A blog for everything bookish

Saturday, 25 October 2014

Reading Virginia Woolf: Jacob's Room

This is the second time I’ve read Jacob’s Room recently, but the first time I’ve written about it. It is the kind of book you need to allow to seep in, it is Woolf in her experimental phase in which she is nebulous, the details seem to slide past the eye too easily, and yet each scene is rich with meaning. It is a hard book to encapsulate in a few hundred words.

Jacob’s Room follows the early life of a promising young man. Jacob Flanders is a man with a mind, with potential, but he is also a man with a future that never comes off. We follow Jacob from a childhood holiday in Cornwall, to his early life in Scarborough, to his time in university, to a trip across Greece and Italy, to his eventual (though practically unmentioned) end.

What is notable about Jacob is the way in which he is constructed almost as much from the people around him as from direct interaction with the character himself. We see Jacob through the eyes of his mother “And Jacob is such a handful; so obstinate already”, through the eyes of his lovers, his friends and acquaintances, through the eyes of passersby. Jacob is almost as notable by his absence as his presence, which is both difficult to achieve and quite inspirational when pulled off in the way that Woolf pulls it off here.

When reading Woolf’s diaries, I was struck by how she referred to her writing in ‘scenes’ and yet I think in Jacob’s Room it is possible to see exactly what she means here. Woolf progresses the narrative of the story through scenes, some directly connected and others less so, yet though they might seem at times to be jumbled or unrelated when considered as a whole this works extremely well. It makes me wonder whether Woolf had the eye of a movie director, whether if she was living now would she be making pictures instead of stories? Certainly her work has a movie-esque quality to it as they writer’s eye pans across a scene and focuses in on the unexpected. Like here, when Woolf is distracted as the character, Jacob, has walking across London on a visit to St. Paul’s Cathedral. At this point Jacob is a mere echo, and the writer has focused upon another target:

“Long past sunset an old blind woman sat on a camp-stool with her back to the stone wall of the Union of London and Smith’s Bank, clasping a brown mongrel tight in her arms and singing out loud, not for coppers, no, from the depths of her gay wild heart – her sinful, tanned heart – for the child who fetches her is the fruit of sin, and should have been in bed, curtained, asleep, instead of hearing in the lamplight her mother’s wild song, where she sits against the Bank, singing not for coppers, with her dog against her breast.”

As always I am knocked breathless with admiration at Woolf’s extraordinary ability to capture the essence of a person in so few words. This is one of her core strengths: her ability to see an express people. Also her beautiful writing. As always, astonishing.

There is something meta-fictional about Jacob’s Room. In it Woolf is keen to show us, always and often, that this is a story, that it is fictional, that there is a writer behind it and the writer is both showing us a truth and deceiving us. Woolf herself appears as a presence in this book. Not in the way other, later writers have done by inserting themselves as a physical character, but in a subtler way, reminding us that she is there by being distracted, by changing her focus, by being direct, as she is here:

“In any case life is but a procession of shadows, and God knows why it is that we embrace them so eagerly, and see them depart with such anguish, being shadows. And why, if this and much more than this is true, why are we yet surprised in the window corner by a sudden vision that the young man in the chair is of all things in the world the most real, the most solid, the best known to us – why indeed? For the moment after we know nothing about him.

Such is the manner of our seeing. Such the conditions of our love.”

This short, perceptive statement is both true of our connection to fictional characters and similarly to the real. The idea that people, that life is a shadow is nothing new and a concept that certainly every Buddhist will easily recognise. Despite this, Woolf still asks us to care about Jacob, to follow his triumphs and his sadnesses, perceive his difficulties and his weaknesses. And we do, or I did anyway.

Another shadowy presence in the book is the spectre of war. This is a book based in the pre-Great War years, and though the characters do not entirely appreciate that war is coming it casts a shadow over both their presence and their future. Woolf plays time games here, showing us both the present and the future. Like here when one transient character reflects on some others:

“Kind Mr. Bowley and dear Rose Shaw marvelled and deplored. Bowley had rooms at the Albany. Rose was re-born every evening precisely as the clock struck eight. All four were civilisation’s triumphs, and if you persist that a command of the English language is part of our inheritance, one can only reply that beauty is almost always dumb. Maele beauty in association with female beauty breeds in the onlooker a sense of fear. Often have I seen them – Helen and Jimmy – and likened them to ships adrift, and feared for my own little craft. Or again, have you ever watched fine collie dogs couchant at twenty yards’ distance? As she passed him his cup, there was a quiver in her flanks. Bowley saw what was up – asked Jimmy to breakfast. Helen must have confided in Rose. For my own part, I find it extremely difficult to interpret songs without words. And now Jimmy feeds crows at Flanders and Helen visits hospitals. Oh, life is damnable, life is wicked, as Rose Shaw said.”

