Category Archives: English Literature

the beauty of young men

Jacob’s Room, by Virginia Woolf

The thing about Jacob’s Room, before discussing its structure or characters or story or any of that, is that it has some of the most remarkably beautiful prose I’ve read in a very long time. This is a novel suffused with beauty; so that I had to pause reading from time to time just to take it in. Here’s how it opens:

“So of course,” wrote Betty Flanders, pressing her heels rather deeper in the sand, “there was nothing for it but to leave.”

Slowly welling from the point of her gold nib, pale blue ink dissolved the full stop; for there her pen stuck; her eyes fixed, and tears slowly filled them. The entire bay quivered; the lighthouse wobbled; and she had the illusion that the mast of Mr. Connor’s little yacht was bending like a wax candle in the sun. She winked quickly. Accidents were awful things. She winked again. The mast was straight; the waves were regular; the lighthouse was upright; but the blot had spread.

Through a prism of tears the blue ink becomes the sea. The text becomes dissolved in disquiet; the tears, the waves, the melting mast and quaking bay and lighthouse, the spreading blot. It’s a troubling start to the novel.

Jacob's Room

Jacob’s Room was published in 1922, a time when the memory of the Great War would still have been fresh both for Woolf and her readers. It’s set pre-war, and shows the development of a young man named Jacob Flanders (an ominous surname if ever there was one). Jacob grows up in Cornwall, goes to university in Cambridge, lives in London for a while, takes a holiday in Greece indulging his love of the Classics. He has friends, lovers, family, a life.

It would have been nearly impossible for any contemporary reader not to be aware of what was waiting for Jacob and his generation. Jacob’s Room looks at first like a Bildungsroman, Jacob’s coming of age tale, but many of Jacob’s generation never got to come of age. The Bildungsroman typically ends with the protagonist assuming their adult place in the world, putting aside their youthful errors and misunderstandings and finding maturity and with it a realisation of their burgeoning potential. The gas, the trenches, the machine guns, bayonets and artillery fire make a complete mockery of all that.

Woolf is of course one of the great Modernist writers, a description which probably does more to put off readers than anything else one could say of her. Jacob’s Room is a Modernist novel. The reader comes to know Jacob not so much directly as indirectly, through how others describe him, through places he’s been or seemingly unimportant incidents in his life. While Woolf occasionally reports Jacob’s speech directly or describes his thoughts it’s rarely anything revelatory. To the extent you piece Jacob together, you do so through the impression he leaves.

I noticed when preparing my notes for writing this that Woolf uses a particular phrase twice, near the beginning and again near the end of the novel (the second example is quoted near the end of this piece). Woolf writes “It is no use trying to sum people up. One must follow hints”. That’s the essence of her portrait of Jacob, but it’s also of course true of how we remember people more generally.

When I remember my grandparents I don’t think of important conversations we had or moments of great drama, I remember resonant fragments. I remember waking up before Christmas and seeing grandpa Kelly in my bedroom with a sack of presents, trying not to be seen; I remember playing cards with grandma Nettie in the holiday evenings; waiting for the bus as a small child with grandma Kelly; grandpa Jim one day asking me what kind of girls I liked (his answer was that he liked girls who liked him, he was a clever man).

I think describing something as Modernist puts many readers off, partly because it promises difficulty and partly because it makes it sound rather grand and austere. You perhaps have stream of consciousness which many dislike, though it’s not a necessary technique and it’s not one that’s used here. Jacob’s Room is closest if anything to an impressionist painting. It puts conventional narrative techniques aside to a degree, but no more than say Pissarro did the same with conventional painting. If you’re not daunted by Pissarro there’s no particular reason to be daunted by Woolf, or at least not by this Woolf.

Pissarro Dulwich

By way of example of what I mean by an impressionist style, here’s Jacob on holiday, the reader back with yachts in blue seas:

The Scilly Isles were turning bluish; and suddenly blue, purple, and green flushed the sea; left it grey; struck a stripe which vanished; but when Jacob had got his shirt over his head the whole floor of the waves was blue and white, rippling and crisp, though now and again a broad purple mark appeared, like a bruise; or there floated an entire emerald tinged with yellow. He plunged. He gulped in water, spat it out, struck with his right arm, struck with his left, was towed by a rope, gasped, splashed, and was hauled on board.

Moments later Jacob loses overboard the copy of Shakespeare’s works he’s been reading, the pages drifting apart in the water. It’s a moment you could easily read considerable symbolism into, but it’s also the sort of minor accident that life is filled with. As Woolf says later in the text, “the observer is choked with observations.” Everything here seems meaningful, but only because it’s been singled out to be shown when so much is left out.

Woolf places Jacob among his peers; showing idle conversations in Cambridge rooms, arguments and affection. The young men shine, their beauty illuminated by Woolf’s gaze. Jacob himself seems to have shifting futures ahead of him, all the things he could become. He has the potential to one day be a writer, a scholar, perhaps a statesman. The classic Bildungsroman makes its hero’s story arc seem inevitable, but after the Great War it must have been miserably apparent how remorselessly contingent our lives actually are. Jacob and his friends are washed away, made generational flotsam by others’ carelessness.

In the end, it’s hard to say anything definite about Jacob. Even the title alludes to his room rather than the man himself, because ultimately all that can be described is the places and people who were shaped by his presence among them. The Jacobness of him is unknown and unknowable, any attempt to capture it can only be pitifully partial:

It is no use trying to sum people up. One must follow hints, not exactly what is said, nor yet entirely what is done. Some, it is true, take ineffaceable impressions of character at once. Others dally, loiter, and get blown this way and that. Kind old ladies assure us that cats are often the best judges of character. A cat will always go to a good man, they say; but then, Mrs. Whitehorn, Jacob’s landlady, loathed cats.

