Tuesday, October 14, 2008

I Finally Gave into the Russians

Having never forayed into the world of Russian authors – aside from Nabokov’s Lolita (but then, it was written in English) – I was tempted by the new Penguin Deluxe edition of Tolstoy’s classic novel with its French flaps, pliable spine, and rough cut pages.

My sole assumption about the book was that it was the Russian Madame Bovary, a story of a young married woman named Anna who has an affair with a man named Vronsky, and upon his desertion, throws herself under a train. Kit and caboodle. This assumption was not false, but it was overly simplified. Tolstoy had much more on his mind than a simple morality tale of love and betrayal when he penned Anna Karenina, which he considered his first attempt at the novel (disregarding his magnum opus, War and Peace).

This novel has been well-read and beloved for over a century, and I doubt that I could say anything new to demonstrate my new loyalty to such a classic. But as a new devotee to Tolstoy, allow me to encourage those who haven’t been forced to read Anna Karenina in high school, to contemplate it. Let us be warned, however; the novel is 830 pages in the Penguin Deluxe edition and lacking one simple narrative arc, does demand one’s constant attention while reading. Tolstoy employs a host of characters, which are called by a variety of related names (Kitty: Katia, Katenka, Ekaterina, Katerina).

Anna Karenina is a family drama, chiefly concerning the personal lives of wealthy Russian nobles in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. Each of the eight principle characters are related to each other by birth, marriage, or some other intimate knowledge. The novel begins with the now-famous aphorism “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

The novel begins with Prince Stepan Arkadyich Oblonsky, who is at odds with his wife, Dolly, after she has discovered his love affair with the French governess. Oblonsky hopes his sister, Anna Karenina, will intercede to his wife on his behalf. Oblonsky meets Anna at a Moscow railway station, where she meets handsome Count Vronsky, who happens to be a sometime suitor of Dolly’s youngest sister Kitty. Kitty, meanwhile, has turned down her longtime friend and suitor Konstantin Levin in favor of Vronsky (who will soon abandon her for an affair with Anna). Tied in knots yet?

In contrast to Anna’s fall, the reader encounters the day-to-day life of Levin, as he tries to forget Kitty, eventually woos and marries her, and engages in the daily life of a country gentleman. He idolizes his angelically pure wife, but is not immune to Anna’s charms. As Levin is now related to Oblonsky’s side of the family, the reader is able to hear of the affair and its consequences from the outside, allowing both an intimate and estranged view of events.

Anna’s plight is compounded by her cuckolded husband who decides to freeze out and control his wife by refusing her a divorce that will allow her to find happiness with her lover. Karenin holds their son as leverage and soon falls under the influence of a pious Christian noblewoman who infects him with a righteous sense of duty to redeem his adulterous wife. As Anna has no chance to fully escape the damnation she has received at the hands of her husband and of good society, she and Vronsky, though once very much in love, turn against each other, propelling her doom.

When he began writing Anna Karenina, Tolstoy’s chief heroine was a caricatured and depraved older woman who seduces a young officer, leaving her husband as the source of the reader’s pity. As he wrote, Tolstoy began to shift his allegiance by comprehending Anna not as an aging whore, but as a young, beautiful, spirited woman, trapped between her own desires and the social mores of the day.

One would imagine the novel’s title character to be its chief protagonist, but Tolstoy’s true hero is arguably Konstantin Levin. Tolstoy’s wife Sofya recognized Lev to be a mirror of Tolstoy. Lev is a nobleman wholly caught up with ideas of farming and agricultural improvement, and though not a philosopher, is always pondering his own questions. The novel concludes, not with Anna’s death, but with avowed atheist Lev’s revelation of God and life’s purpose.