Life is transient, life is shadows, life is a dream: these seem to be the messages Woolf is conveying with Jacob’s Room. Whatever our potential, whatever we want to achieve, it can all be blown away by history and all that is left of us is the scraps of paper we leave behind and impressions in peoples’ memories.

It is a dense book, though short and seemingly concise. It is dense and complex and difficult to pin down. I could write an essay about it (and people do I am sure) but really it is simply better for you to read it. It is not an easy read. I have read it twice and still I feel I have barely scratched the surface of its meaning. Isn’t that what makes the best kind of fiction? The one which inspires us, with forces us to look with eyes wide open, forces us to see? Jacob’s Room certainly does this, though not from a superficial reading. It is a book I will return to again.

Jacob’s Room receives an inspirational 9 out of 10 Biis. 

Sunday, 19 October 2014

A Touch of Poetry: Averno by Louise Glück

“death cannot harm me
more than you have harmed me,
my beloved life.”

I think that was the point that I fell in love with this collection, coming from the third part of a series of poems under the name of October that form the first pass in Louise Glück’s collection Averno. The title of the collection refers to a small crater lake in southern Italy which was believed by the Roman’s to be the entrance to the underworld. So, in this collection, Glück explores the line between life and death, the point at which we look into the abyss and see our end before us. Perhaps this is not a surprising subject as Glück herself had turned 60 at the time of writing this collection so perhaps she too is standing on the edge of the crater, facing her own end.
Despite the subject matter, this is not an entirely melancholy collection. If anything it is quite clinical, detached. This is, perhaps, an accusation which has been flung at Glück over the years, that her poems lack emotion, that she is clinical as a poet. I think this is what I enjoy about her. Her poetry is clean, it is logical, Glück concerns herself with semantics, exploring the meaning of words and their intent. When reading Glück’s poems, a kind of wisdom shines through, a clarity. As she expresses here, in the fifth section of October:

“It is true there is not enough beauty in the world.
It is also true that I am not competent to restore it.
Neither is their candour, and here I may be of some use.”

Candour is certainly something that shines through her poems. Candour and wisdom. Sometimes the poems are obscure, sometimes they seem like a logical puzzle. Like here, in the series Prism which explores Glück’s relationship with her parents, her sister and the question of love:

The room was quiet.
That is, the room was quiet but the lovers were breathing.

In the same way, the night was dark.
It was dark, but the stars shone.

The man in bed was one of several men
to whom I gave my heart. The gift of the self,
that is without limit.
Without limit, though it recurs.

The room was quiet. It was an absolute,
like the black night.”

There is a sense throughout these poems of a search for truth, for an unflinching gaze at what is to come. Yet there is something extremely soothing about them. There is truth, it is honest, and yet truth is barely reachable. It takes whole poems to find even a glimmer of it. Glück does not fall into cliché, she exposes cliché; she exposes it in a way that reminds us how cliché, how routine and ‘words of comfort’ are used to anaesthetise us to the truth. Though Glück may not find truth in her poems, she exposes reason and she offers us a glimmer of understanding into what it means to approach death.

There are two many poems that have meaning to me to quote them all here. I could quote 90% of the book, reciting them by heart like a total fangirl and I guess that’s what I am. Glück’s poems are not without their flaws, and she is a poet, I think, who will not appeal to everyone. She is sharp, her words are precise, her poems an exercise in stripping away self-deception. In the course of doing this, she may strip away ours. This is an exercise not many people are prepared for. Neither am I, but perhaps I first read this book when I was in the right place, the right frame of mind. Consequently I can return to it and return to it. The poems never grow old, they face the abyss of death and try to tell us a kind of truth about it. Which is what the one poem I will quote in its entirety suggests. This is Averno, the first part, which I will leave you to enjoy.