In what becomes another subversion of the Bildungsroman genre, it becomes apparent that Jacob isn’t necessarily particularly exceptional. He’s a young man of his time and situation. His thoughts aren’t shown to be especially insightful or original, his undergraduate passions and enthusiasms are precisely that, undergraduate. He’s important mostly to his mother, but then so are most of us. He matters, because people matter and because there are people he matters to.

Kill Jacob or any of his generation at 80 and his potential would be fulfilled (or wasted, which is still a form of completed narrative), his path made inevitable by hindsight. Kill him at 20 and all we’re left with is an absence, a space where a person should be, a room that used to be his filled with objects made irrelevant.

Other reviews

Anthony of Time’s Flow Stemmed wrote an entire blog post on the first paragraph alone, which can be found here and which is worth reading as he draws a fair bit out of it (but without in my view reading too much into it). Anthony writes a little more on the book more generally here. Novelist Jonathan Gibbs reviewed the book as part of his reading of Melville House’s Art of the Novella series, his thoughts are here (though why Melville considered this a novella is utterly beyond me, I don’t see any sense in which it is). Anthony also linked to this tremendous review from a blog previously unknown to me which is very much worth reading.


Filed under English Literature, Modernist Fiction, Woolf, Virginia

Dog ate a dead crab

All the Birds, Singing, by Evie Wyld

It’s been a while since I’ve been able to properly update the blog – too busy at work. That also means I’m reading terrifically slowly, inching my way through Edith Grossman’s Don Quixote translation a few pages a day. Thankfully, since I’m crawling through Don Quixote at the speed of a mobility-impaired snail, it is at least a very good translation and an absolute pleasure to read.

Anyway, enough about Don Quixote for now, because this entry is about another very good book (seamless segue there, absolutely seamless) – Evie Wyld’s second novel titled All the Birds, Singing. Here’s the opening paragraph:

Another sheep, mangled and bled out, her innards not yet crusting and the vapours rising from her like a steamed pudding. Crows, their beaks shining, strutting and rasping, and when I waved my stick they flew to the trees and watched, flaring out their wings, singing, if you could call it that. I shoved my boot in Dog’s face to stop him from taking a string of her away with him as a souvenir, and he kept close by my side as I wheeled the carcass out of the field and down into the woolshed.

I love that opening. Immediately I’m uneasy – another sheep, so not the first; mangled and bled out, so probably not an accidental death; there’s a total lack of sentiment both in the reaction to the body and in the fact that the narrator’s dog is named simply Dog. That’s a lot of information packed into one paragraph.

On top of that there’s some lovely description there. The innards not yet crusting, it’s unpleasant but arresting and easy to picture. The vapours rising as if from a steamed pudding, which as well as being evocative and disquieting (mixing imagery of food and death) tells the reader that it’s probably cold. I love too the crows, “shining, strutting and rasping”, flying away but not too far, singing their raucous song.

All the Birds

The “I” in that quote is Jake Whyte, an Australian woman now living on a remote Island in the UK. She farms sheep, but something is killing them. Perhaps a wild beast, perhaps local teenagers, perhaps someone or something else. She has scars on her back, unexplained, and she doesn’t mix much with the other farmers. She lives alone, with Dog, but she fears she’s being watched.

Jake isn’t really an unreliable narrator – there’s nothing to suggest she lies to herself or has many illusions. She isn’t though wholly reliable either. Something very ugly has driven her to her present seclusion, and while it’s certain she feels under threat, besieged, it’s not at all clear that she’s actually in any danger. The local police think she spends too much time alone for her own good, and there’s a definite suspicion that the shadows she jumps at are ones she brought with her. Still, something’s killing the sheep…

Chapter two ducks backwards in time, to when Jake was still in Australia working on a sheep farm in the outback. She went there fleeing something, but one of her workmates has found out her past. He tries to use whatever he’s learned to blackmail her for sex. She breaks his jaw with a punch and soon she’s fleeing again. Whatever’s driving Jake, it’s serious.

As a quick aside, it’s nice to have a female protagonist whose reaction to being menaced in that way is to deck the guy threatening her. Part of Jake’s problem though is that she’s much better at responding to physical challenges than she is to emotional ones.

The novel continues in alternating chapters. The ones in the UK go forward in time in the usual way, each chronologically not long after the last. The Australian chapters though go backwards in time, each showing a key moment in Jake’s history.

The first Australian chapter then is the last in a sense, showing how she came to leave the outback sheep station. The next Australian chapter is earlier, showing how Jake became a sheep shearer but fell out with the man who’d later try to blackmail her. The next shows her arriving at the station – I won’t say where she was before that or what drove her to end up somewhere so remote.

What all this means is that Jake is a woman in hiding. She hid in the Australian outback, but her past found her there. Now she’s hiding on an island where nobody could ever find her, unless of course somehow they have.

With all this I’m making it sound like a crime novel or a thriller. It’s not at all though. It’s as readable as a crime novel, but it’s very much literary fiction. There’s a lot of very careful construction here. References made in the UK sections are explained as the Australian sections slowly excavate Jake’s past. Jake’s situation, past and present, slowly unfolds as Wyld carefully walks that very fine line between maintaining suspense and manipulating the reader.

The risk with this kind of novel is a sense of artificiality. Obviously all novels are artificial, but many (most) novels don’t want to make their artifice too obvious. Here we have two narrative streams one going forward, one back, each shedding light upon the other as well as plenty of symbolism and careful narrative device. It’s an origami novel, and that raises a question about whether it’s too neat, too evidently constructed.

The answer to that question is no, Wyld pulls it off. The reason she does so is the depth and precision of her description. I believed her outback, I believed her island, I believed more to the point in Jake. There’s a beautifully clean matter-of-factness to her prose which shows the essence of what she’s describing while avoiding seeming overwritten. It’s that which saves the book, and more than saves it, makes it good.