What purpose, one must wonder, does Tolstoy have in contradicting these story lines – a woman embarking on a love affair and leaving her responsibilities and good name behind her; and a sincere and overly passionate man who experiences life and learns the value of work, innovation, love, and divine revelation? Perhaps, as one source suggests, Tolstoy desires to explore human weaknesses in all forms, or perhaps he wishes to show the falseness of the individual within the context of the falseness of society. Perhaps it was simply his instincts and novelistic impulse.

A note on translators: Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky form a team that is the hot, newest commodity in terms of Russian translation, having translated the Brothers Karamozov and War and Peace. They have succeeded at not only winning the PEN/ Book-of-the-Month Club Translation prize, but at translating dead Russian authors into vital prose, and being published in attractively marketed books. Win-Win-Win! Additionally, these translators (one American, one Russian) live together in Paris. Truly a perfect life: gazing at each other over Tolstoy’s Russian manuscript in a little house in Paris covered in vines.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

It was a Dark and Stormy Night in Yorkshire

I have seen people reading Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell on airplanes for years, and decided that the autumnal Northwest provided a dark and rainy October perfect for reading Susanna Clarke’s bestseller. I was told that this book was cross between Jane Austen and a dark Harry Potter (with a bit of Cooper’s The Dark is Rising thrown in for good measure). This recommendation was not far wrong: like Jane Austen, Clarke’s book contains men in naval uniform, young women with and without inheritances, fashionable circles in Bath and London, and the importance of manners and decorum. Like Harry Potter, magic is often seen as utility, improved upon by rigorous study and practice rather than by an exploration of mysticism or divine gift. Also, like Rowling’s magical kingdom secretly inhabits the normalcy of everyday England, Clarke’s proper Georgian England is the unlikely (yet perfect) backdrop for magic of every kind.

Set during the Napoleonic Wars, the novel begins with a small circle of theoretical magicians in York, who would never practice magic, only study it (echoing Dolores Umbridge’s plot to curtail the practical elements of Hogwarts’ class of Defense Against the Dark Arts). But when a hermetic magician, Mr. Norrell, proclaims himself the only true magician in England, and desiring the return to real English magic, causes the statues in York cathedral to sing and speak, England is forced to reconsider the relevance and applicability of English Magic in the Enlightened Age. Mr. Norrell desires to aid the British in their fight against Napoleon and the French, and he is soon joined by the man who will become his pupil and ultimately his rival, Jonathan Strange. As exploratory and passionate as Mr. Norrell is cautious and stingy, the two become so divergent as their approach to magic that they reach a schism. Both magicians are haunted by the legend of the Raven King, the ultimate English magician (a Northern English Merlin and Arthur hybrid). Embarking as a charming, anecdotal by-the-fire sort of book, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell increases in intensity and darkness and spins a well-written plot designed to keep you up past your bedtime.

Clarke’s use of copious footnotes might annoy the reader, though I confess it thrills me that Clarke has embroidered Regency England to such a degree that she has conjured up fictitious sources and pseudo-historical figures. This is done so thoroughly as to cause the reader to wonder how much Clarke has created and how much she has simply adapted. The footnotes cause a constant stream of stories-within-a-story.

Ultimately, if any of the following put you off – novels the size of large bricks, reading polite conversation, words spelled in the Georgian way (eg. “shewed” for showed, “stopt” for stopped), and a cautiously progressing plot – then you had best avoid Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. But if you are thrilled by a brooding English atmosphere, quaint English names like Honeychurch and Drawlight, historical figures such as mad King George, the Duke of Wellington, and Lord Byron, strange enchantments, questions of magic and ethics, by all means embark on this novel as Halloween approaches.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Twilight Mania

So I finally gave in to Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series, a series which has spawned a huge following among teen girls, a handful of considerate boyfriends, and a few groups of dedicated mothers. This succumbing has much to do with finding wounded copies of the books in a donation pile, and a large dose of curiosity as to what makes these books so palatable to girls under eighteen. Let’s not lie; it may also have a little to do with the impending release of a movie based on the first novel, “Twilight,” starring Robert Pattison (of Harry Potter fame, “Cedric”) in the lead male role.

