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Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Reading Virginia Woolf: The Waves

The Waves is Woolf at her most unreachable, Woolf transmitting her highest art. Consequently it is also Woolf at her hardest to read, and as a person who generally likes to guzzle books down taking the time to give credit to Woolf’s great work was difficult. Yet worthwhile, I think. Very worthwhile.

The Waves follows the lives of six people: Bernard, Neville, Louis, Susan, Jinny and Rhoda, starting at their childhood in the nursery school they went to together and following them to their deaths. There is a seventh person, the silent Percival, who I will get to later. Their stories are told in blocks of perspective: Bernard speaks, Susan speaks, Louis speaks and so on, and this is the only perspective we receive barring the interludes between chapters in which the waves, the scenery, the time of day are described, forming a frame through which we view the passage of time. Yet the waves do not change.

To understand the challenge of The Waves, I think it’s best to allow the book to speak for itself. From the beginning:

“’Stones are cold to my feet,’ said Neville. ‘I feel each one, round or pointed, separately.’
‘The back of my hand burns,’ said Jinny, ‘but the palm is clammy and damp with dew.’
‘Now the cock crows like a spurt of hard, red water in the white tide,’ said Bernard.
‘Birds are singling up and down and in and out all round us,’ said Susan.
‘The beast stamps; the elephant with its foot chained; the great brute on the beach stamps,’ said Louis.
‘Look at the house, said Jinny, ‘with all its windows white with blinds.’
‘Cold water begins to run from the scullery tap,’ said Rhoda, ‘over the mackerel in the bowl.’

The initial part of The Waves is brief and choppy in that way, though later in the book each character is given greater space to speak and at this point I began to find it much easier to read. At this point, also, each character started to resolve into a distinct personality and it is testament to Woolf’s skill at characterisation that with so brief a remit she can draw something distinct from each character. I started to see how each resolved into a kind of conflict: Bernard and his ‘phrases’ whose personality was changeable and existed only through and in the presence of others; Louis who could never forget his origins, who felt he didn’t ‘fit in’, who wanted to expunge his history with another, more noble origin; Neville who was sharp, who was true and somehow unforgiving, who loved one only (Percival); Susan who is of the earth, a person rooted in land and property; Jinny who is of the body, who is immediate and quick and of the moment; Rhoda who is uncertain who she is, who desires to be invisible, to be not herself, who finds being a challenge and a constant conflict of fear. There is a sense here and throughout the book that Woolf is exploring herself, exploring the nature of identity, what separates and unites us, how we are made and unmade by the perspective of others who surround us. Of all Woolf’s works I have read so far, this is the one in which Woolf the woman is most heavily present. You get the sense, almost, that you are exploring her mind, exploring her questing and imagining, her questions about the nature of who and what she is.

In some respects Woolf presents this quite openly. Here, it seems Woolf addresses criticism of her work in which plot is often notably absent:

“But then Rhoda, or it may be Louis, some fasting and anguished spirit, passes through and out again. They want a plot, do they? They want a reason? It is not enough for them, this ordinary scene. It is not enough to wait for the thing to be said as if it were written; to see the sentence lay its dab of clay precisely on the right place, making character; to perceive, suddenly, some group in outline against the sky. Yet if they want violence, I have seen death and murder and suicide all in one room. One comes in, one goes out. There are sobs on the staircase. I have heard threads broken and knots tied and the quiet stitching of white cambric going on and on on the knees of a woman.”

Here, through Rhoda, she appears to explore the difficulties of being trapped in society life:

“’Oh, life, how I have dreaded you,’ said Rhoda, ‘oh human beings how I have hated you! How you have nudged, how you have interrupted, how hideous you have looked in Oxford Street, how squalid sitting opposite each other staring in the Tube! Now as I climb this mountain, from the top of which I shall see Africa, my mind is printed with brown-paper parcels and your faces. I have been stained by you and corrupted. You smell so unpleasant too, lining up outside doors to buy tickets. All were dressed in indeterminate shades of grey and brown, never even a blue feather pinned to a hat. None had the courage to be one thing rather than another. What dissolution of the soul you demanded in order to get through one day, what lies, bowing, scrapings, fluency and servility! How you chained me to one spot, one hour, one chair and sat yourself down opposite! How you snatched from me the white spaces that lie between hour and hour and rolled them into dirty pellets and tossed them into the wastepaper basket with your greasy paws. Yet those were my life.”