This is a book full of terrible things. The slaughtered sheep; Jake’s terrible past; the indifferent violence of the natural world and the casual cruelty of the human; a powerful and horrible scene in Australia where Jake hits a kangaroo with her truck causing it so much suffering she ends up having to kill it with a crowbar to spare it further pain. Jake’s seclusion brings her natural environment to the foreground – isolated from humanity she lives a near-animist existence in which the life around her seems filled with intent and Jake is but one wounded animal among others.

For all that horror and pain though it’s not a bleak book. The descriptions of the natural world are beautiful, and the arrival of an alcoholic drifter who comes to Jake’s farm starts to draw her back from the world she’s constructed for herself – the claustrophobic isolation of her own history.

For a novel like this it always comes down to the writing. Get that right and the rest should follow (get that wrong and it’s painful). Wyld gets it right. This is an oddly difficult novel to quote from, in large part because of its subtlety of structure, much of the effect is lost if taken away from context. It’s full of small yet telling observations. One I couldn’t resist including here comes from when Jake first sees Greg, a sheep shearer that the reader knows later became her lover, shearing a sheep: Greg’s sheep are sleek and clean with no grazes, like they’ve been buttered …” 

I haven’t bought Evie Wyld’s second novel yet, but I shall before the year’s out and it’ll be high on my to read pile. In a way that’s the ultimate test for any author, does one wish to read more by them? I want to read more by Evie Wyld.

Two reviews which I found helpful when I was deciding whether to read this or not were that of David Hebblethwaite at his blog, here, and Simon Savidge’s blog Savidgereads which I don’t link too nearly as often as I should. His review is here. Finally, in the interests of full disclosure I should say that I got my copy directly from Evie Wyld – she had a couple spare and gave them away on twitter to whoever asked first and I happen to follow her account and got lucky.


Filed under Crows, English Literature, Wyld, Evie

Feminine indulgence in extravagance of attire was the bane of London at that era.

The Doom of the Great City, by William Delisle Hay

I’m a little pounded at work presently, so while I don’t yet have time to properly write up Evie Wyld’s All the Birds, Singing I do have time to write up one of the short novellas I’ve recently read.

This one is an absolute oddity. I’ve mentioned before the fondness the Victorians and Edwardians had for apocalyptic fiction. The Doom of the Great City is a classic example. It’s an account of the destruction of London by that great terror of the Victorian age – really bad smog.

I should mention that this novella was as best I can tell intended as utterly serious. The emphasis there is on the word intended…


So, we open with a framing device – it’s the far future (the 1940s!) long after the fall of London. The narrator is now an old man surrounded by family, and he’s moved to write an account of the traumatic events he personally witnessed that led to the destruction of the world’s greatest metropolis. It’s a very common framing device in fiction of this period, and one that allows Hay to contrast his future idyll with the iniquities of London in 1880.

I am transported back to the land of my birth across the intervening ocean a land of chill and sour skies, where the sun has forgotten how to shine; a laud of frost and rain, of mist and snow. I am young, but I am scarcely hopeful, for I am oppressed with many cares; I live amid noise and bustle, amid a throng of idlers and workers, good men and bad, rich and poor; I work hard at employment that demands my best energies and absorbs my young strength, and that yields me but scant repayment; I dwell shut in by bricks and mortar, and crushed by stony hearts; I am one among many, a single toiler among the millions of London!!

The bulk of the novella spends its time setting the scene. The narrator is (was) a clerk, as they so often are in these books. He lives with his mother and sister and in the usual vein of Victorian fiction there’s a fairly detailed explanation of their salaries and sources of income as compared to their outgoings. They’re barely scraping by on a combined £150 a year, “little more than sufficient to provide us with the bare-necessities of existence, while every day things seemed to be growing dearer.”

I love London. The narrator, well:

It was the opinion I formed at the time, and the opinion I still continue to hold, that London was foul and rotten to the very core, and steeped in sin of every imaginable variety.

He’s not a fan. That’s where the unintentional comedy comes in. This isn’t an apocalyptic novel where disaster strikes an undeserving populace. This is much closer to a judgement of god or nature on a city that richly deserves everything that’s coming to it. Hay spends a great many pages discussing in remarkably enthusiastic detail everything that’s wrong with the city, starting from the narrator’s own line of work:

I was in business, and business I found was an elaborate system of fraud, chicanery, and deceit. He was esteemed an upright man who never broke the letter of the law, no matter how he might tamper with its spirit, while morality and honest principle in commerce were abstractions of which the law took little notice, and business men less. He was called “smart,” and “a sharp, sound, practical’ man,” who knew how to take advantage of others, and who could enrich himself by impoverishing his fellows in “fair business.” In the learned professions — so called — things were much the same.

I’ll add the larger passage that quote comes from at the end of this post for those who’re curious. It starts sanely enough as you can see above, but soon he’s on to lawyers, then the church, then doctors, the entertainment industry, the aristocracy, professors of art, women, it goes on for pages. It’s a breathless outpouring of disdain for pretty much every target in sight.

After a couple of pages or so of this (out of only fifty or so in total) even Hay/the narrator must break for breath:

Enough! Even a great-grandfather’s garrulity must be checked in its reminiscent flow.

Yes please.

Thankfully once the diatribe against the evils of the contemporary age is out of the way the story picks up some. The narrator is out of London visiting, and the next morning tries to head home only to find out there’s no transport back into town:

All traffic into and out of London was indeed suspended, or rather, had never commenced. No trains had come out from the London termini, no response had been received to signals or telegrams; while men who had started to walk into town had either never returned, or else had shortly retraced their footsteps, panting and half-strangled. Telegrams from other suburbs and outskirts of town brought intelligence of a precisely similar state of things existing in those localities. No one had come from London, no one had succeeded in entering it.

Soon it becomes evident that the unthinkable has happened. The London smog has become so bad as to suffocate all within it. The whole metropolis lies wreathed in dark and sooty fog, utterly desolate. Eventually the air starts to clear a little, and so the narrator becomes one of the first to push his way back into the city – fearing for his mother and sister who are still within.

