Charlotte Reads Classics

Slowly, slowly, she sipped a sentence.

Category: Read in 2012

Antiquity? Modernity.

These reviews should perhaps be subtitled Why didn’t I read more classics? I feel guilty sometimes for never reading new writing, so this month I tried to even the balance. But really new books are much more hit and miss than classics: A sentence that once written seems incredibly self-evident. The two books I absolutely loved were A Change of Climate and On Chesil Beach. Maybe not surprising if you’ve read either of my previous thoughts about Hilary Mantel or Ian McEwan. Most disappointing was definitely John Saturnall’s Feast, the book not for me was NW and the one that was OK was The Greatcoat.

A Change of Climate

Yes, Hilary Mantel can do no wrong. Yes, I will now be endeavouring to read her non-historical novels. A Change of Climate is set in Norfolk, South Africa and Botswana (then Bechuanaland) and tells the story of Ralph and Anna, two non religious missionaries. Professional do-gooders are not something I’ve come across in real life, although I think more people do it than I had thought before reading this book. They begin their married life travelling from one mission post to another, eventually raising a family in a gigantic, temperamental, ramshackled old house in Norfolk. Really what the book boils down to is whether or not you can lead a good life: Can one man or woman make any real difference? Can you ever know what goes on behind closed doors? Are secrets ever worth keeping?

I can’t talk about the secret in the book because to know it before you read it would (in my opinion) completely ruin the story. But what made this book for me was what Mantel manages to achieve in all of her novels: characters. She can write characters like Tolstoy. Complete, three-dimensional, real, never unconvincing, human characters. And she doesn’t judge them. Secondly: setting. Perhaps a stupid comment to make but I’m making it nontheless: I’ve never been to South Africa or Botswana, but they felt real to me. I never read Mantel and feel like she is trying to show off how much research she has done (although there must be a lot, I think) and nor do I read it and think she’s just making stuff up. The landscapes here were amazing – and what a great contrast between Norfolk and Africa.

I’d really recommend this book because it is so original and so thought-provoking. I will think about it for a long time to come.

On Chesil Beach

This was my third Ian McEwan novel, I’ve loved all three so far, the other two being Enduring Love and Atonement. A very short novel, only five chapters, which alternate between back story and the present. It is a story about two young people on their wedding night and almost solely surrounds their inability to accurately read the other person. I agree with Nish’s review:

This book is much, much more than the sum of its parts.

Even though the book did not heavily rely on plot I didn’t expect the outcome of the story to be exactly what it was. It was kind of heart breaking in a very subtle sort of way – as I suppose any story centered around a misunderstanding is bound to be. The characters seemed true to life because in a relationship I think we do suppose the other person to understand us. Perhaps this is too modern a reading as couples in the past would maybe just not know each other as well before marrying. I think McEwan’s decision to set the novel in the 1960s is interesting because it forces him to qualify to the reader that this all before the swinging part of the sixties! He could have set it earlier just as easily, but I suppose this is to contrast with the attitudes that were about to change.

I won’t spend as long talking about the books I didn’t enjoy as much because whilst I personally didn’t like them, I wouldn’t want to deter people from reading them.

  • NW was a bit disappointing because I really like Zadie Smith. I enjoyed White Teeth and On Beauty and think she is a very intelligent woman and a talented writer. However, NW left me cold. Being a reader of the classics persuasion I often think about which new novels will be classics in the future. Whilst I think White Teeth would make a good one, being an honest portrayal of the tensions in multicultural Britain today, I think NW would be an embarrassing legacy. I thought the book was really depressing and about a culture I can neither identify with or feel any warmth for. I’m not really a city girl and I suppose I don’t agree with or value modern morality (or lack of). Whilst I think the Internet is an amazing thing, I don’t view my mobile phone as an object of intrinsic worth. So this novel about London, adultery, drugs and technology wasn’t for me. The writing however, was really good. And quite experimental – I bet she’s read Ulysses.
  • John Saturnall’s Feast should be really good. It is historical fiction set in the 1600s, has a bit of mysticism, a bit of royalty and a lot about food. Really, I like all of these things. However, I thought this book was rubbish. None of the characters are realistic, most of them are stupid, the book starts with a proper plot and then descends into predictable yet poorly executed chick-lit style romance. I’m sure this could have been really good, it just… isn’t.
  • The Greatcoat was alright – an RAF themed ghost story. The Hammer Horror label was slightly confusing because for a ghost story this was not at all scary. Not even a bit. And the comparisons to The Woman in Black were pushing it. As a short story, it is good and I was quite entertained. But I don’t think it is quite the story is markets itself as. I would, however, read more by Helen Dunmore because I think her writing might be more suited to full length novels.