You die when your spirit dies.
Otherwise, you live.
You may not do a good job of it, but you go on –
something you have no choice about.

When I tell this to my children
they pay no attention.
The old people, they think –
this is what they always do:
talk about things no one can see
to cover up all the brain cells they’re losing.
They wink at each other:
listen to the old one, talking about the spirit
because he can’t remember anymore the word for chair.

It is terrible to be alone.
I don’t mean to live alone –
to be alone, where no one hears you.

I remember the word for chair.
I want to say – I’m not interested anymore.

I wake up thinking
you have to prepare.
Soon the spirit will give up –
all the chairs in the world won’t help you.

I know what they say when I’m out of the room.
Should I be seeing someone, should I be taking
one of the new drugs for depression.
I can hear them, in whispers, planning how to divide the cost.

And I want to scream out
you’re all of you living in a dream.

Bad enough, they think, to watch me falling apart.
Bad enough without all this lecturing they get these days
as though I had any right to this new information.

Well, they have the same right.

They’re living in a dream, and I’m preparing
to be a ghost. I want to shout out

the mist has cleared –
It’s like some new life:
you have no stake in the outcome;
you know the outcome.

Think of it: sixty years sitting in chairs. And now the mortal spirit
seeking so openly, so fearlessly –

To raise the veil.
To see what you’re saying goodbye to.”

Sunday, 12 October 2014

Reading Virginia Woolf: Night and Day

Virginia Woolf’s second book is described as a portrait of her sister, the painter Vanessa Bell, and the dedication in the opening is quite adorable:


But, looking for a phrase,
I found none to stand
beside your name.

Written before Woolf had developed her experimental approach to fiction, this is another somewhat conventional story which stands out largely because of Woolf’s strength in characterisation, her humour and observational skills.

Woolf & Bell
Night and Day tells the story of Katherine Hilbery, a young women possessed of a significant heritage both in terms of broad familial connections and a Grandfather who was an extremely famous poet. When the book opens, Katherine is entertaining at afternoon tea. It is immediately apparent that this is an activity with which Katherine is familiar and which barely absorbs her attention. As Woolf says: “Perhaps a fifth of her mind was thus occupied, and the remaining parts leapt over the little barrier of day which interposed between Monday morning and this rather subdued moment, and played with things one does voluntarily and normally in the daylight. But although she was silent, she was evidently mistress of a situation which was familiar enough to her, and inclined to let it take its way for the sixth hundredth time, perhaps, without bringing into play any of her unoccupied faculties.” Thus we are introduced to the stifling world of Katherine Hilbery, a world which does not absorb her and neither allows her the facility to express herself normally and naturally.

Quickly we are introduced to the character of Ralph Denham. A young man who works in the law and writes articles for Katherine’s father’s paper and is a very capable young man. Ralph is most uncomfortable sitting to tea, and more uncomfortable when Katherine is engaged to introduce him to the family relics: a small room containing artefacts, paintings, literature all to the glory of her family history. In consequence, Ralph, driven by discomfort, proceeds to demolish the idea of a significant heritage in a somewhat brutal manner:

“’You’ll never know anything first hand,’ he began, almost savagely. ‘It’s all been done for you. You’ll never know the pleasure of buying things after saving up for them, or reading books for the first time, or making discoveries.’”

So we are introduced to the key players of the story. Awkward, poor and somewhat cold and savage Ralph Denham and the privileged but stifled Katherine Hilbery. Of course Ralph falls in love with Katherine very quickly. Katherine, however, becomes engaged to be married to William Rodney, a poet with a delicate ego with whom she has been linked for some time. Ralph, on the other hand, contemplates marriage with Mary Datchet, an independent woman who works in a society campaigning for women’s suffrage. Mary Datchet is in love with Ralph, and though her feelings are not returned (and what more, she knows it) she still harbours, yet tries to quash, hopeful feelings for a relationship with Ralph. Their encounters are awkward and difficult, and Ralph as a character rarely behaves in a conventional way.

