Category: literary classics

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.

The Blind Owl – A Persian/Iranian literary classic about madness, obsession, betrayal and murder. In brief: GOD, I love it.

Front cover of The Blind Owl novella published by OneWorld ClassicsI’ve just read The Blind Owl, first published in Farsi in 1937 by Sadiq Hidayat/Sadegh Hedayat (confusingly, his name is spelt in two different ways, depending on when/where he was published in English/American editions).  It is a hallucinatory tale that is simultaneously sinister, troubling, disturbing — yet always compellingly so.  The eeriness itself, its atmosphere, is reminiscent of Poe’s famous short story, The Tell-tale Heart, Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw and Kafka’s claustrophobic environments and strange experiences in The Castle and in the city of Joseph K.’s The Trial.  It strikes me that the author has consciously accounted for these influences, though there may be many others from Persian/Iranian literature, which provided his own cultural background.

So how could you not be drawn in? After all, it is a story of madness, obsession and horrific murder, even — perhaps — necrophilia, and of lying down with her in bed as she decomposes (I say perhaps because his madness or at least derangement and hallucinatory frame of mind makes uncertain whatever he says or claims to have done).  Some of this, understandably, does sound like some sort of gross-out horror story, right?  Actually, parts are, just a tad, but nothing compared to the provocative gross-out crimes to be found in certain fictions by such entertaining writers as sorry, these examples are just off the top of my head, not some well-thought through/ranked list — Joe R. Lansdale, Chuck Palahniuk, Joyce Carol Oates (especially her novel, Zombie), Stephen King, Val McDermid and Hubert Selby, Jr..

But I assure you, while shocking/horrific, it’s more that you feel disturbed than grossed out, I think (unless I’m some sort of psychonut and just can’t tell anymore ahem).  The tale is sophisticated and complex and at the same time it is ‘told’ to you in such a matter-of-fact way albeit in a poeticised form of mad narrative, it does all remain coherent, rather than something out of  Joycean stream-of-conscious that inevitably it is disturbing, though surely this should be the case of any tale of madness?

The English translation by D. P. Costello in fact, it is the one originally commissioned and first published in the UK way back in 1957 is clear, using accessible language, and yet, as I’ve indicated, it is also deeply poetic.  The language itself, though, is part of the tricksiness/duplicity of the story, in that you begin to realise by which time it is too late anyway to do anything about it that you are being lulled into a false sense of security, of trusting the narrator, and you become increasingly aware that the simplicity of the telling is part of a trap the author has set you, the reader… you, read on innocently, uncertain of the future you are about to imbibe, and almost immediately the author has a stranglehold on you as you’re imprisoned in the character’s mind; yet the quality of the language, and the compelling strangeness of the story itself make you feel as if your eyelids are forced open and you’re being made to watch.  Akin, I felt, to that famous scene — I refer you, dear reader, to the lovely image left/above in this paragraph — with Alex in A Clockwork Orange (1971), in which the charming sadist Alex is being forcefully ‘reconditioned’ to become conformist and obedientExcept here, the power alone of The Blind Owl is enough to glue you to itself.  Now that’s quality fiction for you.

The plot

The narrator comes across as an unassuming, simple man, who makes his living as an artist creating designs on  the lids of pen-cases.  The design is always the same image — ‘in the grip of a mad obsession’, as he sometimes unconsciously refers to himself as if his actions were those of another — the design is of ‘a Cypress tree at the foot of which is squatting a bent old man bent like a fakir [… and] a woman ‘holding a flower of morning glory in her hand. Between them runs a stream’.  This is one of many phrases he repeats throughout the telling of his tale.

