Charlotte Reads Classics

Slowly, slowly, she sipped a sentence.

Category: Modern Classics

The World Was Reduced to the Surface of Her Skin

Art is an old language with a great many artificial affected styles, and sometimes the chief pleasure one gets out of knowing them is the mere sense of knowing. I enjoy the art of all sorts here immensely; but I suppose if I could pick my enjoyment to pieces I should find it made up of many different threads.

I love this quite from Dorothea Brooke in Middlemarch and it is particularly handy when I want to write about an author with a very specific style. This is a writer who is so refreshingly original that it is a pleasure to read his books solely for the pleasure of knowing them.

There is no way you could read Gabriel Garcia Marquez and mistake his writing for anyone else. One Hundred Years of Solitude is set in the fictional village of Macondo, in a typical (if there can be such a thing) Latin American country. The things Macondo faces are things that Marquez would have experienced during his childhood in Columbia: civil war, fruit plantations, small villages transitioning into modernity. Whilst the story is of its place, there are plenty of universal themes here; life, love, sadness, loneliness, tradition and family.

Marquez once said that “[a]fter the death of my grandfather, nothing really happened to me any more”. This happened when he was eight. In many ways people read his signature style of magical realism as the world seen through the eyes of a child. This novel is certainly full of that sort of imaginative power.

At that time Macondo was a village of twenty adobe houses, built on the bank of a river of clear water that ran along a bed of polished stones, which were white and enormous, like prehistoric eggs. The world was so recent that many things lacked names, and in order to indicate them it was necessary to point.

Firstly, Marquez is king of beautiful sentences. Just read it! The village is founded by the family and has a real Garden of Eden sort of vibe. The Bible here is the magical element mixed with the reality of evolution (‘prehistoric eggs’). This immediately sets the tone for the kind of storytelling that follows. This is a story of a town who suffers from insomnia, of alchemy, gypsies and revolution. Family history becomes myth and legend, and the imagery is outstanding.

The only problem I had whilst reading One Hundred Years of Solitude was that I found it hard to keep all the characters straight – there are about twenty-five Aurelianos! However, even this has a poetic explanation: Time in this novel is not linear and generations of family history is told as though it was happening all at once. Plenty of characters live until well over a hundred, and even the dead don’t always keep quiet.

People say Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ writing is like a carnival and I would agree. It is colourful, always moving, vibrant, strange and foreign. A wonderful combination.

A Modern Middlemarch

In the country all was dead still. Little stars shone high up, little stars spread far away in the floodwaters, a firmament below. Everywhere the vastness and terror of the immense night which is roused and stirred for a brief while by the day, but which returns, and will remain at last eternal, holding everything in its silence and its living gloom.

Sons and Lovers is the unease you feel at night, the light in the morning when you set off for work, and the still and quiet moments with your family. It is the way you question the path you are taking and where you wanted your life to go anyway. It is the mud stuck to your shoe, the wind tangling your hair and the salt on your lips.

Even with all the reading and thinking and discussing of Sons and Lovers that have made up a big part of my life over this last week, this is a novel that defies explanation. It is a gut novel, a spirit novel (and those are my favourite).

To try to make my point, here is a list of things this novel is said to be:

  • A record of working class life
  • An exercise in self-analysis and psychoanalytic theory
  • A depiction of positive/negative roles for twentieth century men and women
  • A critique of industrial capitalism and the transition between the agricultural past and the industrial future
  • Realism

Honestly, it is all of these things, but it is none of them too. No one thing gets to the heart of it. When I was reading, I kept thinking that I felt like I was reading a very English novel – it is pastoral, natural, and really the sort of novel that was defined by the nineteenth century. It begins like Middlemarch: Spanning history and geography, social drama and conflict.

What makes Sons and Lovers a modern novel, or more modern than a George Eliot novel, is the content, the time. The world is changing. The traditions are there, the writing on nature is where D. H. Lawrence is his most beautiful. But the bulk of the book is borne out of the twentieth century tribulations of a young creative soul from a working class background. (Hello, Joyce, secretly appearing in all my posts.)