Then there is the enigmatic Percival. Percival never speaks for himself in The Waves, though he appears to be the pivotal point around which the others circle. Percival is loved by all, envied by some. Neville is evidently in love with Percival. Percival loves Susan, yet she refuses him. Percival is a hero who dies an un-heroic death at the age of twenty-five, falling from his horse in India. His death is a shockwave to the others, having invested Percival with all their expectations. And yet Percival never has real presence or weight in the book, we never really see nor hear him. We only know of his influence and the impact of his passing. It is an interesting approach, perhaps taking the premise of Jacob’s Room even further by denying Percival any voice at all.

It is an interesting book, The Waves. There is so much to say about it that I simply don’t have the space to get into here. Its style is unusual, it is the most inaccessible of Woolf’s books (so far) and yet it is the most thought-provoking and the most beautiful. It is so stunningly written, it is pure poetry from start to finish. It is a book to read slowly and to savour, a book to return to, to read in short bursts and then over again. It is framed by the concept of waves, it has a wave-like structure and a wave-like rhythm to its words. The protagonists speak in waves and then disappear. It was interesting, also, to see the appearance and re-appearance of the motif of the moth, as Woolf started the book as ‘The Moths’ and then changed it later, yet didn’t remove the concept entirely. Moths, waves: the idea runs through the book of something beating, something flowing forwards and backwards, sending ripples out into the world. It certainly creates ripples, ones which I need time and repetition to confront and understand.

It would be wrong to say I loved this book. I didn’t love it; I found it hard to read, exhausting at times. Yet it is beautifully written, thought-provoking and inspiring. I appreciate the artistry that has gone into its making and I know it is a book I will return to when I am better able to read slowly and absorb all of its wisdom. It is a wise book, it is explorative, it presents a lot of questions around being and identity which I don’t think it answers but prompts the reader to similarly question. It is pure poetry, and like poetry it takes time to absorb, it is something to be read, re-read and unpicked slowly. It is not a book to be swallowed down in great gulps, it takes patience though I think it rewards in equal measure. It is a book to be scribbled on and scribbled over in great quantity, and I cannot do it justice here. One must simply read it, and then again in ten years time read it again. A book for all time, and a great work of art. Whether or not you enjoy the book, I think you have to respect it. And I do.

The Waves receives a thought-provoked 9 out of 10 Biis.

Sunday, 28 December 2014

Lila by Marilynne Robinson

Marilynne Robinson isn’t a prolific writer, but she is a great one. Her latest offering, Lila, continues her exploration of the fictional town of Gilead, focusing this time on the wife of the Reverend John Ames. Lila appeared as a side character in both Home and, in a more prominent position, in Gilead so it was lovely to return to her here and discover her perspective. In fact I think this is the most beautiful, most stirring and poignant book of the three.

Lila’s story is filled with loneliness and absence. From the beginning, Lila has been rejected, cast out, as we learn in the opening sequence:

“The child was just there on the stoop in the dark, hugging herself against the cold, all cried out and nearly sleeping. She couldn’t holler anymore and they didn’t hear her anyway, or they might and that would make things worse. Somebody had shouted, Shut that thing up or I’ll do it! and then a woman grabbed her out from under the table by her arm and pushed her out onto the stoop and shut the door and the cats went under the house. They wouldn’t let her near them anymore because she picked them up by their tails sometimes. Her arms were all over scratches, and the scratches stung. She had crawled under the house to find the cats, but even when she did catch one in her hands it struggled harder the harder she held onto it and it bit her so she let it go. Why you keep pounding on that screen door? Nobody gonna want you around if you act like that. And then the door closed again, and after a while night came.”

The child Lila is taken up by a woman named Doll, who wraps her in a shawl and rescues her. It’s apparent that Doll’s actions save Lila’s life, but from that point they live on the road as Doll avoids Lila’s family who, unbeknownst to Lila, keep following after them, less bothered about the child than the insult to their honour of Doll taking her.

The story is told in a series of recollections. At the point we meet Lila the woman she is married to the Reverend John Ames, a man much older than she is, and expecting a child. Doll, who was like a mother to Lila, is long gone. Lila who had lived her life on the road, who had worked for a period in a whorehouse, struggles with trust and is constantly on her guard for the time when the Reverend will cast her out, as others have, preparing herself to make the next move out of this town where people know too much about her and report on her every move. But the Reverend loves her (if you’ve read Gilead you will know this) and slowly Lila moves towards an acceptance of her new life.