You soon realise that madness is central to the story as is murder (or, that the madness  itself is caused by the murder).  A handful of pages in, and he’s describing to you the severing of his wife’s head with a knife, and his disposal of her body is grotesque and surreal, involving amputation, a heavy suitcase — three guesses as to why — and a creepy old man who helps him bury it.  But has he really done these things or are they, in fact, delusions/fantasies?  Either way, whether he’s ‘only’ deranged and has fantasised about killing of his wife, or if he actually has, you can’t help but read on, Alex-like, ‘looking’ at what is happening to him, in the same unhealthily curious way drivers/passers-by often look at a traffic accident, wanting, yet not wanting, to ‘witness’ the horror, blood, guts and terror of it in stark reality. Yet probably most of us do look.  It is like that here; it is genuinely disturbing to think we, in ways comparable to the narrator, can’t help ourselves.

Clearly, the narrator is having — or has experienced — what seems a complete nervous breakdown/break from reality, and the world he describes is that of a socio/psychopath, though he never really sees himself as such or, if he does, it’s only momentary; a fleeting thought.  He has no real sense of time, admitting that an event of a thousand years ago may seem to him more real than something that occurred yesterday. On top of which, he has an addiction to opium —  in ever-increasing daily doses, and is drinking wine.  You know from how he describes himself and his situation that he is absolutely conflicted and confused in a number of ways: he wants — is compelled — to tell you his story, yet at the same time he tells you he smokes opium because he wants to forget; and that he’s not even sure what really happened: ‘life is a fiction’, he says early on, ‘a mere story’.  And here we are, smack in the heart of it.  He doesn’t seem to sleep, he hardly eats or if he’s eating, it’s making no positive difference to him… he is becoming a ‘shadow’, he says, just wasting away:  ‘A sensation which had long been familiar to me was this, that I was slowly decomposing while I yet lived’.  He is alienated, an outsider, despising and being disgusted by others and has no value for or appreciation of his own life: in these ways he is reminiscent of the central characters of two existentialist novels in particular (though this novel was published before both of these; did this novel influence the two authors and their fiction I’m about to cite?!): Meursault, in Camus’ Outsider, and Antoine in Sartre’s Nausea.  In The Blind Owl, the character thinks that ‘For some reason all activity, all happiness on the part of other people made me feel like vomiting.  I was aware that my own life was finished and was slowly and painfully guttering out’; he has nightmares of beheadings, of butchering; the butcher’s opposite drawing his eye when the former works away with his knife into the flesh of his dead animals just delivered to him; he obsesses about the knife, he buys one exactly like the butcher’s own.

Such a breakdown doesn’t exclude his own sane insights into his self and circumstances and events, yet these thread through as a pattern in a cloth of a different colour overall (for example, just two pages into the story, while admitting his one ‘fear is that tomorrow I may die without having come to know myself’, he immediately goes on to say ‘In the course of my life I have discovered that a fearful abyss lies between me and other people’).  These and others demonstrate moments of genuine self-awareness/insight, yet you know they’re not the threads holding the entire cloth together anymore; his sanity is in that sense a sort of occasional, remote echo, one of many operating levels both psychological as well as verbal in the telling of his story. In fact, only in the first an very very brief chapter, in effect a prologue, does he seem to be entirely compos mentis, as he leads on to say he is determined to make sense of it all ….

You know that he utterly loathes his wife, and he obsesses and returns time and again to key phrases and expressions, just like someone with a serious psychological fissure/crack in their worldview. Yet even his hatred for his wife — he only ever refers to her as ‘the bitch’ ‘because no other name would suit her so well’ and he believes her to have had countless affairs; not even affairs, as such, but animalistic, sexual betrayals, sleeping with anyone she chooses — and yet his hatred appears to be based upon love and lust turned dark, inwards, brooding, sadistic in tone and, ultimately, vengeful. You come to understand that because his love for her is unreciprocated (as we know, this perennial theme of revenge/murder occurs often, whether in real life or in fiction).  He believes she never truly cared for him, unless possibly when she was a child; he has loved her since then. You’re also never quite sure what is part of his own inner world; his temptations and perceptions based on manifestations of rage and frustration, and instead to what degree he has truly acted upon what he refers to — especially, of course, the killing of his wife. You do know that he is morbidly consumed by her, and wants to consume her; that he feels humiliated, ridiculed and belittled by her sexual betrayals and the whole local population knowing what’s going on.