If you haven’t observed this national vampire obsession, look at display tables in any major bookstore. Chances are there is a prominently featured table with Meyer’s novels to catch the eye, each with arresting artwork in red, black, and white. The Twilight series was first published in 2005, and now contains four books: “Twilight”, “New Moon”, “Eclipse”, and “Breaking Dawn”, which was released August 1st at midnight. The books have become immensely popular in the manner of the Harry Potter phenomenon: fan websites, book release parties, and record-breaking sales. Meyer has been compared to Harry Potter author Rowling quite often. Rowling rose from obscurity as a single mother in Edinburgh to one of Britain’s most wealthy citizens. Meyer was a Mormon housewife who has rocketed to popularity with her gothic sagas. In the Twilight series, Meyer creates a tension-filled romance between the pale and slender Bella Swan and her immortal, godlike lover Edward Cullen, who happens to be a vampire.

Isabella Swan (Bella) moves to Forks to live with her father, a police chief. At her new high school, she makes the acquaintance of Edward Cullen, whose apparent distaste for her and exquisite good looks fill her with alternating desire and confusion. Edward and his family of beautiful outcasts quite unlike other Forks residents, and the answers are forthcoming and not disappointing. The Cullens are a coven of vampires who refuse to become monsters by attacking humans, but try to content themselves with animal prey instead. Though believing himself to be putting Bella in danger by his presence, Edward is unable to stay away from her, and the two begin their tumultuous relationship. Bella’s habit of landing in a plethora of dangerous situations (being followed by less exemplary vampires who want her blood) propels the dramatic plot.

Despite enjoying the read, my complaints against the books remain. Firstly, the characters have awkward and pretentious names (“Bella”). Secondly, the book is gushingly and poorly written in many places:

“About three things I was absolutely positive. First, Edward was a vampire. Second, there was part of him – and I didn’t know how potent that part might be – that thirsted for my blood. And third, I was unconditionally and irrevocably in love with him.”

I don’t think that YA fiction has to be poorly written in order to be accessible. C.S. Lewis wrote that one knows a children’s (or a young adult’s) book is well written if it is read by persons of any age. The Twilight’s fan base largely tends to be female teenagers, although this does have aberrations.

Thirdly, although I find that Edward is an attractive, Byronic, Rochester-like character (as any female reader might), he is often commanding and domineering, and speaks for Bella. Bella, to her credit, occasionally breaks out of her ecstatic love-induced coma to mention to Edward that “I can’t always be Lois Lane…I want to be Superman, too.”

On the positive side, the Twilight series has a heroin-like plot which hooks the reader. I was up until the early hours of the morning wading through the first book. Stephanie Meyer may not be Murakami, but she can craft a brisk plot and many consider her to be giving J.K. Rowling a run for her money. Also, as a new resident of the Northwest, I am rather partial to the series’ setting in Forks, Washington, allegedly the rainiest location in the United States.

Edward’s pseudo-erotic desire to drink Bella’s blood is a question of concern. The theme of desire makes up a very large part of the novel’s premise: Bella has an insatiable desire for Edward’s touch, Edward has an insatiable desire for Bella’s blood, and neither of these themes seem to be suitable for the ten year girls to whom I have sold “Twilight.”

Parents might be glad to have their daughters reading, but I would much rather hand them Rowling’s books instead of Meyer’s. The Harry Potter series appeals to children of both sexes and multiple ages, and addresses timeless themes of loyalty, greed, death, and the complex moral issues involved in the battle between good and evil.

If you like a brisk, compelling plot, tend towards tales of eternal love and damnation, or want to know more about the most recent national best-seller craze, you might as well try “Twilight” before the movie comes out.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

"Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day" by Winifred Watson

Winifred Watson had never been to a nightclub in her life. Yet, from her pen came the 1938 Cinderella story of a dowdy British governess who by chance appointment discovers the glamorous dazzling nightlife of London, and in the process, herself. Accustomed to reading Watson’s provincial historical romances, Watson’s fans were surprised when she spun a tale of cocktails, cocaine, and jazz singers.