What he finds is why the story is worth reading (to the extent it is). It’s a haunting evocation of an utterly lifeless city, eerily reduced to silence and stillness:

I traversed the foggy street, seeing objects but indistinctly at ten yards distance. I saw no living being, no faces at the shrouded windows, no passers by, no children playing in the gardens or the road; not even a sparrow fluttered past to convey to me the sense of companionship. And then the frightful, muffled stillness that seemed to hold me down in a nightmare trance; not a sound of traffic, no rattle of carriages and carts, no scream and rumble of trains, no clamour of children or costermongers, no distant hum of the midday city, no voice or whisper of a wind; not the rustling of a leaf, not the echo of a foot-fall, nothing to break the deathly stillness but the panting of my laboured chest and the beating of my trembling heart.

There’s nothing that really happens – everyone is dead after all. There is though a tremendous series of descriptions of the desolation, including some very effective set-pieces particularly including a description of a horse-drawn bus stilled with horses still in harness, driver belted in and passengers rich and poor contorted in their seats.

I did struggle a bit with the narrator’s pious cries of horror and sympathy given that most of the book is given over to lengthy descriptions of how awful London and its inhabitants are. It reminded me slightly of The Black Spider – in both texts there’s a sympathy for those who are damned which is distinctly at odds with the glee with which their sufferings are described. It all reminds me a bit of that old Medieval idea that the afterlives of the saved are made more pleasurable by their being able to watch the sufferings of the damned in hell.

Still, it’s short, it’s about 99p from Amazon (and no doubt legitimately free somewhere online without too much trouble), and it’s a lovely example of a now largely extinct genre – the Victorian/Edwardian industrial apocalypse. It’s not really an overlooked classic, but nor does it deserve to be wholly forgotten either.

Here’s the fuller version of that quote. It’s absolutely mad:

I will add of what I saw around me to incline me to the belief in the black enormity of London sin. I was in business, and business I found was an elaborate system of fraud, chicanery, and deceit. He was esteemed an upright man who never broke the letter of the law, no matter how he might tamper with its spirit, while morality and honest principle in commerce were abstractions of which the law took little notice, and business men less. He was called “smart,” and “a sharp, sound, practical’ man,” who knew how to take advantage of others, and who could enrich himself by impoverishing his fellows in “fair business.” In the learned professions — so called — things were much the same. The laws were good, though inordinately cumbrous, and lawyers administered them for their own advantage, and at the expense of their unhappy clients. The law was a terrible engine of justice, but its intricate machinery was clogged with rusty “precedents,” and could not be got to move without a liberal oiling in the shape of fees. Hence arose the saying, that the law had one interpretation for the rich, and another altogether for the poor. The medical profession was conducted upon similar principles; the doctor — if he knew how — would keep his patient ill in order to increase his fees, and making suffering and death his daily sport, traded upon them for his own profit. Clergymen and ministers of religion, whether belonging to the State Church or to independent bodies, made “the cure of souls” a means of livelihood; they quoted the maxim, “the labourer is worthy of his hire,” applying its point to themselves; they kept alive “religious feeling” among the masses by incessant and endless quarrels among themselves on points of dogma and doctrine, extorting money in the cause of “truth” from the public, and either keeping it themselves or squandering it in various foolish and useless ways. And they made one religion for the rich and another for the poor, as anyone might learn by comparing a sermon preached before a fashionable congregation with one delivered to paupers. The merest infraction of moral integrity in one of the humbler classes was visited as intolerable; among the rich and high-born sin flourished under the hallowing sanction of religion, and vice luxuriated in the shadow of the Church. Purity of life was a simple impossibility, and chastity of soul would have been sought for in vain amongst Londoners. Theatres, music-halls, and similar institutions, appealed to the most depraved appetites; people flocked to gaze admiringly at a fashionable courtesan and her attendant harlots, or thronged to listen to obscene and filthy songs, or to witness indecent exhibitions, especially if these involved the risk of life or limb to the performers. Money flowed into the treasuries when such were the inducements, and eager rivalry in their production was the inevitable consequence. Clergymen, aristocrats, and art professors joined in extolling the stage as “the educator of public taste,” while young girls crowded to enter the ballet as the proper road to a life of delightful immorality. The press groaned daily under the weight passing through it of novels which tinctured absolute crimes with poetry and romance, which clothed the worst sensuality in the white robes of innocence, and which taught and argued in favour of every vice. Serial journals adapted to every class, rested their claims to attention on the obscenity, scurrility, or blasphemy of their pages, disguised under a film of moral platitude. Such were some of the causes at work, here were some of their immediate results. Among the higher ranks of society immorality was so common as to excite but small attention; frequent divorce suits proved this; scandalous disclosures of high life were of common occurrence; they gratified the public taste while serving to show the deeper depths below. Pleasure-seeking being the only employment of the wealthy and governing class, they elevated it into a “cult,” and wearied with the tameness of mere harlotry, gluttony, and show, brought “art” to their aid and invented “aestheticism ” as a cloak for higher flights of sin. The men of the “upper ten thousand” were trained from their cradles for a life of sensuous enjoyment. They held themselves aloof from commoner clay as from an inferior race, and they looked upon inordinate luxury as their paramount right. In their code of honour the payment of just debts had no place, unless the debt were contracted by gambling among their fellows. The “golden youth” were banded together into social guilds, bearing imbecile insignia, and using mysterious passwords, whose vicious meaning only the initiate might know. They had peopled a whole suburb with the villas of their concubines, whom the stage and the streets had furnished, while their elders sought amusement from almost infantile charms. Strange and unnatural were the crazes and fashions that pervaded this society: wearied with dissipation carried to excess, they were ever seeking new varieties, new emotions, new vices; they worshipped beauty, but it was not the beauty of created Nature, but that of art — and such art! — that most enchanted them. Ladies were divided into two “mondes,” the proper and the improper, but it was by no means easy to define the exact limits of either grade. The Phrynes of the period held their court and received adoration from the men, though not recognised by their high-born sisters; yet these were eager to copy the manners, dress, and accomplishments of the courtesan, styling themselves “professional beauties,” or veiling their hyper-passionate sensibilities under the pseudonym of “intensity;” while matrimony, even among the most externally decorous, was as much a matter of business as downright mercenary prostitution. The members of this highest rank lived in the very perfection of luxuriousness; their mansions, equipages, and servants, all were on a scale of magnificence as great as could be compassed. Dresses and furniture were splendid and costly. They fared sumptuously every day. Poverty was carefully excluded from their view, and came not within their cognisance, and ultra-extravagance was commended from the pulpit as a means of wisely diffusing wealth, and as an “encouragement to trade.” It was said that the spendthrift vanities and caprices of the wealthy were a source of good, promoting industry, and developing arts and sciences among the workers; “wherefore,” said these reasoners, “lavish arid. profuse prodigality is the commendable duty of the rich, as thereby they foster trade and benefit those who minister to their enjoyment.” When such theories were generally received, it is needless to say that politicians were blind to comparisons drawn from the history of the latter days of Rome, of Venice, or of Bourbon France. And this state of things had, of course, its dire and disastrous effects upon all grades of society below. People of the next rank, whose wealth had been gained from other sources than that of passive hereditary accumulation, busied themselves in the endeavour to gain admission within the pale of “polite society;” they sought to imitate with exactness every eccentricity of the nobles, and courted ruin to effect their purpose. A step lower, and the same procedure was invested with the grotesque addition of “vulgarity.” This abstraction consisted mainly, as I conceived, in a lack of “refinement:” it meant a want of ease and inherent use in forms of speech, manners, and usages; it conveyed the idea of eagerness where cold indifference should have been felt ; or it displayed a sense of actual pleasure, where blasé and captious disdain ought only to have been manifested. Throughout the great masses of the middle class, so styled, there beat the mighty pulse of Loudon life. In this section was contained business and professional men of every degree and kind, from the wealthy banker, the opulent trader or manufacturer, and the sordid promoter of bubble companies, down to the struggling professional man, the actor, and the ignoble clerk. It was divided into a multiplicity of grades or strata, the lowest mingling with the vast democracy of labour below, the highest, by dint of golden passports, passing current among the aristocracy. It was in this division of the social system that the real life of the great city was mainly manifest; here were to be found the chief law-makers and the chief law-breakers; here was every vice most obnoxious to the senses; here, too, was to be found what was left of virtue and goodness. Down through the middle class filtered every evil of aristocratic birth, losing nothing in the process, we may be sure, save the semblance of polish and the grace of courtly elegance; while up from the lowest depths there constantly arose a stream of grosser, fouler moral putrescence, which it would be a libel on the brutes to term merely bestiality. Do not think there was no good In London; there was, much; but it was so encompassed and mixed with evil as to be barely recognisable; while the influences of exuberant vice were such as to warp the integrity of men’s ideas of what was right, to benumb their perceptions of moral turpitude, and to lower the standard of excellence to the very mud. Besides, I only set out to tell you something of the wickedness I saw and knew and felt in London; merely a brief epitome, such as might serve to sustain the view I propounded of the guilt of that city. Have I said enough, my grandchildren? But a few words more, and I pass to the dread narrative itself .

