Review 1771: Umbrella

Some of the reviews of Umbrella refer to modernism, as in “a magnificent celebration of modernist prose.” This kind of encomium shivers me timbers. And then I think, isn’t modernism over? Aren’t we into postmodernism now? Apparently not.

Umbrella has a plot, but don’t expect the book to leap into action, because it’s more concerned with its devices. Self uses few paragraphs, and the ones he inserts aren’t necessarily making the expected division, some of them positioned in the middle of a sentence. Self uses three points of view, but they shift without warning, sometimes in the middle of a word. Stream of consciousness is used abundantly and confusingly, and Self loves his allusions, most of which I did not get. What Self isn’t very concerned with is being easy on his readers.

The novel is inspired by Oliver Sach’s Awakenings. In 1971, psychiatrist Zack Busner realizes he has a group of patients who are post-encephalitic, and they are stuck repeating activities that are meaningful to them but at such fast or slow speeds that they are difficult to detect. He gets permission to administer L-DOPA to them, and they unfreeze, or wake up. Among them is Audrey Death, the oldest patient in the mental hospital.

Aside from following Dr. Busner as a young psychiatrist, we also follow him as an old man. We see from Audrey’s point of view as a girl and a young woman and from her young brother Stanley’s during World War I.

Sometimes the narrative gets carried away into ridiculous flights that last for pages, such as the one involving Stanley falling into a subterranean existence. I didn’t know what to make of it. Although critics have foamed at the mouth in admiration of this novel’s style, I’d call it self-indulgent. I had to make two attempts before I finally managed to read this novel.

This is one of the books I read for my Booker prize project.

Ducks, Newburyport

There but for the

As I Lay Dying

Review 1368: Owls Do Cry

It’s obvious that Owls Do Cry was written by a poet. The writing is beautiful, but since I am not very good at poetry, I have to admit that I didn’t always understand what was going on.

The Withers family lives in a small town in southern New Zealand. They are very poor, and the children are called dirty at school and subjected to humiliations. They like to go to the town dump to look for treasures.

At 12, the oldest girl, Francie, must quit school to do housework for a wealthier family in town. Toby, the only son, is subject to epileptic fits. Mr. Withers verbally abuses his wife. Then one day there is a terrible accident, and Francie is killed. Some time later, Daphne is hospitalized in a mental hospital, just as Frame herself was.

The novel skips forward 25 years to the 1950’s. Mr. Withers is retired, and Toby is now the bully of the household. Daphne is still hospitalized, and Theresa, the youngest daughter, has married and moved away.

Janet Frame was the first writer to tackle the subject of mental institutions. This novel is harrowing and occasionally satiric. However, I often couldn’t follow the poetic passages. I read this for my Classics Club list.

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Review 1331: The Good Soldier

Cover for The Good SoldierThe Good Soldier is considered Ford Madox Ford’s greatest novel. His earlier work was more Edwardian realist, but this novel has several characteristics of modernism, including an unreliable narrator, an interest in characters’ psychological underpinnings, and a more liberated female character.

The narrator of the novel, set before World War I, is John Dowell, a wealthy but incredibly dense American. He is not unreliable because he is lying or misrepresenting what has happened but simply because he is almost willfully blind to it. At the beginning of the novel, he informs us that the Ashburnhams were his wonderful, close friends for nine years, decent people, good people. Yet, at almost the next breath he reveals that Edward Ashburnham had an affair with John’s wife, Florence, for nine years.

The Good Soldier is the story of the complex relationships between Leonora and Edward Ashburnham and how their problems affect the lives of other people, particularly their innocent young friend, Nancy. This is the kind of book, I believe, that readers will understand differently each time they read it.

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Day 966: Last Post

Cover for Last PostBest Book of the Week!
This last volume of Ford Madox Ford’s modernist work Parade’s End is unique in that its main character, Christopher Tietjens, barely appears, even though the book continues to be about him. It may be my imagination, but it seems as if he has been less of a presence with each book.

This volume is narrated from the point of view of four characters during a single day. Mark Tietjens, Christopher’s older brother, begins and ends it. Mark has been overcome by a stroke and is not speaking. He and his wife, Marie-Léonie, are living in a country cottage with Christopher and Valentine Wannop. They have built Mark a hut with no walls from which he watches and listens to the events of the countryside.

It is some time after the events of volume 3, but Mark remembers Armistice Day and the days following that brought them to the cottage. The peace of the cottage is about to be disturbed, though, because the vengeance of Christopher’s wife, Sylvia Tietjens, has provoked a number of people to descend upon it.