The story is, as I’ve mentioned, nothing groundbreaking and is, in some respects, quite predictable. Despite this, it is an excellent read. I found Night and Day extremely entertaining, joyous even. It is something of a comedy of errors, a book with a twinkle in its eye (perhaps because it slow closely mirrored Vanessa Bell’s own life). In many ways it reminded me of a George Eliot novel (Middlemarch, specifically) with the same sharp sense of humour, complex characterisation and witty interaction. As with all Woolf’s novels it is beautifully written, like here:

“Into the same black night, almost, indeed, into the very same layer of starlit air, Katherine Hilbery was now gazing, although not with a view to the prospects of a fine day for duck shooting on the morrow. She was walking up and down a gravel path in the garden of Stodgon House, her sight of the heavens being partially intercepted by the light leafless hoops of a pergola. This a spray of clematis would completely obscure Cassiopeia, or blot out with its black pattern myriads of miles of the Milky Way. At the end of the pergola, however, there was a stone seat, from which the sky could be seen completely swept clear of any earthly interruptions, save to the right, indeed, where a line of elm-trees was beautifully sprinkled with stars, and a low stable building had a full drop of quivering silver just issuing from the mouth of the chimney.”

Where Woolf excels herself is, again, in her characterisation. Perhaps aided by having modelled her characters on real people, she is adept at drawing out key character traits and magnifying them to create complex, but realistic people. Thus Katherine is stifled, strange and unknowable, not very kind and somewhat calculating (especially when studying mathematics!); Ralph Denham is awkward, gruff and difficult but with a poetic and philosophical soul; William Rodney is ridiculous and easily offended, and yet can be extremely kind and considerate; Mary Datchet is strong and industrious, a truly independent woman whose role in the society may be somewhat minor and the society itself a little laughable and yet she has passion and will work solidly towards achieving her goal. There is even a ridiculous mother, who turns out to be something more, and a father who is idealistic but lazy and weak willed. Every character that appears has clearly definable features and acts in an entirely consistent way.

Perhaps the surprise character in Night and Day is London, a character Woolf returns to repeatedly amongst her fiction. Night and Day, if a love story, is a love story to the city. Woolf’s pleasure in London shines through the pages; she paints it in night and day as a city of attractions, of simple pleasures: travelling on the omnibuses or merely walking its streets. Having recently stumbled across Russell Square, I was able to visualise the houses in which the societies meet, and Mary Datchet walking across the gardens to take her lunch. It is vividly drawn, a very real presence in the novel.

Night and Day is a highly entertaining read, perhaps more so that The Voyage Out which is more tragically drawn. If you enjoy the novels of Eliot or Austen there is much to be treasured here. In its essence it depicts society in its pre-War era, a golden era of Victorian Britain with the Tube system operational, omnibuses on every street, Kew Gardens and afternoon tea. It is twee and quaint, yet there is change striving between the comedic moments: women’s suffrage, the breakdown of strict social conventions (Katherine and Ralph consider not marrying). It is easy to miss the serious points because the book is otherwise so playful, yet it contains Woolf’s customary insight and wisdom, and there are many fine moments that will make you think.

I enjoyed Night and Day immensely. For sheer enjoyment, this has been my favourite of Woolf’s works so far.

Night and Day receives a pleasureable 9 out of 10 Bii’s.  

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

10 Japanese writers everyone should read

Thanks to the growing availability of writers in translation, it is now possible to easily access writers from other cultures. I have a particular fondness for Japanese writers, having explored their works as liberally as I am able. The following list is not exhaustive, but is a reasonable guide to the breadth of Japanese writing worth exploring. There are some notable omissions. For example, I haven’t included Murasaki Shikibu or Sei Shonagon, both of whom are extremely worth reading. Other notable omissions include Yukio Mishima and Kenzaburo Oe who are both great writers whose works are interesting but didn’t appeal to me. If you’re interested in exploring Japanese writing, it is worth getting hold of the Oxford Book of Japanese Short Stories which will give you a broad spread of the best the Japanese have to offer. It is a great collection in and of itself, and a worthy presence in my library.

1. Yoko Ogawa
Yoko Ogawa
Ogawa is the mistress of dark, psychological stories. She explores the darker, less understandable parts of human nature with an unflinching eye. Hotel Iris explores a sado-masochistic relationship between a young woman and an older man, The Diving Pool collects stories of obsession. Surprisingly, one of my favourite novels by Ogawa is the highly contrasted The Housekeeper and the Professor, which is a sweet and uplifting book. Whichever Ogawa you find, she is absorbing and deeply psychological. A thrilling writer, unafraid to explore the dark side of the human experience.