Phew! Just for reference, he’s still not finished, I just ran out of ability to cut and paste on my kindle.


Filed under 19th Century Literature, English Literature, Novellas, Post-Apocalypse Fiction

Is not general incivility the very essence of love?’

Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen

In a way, it’s a shame the opening sentence to Pride and Prejudice is so well known, because it really is one of the finest first lines in Literature. Right up there with “It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.”; “The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new.”; and, of course, from my personal canon:  “The sky was the color of television tuned to a dead channel.”

It’s a curious thing reading a book like Pride and Prejudice. Long before starting it I knew the characters and the plot. I knew quotes from it. I’d seen the TV miniseries. It’s part of the cultural air in the UK. Reading it seems almost redundant.It isn’t though, because however familiar it may be the actual book itself is superb.


That’s not the cover on my copy. I just loved it for its utter vulgarity. Darcy would of course hate it.

My overriding prior impression of Pride and Prejudice was that it was essentially a romantic comedy. Well, it does contain romance and it is often funny, but it’s a much harder-nosed novel than that genre description would suggest.

Marriage is at the heart of Pride and Prejudice, but a very pragmatic view of marriage. The first marriage shown in the text is that of Elizabeth Bennett’s parents, which unlike the portrayal I’d seen in adaptations comes across here as loveless and lacking in any real affection. Mr Bennett is sarcastic and capricious (that’s nearly a quote of the text), and makes no real effort to take any meaningful part in the raising of his children. Mrs Bennett is ill educated and stupid (neither of which are her fault) and frequently vulgar and somewhat cruel (which is).

[Mr Bennett], captivated by youth and beauty, and that appearance of good humour which youth and beauty generally give, had married a woman whose weak understanding and illiberal mind had very early in their marriage put an end to all real affection for her.

Elizabeth Bennett is pretty and has wit. Jane Bennett is beautiful and of a pleasant temperament. The younger sisters, however, are much what you’d expect from parents such as Mr and Mrs Bennett and are in their various ways inconsiderate and foolish. That’s not surprising. Education for women at this time is minimal, and with indifferent parents that leaves nobody with any interest in developing whatever talents they might otherwise have had.


The other marriages in Pride and Prejudice are more interesting. On one reading Charlotte Lucas settles, despairing of even the the idea of marrying for love and instead marryies the odious and oleaginous Mr Collins for the security of his position with Lady Catherine. Lydia marries Wickham again not for love, but from love of being in love. Elizabeth and Jane do marry men that they love, and everything points to their marriages being happy ones.