It ends as it begins, the character with his psychosis, his derangement, his endless circling, repeating thoughts and memories and hallucinatory memories; his guilt weighing down on him … or is that weight he feels on his chest bearing down on him actually the body/remains of his wife? You decide.

Recommended? Hello!

At first the author’s relentless use of certain stock phrases may irritate you, as it did me, and you may find yourself thinking is this just bad writing?! and doesn’t the author know he’s repeating himself?!  But of course, he’s not obsessively repeating himself, rewinding and spiralling down and up and back and forth like a distressed mouse in a mad scientist’s maze. Rather, you recall, that you are in his character’s world (doh — yes, I know I is a muppet!).  The stock phrases are typically haunting and seemingly disconnected/disassociated from the real world; hey include ‘I am writing only for my shadow’; ‘I saw a bent old man sitting at the foot of a cypress tree with a young girl […] The old man was biting the nail of the index finger of his left hand’.  He often hears a ‘mocking laugh, of a quality to make the hairs on one’s body stand on end’; the laugh issues from his own mouth – sometimes he’s aware of this, sometimes not and attributes to others, or perhaps it is others, or bother; but there is darkness, and there is a sense of death he, and you the reader, have.  He thinks ‘Only death does not lie’; well, he’s not dead, so is he telling the truth?  Besides which, there are many other strange memories/and repeated, recollected phrases.  All of these are hugely effective; you go from thinking WTF to god, this is bloody good and creepy!; voyeuristically, sadistically, you delight in the telling of the tale; you’re thinking, wow, this guy really is deranged and you keep on turning the pages, reading as quickly as you can.  And at the same time you feel for him, knowing he could well be a sadistic murderer of his own wife, so you also feel disgusted, appalled; creeped out; yes, horribly, delightfully so, for a fiction reader’s need of suspension of disbelief.  Yet you also feel conflicted, because he may ‘only’ be deranged and actually needs therapeutic help (and staying off the opium and wine wouldn’t be a bad idea — unless he did kill her!). The narrative, then, has real power.

It is well worth the read, despite its cover price (after all, it’s only 150 pages in length, and that’s because of some generous layout/design — my first Harvill paperback edition of the same translation only had 98 pages). On this point, however, the link I have embedded in the book cover’s image at the top of this post is to online booksellers, BookDepository.com, and they have provided a 19% discount from the RRP and include free delivery wherever you are in the world, so you’re paying a total, inclusive price of €7.21 / £6.45 / $10.38, which surely we all agree is better than a kick in the rubber parts, right?  (Okay, so most things are…) On another positive note, OneWorld Classics, which has produced this edition, is an imprint within an excellent indie publisher and, as with their other editions and imprints, this is high-quality, as you should rightly expect.

On a sad note, however, it is disappointing that this marvellous fiction and Sadiq Hidayat/Sadegh Hedayat himself don’t seem more read or known to non-Persian readers of world literature, as it deserves a wider audience and reputation, along with the publication and promotion of some of his other works into English (there’s only one other, listed in my last sentence, below, as far as I can tell, that is available).  After all, during the author’s lifetime he was regarded as the foremost Persian/Iranian writer of fiction and I believe he remains so in Iran and among Persian readers and, no doubt, a select group of others.  Also, English-speaking reviewers and publications have already raved about it since its first publication here by Calder publishers in 1957, including The Guardian — I’m afraid this link is the only one to an actual review and not general info about the name highlighted, unlike the others in this paragraph — the award-winning, throbbingly big-brained playwright Tom Stoppard, the award-winning poet, Ted Hughes, The Times Literary Supplement — which I regard as the world’s most respected, widely-read and most wonderful of all intellectual journals — and the novelist, Alan Warner, winner of a Somerset Maugham Award for his first and most well-known novel Morvern Caller. But, of course, this wouldn’t be the first time that a literary classic and great writer has been overlooked or is republished in subsequent decades, yet still has the tendency not to be more widely known (Paula Fox comes to mind as one such example of this phenomenon).  Anyway, I can assure you that, once read, you certainly won’t forget it. So! …Now I can’t wait to read a collection of Hidayat/Hedayat’s short stories: Three Drops of Blood. Bring it oooooon (erm, yes, I do get rather excited by great books phwor!).

