the online secondhand dealers, such as abebooks. com/.co.uk, alibris.com/.co.uk, or one of Amazon‘s marketplaces.