As always there is a religious element to the story. John Ames is a religious man (not surprisingly, given he’s a Reverend) and has lived in a religious family his whole life. Lila comes to him a vagrant, an untrusting (and perhaps untrustworthy, though I think it is quite apparent how trustworthy she is) woman, a whore, a woman who doesn’t enter churches for fear she’ll be ripped off. An un-baptised woman, who the Reverend baptises and then spends considerable effort trying to wash the baptism off. Through Lila we see the church, the Bible, its rituals and beliefs through a more naturalistic point of view. Lila is horrified at the idea that Doll and the others from her wandering family won’t be waiting for her in heaven because in their ignorance they were not baptised. Yet at the same time she reads the Bible and find her life in it, albeit in the most unlikely seeming places.

There’s a lot to take in, yet it is easy because Lila is so beautifully, so honestly written. The voice throughout the book is extremely authentic, you really feel like you are listening to Lila relay her story. She is an astonishing character. She is honest, kind and unfettered by convention. She believes in love, yet has experienced it so little. She craves it to the point that she imagines stealing the child of a fellow prostitute once it’s born, as she was once stolen. Her plans are subverted and yet, in the end, she has a child of her own. The presence of this child forces her to confront her lack of trust, her inability to take root. Much of her story centres around the idea of the lost child, as she describes here when reflecting on a time when a woman (albeit kindly) mistakenly believed she’d had an illegal abortion and offered to help her:

“She’d been thinking about herself hiding that filthy dress under her coat the best she could, all sweaty even out in the cold, knowing anybody who saw her would think what that woman did. Guilty of the saddest crime there is. Nobody surprised to know she had that scrap of paper in her pocket. Old shame falling to her when it had been worn to rags by so many women before her. She could almost forget that the shame wasn’t really hers at all, any more than any child was hers, not even a child cast out and weltering in its blood, God bless it. Well, that was a way of speaking she had picked up from the old man. It let you imagine you could comfort someone you couldn’t comfort at all, a child that never even had an existence to begin with. God bless it. She hoped it would have broken her heart if she had done what that woman thought she had, but she was hard in those days. Maybe not so hard that she wouldn’t have left it on a church step. How did that woman know it wasn’t back at her room, bundled in a towel and crying for her, waiting for her voice and her smell, her breast? The sound of her heart. God bless it. And she so desperate to give it comfort, aching to. Frightened for it, just the sight of so much yearning reddening a little body, darkening its fact almost blue. Maybe that was weltering.”

It is a beautiful story, humane and thoughtful. It is similar, in many ways, to my favourite of Robinson’s works, Housekeeping, which explores the issue of vagrancy in more depth, though more coldly. Yet Lila is such a warm book, it is honest and true, it asks us to think about the nature of religion and how it applies to the innocent, those not touched by church teaching or doctrine. It asks us to think about the nature of compassion, about the idea of sin (original and not). It asks us to think about judgement and what that means. Lila doesn’t judge. She is compassionate. She is distrustful yet honest. She tries not to tell lies, even when telling the truth feels like a lie. She is uneducated, but that doesn’t make her unknowing. She is the outcast who comes back into the fold through the love of a sinner and a man of the church. It is an unlikely story, stunningly told. A beautiful, soulful book.

Lila receives an open-hearted 9 out of 10 Biis. 

Sunday, 21 December 2014

In Praise of Messy Lives by Katie Roiphe

In Praise of Messy Lives was a book I hadn’t heard of and probably wouldn’t have bought had I not received a copy from Canongate as part of their ‘handpicked’ initiative in which if you bought one book from Canongate they would handpick another for you. In my case I picked a copy of A Field Guide to Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit, which I’ve wanted to read for some time, and alongside it I received a wonderfully thoughtful postcard from Louise at Canongate and a copy of this book.

There will be, no doubt, many American readers of this blog that have heard of Katie Roiphe, but she was a complete unknown to me so I just started reading. Then I read some more, and some more. In Praise of Messy Lives is a collection of essays, loosely centred around the theme of ‘messy lives’, selling the benefit of living less than perfectly. It’s an interesting theme, and Katie Roiphe has a strong voice, an interesting perspective and a perceptive outlook. I can imagine it is a voice that people would quite strongly disagree with, and I suspect, also, that there are elements of me that Roiphe was arguing quite vociferously against. Yet this, for me, made it a refreshing and insightful read.