Beware of Pity – Stefan Zweig’s classic 20th century novel

Stefan Zweig (1881-1942) was a polymath and intellectual from pre-WW2 Europe, who managed to escape Austria  from the Nazis (Zweig was an Austrian Jew) in 1934, after Hitler’s rise to power. He wrote prolifically,  with great depth and beauty across a range of subjects and genres, including many biographies of novelists, and a large number of short stories, besides a significant study of European literature, and some novels. Sadly, his second wife and he both committed suicide together in Brazil in 1942, feeling they could no longer meaningful lives given their sense of a meaningless future, in light of the holocaust, and the complete devastation of their own, dearly loved private and cultural world and former circle of friends, as  they once knew them.

Click this image to link you to a Book Depository order of this novel

Beware of Pity — the link takes you to what I think is the best translation — is published the marvellous indie publisher, Pushkin Press — by Anthea Bell, the incredibly talented, award-winning and prolific translator; she has translated at least 13 of his fictions, and Pushkin itself, as far as I can tell, has published 11 of them.  The novel was originally published in 1939 and it remains one of the great European 20th century fictions, as well as being the most popular and — justifiably — the most renowned of Zweig’s novels.  This is a thoughtful, moving and disturbingly provocative novel (by the very nature of its core subject/theme).  Set in 1914 in a small, provincial garrison town near the Hungarian border, the main part of the story is told as a series of recollections, using the present tense, by Anton Hofmiller, the principal character, a second lieutenant in the army.

Bored with the town and his dull life (while being a good Army man, disciplined and focused, and respected by his charges), he accepts a dinner invitation from Herr von ‘Kekesfalva’ (Hofmiller protects his and his family’s true identity, no doubt to avoid bringing further shame upon them and himself, as well, presumably, out of a sense of honour and integrity), who is the ‘richest man in the neighbourhood. Practically everything belonged to him— ’.  Hofmiller not only takes up the invitation out of a wish for an exciting change to his otherwise dull life, but also more from a wish to be introduced to Kekesfalva’s niece, whom he describes upon first seeing in a patisserie as an ‘elegant nymph’, and more besides, that already we know he is absolutely smitten by her.

Intoxicated emotionally and quite literally from the riches of the evening of the dinner — the delicious food, fine wines, cigars, the elegant service, the beautiful house, and the dancing afterwards – Hofmiller only late in the evening suddenly realises that he has committed a terrible faux-pas: throughout the entire evening, he has neither spoken to, nor asked a dance of her, Herr Kekesfalva’s only daughter. And soon enough, we are gradually, relentlessly along with Hofmiller drawn into a profound, troubling story of how his original sense of honour and good intentions, intermingle seamlessly with a sense of pity for the daughter, who cannot walk without crutches. In turn she misunderstands his intentions, even at one dramatic point challenging him, he still denies his true state of feelings, because in some ways he does come to love her genuinely, though again this originates from the complex issue of pity and, by the time he truly realises his love for her, it is, tragically, too late.

It is a fascinating, remarkable, melancholic, philosophical novel: a deeply searching and questioning exploration on the complex subject of pity as it plays itself out — inevitably, of course, and most powerfully so, the idea and experience of pity, including its many terrible ramifications: from guilt, anxiety, angst, sleeplessness, fear, hatred, a sense of claustrophobic suffocation and panic, to self-loathing, then to dishonour, betrayal, and, desperately, eventually, a devastating loss in the form of suicide.  And yet, while complex in terms of psychological depth and characterisation, it is a story that is told elegantly, smoothly, is easily absorbed and increasingly gripping and troubling as you travel further into the story. Unsurprisingly, in general studies of European literature, it continues to live on as one of the most important novels by one of Europe’s most important 20th century intellectuals.