The most interesting parts of this book were the conflicts between different kinds of love – familial, soulful, romantic, passionate, friendship. Paul, the second son, has a relationship with his mother that you could compare to the attachment of a young child. He has no desire to live with any woman other than her.

Lawrence describes the two of them sitting together:

They were both very happy so, and both unconscious of it. These times, that meant so much, and which were real living, they almost ignored.

The mother/son bond is something that critics highlight as an autobiographical element. From reading around a bit, it seems that whilst Lawrence considered the book a tragedy in the classical sense, he was offended by the (inevitable) Oedipal comparisons. I think most of his female characters were quite one-dimensional except for Mrs Morel. He writes the women in the book to be a bit like men, but with absences. A lot of the book was exploring what defines women and men; how are they different and how do they live together.

“Here’s the sea-coast morning, big and permanent and beautiful. There is she, fretting, always unsatisfied, and temporary as a bubble of foam. What does she mean to me, after all?

Yes, sometimes the writing was obvious and a lot of the time I felt like rolling my eyes. Yes, I really think Lawrence was capable of writing women as well-rounded as men and I really wish he had done. Yes, a lot of the time this book made me feel sad.

However. Sons and Lovers, you were such an unexpected joy.

Edit: I read this with o, whose writing is as impeccable as her literary taste. Here is a link to her excellent review of Sons and Lovers.

Reading Sons and Lovers: Men and Women


This week I have been reading Sons and Lovers, with some surprising results. Firstly, I have fallen for this book. I miss it when I’m not reading it and I’ve started looking forward to my commute (I have a new, longer but more picturesque train journey) because it means more minutes I can spend alone in the company of my new book.

This comes as quite the surprise because I have only ever read one other D. H. Lawrence novel – Women in Love – and hated it. I’m not actually sure why I even decided that I should buy another of his books, but there you go. Glad I did.

The beginning of Sons and Lovers follows Mr and Mrs Morel through their early years of marriage. They live in a mining town with young children and not much money. It is quite a depressing beginning to the story – life is a struggle and their marriage is unhappy. They live in a row of houses alongside the other miners and their families, which leads to a very public sort of life. The houses are joined together and people are always out and about in the alleyways that run along the back. There are no truly private spaces.

Whilst there are obvious downsides, like people barging into your house and everyone knowing your business, there is a real sense of community that just doesn’t seem to exist anymore. When Mr Morel is ill and can’t go to work, the rest of the street looks out for his wife and children:

Every Friday, Parker and the other butty put by a portion of the stall’s profits for Morel’s wife. And the neighbours made broths, and gave eggs, and such invalid’s trifles. If they had not helped her so generously in those times, Mrs Morel would never have pulled through, without incurring debts that would have dragged her down.

There is a tendency in hindsight to idealise the period before the First World War as a long Edwardian summer. Being published in 1913 means that the book has none of this golden hue. Life is hard. I have been trying to imagine living Mrs Morel’s life, but I actually felt quite depressed by the prospect. Obviously I can’t imagine it without being influenced by modernity, but I really empathised with Mrs Morel’s moments of despair:

The prospect of her life made her feel as if she were buried alive.

I don’t think we see marriage today as permanently as it has been in the past. Here, Mrs Morel comes to despise her husband (this isn’t a spoiler, I promise! It’s on the blurb!) but her lot is completely tied to his. She has young children, she has no means of making a living – she is imprisoned by his successes or failures.

Books like Sons and Lovers always make me wonder about men, women and relationships. Readers today can appreciate both sides of the marriage because the roles of men and women aren’t as fixed as they were. I can appreciate that having to work long hours in a dangerous and grueling job for very little wages would be both stressful and isolating.

The Morels seem hardly able to connect with each other. She falls out of love, he doesn’t. The time they spend together becomes a pause for her, something to endure before her real life continues. For him it is a gap, an absence, a lack. He needs her for comfort; she needs him for means of living.