Miss Pettigrew is a woman who is on her last stretch, one step away from financial and emotional bankruptcy. Her final hope is an appointment with a Miss LaFosse, a beauty and jazz singer in negligee. Miss LaFosse instantly recruits Miss Pettigrew to help manage the string of lovers that weave in and out of her boudoir: Phil, Nick (a devilish Lothario who enslaves Miss LaFosse’s affections), and Michael (an intemperate man wishing to marry the beautiful singer). Due to Miss LaFosse’s quick affection and confidence in Miss Pettigrew’s talents, Miss Pettigrew finds herself able to see herself as more than a lonely woman past her prime, and exchange her poor self-esteem and maiden-aunt moralizations for a sudden ring of friends, affirmation, and even love.

Any review I write will inevitably spoil the freshness of this book. The development of Miss Pettigrew’s self-confidence over a single day is charming and inspiring. I only wish I could hug Guinevere Pettigrew, and doubt that the 2008 movie adaptation will stand up to the endearing characterizations Watson sketches.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

A Detour from the Booker

Trenton Lee Stewart seems unafraid to pick up a few children’s lit archetypes in his book “The Mysterious Benedict Society”: four remarkable and lovable children (albeit one slightly less lovable than the others), missing parental figures, the kind male guardian, the boarding house/ evil school scenario, and themes of mind control and world domination. But within the archetypes, Stewart creates his own brand of magic. One becomes fond of Reynie Muldoon’s human perception, Sticky Washington’s nervous glasses cleaning habit, Constance Contraire’s irritability (can you guess the reason for this?), and Kate Wetherall’s acrobatic maneuvering and endlessly helpful red bucket.

The intelligent writing, Carson Ellis’s charming illustrations, presence of narcolepsy, the in-text puzzles, and memorable characters like Kate Wetherall make this book a must-read for those interested in children’s lit. As soon as I finished the book, I ran out to buy the sequel.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

An explanation as to why I’m reading the Man-Booker Prize winners:

It was a gradual and growing idea idea: I thought one of my bookselling co-workers had said that he had read Man-Booker prize winners, and as I saw copies of the winners flow in and out of the store inventory, I began to fondle them and set them aside. As I considered it, it seemed like more and more of a good idea.

Several reasons come to mind:

1. My love of British literature: I am curious about what had been proclaimed the best of British (and Commonwealth) literature in the second half of the twentieth century and into the new millennium.

2. As a citizen of a Commonwealth country, I was interested in the works of South Africa’s prizewinning authors, J.M. Coetzee and Nadine Gordimer.

3. A chance to read fiction from all over the world (The old empire: New Zealand, Australia, Ireland, India, Egypt etc.)

4. The Man-Booker Prize is an easier target than the Nobel Prize winners, which are received for a consistent work contribution. This would be difficult to choose one work for which these authors were known.

5. I am an Anglophile. I was more interested in Booker prizewinners than Pulitzer prizewinners.

6. It has only been given since 1969: much shorter a lineage than the Pulitzer or the Nobel Prizes.

So far I have noticed two emphases: India and the ocean. Some might suggest the lack of plot development. I plan to document any other observations and links I find. Hopefully I shall finish all 41 books by the end of September when the shortlist for 2008 is released. I would like to have identified similarities in past winners and try and predict this year’s winner, though this is difficult as the committee changes yearly. Bon voyage!

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

"The Sea" by John Banville

Winner of the 2005 Man-Booker Prize, number 39 in a line of 41 books to read (non-consecutively), The Sea reminds one of Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, for all-too-obvious reasons, perhaps. The overwhelming presence of the sea, the prominent place of an attractive mother-goddess (Mrs. Ramsay/ Mrs. Grace), themes of youth, memory, transience, and mortality.