Considering my edition of Beware runs to 362 pages, perhaps for those who haven’t read Zweig before may wish first to dip their literary toes into something shorter in length by him by way of an introduction. Alternatively, then, I would recommend some of his compelling shorter works, in particular Confusion, Burning Secret, Fear or Chess, or a selection of his short stories.

Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea – an amazing re-interpretation of Jane Eyre

Jean Rhys wrote this as a novelistic, literary response to Charlotte Bronte‘s classic and brilliant 19th century novel, Jane Eyre. (If you haven’t read the latter, it is not necessary to do so first, to appreciate Rhys’ work; however, if you do read it first, and Wide Sargasso Sea afterwards, inevitably, I think, you will gain a richer, deeper appreciation of just how clever and powerful Rhys is in this novella and will see it as a sort of dialogue across the centuries between two brilliant novelists from two vastly different childhoods and life experiences.)

The reason Rhys felt compelled to write this sort of creative response to Jane Eyre, was because she wanted to re-position and put to the forefront of her readers’ attention the character of Mrs Rochester, the infamous ‘mad woman in the attic’ of Bronte’s original novel. Rhys felt that Bronte had treated Mrs Rochester poorly, not only because she remains in the background, like some scary Gilmanesque wallpaper, but also because of her portrayal there as somewhat two-dimensional – if you think this is unfair, just remind yourself of the depth and complexity Bronte gives her other secondary characters in Jane Eyre). Instead, we meet only disembodied madness, in lieu of any literary effort to convince the reader that she possesses a real identity (and is not simply being possessed!), of her comprising flesh and blood and having her own thoughts and feelings; she certainly has no voice of her own in the original and Bronte seems to think nothing of this (perhaps because of her being influenced by Gothic novelists, as so many 19th century writers were, and in such fiction, mad characters were usually ghoulish and unreal; absurdly so, even). But Rhys, whether rightly or wrongly, also attributed these problems of characterisation to Bronte’s own ideological viewpoint and socialisation (educational and social/societal upbringing): namely one where many of her own class, and others besides, in the 19th century society, were typically pro-colonialist/pro-imperialist and often racist, too (so Mrs Rochester’s Creole history is innately attributed to her madness).

Rhys challenged such perspectives by writing her own interpretation in fiction, a novella that in part is a ‘pre-history’ of the events in Jane Eyre (although, significantly, her last section corresponds to a major event in that novel, with the burning of Mr Rochester‘s house). Most importantly, Rhys focuses her attention on the female white Creole, Antoinette Cosway – in Jane Eyre we know her only, first, as the mysterious madwoman in the attic, until later, when we know her as Bertha Mason, the first Mrs Rochester. (By the way — if you’re interested in the subject of how women and madness – and mad women! — is represented in literature in the 19th century and beyond, by male and female writers, there are two truly outstanding, landmark literary feminist studies readily available: The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-century Literary ImaginationElaine Showalter’s The Female Malady: Women, Madness and English Culture, 1830-1980.  And for one focused on the sexual politics of literature, I still think the landmark feminist literary classic, Sexual Politics by Kate Millet, is the best.)

As a result of Antoinette/Bertha’s character being placed front and centre in Sargasso, Rhys creates a range of reader perspectives, understandings and emphases that contrast sharply with Jane Eyre — not least in that, with Rhys’ fiction, Antoinette at long last has been given her own voice and thoughts, as a result of which she gains her own identity and humanity for the first time, instead of being relegated to the status of symbol, and ‘only’ being imprisoned in a space of madness and silence, one that for which — in both fictions — Mr Rochester is responsible.  But Rhys is no optimist as a writer — see below for further comments on this matter – more a ‘negative realist’ to Bronte’s ‘positive realism’ and so Antoinette/Bertha’s outcome remains the same in both fictions. However, in Sargasso, we none the less have something else, too – something fundamentally richer and more rewarding in one important regard: when it comes to Antoinette/Bertha, unlike in Jane Eyre, we have gained an in-depth understanding of and insight to the character’s original circumstances and motivations that lead to her madness and death.