Sylvia has incited the eccentric tenant of Groby, the Tietjen’s ancestral home, to fell the great tree of Groby, and it has taken part of the house with it. Mrs. de Bray Pape has been egged on by Sylvia to belatedly ask permission from Mark. Accompanied by Christopher’s son, Mark, who keeps trying to draw her away, Mrs. de Bray Pape subjects the older Mark to an inaccurate lecture on history. Since Sylvia has hinted to everyone that Mark is ill from syphilis, they can’t understand why he won’t speak to them.

Subsequent sections of the volume are from the points of view of Marie-Léonie, Valentine, and Sylvia. As the cottage environment descends into chaos with the arrival of more visitors urged on by Sylvia, Sylvia makes a momentous decision.

Although I have not read much about Ford’s life, some of the notes in my annotated edition by Carcanet lead me to believe the novels are at least partially autobiographical, both in the portrayal of the war and in the personal relationships. I have really enjoyed this novel about a man who is completely misunderstood because his name has been blackened by his ex-wife and the wife of a woman whose husband owed him money. Some of the novel deals with the idiocy behind World War I, but it is mainly about the end of an era. Christopher thinks of himself as a man who belongs in the 18th century, and he is a symbol for the destruction of a way of life, with of a kind of outlook that others think must be dragged into modern times. I will be looking for more by Ford.

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Day 636: Their Eyes Were Watching God

their-eyes-were-watching-godTheir Eyes Were Watching God was my selection for Classics Spin #8 for the Classics Club! Here is my review.

I had a complex reaction to this novel. On the one hand, I liked its protagonist, Janey Crawford, and was interested in her struggle to define her own identity. On the other hand, I didn’t much like any other characters in the novel. On the one hand, Janey’s struggles to define herself make the novel a landmark feminist book; on the other hand, Janey defines herself through her choice of husbands and her relationships to them. On the one hand, I don’t usually like tales in the vernacular; on the other hand, both the educated omniscient narrator and Janey’s vernacular third/first-person narration have moments of entrancing imagery. And speaking of that imagery, for a book written in 1937, the novel is occasionally startling in its sexuality.

A woman in her 40’s, Janey has recently returned home without Tea Cake, the man she left with. Having departed in some scandal, a well-off widow with a much younger, penniless man, she is figuring in a lot of talk. So, when her friend Phoeby comes to see her, Janey decides to tell her the story of her life.

Janey was raised by her grandmother in West Florida after her mother had her as a result of rape and then disappeared. Janey is a light-skinned black woman with long beautiful hair, and her appearance features in much of her story. When she is still an extremely innocent 16-year-old, her grandmother marries her off to a much older man, trying to give her stability. Janey thinks that marrying will make them love each other, but she is soon disillusioned and finds he is inclined to treat her like a work horse.

Then she meets Joe Starks, a flashy well-dressed man who seems to be going somewhere, and is. She leaves with him and they settle in an all-black town in “the new part of Florida,” where Joe soon becomes the mayor and store owner. But he defines his marriage by what he gives her and expects her to maintain a certain decorum as his wife, not allowing her to participate in many of the small town amusements. Also, he treats her with disrespect, publicly ridiculing her.

After Joe dies, under circumstances that have already started talk, Janey meets Tea Cup and eventually leaves with him to work in the Everglades. Although Tea Cup is in some ways an improvement over her other two husbands, there are some events that disturbed me. First, he steals her $200 and comes back with $12, but she is only upset when she thinks he has left her. Next, he earns it back but makes her put it in the bank and promise to live off what he can provide, a classic play for dominance that ignores the fact that she soon has to go to work next to him, manually in the fields. Finally, he beats her up once, not because of anything she does but because he wants to show everyone that she belongs to him.

Hurston was a trained ethnographer, and her fiction details a way of life in small-town Florida of her time. I found many of the details interesting. A fascination with skin color and Caucasian features is one theme that comes up several times. In fact, when Tea Cake beats Janey, instead of provoking a discussion of the fairness of the beating, the people are more fascinated by Janey’s skin being fair enough that they can see the bruises, which makes the other men envious.

Janey is often viewed harshly and unfairly by others. But it is part of her growing self-awareness that she doesn’t care. Although to me she sometimes seems too passive in her relationship to men—her gentle response to Tea Cake’s beating is seen as a good thing—she is otherwise a strong and resourceful heroine.

Day 605: The Watch Tower

Cover for The Watch TowerBest Book of the Week!
The Watch Tower opens when Laura and Clare Vaizey are abruptly pulled out of school after their father dies. They move with their mother Stella to an apartment in the Sydney suburbs. While Stella lounges around in bed, she has the girls do all the housework. Laura, who thought she might become a doctor or an opera singer, is made to leave school and take a secretarial course. Later, to keep Clare in a decent school, Laura has to turn over all her earnings from a secretarial job in a factory, for her mother would as soon see Clare in the local high school, which only teaches girls home economics.