In a Parade’s End update I am now onto the last of the four volumes: The Last Post. And then – where next? Definitely more classics.

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.

Reviewing July

July was a month of great books for me, but as it was also the month I went on holiday I haven’t written about any of them! This is a catch up post about some of my highlights.

A Severed Head by Iris Murdoch
This is the first book I’ve read by Iris Murdoch and I would very happily read others. This was a comedy of relationships with really great characters. Ridiculous, yes, but great.

This is Life by Dan Rhodes
READ THIS NOW! I’ve never read a book like it. A quirky adventure around Paris that all begins when Aurelie, as part of an art project, throws a stone that hits a baby. This is so original, enjoyably French, and one of the best books I’ve read in ages.

Chocolat by Joanne Harris
Why oh why did I ever wait so long before reading this? Highly, highly recommend this, especially for some holiday reading. An utterly glorious novel, set in rural France, a real feast of magic and charming characters. The little touches of magical realism are just right – never approaching outright fantasy or silliness. A warning: It is completely impossible to read without having food in the house.

The Lollipop Shoes by Joanne Harris
The second of the series is much darker, slightly bitter, when Vianne is struggling to move on from free spiritedness in order to protect her children. Called something like The Girl with No Shadow in America, this is very much like a dark fairy tale.

Peaches for Monsieur le Curé by Joanne Harris
Yes, I devoured the whole series one after another. Peaches for Monsieur le Curé feels like the real sequel to Chocolat perhaps because the story returns to Lansquenet, the setting of Chocolat. This novel is very much of today’s times – about the clashes of religion in secular France. By this point the main characters felt like old friends and I have to confess when it was over I was really depressed. What a brilliant series.

The Secret History by Donna Tartt
I can’t praise this highly enough! It was sinister and unsettling, gripping, well written, exciting… perfect, really. I was recommended it by a friend as a book to read after you have read something that changes your life, i.e. a perfect antidote to the heartbreak the comes when a truly brilliant book is over. It was great advice and I would say the same. The Secret History is such a good book to follow a great read because it is so absorbing. And brilliant in its own right. I was really unsettled at how the book convinced me  that the murder was completely logical. Read it, honestly it is brilliant.

Jules et Jim by Henri-Pierre Roche
This was a bit of an odd book. On the one hand it was about Paris in the early twentieth century (a plus) and on the other it was about three ridiculous people (slight minus). I loved Jim – said to be a character semi-autobiographically based on Roche’s own life – and I liked Jules more and more as the book went on. The object of their affections, Kate, was a different story altogether. I don’t know how either of them had the patience to put up with her. This is an unusual love triangle but I struggled to really understand both her actions and motivations for them. I don’t think relationships have to be quite as complicated as these three made them out to be! This was a quick read and enjoyable because it was so unique. It was the author’s debut novel written when he was 70 so I suppose it was bound to be different.

Trips to Sweden

I’d love to go to Sweden but seeing as that isn’t imminently on the cards I’ll have to content myself with some Swedish books: Before the Frost by Henning Mankell and The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson.

Over the last four years I’ve been working my way through the Wallander series and now I only have one left! Before the Frost is another chilling murder investigation, this time with a focus on religious extremism. The book focuses on Kurt Wallander’s daughter Linda as she joins the police force. It was interesting to see the character I feel like I’ve come to know well from another perspective, although I’ve never been particularly fond of Linda.

I’m really sad that I’ve almost come to the end of this series – I’ve just got The Troubled Man left to read. Having said that, I have heard that Henning Mankell’s non-Wallander novels are just as good and I do own copies of Depths and The Man From Beijing which I could try next.

I got into Wallander because of the BBC series with Kenneth Brannagh. The programme is on its third series, and I was pleased to find out that they are showing Before the Frost on Sunday. So it was a well-timed read! I don’t read crime fiction other than Wallander and the occasional Jo Nesbo, but I’d really recommend these. As I have said MANY times before, Mankell is an amazing writer and a master of human psychology. His criminals are often incredibly dark and disturbing, but never so far removed from humanity that you aren’t completely chilled.

If I wasn’t convinced I wanted to read The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared by the title, I certainly was by the sticker that was on the envelope containing my copy:

This wasn’t the book I was expecting it to be – it was much more (and better). This is the story of a man who escapes from his retirement home just before his hundredth birthday party. His escape, despite being at quite a low speed, is classic black comedy as he attracts all sorts of shady and eccentric characters. The story keeps flashing back to earlier parts of his life – the more I found out about the man, the more hooked I was! I don’t want to go into the plot details so much because the surprise is really what made this book for me. All in all, reading this felt like a real adventure.