Look closer though and what becomes evident is not the importance of sympathy, but of class and money. Charlotte Lucas is 27, to Elizabeth and Jane’s 20 and 22. Soon she’ll be too old to have a good chance of marriage, but without it she either relies on whatever income her parents leave her or worse yet the uncertain life of the governess.

Charlotte herself was tolerably composed. She had gained her point, and had time to consider of it. Her reflections were in general satisfactory. Mr Collins to be sure was neither sensible nor agreeable; his society was irksome, and his attachment to her must be imaginary. But still he would be her husband. – Without thinking highly either of men or of matrimony, marriage had always been her object; it was the only honourable provision for well-educated young women of small fortune, and however uncertain of giving happiness, must be their pleasantest preservative from want. This preservative she had now obtained; and at the age of twenty-seven, without having ever been handsome, she felt all the good luck of it.

Lydia’s elopement with Wickham is potentially ruinous for the entire Bennett family, making even a bad marriage to him better than no marriage at all. What makes it a bad marriage though isn’t that there is no lasting affection between them (there’s no particular hint that Lydia would have found that with someone else), but that he has no means of supporting her. Once that is provided Lydia exits stage left.

Jane marries the man she loves, but he comes with a considerable fortune. Elizabeth marries the man she loves, but he comes with a very great fortune indeed. Economics underpins everything. This isn’t a novel about romance. It’s a novel about survival.

Mr Bingley was good looking and gentlemanlike; he had a pleasant countenance, and easy, unaffected manners. His sisters were fine women, with an air of decided fashion. His brother-in-law, Mr Hurst, merely looked the gentleman; but his friend Mr Darcy soon drew the attention of the room by his fine, tall person, handsome features, noble mien; and the report which was in general circulation within five minutes after his entrance, of his having “ten thousand a-year”.

Money then is central here. Just look at that paragraph above. Mr Bingley is the more approachable of the two men. He’s pleasant and easy to get on with. Mr Darcy is handsome, but he has nothing of Mr Bingley’s easy charm. What he does have though is ten thousand a-year.

What’s subversive about Pride and Prejudice is how it shows the overwhelming importance of money to contemporary English society. Mr Darcy is of course of a higher social class than Elizabeth Bennett – that’s much of what he initially holds against her (her base connections). That social position though cannot be separated from his economic one. That’s made particularly clear by the Bingleys. Mr Bingley’s sister Caroline has ambitions to marry Mr Darcy, and while she never has much prospect of success that’s not because he’s utterly beyond her social league (it can’t be, given he marries Elizabeth).

One of the first things we learn of Mr Bingley’s sisters (beyond their potential for rudeness and snobbery) is this:

They were rather handsome, had been educated in one of the first private seminaries in town, had a fortune of twenty thousand pounds, were in the habit of spending more than they ought, and of associating with people of rank, and were therefore in every respect entitled to think well of themselves, and meanly of others. They were of a respectable family in the north of England; a circumstance more deeply impressed on their memories than that their brother’s fortune and their own had been acquired by trade.

Money here has bought class. Not instantly. This is not a culture where wealth brings instant social respectability (any more than my own is), but watered with time the compost of the Bingley’s wealth has flowered into a much higher station than their family would once have had.

There is of course an implication of social climbing in that quote above (associating with people of rank, suggesting that they are not themselves as yet of rank), but that is more a failing of the sisters than a consequence of the origins of their money. There is no suggestion that Mr Bingley is a social climber.

The greater the money, and the further back its origins, the greater the class.

Money too is responsible for the sisters’ education, which the Bennett’s so conspicuously lack. Money has bought the Bingley sisters their many accomplishments, and therefore their ability to take part in society. Everywhere you turn the theme of the centrality of money is underlined.

A happy marriage here is a marriage which brings security, and it’s money that grants security. For men the calculations are different, they have after all their own incomes and the opportunity if need be to work for a living (shameful as that would be for men of Mr Darcy and Mr Bingley’s class). For women though the opportunities for work are minimal, and poorly paid. It’s marriage, inheritance, or poverty. Elizabeth may privately regret Charlotte Lucas’s decision to marry Mr Collins, but nothing in the text suggests that Charlotte was actually wrong to do so.

I’m at risk though of making it sound serious, which it is of course but it wears its seriousness lightly (unlike poor Mary Bennett). Austen’s writing sparkles, and the book is filled with wit and beautifully (but never showily) crafted sentences. See for example Austen’s skewering of Lady Catherine, of whom “it could be said that nothing was beneath this great lady’s attention, which could furnish her with an occasion of dictating to others.”

Here Elizabeth finds herself confused by what seems to her a most pernicious coincidence:

MORE THAN ONCE did Elizabeth in her ramble within the park, unexpectedly meet Mr Darcy. She felt all the perverseness of the mischance that should bring him where no one else was brought; and, to prevent its ever happening again, took care to inform him at first, that it was a favourite haunt of hers. – How it could occur a second time, therefore, was very odd! Yet it did, and even a third.

For many readers what matters above all is character and story, and Pride and Prejudice has both in spades. Even though the outcome is never in doubt it’s hard not to cheer for Elizabeth. It would take a tougher reader than me not to feel sympathy for Jane, to cringe at Mr Collins, to want to give Lydia a good talking to and to wish Mr Wickham a fate far more in line with what he deserves than what he receives.

Below the major characters is a rich cast of minor ones, each well drawn and memorable. The story has enough twists and turns to keep it interesting, and the pages almost turn themselves. It’s an astonishingly easy read, particularly so when you consider it dates back to 1813.

I’ll be reading more Austen. Partly because I thought the relentless focus on the criticality of money both refreshing and fascinating. Also though I absolutely admit because, while I do genuinely love modernist fiction and challenging narrative structures, I’m still a sucker for that old standby of a good tale well told. This is a great tale, brilliantly told.