“But it’s as well to be a woman as a man,” he said, frowning.
“Ha! – is it! Men have everything.”
“I should think women ought to be as glad to be women, as men are to be men,” he answered.
“No!” she shook her head. “No! Everything, the men have.”
“But what do you want?” he asked.
“I want to learn. Why should it be that I know nothing!”

Next, Part Two, when the children are grown up. It will be interesting to follow the changing attitudes that come with a new generation and the end of childhood innocence.

Leather bags and broad minds: Thoughts so far on Mrs Dalloway



If I were to imagine the narrative of Mrs Dalloway, its long strings stretching through and across the streets of London, I would think of curling ribbon or ivy tendrils, something that could creep and swerve towards the skyline just as easily as it could crawl along the ground.

The reason I think of this novel as clambering upwards as much as reaching across is determined by the nature of Virginia Woolf’s writing. As her writing twirls and flits into one mind or the next, I pictured a London street scene; frozen in the midst of movement, as the author did nothing more than guide us to listen to one mind or the next. Reading stream of consciousness is fascinating whilst demanding of concentration. So far I am reminded of the challenges of Ulysses: How is it possible for me, the reader, to pick up on and understand every nuance in someone else’s mind? Their memories aren’t mine.

Early on in the novel, before Clarissa has even brought the flowers home, this quotation really caught my attention:

Then, while a seedy-looking nondescript man carrying a leather bag stood on the steps of St. Paul’s Cathedral, and hesitated, for within was what balm, how great a welcome, how many tombs with banners waving over them, tokens of victories not over armies, but over, he thought, that plaguy spirit of truth seeking which leaves me at present without a situation, and more than that, the cathedral offers company, he thought, invites you to membership of a society; great men belong to it; martyrs have died for it; why not enter in, he thought, put this leather bag stuffed with pamphlets before an altar, a cross, the symbol of something which has soared beyond seeking and questing and knocking of words together and has become all spirit, disembodied, ghostly – why not enter in? he thought and while he hesitated out flew the aeroplane over Ludgate Circus.

This is why I have been thinking of Mrs Dalloway in terms of a full range of movement. As the story is firmly rooted in the human mind, so the narrative follows us. We all spend a lot of time thinking about day-to-day, mundane, low-level things. Occasionally something happens that makes us think about grander, higher concepts, like philosophy or art or religion. Not just that, these higher concepts are the things that connects one person to another, that forge ideas about what makes us human, or what is important in being human.

A man can be seedy-looking, carrying a leather bag whilst an aeroplane flies overhead and if you were a passer-by then perhaps that is all you would see. The greatness of Mrs Dalloway, in the first thirty pages and my humble opinion, is that Woolf makes the internal external. The seedy-looking man draws his conclusions about the power of religious imagery and we would have been none the wiser.

Queer, Sultry Summers


It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.

This morning I felt like reading The Bell Jar. The opening line has stayed with me, stuck in my mind, ever since I first read it standing in a book shop. I don’t know when or where (I would guess I must have been about fourteen, I could be wrong), but I haven’t read a book that has as memorable a first line since.

I suppose I read The Bell Jar three or four times as a teenager and I loved it for Esther’s voice. I loved the way she opened up, right down to her bones. When I read the book again this morning, I was struck by the tiny details I remembered as clearly as if I’d read it yesterday: the caviar and chicken slices, the author eating his salad with his fingers, the sheath dress, the clear vodka, the pocketbooks, the scene about ‘water-repellant coats’, the swimming, the interpreter.

I love the story she reads about the fig tree – each fig represents an opportunity, but instead of enjoying one, any of them, they wrinkle and rot before her eyes. Beneath the surface, particularly during the first half of the book, haven’t we all felt like Esther? Her fear about the future, her inability to pick one thing to be is something I think about too – and I don’t think I am the only one!

This is a book to grow up with, I read it completely differently to how I read it as a teenager and have enjoyed it all the more. It is nice on this quiet Tuesday to have something so unique yet so familiar to think about.

A Single Green Light, Minute and Far Away


And as I sat there brooding on the old, unknown world, I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn, and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it.