The book is split into 3 sections which organise the essays around 3 core themes: Life & Times, Book and The Way We Live Now. Each section offers a range of perspectives from the behaviour of others following a divorce, views on single parenting, the life of Jane Austen, the great American writers: Updike, Roth and Bellow; Facebook (or Fakebook, which is a great name for it I think), angry commentators and sadomasochism. Roiphe’s themes, I should point out, are not for the faint hearted. She is challenging, intelligent and unforgiving. Like here where she talks about helicopter parenting in the essay ‘The Child is King’:

“In discussing the disheartening toll babies take on relationships, Badinter writers, ‘A mother cannot allow herself to be consumed by her baby to the point of destroying her desires as a woman.’ It occurs to me that in some sense, many of the mothers she is talking about are using their children as an escape from the imperatives of romantic life. This elevation and fetishisation of the child over the parent’s private life is perhaps not always the cause of unhappiness, but rather it may be some sort of escape from the pressure to be happy, some flight from the demands of romantic connection. If the child is overwhelmingly central to family life, in all of the much discussed, anti-romantic ways, then you are delivered from the demands of true intimacy, at least for a while; it’s a reprieve from the expectation of romantic happiness, which can, of course, be exhausting.”

I think she’s got a point. There are lots of challenging views on Roiphe’s book, and I use the word challenging too often here, which makes her sound like a harridan, yet I think I would very much enjoy the sharpness of her insight and wit, the way in which she picks words apart, the ways in which social riskiness has become even more difficult and the ‘enlightened’ way to live casts an oppressive shadow over otherwise perfectly responsible people. I found much in Roiphe’s essays humorous and perceptive, and I enjoyed the way she forced me to reconsider some of the way in which I live ‘safely’ and consequently deny myself a more rich and varied existence. I think, somehow, this was a book I really needed to read.

What Roiphe exposes across the body of her essays is how much of people’s behaviour is driven by image presentation and cliché, that true insight and honesty are rare. People play up to a role, and fear stepping outside of it. Yet they reveal themselves through use of language, through their ‘concerns’ and interactions. I loved the way Roiphe explains her experience after she and her husband split up, from her essay ‘The Great Escape’:

“One does have to wonder about the prurient hunger for unhappy detail. Is there an imperative for certain married people to believe that anyone existing outside of the institution of marriage must be suffering? Does the imperative, perhaps, have something to do with their own discontents? (The happily married couples I know are noticeably less invested in the idea that I am suffering some form of collapse. Warwick Deeping, a novelist of the twenties, observed, ‘Those who have made a success of marriage can be gentler to the failures.’) I have noticed the couples most interested in the grand tour of my tragedy are often in couples therapy. They are often in that phase where they hire a babysitter once a week so that they can sit across from each other at a restaurant and distract themselves from the vast distance, the dullness, that has risen up between them with the bustle of menus and waiters. For whatever reason, it is extremely important for these couples to believe that once you are outside of marriage, you have fallen into the abyss. Furthermore, they are extremely interested in watching you, limbs flailing, as you are falling. But what if you, say, refuse to fall?
I begin to notice that when I am a little bit happy, there is nearly always someone there to tell me that I should be serious. That I should be focusing on my situation. That I should be worrying about my child. There is nearly always someone to deftly reel any subject I have ranged onto back to the question of whether my daughter is okay. I am, of course, always ready to worry about whether she is okay. But I wonder if it is truly in her best interest to embrace the philosophy of perpetual worry people seem to be encouraging. Wouldn’t it be better to take her to the zoo?”

I loved this book, I loved its piercing voice, it’s unwillingness to be humble or uncertain, the way in which it shone a light on things that people don’t want to talk about, ripping a hole through life’s daily clichés. I didn’t agree with everything in there, but I don’t think Roiphe cares too much about that. What she does care about is writing clearly, perceptively and honestly. Her sentences are not baggy, they’re not weak. She is brilliant, daring and unflinching. I think she is a person who not only accepts criticism but takes it gracefully, and yet I think I’d be fearful of criticising in case she turned that unflinching gaze on me. Somehow I think I’d be the better for it, and the conversation would be amazing.  

In Praise of Messy Lives receives a respectful 9 out of 10 Biis. A thoroughly enjoyable read.

Many thanks to Canongate books, Louise especially, for the excellent choice. 