Nabokov’s Daydreams

The Enchanter is a book that I really like in theory, although not quite so much in practice. In theory it is a reader’s declaration of love for her favourite writer. Lila Azam Zanganeh writes about the man she imagines Nabokov to be: Daydreaming about his marriage, hobbies, and inspirations. She gets to the heart of his writing – the language, and his philosophy – the pursuit of happiness. What let this book down was that it was a little too jumbled, an experiment of different styles is OK but this didn’t quite work. On the other hand, it was great because it is all about a reader’s admiration for their favourite author. About how you can appreciate books  outside your generation, country or even language, because they are beautiful.

What the book did convince me of was that I should read more Nabokov. I loved Lolita when I read it a few years ago, so I think I’ll start by re-reading that. From Zanganeh’s witterings about his other books the one I think I’d pick next is Ada or Ardor. And look how nice the Penguin cover is…

If you were to write a book, a love letter of sorts, to a writer, who would you pick?

The Silent Twin

A book is a door. You open it. You step through. Do you come back?

I have been meaning to read Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit for a long time. It was an experience much heightened by reading it alongside the autobiography Why be Happy When You Could Be Normal?. Oranges has always been read as a story based on Jeanette Winterson’s life, a parallel that seems unavoidable when you call your main character by your own name and give her an upbringing very similar to your own. Winterson refers to her autobiography as Oranges‘ ‘silent twin’ and I read it as a way to compare fiction with fact. I enjoyed reading the two books together and think I got much more from them than if I had read them individually. Actually, I find it hard to separate them now.

These are stories from a specific time. Accrington in the seventies sounds more like the 1940s – I thought the descriptions of daily life were completely fascinating because what was only forty years ago seems so alien now. The religious upbringing and church community had the same effect. In her Introduction to Oranges Winterson says she doesn’t agree with the assumption that women’s writing is constrained to their experiences. Whilst the story of Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit is influenced by her life, she is also quite experimental. The Bible is muddled up with  fiction, biography and altered personal history.

If I had to choose a favourite, I think I would pick Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? and not just because truth is stranger than fiction. It is written with the hindsight of age and with the freedom must have arisen from the death of her adoptive parents. I assume Winterson chose not to write or publish a memoir whilst her mother and father were alive, but perhaps this is nothing more than an assumption on my part. I think writing about what was (to outsiders at least) a cruel and unusual upbringing must have been easier when it was hidden behind the label of ‘fiction’. It must be hard to bare all when you are very likely to offend real and named family.

I also loved Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? because Jeanette Winterson is a reader. In her childhood reading represented passion and exploration. I talked about how this past fortnight has reminded me that reading is about adventure and doesn’t always have to be prescribed or studious. Reading Jeanette Winterson was well suited to this mindset:

It is not only a wild nature that we need as human beings; it is the untamed open space of our imaginations. Reading is where the wild things are.

My Best and Worst Times

It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to, than I have ever known.

Dickens was testing my faith with A Tale of Two Cities, but he didn’t let me down at the end. This was a challenging read mostly due to language. It was quite flowery, especially when you compare it to the novel Dickens wrote next – Great Expectations. I’d had a false start with this book a few months ago: I couldn’t get part the first few chapters because I couldn’t work out what was happening. I decided to give it another try after Ulysses, because it could never be as tough as that.

Dickens described A Tale of Two Cities as his best ever story and it certainly reads as such. This was the first of Dickens’ novels to make me pay attention to where the original installments begun and ended. I was glad I didn’t have to wait for the next part after all the cliffhangers. Fortunately despite his slight change in style, A Tale of Two Cities still has that magical quality of language that made Dickens’ writing so original. Two of my favourite instances are:

  • A dead man lying in his grave is described as listening to the ‘whispering trees’
  • The crowd of revolutionaries rioting are described as rising up like an angry sea

Not to mention you have two of the most famous quotes in English Literature to open and close the novel. Got a little bit tingly when I read the last line.

This book got me thinking about historical fiction: Dickens was writing about a historical event eighty or so years in the past. I think people (I do, anyway) have a tendency to assume that ‘classics’ are a product of the time they were written and that the writers are transcribing their own times. But these books are artifacts of history in their own right. So really A Tale of Two Cities is a product of how the French Revolution was viewed in the nineteenth century. I suppose it made me think about each generation since Dickens’ adding to the meaning of the book, emphasising certain parts, imagining events according to what was important to the reader in their own lives.

After struggling with this book – it was definitely a challenging one – I felt so rewarded by how it ended. I didn’t know much about the plot when I started and I’m really glad everything came as unexpected. Even when a Dickens novel is hard to read, I’d never question the value in reading it. Discovering I could enjoy Dickens is one of the highlights of my reading year so far.

Dipping My Toes Across the Pond

American classics are everywhere at the moment. Whether it is the run up to The Great Gatsby or just a matter of economics, I can’t escape seeing and hearing about great American novels from the early twentieth century.