Protagonist Max Morden is a recent widower, having lost his wife, Anna, to cancer. He has retreated to the seaside town where he spent summers as a child, staying in a house which once was the home of the Graces, a family which he idolized as the “gods” in his youth. The narrative switches between the present experience of staying at the seaside; to the recent past, where Max remembers Anna’s gradual descent and death; and his childhood, his experience with the Graces – in particular the children: Chloe, his cruel sometime-girlfriend, and Myles, her mute twin brother.

Critics of the book may accuse the novel of being boring or limited in terms of action. True, there is not a strong emphasis on plot and dialogue, but rather on philosophical musings. It is the poetry of the text which takes precedence. Reviewers (Christian Science Monitor; Sunday Telegraph) compared Banville to Vladimir Nabokov in terms of his precisely worded sentences. Banville’s prose is strangely captivating: he is able to ensnare the pull and release of the ocean in his sentences (“…in a sort of driving heave, the whole sea surged, it was not a wave, but a smooth rolling swell that seemed to come up from the deeps, as if something vast down there had stirred itself…”).

The Philadelphia Inquirer recommends that the novel should be heard, not simply read, and I am inclined to agree.

Monday, July 14, 2008

"The Virgin Suicides" by Jeffrey Eugenides

Before the acclaim of Middlesex and My Mistress’s Sparrow is Dead, Jeffrey Eugenides published his debut novel, The Virgin Suicides (1993). An homage to the five Lisbon girls from the boys of the neighborhood (the ubiquitous “we”), the Virgin Suicides is a voyeuristic shrine to unfulfilled love and the decay of young life.

As opposed to Middlesex, where words were spawned as often as generations, Eugenides conserves his words to create a sculpted landscape of images. His careful choice of syntax creates a hazy atmosphere in which the hot days of summer seem to linger, and the amber glow of the seventies has not yet dimmed.

The adoration of the Lisbon daughters begins by a conceptualization of all five girls – Therese, Bonnie, Mary, Lux and Cecilia – as a “mythical creature with ten legs and five heads,” which only later develops into five characters. The neighborhood boys, not allowed to step into the Lisbon household, have to rely on imagination, surveillance, and the words of those lucky enough to find a way into the house to conceptualize “the effluvia of so many young girls becoming women together in the same cramped space.” Sightings of crucifixes draped with bras, and the moist smell of young women pervade: Eugenides convinces the reader that we too are seeing and smelling and hearing the sounds of the Lisbon girls.

The family consists of Mrs. Lisbon (iron-fisted, Catholic); Mr. Lisbon (passive; high-voiced); Therese and Mary, “tight-lipped, tight-assed”; Bonnie, who is religious and wears a hair-shirt; Lux, the promiscuous “carnal angel”, the pinnacle of the Lisbon sisters who makes love to strangers on the roof at night; and Cecilia, who is characterized by her strangeness, her placid eyes, and the faded vintage wedding dress she always wears. Cecilia, thirteen, has not much time to develop. She attempts suicide on the first page and fails, only to succeed later by jumping out of the window and impaling herself on the fence.

Cecilia’s death is compared by the neighborhood boys to a contagious flu. The remaining girls waste away, locked inside their coffin-like house. All love and attention seems to vanish; the house disintegrates; everything is inflected by a sense of ennui and rot. The community is almost waiting for the other Lisbon girls to join their sister in death. They are not disappointed: the reader is informed from the first sentence that all five girls are to go.

It is a story pieced together from obsessive memories, gossip, by interviews assumedly conducted long after the Lisbon girls are dead, pieces of stolen mail, glimpses of diaries, long-term espionage, and a sort of teenage telepathy.