Sunday, 14 December 2014

Reading Virginia Woolf: Orlando

Earlier this year I was lucky enough to see the Royal Exchange Theatre (Manchester, UK) production of Orlando, starring Suranne Jones. It was a strange encounter. I was already familiar with the story, having read Orlando a number of years ago. It was a strange experience all the same. The story was narrated and acted, which created an unusual resonance, an off-tone which was somewhat distracting. Yet it was beautiful, at times compelling to the point of tears, and Suranne Jones leaped miles in my estimation as her performance was nuanced, gentle and brutal. I left the theatre unsure how I’d felt about the production. The story is magnificent, the delivery somewhat unsettling. I think this is a fair summation of how I feel about the book too.

It is, perhaps, unfortunate that my two initial introductions to Woolf – Mrs Dalloway and Orlando – put me off re-reading Woolf for some time, and in the course of my reading so far these remain the two that I feel most ambivalent and conflicted about. Orlando is probably what you would describe as exactly my kind of story. It confronts issues of gender, of the female ‘role’, it spans centuries of history, it has levity and adventure. There’s a lot to recommend it. Yet, again, I found myself struggling through it. I’m not entirely sure why.

The premise of Orlando is that Orlando, a boy, is born in the Elizabethan era. He is born into a wealthy aristocratic household and is fortunate to be taken under the tutelage of the Queen. Orlando the boy has numbers of adventures and encounters, until circumstances lead him to take a position as Ambassador in Constantinople. Here, in the throws of revolution, Orlando sleeps and sleeps and wakes one morning having become a woman. From that point on Orlando lives through the following centuries as a woman, landing in the ‘present’ in the end. It is an interesting premise.

That Orlando confronts the question of gender is quite obvious from the subject matter, and it is enables Woolf to use the text as a vehicle for exploring male and female roles though I think she manages to do this without it being a sledgehammer approach (though perhaps I’m biased there, I don’t know). For example here where Orlando approaches England for the first time as a woman and starts to realise what this will mean for her:

“She remembered how, as a young man, she had insisted that women must be obedient, chaste, scented and exquisitely apparelled. ‘Now I shall have to pay in my own person for those desires,’ she reflected; ‘for women are not (judging by my own short experience of the sex) obedient, chaste, scented and exquisitely apparelled by nature. They can only attain these graces, without which they may enjoy none of the delights of life, by the most tedious discipline. There’s the hairdressing,’ she thought, ‘that alone will take an hour of my morning; there’s looking in the looking-glass, another hour; there’s staying and lacing’ there’s washing and powdering; there’s changing from silk to lace and from lace to paduasoy; there’s being chaste year in year out…’ Here she tossed her foot impatiently, and showed an inch or two of calf. A sailor on the mast, who happened to look down at the moment, started so violently that he missed his footing and only saved himself by the skin of his teeth. ‘If the sight of my ankles means death to an honest fellow who no doubt has a wide and family to support, I must, in all humanity, keep them covered,’ Orlando thought. Yet her legs were amongst her chiefest beauties. An she fell to thinking what an odd pass we have come to when a woman’s beauty has to be kept covered lest a sailor may fall from a mast head. ‘A pox on them!’ she said, realising for the first time what, in other circumstances, she would have been taught as a child, that is to say, the sacred responsibilities of womanhood. “

There is more, of course. At its heart Orlando is a lightweight tale, full of silliness and raptures. Its premise is, of course, quite unrealistic and there is a sense throughout the novel that Woolf is having a little play with words, with spinning a yarn to the benefit and credit of her friends (inspired, as it was, by Vita Sackville-West). It is in spirit a fun novel, particularly in the early stages as Orlando falls in love with Sacha during the infamous winter storm that froze the Thames for several months and has his heart lifted then broken. These scenes are beautiful, evocative. Like here, as Sacha describes her home:

“Sacha, as if to reassure him, was tenderer than usual and even more delightful. Seldom would she talk about her past life, but now she told him how, in winter in Russia, she would listen to the wolves howling across the steppes, and thrice, to show him, she barked life a wolf. Upon which he told her of the stags in the snow at home, and how they would stray into the great hall for warmth and be fed by an old man with porridge from a bucket.”

I think where I lose the thread with Orlando is towards the end, where the writing becomes tumultuous and vivacious. It is, perhaps, a similar issue to that experienced in Mrs Dalloway when the spin and whirl of the writing becomes too much and I simply find it painful to go on reading. Towards the last ten pages or so the words jumbled and tumbled and spun and I really wasn’t sure what was going on. And perhaps the fact that it spins this way towards the end colours my whole experience of the book. I found myself just wanting to finish it, all semblance of enjoyment obliterated. Not a great experience to end with.

(I might still watch the movie though)

Orlando receives an unhappy 6 out of 10 Biis.