This is everything that is amazing about The Great Gatsby. I first read it in high school and haven’t picked it up since, but I always remembered how this one little light could come to represent all hope, nostalgia, melancholy and loss all at once. How remarkable is that?

Nick Carraway compares Gatsby’s dream of Daisy from across the dock to the Dutch sailors that sailed towards the New World. A dream that was close enough to see but completely unattainable. I love the comparison between Gatsby’s all-consuming quest for wealth and status with the explorers. They saw some green, virgin earth but that only existed in their minds: The land had a history all of its own, just like Daisy has in the years Gatsby has been away creating himself. You can’t colonise innocently, just like you can’t achieve dreams that reinvent the past. Gatsby managed to reinvent himself, but he could never undo his own history.

There must have been moments even that afternoon when Daisy tumbled short of his dreams – not through her own fault, but because of the colossal vitality of his illusion. It had gone beyond her, beyond everything. […] No amount of fire or freshness can challenge what a man can store up in his ghostly heart.

Whist the force of Gatsby’s dreams is at times superhuman, Fitzgerald’s book is based around the incredibly human trait of never being satisfied and how that fits into the American ideal if you work had you can achieve anything.

The book is very firmly of the twenties but is timeless all the same. You can be seduced by these amazing parties which on the outside are dazzling and the people are witty with cocktails in hand, but getting closer it turns out nobody is really enjoying themselves. They are all racing, all the time, against each other to get more – to say more, to see more, to have more. No amount of glitter can hide the ugliness underneath. Is history on a loop? Did we ever learn from Gatsby?

I really enjoyed reading The Great Gatsby again because I had the luxury or reading with the intention of looking for the green light. The story was as good as I remembered from all those years ago but I had forgotten how slim a book it is. Surely a testament to Fitzgerald’s writing: He  says exactly enough in exactly the right words.

Remember When I Thought I’d Read a Few Books About War?

Canadian Stretcher-Bearers, Flanders Fields, 1915

Back in May, I came up with an idea to read more books about War. I had several unread books about WWI and WWII on my bookshelves and on my Classics Club list and thought I would make a bit of a themed reading event (albeit just for myself) where really the main outcome was to get the books crossed off. Here is my very naive original post.

What I hadn’t anticipated when I collected these books and stacked them oppressively next to my bed was that the project would turn into the biggest interest of my reading life. Seriously. It is about five months since I started, and I haven’t even made it to WWII yet. And the list has grown and grown. I am really surprised at how much this has inspired my reading – a few years ago I couldn’t have imagined anything worse than being forced to read about horrible historical events over and over again. Ah, the misguided opinions of youth.

Read the rest of this entry »

The Death of the Country Gentleman

The land had not changed. … There were still the deep beech-woods making groves beside the ploughlands and the rooks rising lazily as the plough came towards them. The land had not changed. … Well, the breed had not changed. … There was Christopher. … Only, the times … they had changed.

Parade’s End by Ford Madox Ford was the most difficult book I have read in ages. Worthy, beautiful, atmospheric, a document of history – yes, but don’t forget confusing, lengthy and misleading. Now that I have finished reading it, I can look back and think about how good it was – something I definitely couldn’t envisage in the last few weeks of reading.

A completely unexpected comparison can be made between Levin of Anna Karenina and Christopher Tietjens: Both are members of the upper classes connected with the land. Whilst Levin is seen as a bit of a reformist trying to make money out of farming his estate but not at the expense of the people who work on it; Christopher is presented as the last of his kind. That is, a man highly concerned with the preservation of his ancestry and obeying what he feels is his duty to the lower class people who rely on him and his land. I really liked how the Groby Great Tree becomes a symbol of pastoral scenes of country life: local couples get married underneath it and people adorn it with lucky charms during festivals. Sylvia threatening to cut it down in the years after the war are a way of showing the changing times.

Whereas Christopher was everything I wanted him to be, Valentine was a bit of a disappointment. At the beginning of the novel she is quite revolutionary. However (without plot spoilers) in the last chapters she suddenly becomes very predictable and, well, kind of drippy. I’m not sure whether this is a response to the things that happen to her or whether it is a failing of Ford’s: Maybe he couldn’t write stream of consciousness as a woman?