2. Natsuo Kirino
Another female writer exploring the dark side of human, or perhaps more accurately women’s, nature. Violence and crime, domestic violence, adultery, murder, sex and death. Kirino shines an unforgiving light on all of these issues. I particularly enjoyed her entry to the Canongate myths series The Goddess Chronicle which explores the legend of Iznami and Izanaki the god of life and goddess of death, cast alongside the story of a young Japanese woman tied to a terrible fate. Kirino highlights the barrenness and difficulty for women in Japan who are, too easily, tied to a life without choices. She’s a rip-roaring read too, exciting and terrifying.  

Weird, I say
3. Kobo Abe
Abe is weird, really weird. I can’t tell you how weird. Perhaps most famous for The Woman in the Dunes, the story of a man who becomes trapped in a village drowning in sand, whose daily task is solely to prevent the sand from crushing his prison, Abe also wrote about a man who lives in a box (The Box Man, it’s creepy) and a man who wakes to find radish sprouts growing out of his legs (Kangaroo Notebook). Weird I tell you (but extremely compelling).

4. Yasunari Kawabata
Everything Kawabata wrote was exquisite. Exquisite is simply the only word to describe this writer. There’s a sparseness in his writing, a simplicity which belies the underlying complexity of his stories. It is the ritual of the Japanese tea ceremony captured in novel form, perhaps most openly in the novel The Master of Go which focuses entirely upon an extraordinary game of Go. My recommendation would be the wonderful Beauty and Sadness, though Snow Country is also well worth a read.

5. Ryunosuke Akutagawa
Toshiro Mifune...mmm
Famous for the story ‘Under a Bamboo Grove’ which became one of Kurosawa’s most famous movies Rashomon (which is actually the title of the collection, not the story itself). Under a Bamboo Grove is famous for the way in which it explores the same event – the rape of a woman in said grove and subsequent murder (or is it suicide) of her husband – from the perspectives of the three participants none of which give the same account of the incident. It is perhaps the most extreme example of the unreliable narrator and leaves you wondering who, if anybody, you can ever believe.

6. Fumiko Enchi
tense & difficult
Enchi is difficult to get hold of in translation, but her novels are worth the effort of tracking down. Another writer with an unflinching gaze; her novels give a sense of tension and claustrophobia whilst projected in a seemingly ordinary domestic setting. The Waiting Years is a tense and difficult novel exploring the dominion of one man over his wife and youthful mistresses. It is an oppressive but impressive read.

7. Jun’ichiro Tanizaki
The Key and Diary of a Man Old Man follow a similar theme, older men enacting a sexual obsession. But how alone are those men in acting out that obsession? Erotic and disturbing, both novels shine a light on the nature of sexual desire particularly in older relationships. For a more conservative taste, The Makioka Sisters follows the decline of an upper class family in the pre-war years. Tanizaki is a diverse writer who focuses on inter-relationships with a fresh and fearless eye.

8. Banana Yoshimoto
Banana Yoshimoto is a growing writer, a writer who appears to be growing before my eyes. Worth reading Kitchen, a collection of novellas about loss and Asleep a collection of novellas surrounding the theme of sleep. Banana Yoshimoto’s work has a youthful and personable feel, whilst addressing difficult issues of identity, loss and sense of purpose.

9. Hiromi Kawakami
Gorgeous cover
Not just because Strange Weather in Tokyo has the best cover ever, but because it is also an excellent book. Another novel exploring an unusual relationship between a woman and an older man who used to be her schoolteacher. The behaviour of both parties borders on strange, and nothing about their relationship is commonplace.  

10. Haruki Murakami
I almost didn’t add Murakami to the list, perhaps because he is so well known already or perhaps because I’ve lost faith in Murakami as a writer. But to leave him out would be unfair; whilst I haven’t gelled with his more recent works (1Q84 is an abomination of bad characterisation) his earlier works still hold much of interest. Norwegian Wood is perhaps the best known of his earlier works, but it is Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World which most grabs my attention. It’s a story with a split identity and will leave you with a curious fondness for your shadow for a long time after reading. Another surprisingly good read from Murakami is Underground, a chilling factual exploration of the Tokyo Underground sarin gas attacks, a book guaranteed to make you question exactly what you would do if someone ordered you to do it.