When World War II breaks out, Stella decides to return to England, leaving her girls to fend for themselves. By then, Laura is in her early 20’s and Clare in high school. When Laura wonders what she can do to keep Clare in high school, her mother suggests she get her a job in the factory.

Laura confides her problems to her boss, Felix Shaw, whom she thinks of as a good man. Felix has an idea that will keep Clare out of the factory. Laura should marry him, and he will support both girls. Stella refuses to give her advice, but she obviously prefers any solution that will be less trouble for herself. Seeing Felix’s offer as a sort of business deal, Laura accepts.

Laura and Clare do not know it, but they have put themselves into the hands of an emotionally and sometimes physically abusive man. The resulting story is one of great psychological depth. While Laura becomes a woman who will do anything to keep peace in the house, Clare finds herself attempting to stay in some way true to herself.

The novel is an absorbing account of the need of one person for escape from an abusive and emotionally stifling situation while another attempts to close every avenue of escape. Felix is continually involved in shady business deals with proteges who disappear as soon as they’ve managed to cheat him. Felix then takes everything out on his wife, showing her contempt so that others treat her contemptuously, too. Laura will do anything to appease him, including preventing her sister from attempting to leave.

This story is a dark and compelling one.

Day 598: Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont

Cover for Mrs. PalfreyI’ve read two books by Elizabeth Taylor, who is beginning to be appreciated as a novelist years after she authored the books. Both the novels are melancholy, about sad people in realistic situations.

Mrs. Palfrey is an old lady who takes a permanent room at the Claremont, a hotel that has seen better days. Staying at the Claremont are several other older people who are all living on limited means.

One reason Mrs. Palfrey chose the Claremont instead of a seaside resort her daughter recommended is because her grandson Desmond lives in London and works at the British Museum. Mrs. Palfrey regrets having mentioned him to the other guests, though, as day after day passes and no one comes to visit.

The life of all the permanent residents of the Claremont is similar to hers, as they sit waiting for something to happen. Mrs. Post knits while Mr. Osborne writes letters to various newspapers hoping to see them in print. Any incident, no matter how trivial, constitutes a break in the monotony.

One day while out walking, Mrs. Palfrey falls. A young man runs out from a nearby building and helps her. He is Ludo Myers, an impoverished would-be novelist. After this encounter, the two become friends of a sort. Mrs. Palfrey doesn’t know that Ludo has decided to write about old people and is using her as a model. Still, they both behave kindly to one another, he even pretending to be her grandson so she can save some face with the other hotel residents.

Underlying the lives of all the old people are sadness and boredom, but Ludo also feels lonely. His mother goes from one affair to another and doesn’t seem to care if he comes to visit. He eventually takes up with Rosie, a young woman who also doesn’t care for him much.

This novel is observant enough of people’s behavior that it is sometimes funny, but mostly it sensitively explores the solitude that is in all of us. I saw the movie a few weeks after I read the book and was interested, but not surprised, to see how the movie was just enough more heartfelt and touching to make it avoid the central message and atmosphere of the book. I liked the movie, but it missed the point.

Day 551: Mrs. Dalloway

Cover for Mrs. DallowayMrs. Dalloway is preparing for a party at her home. She goes out herself in the morning to pick up the flowers.

Clarissa Dalloway enjoys her walk. She loves the air, the invigorating city of London, the people. As she walks, she thinks about events from her past, particularly a summer when she was being courted by Peter Walsh at her home of Bourton.

On her walk, Mrs. Dalloway briefly encounters an old friend and we follow him and his thoughts for awhile. So through the day, the novel moves from the consciousness of one character to another, culminating in Mrs. Dalloway’s party. Thoughts and memories are triggered by random images, as Woolf tries to replicate human consciousness.

Woolf’s express purpose in writing this novel was to depict one day in a woman’s life. She also does a turn on the marriage plot—for we see thirty-some years later how that plot worked out.

Mrs. Dalloway harks back to her youth, when it seemed possible she would marry Peter. They argued a lot, though, and it seemed to her that he criticized her. We learn from Peter’s memories that he suddenly had the flash of a thought that she would marry Richard Dalloway. Convinced of this, he left for India. Now, he has returned to tell her he is in love again—with a much younger married woman who has children and is not of his class. Still, by the end of the novel it is as if he has forgotten his new love.

Clarissa married comfort and stability in Richard Dalloway. Instead of a challenging and more bohemian existence with Peter, she has a very structured life. But she is recovering from illness and sleeps in a narrow, prim bed in the attic. It is unclear whether she is happy, except in the delight of living she feels by her nature.