I’ll leave you with an excerpt from a poem by WH Auden, which I discovered care of Wikipedia:

You could not shock her more than she shocks me,
Beside her Joyce seems innocent as grass.
It makes me most uncomfortable to see
An English spinster of the middle class
Describe the amorous effects of ‘brass’,
Reveal so frankly and with such sobriety
The economic basis of society.


Filed under 19th Century Literature, Austen, Jane, English Literature

a good passionate fit of crying.

Wuthering Heights, by Emily Brontë

This is a tricky review to write. Partly because I don’t tend to enjoy writing negative reviews (I wrote a whole post on the topic, including why I think they’re useful, here). Mostly though because Wuthering Heights is widely agreed to be a stone-cold classic and is a book that a great many people absolutely love. I wanted to love it too. Unfortunately, I didn’t even think it worth finishing.


As an aside, when I first saw that cover I thought it shameful that Wuthering Heights was being sold by reference to Twilight. Having now read a fair chunk of the book though, I can sort of see the link.

Wuthering Heights is the name of Mr. Heathcliff’s dwelling. ‘Wuthering’ being a significant provincial adjective, descriptive of the atmospheric tumult to which its station is exposed in stormy weather. Pure, bracing ventilation they must have up there at all times, indeed: one may guess the power of the north wind blowing over the edge, by the excessive slant of a few stunted firs at the end of the house; and by a range of gaunt thorns all stretching their limbs one way, as if craving alms of the sun. Happily, the architect had foresight to build it strong: the narrow windows are deeply set in the wall, and the corners defended with large jutting stones.

As the above quote suggests, we’re in gothic novel territory here. Remote, brooding locations. Stormy metaphoric weather. Strange households with dark secrets best not spoken of. To be fair, these are a few of my favourite things so I’ve no issue with any of that. I’d even go so far as to say that the opening sets up expectations nicely, making it clear that what’s to come isn’t going to be a matter of strict realism but rather a work of mood and emotion.

Where the book soon runs into difficulty however is a flabbiness of structure. It opens with a framing device, the remarkably irritating initial narrator coming to his new landlord’s home and discovering a household afflicted by the remnants of past misery and bitterness. Edith Wharton, nearly 70 years later, used much the same device (quite possibly influenced by Brontë) in her Ethan Frome, but Wharton is a much better writer. Her narrator doesn’t take over the tale, she gets to the actual story much more swiftly and her prose is vastly more elegant.

Wuthering Heights then cuts back to the childhood of the central characters (one could argue who those are to a degree, but however you cut it they include Heathcliff and Catherine Earnshaw). Heathcliff is a foundling, adopted by Catherine’s father and raised with her, not quite one of the family but not a servant either. He cuts across barriers of class, money, race and propriety. In a sense he’s almost more plot device than character, an interloper from beyond the social world the novel otherwise portrays, and thus a living challenge to that world’s order.

He is a dark-skinned gipsy in aspect, in dress and manners a gentleman: that is, as much a gentleman as many a country squire: rather slovenly, perhaps, yet not looking amiss with his negligence, because he has an erect and handsome figure; and rather morose.

Catherine, though as wild as Heathcliff by nature as a child, grows up to assume the place expected for her by society. She becomes a lady, gently spoken, refined and beautiful. In her heart she loves Heathcliff, but when the time comes for marriage she chooses a gently born neighbour as Heathcliff has no fortune and thus could not maintain her position.

I won’t say what happens, since there may be those reading this who don’t actually know the story, but it’s all very passionate and dramatic. How could it not be, when we have conflicts of nature and society, of expectation and desire? The problem though is the characters and the contrived nature of the plot.

A degree of contrivance is inevitable in a gothic novel. Here though it’s simply heavy handed. At one critical passage Heathcliff overhears Catherine talking about how she feels about him. He manages to hear the bit about why she doesn’t want to marry him (he’s broke), but not the lengthy exposition of how much she loves him. He then charges off in a fury and naturally never thinks to ask for clarification. It’s a device still used in literature and film today, the part heard conversation leading to misunderstanding and breakup, but it’s a terrible device and the perfect example of how characters here act as puppets to the plot rather than from any organic sense of character.

Wuthering Heights is a novel of grand passions. The difficulty is that the characters are vehicles, not people. It’s easy to write that two characters love each other. I can do it now: Bill and Hannah love each other. It doesn’t make it mean anything though. Bill and Hannah are in love because I’ve said they are, but I’ve established nothing about them that makes that love meaningful.

Reading Ethan Frome, I could see why Ethan felt trapped, why his cousin Mattie was so important to him. The characters felt real, their emotions grew out of their natures and their situations in ways that were organic and true. Ethan Frome isn’t really any less contrived than Wuthering Heights, but it feels like a story that could be told in no other way and so has the quality of Greek tragedy.

In Wuthering Heights characters act as the plot demands. Of course that’s also true of Ethan Frome, and most every other plot-heavy novel ever written, but in Wuthering Heights you can see the puppeteer’s hands moving the strings. I had no sense that Heathcliff and Catherine’s situation arose out of anything other than their being written to be in that situation. I had no sense that they had lives beyond the novel (which of course no character in any novel does, but then novels are beautiful lies which in most cases at least seek to make us forget we’re being lied to while we read them).

Perhaps I was just the wrong age for this book. Were I first encountering it as an adolescent I can see that I might relate to characters motivated by sweeps of emotion which overcome their reason. I might find Heathcliff romantic (with a lower case r, he’s obviously Romantic with an upper case R), and Catherine’s dilemma interesting. I’m not adolescent though, and I couldn’t believe in them or their problems.

I’ll end on a minor positive note. The following passage reminded me irresistibly of Thomas Hardy’s Under the Greenwood Tree. The two books have nothing in common, and the Hardy while I think more successful is much less ambitious than Wuthering Heights, but the Hardy is easy to love and anything that reminds me of it is welcome.

our pleasure was increased by the arrival of the Gimmerton band, mustering fifteen strong: a trumpet, a trombone, clarionets, bassoons, French horns, and a bass viol, besides singers. They go the rounds of all the respectable houses, and receive contributions every Christmas, and we esteemed it a first-rate treat to hear them.