Haunting and poignant, the Virgin Suicides present a stack of fading pictures that pay tribute to the mysterious deaths of five girls locked away from sunshine, health and true affection. But more so, it is about the boys who loved them, the boys who watched them, and who now, middle-aged and pot-bellied, remember them to save them.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

A Tribute - in honor of reading my first Hemingway novel (and liking it)

Penningway, Remingway
Ernest M. Hemingway
Created a style so
Terse and precise

I started quite late with
The-Sun-Also-Rises -
So aw’fully behind -
(But the writing’s quite nice!)

Thursday, July 3, 2008

"Possession: A Romance" by A.S. Byatt

I attempted to read Possession my junior year of college. It was a whim: it was a large, appropriately dusty, tome of a book whose Pre-Raphelite front cover appealed to my sometime attraction to Victoriana. It was far too literary for me then; Byatt’s prose is capable of holding one at a distance and freezing one out. As part of my resolution to read all winners of the Man-Booker Prize, I decided to try again.

The novel centers on two twentieth-century literary scholars, Roland Michell and Dr. Maud Bailey, who uncover a secret romance between two relatively obscure Victorian poets (their academic specialties), Randolph Henry Ash and Christobel LaMotte. Trying to stay one step ahead of unscrupulous scholars and academic rivals, Roland and Maud find the seductive call of curiosity a stronger force than responsible, methodical scholarship. The lust for discovery and the poets’ paraphernalia cause the quest for truth to be conducted in secrecy and care. Though originally an awkward couple – Roland a passive, hesitant modern male and Maud a beautiful but frigid feminist – as they trace the development of Ash and LaMotte’s relationship, the protagonists find themselves similarly drawn together.

Possession is an overwhelming, exhaustive literary masterpiece. Part novel, part poetry anthology, part literary criticism, and part biography, the book is salted liberally with myth, mysticism, folk tales, legends, biology, questions of religion, science, feminism, sexuality, semiotics, metaphorical allusions, and poetry. Byatt’s strengths lie on her exhaustive knowledge and thorough research, and her own impeccable poetry. She has a gift for calling Tennyson, Browning, Dickinson and Rossetti to mind in the work of her fictitious poets, sprinkling epigrams and stanzas from their respective works throughout her novel. Byatt shows herself to be the mistress of the modern novel, as well as master of hyper-intelligent prose, dialogue and evocative epic poetry.

I’d recommend this book to anyone who misses the library, the English classroom, and invigorating literary discussions during the summer months.

Monday, June 9, 2008

"Good Morning, Midnight" by Jean Rhys

Never read Jean Rhys if you are unemployed and tend to overspend on late night visits to cafés. It tends to make you feel as though you are spiraling into depression, are old beyond your years, will never have money again, and despise the nature of humanity.
Published in 1938, the book chronicles the thoughts and habits of Sasha Jenkins, an Englishwoman (“L’Anglaise”) who has returned to Paris. She is poor, but spends her days revisiting old cafés, drinking, making casual – and disappointing – acquaintances. A woman obsessed with finding enough money to live comfortably on, she stoops to embarrassing lengths and rails against those who debase her.

Given a colour, this novel would be grey. Sentences now and then remind the reader that this is the grey that follows World War I, shortly before the Second World War and the subsequent French occupation. Life is meaningless, everyone is poor and grasping, youth is short and the devil is laughing.

Partially, one feels sorry for Sasha, regrets her sad history and the dismal world in Paris. The other part of me wants to kick her. Why doesn’t she go into the vital French countryside, and learn how to bake bread and grow vegetables? Perhaps if she removes herself from the influence of the city and her own self pity, she will be able to recover.