Septimus and Rezia Smith are a couple unknown to Clarissa who are also important to the novel. Septimus is suffering from a delayed shell shock and hallucinations from his experiences in World War I. Rezia, the wife he brought back from Italy, is taking him to see Sir William Bradshaw. Bradshaw is a Harley Street specialist who appears later at Mrs. Dalloway’s party.

As with other modernist novels, I sometimes felt I was missing something. At other times, though, I felt that my reaction was supposed to be something like “This is what life is.”

Having recently read The Hours (wrong way around, I know), Michael Cunningham’s tribute to the novel, I was fascinated by how, with slight adjustments of character and by breaking the novel into three time periods, he invokes even stronger feelings and gives us a fresh look at the material.

Day 544: Death in Venice

Cover for Death in VeniceGustave Aschenbach is a renowned author who has devoted his life to intellectual pursuits and his art. He leads an orderly life, conscientiously applying himself to his work.

One day when he is feeling over-taxed, he goes out for a walk and spots a red-haired man dressed as a traveler. Although the man appears to view him with disdain, at the sight of him Aschenbach is suddenly possessed with the desire to travel.

After stopping a few days on an island in the Adriatic, he decides to go to Venice. The city is gray and unwelcoming. The air is miasmic, and he wonders if he should have come. Then at the hotel he sees a beautiful boy. At first he simply enjoys looking at him, but eventually he becomes erotically fixated.

In writing this novella, Mann wanted to examine the relationship between art and the mind, a life of the senses and a life of intellect. At first, Aschenbach tries to rationalize his obsession by philosophizing about it. Mann makes many allusions to Greek mythology and calls the boy’s beauty godlike. But Aschenbach is lead inexorably into mental degradation. On the boat to Venice he was repelled by an older man, hair dyed and face rouged, who was traveling with a bunch of students. By the end of the novella, he has become that man.

While respecting the merits of the novella, I found Aschenbach’s obsessions and rationalizations repulsive, but I believe that is what Mann intended. In many ways, the story has similarities to Nabokov’s Lolita. However, while Nabokov’s language was beautiful enough to make me somehow grasp what Humbert Humbert felt, Mann’s was written with a different intent, I think.

Day 494: A View of the Harbour

Cover for A View of the HarborElizabeth Taylor was a mid-twentieth century writer who was interested in the realistic depiction of ordinary lives, particularly those of the working class. In A View of the Harbour, she provides glimpses into the lives of residents along the harbor of a shabby seaside village in post-World War II England.

Newby has seen better days. The trendy tourist area has moved away around the point, and all that is left aside from a few houses are a wax museum, a pub, a small store, a closed-down fun fair, and a lighthouse.

The main characters of this novel are Beth and Robert, a married couple, and Beth’s longtime friend Tory, recently divorced. Beth labors under the delusion that she is observant, but most of her focus is on her writing, as she is an author. Toward her family she is myopic. She doesn’t see when her five-year-old daughter Stevie is manipulating her, and she pays very little attention to her older daughter, Prudence, or to her husband. All family drama provides fodder for her prose.

Most people in town seem to think Prudence is slow, but she has noticed something that others haven’t—that her father is secretly visiting Tory.

Tory is torn between her feelings for Robert and her loyalty to Beth. She mostly seems to be at loose ends, however. She still cares for her ex-husband Teddy and makes a point of stopping in to see him if she is in London. In Newby she flirts with Bertram, a retired naval officer with ambitions to be a painter but little talent, and dallies with Robert.

Loneliness is a strong theme of this novel. Tory is clearly lonely, even though she is beautiful and has no trouble attracting attention. The attention she wants, from Teddy, is not available. Lily is a recent widow who goes to the pub nightly for companionship. She is timid and terrified of the walk home in the dark. The proprietor of the wax museum, she is afraid to pass the figures on the way up to her flat. The brief attention she gets from Bertram ends unfortunately.

Maisie, the hard-working daughter of invalid Mrs. Bracey, manages to attract Eddie, the boarder, but Mrs. Bracey is immediately jealous of the distraction of Maisie’s attention. Mrs. Bracey is a complex character. We have sympathy for her because she is paralyzed, but she has a terrible tongue and is a vicious gossip. She easily finds a way to squash Maisie’s romance.

Taylor’s characters are too realistic to be entirely likable, although Beth is less at fault than Robert or Tory. I found Maisie and Prudence the most sympathetic of the characters.

Taylor is highly regarded but relatively unknown because she was overshadowed in her time by the more famous Elizabeth Taylor. Her writing is observant of the small details of life. Although there is not much humor in the novel, Tory’s letters from her young son at school are believable and funny. My overall impression of the novel is that the lives of its characters are as sad and dilapidated as the village.