This is a powerful, haunting, hallucinatory and deeply poetic fiction (the style, in these terms, is reminiscent of Toni Morrison’s Beloved); it is a compelling and heartbreaking story of love unrequited, leading to madness. The story, split into three parts, has the first set in Jamaica, from the viewpoint of Antoinette as a child and in her youth, living on her plantation; the second section in Dominica, is about the marriage and is from both Mr Rochester’s imperialist viewpoint and patriarchal sensibility — he only marries her as an arrangement established by his father to gain Antoinette’s sizeable dowry and land – as well as from Antoinette’s perspective. Through both of them, we come to understand her troubling, unbearable circumstances: not least, that she knows that Rochester has had a sexual relationship with one of her female servants, while all the time supposedly being devoted to her.  Meanwhile, you experience Rochester’s own confusion and growing revulsion towards the local people and their way of living, his loathing of the heat and the tropical intensity of the Caribbean, so alien to his upper-class English background. The last – and most dramatic part — has the reader returning to ‘Antoinette’, now Bertha, who is not only left without anyone who cares and feels for her plight, but is imprisoned, literally — the original ‘mad woman in the attic’ — in Rochester’s house in England; a terrifying, distressing world she neither understands nor values, and in which there is no love for her, nor communication – and symbolically, too, in silence and her nightmarish visions; she is effectively made persona non grata as a result of her being locked away and out of sight, before she commits her last act of desperation.

Throughout the story, you experience the intense feelings and views of all those involved, and the stifling physical environment of Antoinette’s original home; you also feel the insecurity and uncertainty of the prescribed gender roles and psychological and material motivations of Antoinette and Mr Rochester, as well as the locals, including the servants.  There is no ultimate exit or freedom for the female; and for Mr Rochester there is only unremitting nature of the patriarchal power structure and his troubled self, such that it deprives him of any meaningful identity, beyond that of his family’s expectations and a prescribed role for his own masculinity and authority.  Sargasso is a powerful read, troubling and passionate, and a unique and profound creative take on issues of identity (especially including Colonial, slave, and the power dynamic between England and the Caribbean), sexuality and madness.

It is a fascinating, moving and clever re-interpretation of the story told in Jane Eyre. Frankly, it is remarkable and, also, it is genuinely unique in Rhys’ oeuvre – nothing else she wrote before compares with it in terms of its poetic, hallucinatory atmosphere; yet what is consistent ever-present in her writing, including within this novella, is the depth of Rhys’ psychological understanding of female isolation, anguish, subjugation and survival (in her oeuvre, her women characters, sadly, rarely have the opportunity to live and enjoy themselves; in this way, interestingly, she echoes Anita Brookner’s women, though the latter writer’s own seem always to have some ‘room of their own’, of financial independence, and often find some way eventually to live on their own terms, all be them compromised in some way from experience as a result of their dealings with men).

RECOMMENDATION FOR THOSE WHO HAVEN’T READ JANE EYRE, BUT INTEND TO

Even though there are cheaper, decent editions available, such as the one by Wordsworth publishers, I highly recommend instead that you buy/read the Penguin Classics 2006 edition, especially because of its outstanding, wonderful introductory essay — both insightful and wise — by Stevie Davies, the novelist and academic.  Please note that it must be at least 2006 copyrighted/publication date, otherwise you won’t find Davies’ essay in it, as there are several other Penguin editions before this one, with Davies as editor.

RECOMMENDATION FOR STUDENTS:

If this novella is on your reading list, then I recommend Penguin’s Student Edition, edited by Hilary Jenkins. This is a genuinely worthwhile and helpful edition for students. Jenkins has written quality editorial material from start to finish: she provides not only a clear introduction, highlighting the distinctive qualities and structure of the story, but also a brief chronology of the author’s life, very helpful notes on Creole language and phrasing, as well as historical points, exam- and essay-related questions you’d expect to have to answer as a student, as well as a separate section on the story’s geographical, cultural and historical setting/context. Importantly, Jenkins concludes with Critical Responses to the novella, as well as suggested further critical/academic reading. None the less, do please try to read Stevie Davies’ introduction in the Penguin Classics edition. Frankly, either edition would suit you as a student, and both editions’ introductions are worthwhile to all other readers interested in a more in-depth approach that explain clearly both Sargasso and Jane Eyre in terms of their respective literary histories, authors and themes.