The most uncomfortable part of this book is how one can see the author painted on every page; the poverty, and the drinking. Jean Rhys’s heroines were often based on herself, and her books born out of her journals. This book is one of her earlier works. It will be nearly thirty years before she publishes her masterpiece, Wide Sargasso Sea, and finally earns the acclaim she deserved.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

A Word on Ulysses

It looks so tempting: a large, fat, pliable book. The pages are soft, the font is just right; if you carry it around with you, you can wear the term “literary” like a badge on your hat. (Warning: if you are not smart enough, you may have to log on to wikipedia to understand that there are indeed eighteen episodes which are supposed to correspond with The Odyssey. You may have to debase yourself further by reading the explanations and the sketches of what those episodes are trying to chronicle.)

To my credit, I finished the last third of the book on a turbulence-filled plane ride sandwiched between my mother and an unhappy man who was invading the demarcations the barrier between his seat and mine had delineated.

It has become my subsequent goal to read Joyce’s Ulysses at least once every five – or ten – years, and perhaps by the time that I am forty-five I will be able to discern the exact narrative arc and the Circe episode won’t scare me, and eventually I will love it, and throw obtuse references to everyone who asks me. People will ask “Did you like Ulysses?” and I will gush: “I loved it. James Joyce and I – our souls are connected.”

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

"The Green Knight" by Iris Murdoch

Though I have recently taken to buying and reading books that I feel ought to be read for a firm foundation (Woolf, Joyce, Coetzee), I arbitrarily found The Green Knight in a well-ordered used bookstore in downtown Seattle. Something about the cover, the way the book felt, and the kinship to the Byatt I had just re-shelved, caused me to buy it. Reading the Green Knight has been like being immersed in a well of exhaustive emotions, ideas and characters. Focusing on issues like sex, religion (both Western and Eastern), morals and ethics, and deception, it gradually draws the reader in to a web.

Murdoch’s dense plot and characterization pays tribute to the great novels of the past – Dickens, James, the Russian authors. There are at least eleven or twelve significant characters, including a dog. The novel, published in 1993, is set in London and introduces Louise, a widow, and her three remarkable children: Aleph (Alethia), Sefton (Sophia), and Moy (Moira). Aleph is the beauty and a scholar of English literature; Sefton is the historian; and Moy is not an intellectual but “clever in her own way,” having a deep sense of earthy mysticism and artistry. Louise’s friend Joan is lonely and strung-out, the mother of Harvey, a handsome scholastic youth who has injured his foot in Italy and is experiencing great insecurities as a result. Louise and Joan’s good friends are equally significant and pivotal: Bellamy has rid himself of all earthly possessions (including his beloved dog, Anax, who goes to Moy) in order to prepare himself for the monastic life. Lucas is a cruel, emotionally distant professor and Clement, his brother, in love with Louise, is an actor. All is complicated when a mysterious Russian Jew named Peter Mir arrives desiring justice and retribution in response to a recent incident that involves both Lucas and Clement.

Murdoch’s omniscient narrative voice enables her to rotate and jump, eye-like, between characters and scenes. Her frequent use of italics for vocal stress satiates the novel with expression. The cast of characters are needy, obsessive and display great signs of instability. These characters are intellectual, emotional, changeable, and able to eloquently express themselves even in the midst of turmoil. This is a necessary device in the context of the book, but a little unbelievable as a reflection of reality.
Aside for a few cultural references (a nineties attitude towards homosexuality, for example), the assemblage of characters and the events which transpire could have occurred during the Belle Epoque, or in the middle of the Twentieth Century. Time only lightly anchors the events.

The conclusion is slightly spoiled by a trio of quick romantic pairings. I feel as though the novel should have ended with Peter Mir, but the ending does bring a bookend. Though the action is propelled by introducing Peter Mir, the book truly begins and ends with Louise and her children.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

I am a person who needs two things in order to deal with the world and its inhabitants well. First, a certain amount of time and space to myself; and second, fresh reading material. Because I read too quickly, I often miss the richer elements of the books I'm reading and have found it to be a valuable practice to reflect on the books and my response to them in writing.

Well, that sounds pompous. Let me rephrase: hello, this is my reading journal.