I started reading Mrs Bridge completely by chance, when I finished reading The Odyssey sooner than expected and couldn’t bear to be left bookless! The story of Mrs Bridge caught me completely by surprise: It is a reissued classic originally published in 1959. Set in the late thirties / early forties, Mrs Bridge is an upper-middle class housewife, she has three children, hundreds of social engagements, and not enough to occupy her mind. Think Nancy Mitford, but male, American and a generation younger.

Mrs Bridge is so witty yet cuts straight to the heart of human nature – what is the point of life, how should I live and what should I do? Mrs Bridge is a slightly tragic figure: on the outside she has everything – family, friends, prosperity – but inside she is unsettled, unauthentic and unable to understand anyone different to her. She is caught in a unique period of history, trying to uphold the ideals of parents in an increasingly modern world. For example, she continually judges her daughters in terms of what she was free to do two decades earlier, and can’t understand their desire for independence.

I absolutely adored this book – I can’t believe it has been out of print – and I can’t wait for the reissue of Mr Bridge next year. There was no way I could read this and immediately pick up something too far removed, so I chose Revolutionary Road. The characters and marriages are completely different, although both books show the same kind of performance from the wealthier-than-average families: Frank and April Wheeler put just as much effort into how they appear to others – but they are determined to never be compared with the likes of Mr and Mrs Bridge.

I fell in love with Revolutionary Road four years ago. Richard Yates enchants you with his writing, only to break your heart. And I’d forgotten exactly how much heartbreak was in store for me! Again, this is a couple who could have had it all if they could ever be satisfied with their lot, they certainly work incredibly hard to make it seem like they’re extraordinarily happy, but in reality they are flawed, ordinary, shallow people.

If you have the opportunity, read both of these books, because they’re both brilliant. I think I’ve convinced myself to go for F. Scott Fitzgerald and The Rules of Civility for July.

Bloom, Odysseus, Molly and Me

I put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant.

I have journeyed through Ulysses and have lived to tell the tale! This book is nothing but filled with highs and lows. The beginning and ending of the book are amongst the best of any book I have read, but the middle was a winding, secret path full of language and styles that I couldn’t quite grasp.

Ulysses has been described as a modernist thesaurus of possibility which, I think, says it all. When I think of Modernism, I think of Joyce and Woolf striving to write individual subjective experiences. They aren’t like Austen or Eliot whose narrators understand and interpret the world for the reader. But modernism is also a break from past traditions of culture, as well as writing; sexuality, humour, frankness, city scenes, consumerism and so on. What a revolution reading this book would be, if you had never even considered the possibility of a book capturing someone’s thoughts and listening to those thoughts as they come sprawling through white noise. To be able to read a book that represented your own life.

I think what made Ulysses a scandal is the same thing that makes it readable (in parts). For every classical allusion, there is a joke. There are crude bits, bodily bits, bawdy bits, rude bits. It is frank, honest, and real. Whilst these are things today’s reader can appreciate – I suppose because we have conversations that are all of those things – early readers found the novel depressing and chaotic. I wonder what people will make of it in the future? Imagine Ulysses being quaint and outmoded!

The sentences I really loved were the descriptive ones: Joyce certainly is a master of language. I wasn’t expecting to find sentences like the ones I quoted from Telemachus in a book like this one. And I’ll just mention again how great Molly’s soliloquy is… just so you know I really mean it. IT’S WORTH IT. When I read that episode I wished there had been more of her in the book, but I don’t think the chapter would have had such an impact. It’s impossible to think of ways Ulysses would have been improved, because every little detail that I didn’t like makes the book the book it is. For example, I didn’t like some of the styles Joyce used because I found them confusing, but if you take the experimental parts away then it just wouldn’t be the same.

I would recommend reading The Odyssey first, or at least try looking into the incidents that Joyce names his episodes after. According to Joyce, Odysseus was the greatest character in literature and Charles Lamb’s Adventures of Ulysses was a massive influence. This version of The Odyssey splits the story into individual tales, much like the structure of Ulysses itself. Leopold Bloom and Odysseus are, on the surface, very different people. The absolute ordinariness of Bloom’s day – and the book – meant (I think) that any man’s day is an Odyssey. The puzzles and enigmas referred to in the book aren’t always the classical, mythological, high brow references you might think – you can look those up, after all. The puzzles and difficult parts often occur from ordinary circumstances (like the horse race that confused me so greatly). To fully understand anyone’s life, any person’s thoughts is tricky.

All in all, its been good to read a book I was afraid of. I was taken on a voyage through Dublin, through the history of language, through style and thought and description. Reading Ulysses was my very own Odyssey.