What would Parade’s End have been like without the crazy plot structure? I don’t need a book to be completely linear, but I had such trouble working out what was happening, let alone how much time was passing. All in all, Parade’s End is excellent in terms of character and themes, but I’ll always prefer The Good Soldier for readability.

And Then Némirovsky Saved My Life

When I last wrote, I was looking forward to continuing with Parade’s End and posting on the second volume. However, for the last week (it feels like years) I have been moving house after work in the evenings. In conclusion, I’m exhausted. In reading terms, Parade’s End is too difficult for my tired brain.

Luckily this shall not be a post of woe, because I have been saved by a beautiful book. Rummaging in the nearest box I could find on Tuesday evening (every box is guaranteed to have at least one book in it) I dived straight for the thinnest one I could see. It was Irène Némirovsky’s Fire in the Blood. Lent to me by a friend over a year ago, it had been sitting unobserved on my bookcase ever since.

Now that I have read Fire in the Blood I can see how stupid it was to have left this unread for so long. It is the very definition of a literary gem. A thin, unpretentious story that manages to be both breathtaking and mundane, cutting to the very heart of what it is to be human. This might sound like I am exaggerating (I’m not): Whilst it is definitely true to say I need some sleep and a nice long day of doing no manual labour, it is equally true that this book was comfort for the soul.

I loved every word. Every word in every sentence was right. Everything was atmospheric:

I love our silent woods.

Put simply, it is the story of one man in rural france in (I’m guessing) the 1930s looking back on his life and the woman he once loved. It is a story of age and youth, of reminiscence and of simmering passions settling down. It is one of those really amazing stories that captures your imagination and binds you to the people in it.

There were previously only thirty or so pages of Fire in the Blood, because Némirovsky’s husband was in the process of typing it when she was arrested in 1942. Fortunately in 2005 the rest of the original handwritten manuscript was rediscovered. For me, this makes the novel all the more extraordinary – to think of what the reading world would have lost along with some pieces of paper.

Some Do Not…

The first book of Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End is beautiful. Seriously beautiful. I’ve loved Ford’s writing ever since I read The Good Soldier and am pleased that the new adaptation will get people reading it again.

Some Do Not… is beautiful because the way of life described is contradicted by the war the reader knows is coming. The last, long English summer is a much used metaphor which Ford uses to his advantage: Whilst everything and everyone is witty and sparkling and modern, inside they are slightly rotten and passionately flawed. Real, I suppose.

Christopher and Sylvia’s marriage is going to be one of the most interesting parts of Parade’s End. Katherine described Sylvia’s love as a desire for possession, which I completely agree with. Their relationship is built on layers of trust and mistrust, double meanings and potentially shady pasts. Valentine, the potential mistress, is an interesting character too – a suffragette supporting her family.

If you wanted something killed you’d go to Sylvia Tietjens in the sure faith that she would kill it: emotion, hope, ideal; kill it quick and sure. If you wanted something kept alive you’d go to Valentine: she’d find something to do for it.

As a side note, I think Rebecca Hall is going to be amazing as Sylvia and I’m looking forward to watching her performance. All the characters are so well written and I feel as though I have only caught a glimpse of their depth.

I am surprised Parade’s End is not a more frequently cited Modernist novel. It was first published just two years after Ulysses and there are some similarities between the two. Ford Madox Ford uses the stream of consciousness in different voices like Joyce did, but in an infinitely more readable way. He has also played around with conventional forms by jumbling up the story’s chronology. Time jarringly skips forwards and backwards, but it enables Ford to present parts of the story as memories. Isn’t that how real stories are? And how life is?  I think the style makes the book so much richer.

I am watching the series as well, luckily I had managed to read enough to be able to watch on Friday without fear of spoilers. Hopefully I will be able to keep ahead! I enjoyed the first episode, I think they’ve really captured the style and tone of the book.

I can’t wait to read on.