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The Breast by Philip Roth – his most outrageous, fun work, besides Portnoy’s Complaint

The Breast (UK edition / US edition) is one of my favourite Roth fictions and has the sort of funny, mad, energetic exuberance of Portnoy’s Complaint, while being much more absurd and surreal in its premise. There is nothing else quite like it in Roth’s oeuvre. From the opening line ‘It began oddly.’, you it draws you in into a first-person story told by David Kepesh, a literary professor (and the principal character of two later and better known fictions by Roth, Professor of Desire (UK edition / US edition) and The Dying Animal (UK edition / US edition). It is wonderfully comic, yet addresses both serious and fantastical issues, and all the while is utterly intriguing and intelligently done.

David Kepesh, as the title of the novella makes clear, finds himself turning into a human breast, ‘[…] an organism with the general shape of a football, or a dirigible; […] weighing one hundred and fifty-five pounds […] and measuring, still, six feet in length.’ The story deliberately and knowingly plays on two classic stories of the absurd: Kafka’s most famous and brilliant, The Metamorphosis, in which Gregor Samsa struggles, denies, and agonises over coming to terms with his turning into a beetle, and Nikolai Gogol’s The Nose, an equally absurd tale, where the character, Major Kovalyov, finds his nose abandons his face one day, and begins to assume a life of its own, much to the owner’s chagrin.

While Roth could have made this story simply absurd and comical (and it succeeds on those levels alone, especially the relentless, obsessive sexual fantasies and agonies Kepesh experiences, wanting to have intercourse and oral sex using his nipple), what is impressive is the serious, angst-ridden, matter-of-fact way in which Kepesh for most of the time tries without success, and painfully so, to rationalise his situation, believing at one point that he is simply dreaming, another that he is suffering some terrible mental breakdown, and even that, because he believes he taught Gogol and Kafka’s work with such conviction, it resulted in him becoming a breast (a lovely satiric dig at Kepesh’s/certain academics’ belief in their own brilliance and their ability to make an impact on their world through teaching).

Highly recommended for fans of the absurd, fantastical, and joyfully original fiction. The only caveat – frankly, a gripe – is the cost of this novella (as well as other paperback editions); after all – 96 pages for £7.99 RRP, admittedly generously discounted by 30% by Amazon to £5.59. Ok, perhaps it’s not the ‘quantity’, but the ‘quality’ that counts, but I would normally hope that, for this sort price and paltry number of pages, you’d expect a beautiful physically object/high-quality edition, such as those by, for example, Hesperus Press (note: that is a link to their catalogue, as their website is being revamped at the moment) and Europa Editions, with their French wrapper jackets and quality paper. But then those two publishers are indies, so no surprise there as to their quality … please don’t take this moan as a justification not to buy the title – it really is such an original, terrific read, it’s still worth the price.

Last Exit to Brooklyn – Still Selby’s best novel?

Controversy has always surrounded Selby, Jr.’s writing. From the start, with Last Exit (being his first novel), his original UK publisher Calder and Boyers, faced government prosecution in 1967, under the 1959 Obscene Publications Act. It was a major trial, especially as it was originally found guilty of being `obscene’, and because, more importantly, the Appeal in 1968 overturned that decision and paved way for a much more open-minded interpretation of literature as to merit.

In some interviews, and in one introduction to the novel that he wrote, Selby himself said that he when he was writing this novel (six years in the making), he `was aware of the rage and anger within’ (quoted from the QPB edition in 1994). He also acknowledged that, while he has no favourite among his novels, he singles out The Room, and then this novel, notably, because through it he `truly did learn how to write’ (quote from same QPB edition).

Set in New York in the late 1950s, the story grabs you from the start, conveying an incredibly raw, visceral, yet always disturbingly poetic quality throughout. It is superb for its genuine grittiness, horribly grim reality and ugliness of modern inner city life – of thought, attitude, action and feeling – both projected outwards, as well as internalised, all of which Selby captures through voices of the dispossessed, alienated, disenfranchised. Selby is mould naturalist/realist fiction, but he goes a significant step further, in that, often through his first-person character narratives/viewpoints, he achieves an hallucinatory quality whose intensity strengthens the realities he conveys.

One critic, James R. Giles, in his excellent study of Selby’s works, Understanding Hubert Selby, Jr. (Understanding Contemporary American Literature), wrote `It is true that, while all the characters in the novel are victimized by a brutal environment, they are guilty of moral failures that make their victimization complete and irrevocable’, and Selby does this by exploring without fear or judgement powerful themes that resonant as much today as they did on first publication in 1964 in the US: drug addiction, misogyny, violence of rape and beatings, prostitution, the relentless drudgery and alienation of most jobs as well as unemployment, without value or meaning and hate and a distressingly dark, twisted humour – when not expressed through seething resentment or explosive anger – permeates life in general.

I reckon, Dante would have regarded Last Exit as a worthy match to his own vision of Hell – especially through characters who represent the sick underbelly of the city: self-deluding, beaten-up prostitutes, incredibly violent youths and gangs, a desperately lonely, elderly woman who has no life other than pathetic memories of her dead husband and son, among others. As for disturbing, truly dark humour, one such example will give you a powerful sense of it: at one point, two women sitting chatting on a bench in a miserable New York housing project, joke about and look forward with sick, twisted glee to the prospect of a baby – crawling on an upper-storey tenement window-ledge – falling to its death: they’re disappointed by its being saved in the nick of time).

In particular, the portrayal of the lives of a handful of people is done with great psychological depth, narrated most often from the first-person viewpoint, in a stream-of-consciousness fashion that remains clear, coherent and compelling. These viewpoints capture their desperation, self-loathing, hatred and confusion about themselves and their environments: defiant yet self-deluding Georgette, a hip drag queen who is pathetically in love with Vinnie and convinced she can change him for the better and that he will truly love her; while he is a psychopathic and sociopathic gang leader interested in only in sadistic and often instant gratification; Tralala, a violently angry, predatory prostitute who ultimately is destroyed in the most horrifying way imaginable; Harry – interestingly, that name is ubiquitous among male characters in Selby’s fiction, acting as a synonym for the type of man who is misogynistic, dispossessed, angry, self-loathing, and self-deluding – who is a trade union leader, loathsome, selfish, arrogant and boring, who is despised or at best tolerated by his co-workers – and, worse, whose misogyny is so genuinely convincing and disturbing, which we hear, being `inside his head’, listening trapped to his banal voice, desperation, loathing and perspective, such that it makes Bateman’s misogyny in American Psycho appear not only over the top, but utterly unreal (and never mind Ellis’ darkly satirical intentions).

Rightly and insightfully so, one great critic describes Selby as a `clinician of violence … whose novels have the immediacy of art’ (Josephine Hendin, Vulnerable People: A View of American Fiction Since 1945 (A Galaxy book)), which I think is true; likewise, he is a literary master of demonstrating through his characters a moral ugliness, misogyny and existential despair, and whose power as a novelist, I think, is unprecedented in fiction (Sartre’s famous Nausea (Penguin Modern Classics), by way of contrast, and yet also a great novel of existential despair, is a happy walk in the park compared with Selby’s vision). He is a truly remarkable writer, and, while he wrote six novels in his lifetime, I believe the most powerful and compelling (while not the darkest), remains Last Exit. I cannot recommend it highly enough – it is a genuine work of art, but its power is dark and troubling, so I would likewise highly recommend you stay clear of this novel if you find yourself in a depressed frame of mind…