There it is then, Wuthering Heights. I genuinely wanted to like it, and having compared it here so much to Ethan Frome which uses very similar devices I’m slightly frustrated that all I seem to say in the end is that I didn’t like it because I didn’t think it was very good. Unfortunately, that’s where I come out, I just didn’t think it was very well written. If you read this and you disagree, think I’ve utterly missed the point, whatever, please feel free to tell me where I went wrong in the comments.


Filed under 19th Century Literature, Brontë, Emily, English Literature

She walked on in television serials very occasionally, either as a barmaid or a lady agitator.

The Bottle Factory Outing, by Beryl Bainbridge

Beryl Bainbridge is one of those writers who seem to slip out of fashion, never quite given the recognition they deserve. She was nominated five times for the Booker, never winning (except for a rather bizarre consolation prize for which nobody else was nominated). Since her death she’s remained in print, but I see relatively little discussion of her online.

Today her books are firmly marketed as women’s fiction, a category largely made up by marketers which helps shift units but at the same time pigeonholes a wide range of female authors by implying their books are essentially entertainment. There’s nothing wrong with entertainment, and there’s no dichotomy between being serious and being entertaining (several of the books I’ll soon be writing up are both). Still, if a book comes with pretty pastel covers, or faux-vintage photos of vaguely 1940s/50s-ish people against a black and white background, it’s sending a message about the contents. Much the same as if a book comes with big bold letters and a picture of a gun, helicopter or other piece of high-tech hardware.

Why do I care about all this? Well, partly because I’m a Guardian reader of course and it’s the sort of thing we care about, but mostly because while it does undoubtedly help sell books it also blocks certain books off from certain readers. So, if anyone reading this has been put off Beryl Bainbridge by the covers (the one below features two women nothing like those in the novel, and is utterly misleading), the blurbs, the impression given by all that of her work, here’s the important bit: she can write.


The Bottle Factory Outing opens with Brenda and Freda, two flatmates who decided too hastily to live together and have long since found out they have little in common. Brenda is a mouse of a woman, constantly cowed and put upon (“As a child she had been taught it was rude to say no, unless she didn’t mean it.”) . Freda is near her opposite, voluptuous and full of rather theatrical life.

They had gone once to a bureau on the High Street and said they were looking for temporary work in an office. They lied about their speed and things, but the woman behind the desk wasn’t encouraging. Secretly Freda thought it was because Brenda looked such a fright – she had toothache that morning and her jaw was swollen. Brenda thought it was because Freda wore her purple cloak and kept flipping ash on the carpet.

They share a North London bedsit and work together in a bottle factory, bottling Italian wine. Rossi, a manager, gropes Freda every day (“He had a funny way of pinching her all over, as if she was a mattress whose stuffing needed distributing more evenly.”), she doesn’t like it but she doesn’t like to say no either and she can’t get Brenda to pay enough attention to help her out. Brenda anyway is too preoccupied with the handsome Vittorio, who she is determined to have a grand romance with.

Does it sound prosaic? Initially it is. It’s also though beautifully observed and painfully funny. Here’s an example of Brenda and Freda’s domestic arrangements:

Brenda had fashioned a bolster to put down the middle of the bed and a row of books to ensure that they lay less intimately at night. Freda complained that the books were uncomfortable – but then she had never been married.

Bainbridge crafts each sentence perfectly. She has an extraordinary talent for small and cutting observations. Both Brenda and Freda are brilliantly captured. I believed in them and to an extent sympathised, which given they’re comic characters and arguably stereotypes is no small achievement. Bainbridge also has a knack for language that illuminates the everyday, but from unexpected angles (such as at one point where she describes a “block of flats, moored in concrete like an ocean liner.”, an image I adored).

Freda has organised an outing for the bottle factory employees. A van is booked, picnic lunches packed and the absent factory owner has contributed two barrels of wine for the day. Everyone is looking forward to it, everyone except Brenda who’d rather not go but doesn’t want to put anyone out.

At this point in the novel I was expecting a light observational comedy. I’d already noticed a black vein to the humour, but it was nothing compared to what followed. Obviously I won’t spoil what happens for those who may read it, but it’s fair to say that by about the half-way/two-thirds mark I was wondering what Bainbridge was trying to achieve. The essentially realist opening turned increasingly surreal as the day of the outing unfolded; the plot became less likely, the tone more vicious.

Stick with it though and Bainbridge does have a plan. Looking back the cruelty, uncertainty and bleak irony were always there, right from the beginning. Here’s the novel’s opening:

The hearse stood outside the block of flats, waiting for the old lady. Freda was crying. There were some children and a dog running in and out of the line of bare black trees planted in the pavement.

‘I don’t know why you’re crying,’ said Brenda. ‘You didn’t know her.’

It’s a collision of romance and brutal reality, as is the whole novel. Freda is self-indulgently moved by the death of an old woman she didn’t know “‘I like funerals – all those flowers – a full life coming to a close …'”. Brenda notes that the dead woman’s life didn’t look that full, seeing as she only left behind a cat and had no mourners. Brenda’s life is rather miserable, and while perhaps Freda’s is too Freda certainly doesn’t see it that way. Brenda is escaping a past, Freda is looking forward to a future even if it is one that’s largely founded on self-delusion. Of the two, if I had to choose, I’d rather be Freda.

In case there’s any lingering doubt I thought this was superb. It’s funny, disturbing and exceptionally well written. It won’t be my last Bainbridge. Thanks are therefore due to Guy Savage of His Futile Preoccupations, who turned me on to Bainbridge in the first place. Were I to compare her to any other author it would be JG Farrell, who can also make the reader laugh while showing them terrible things (I reviewed his Troubles here,  if you like one its worth trying the other).

For some other reviews of The Bottle Factory, I’d recommend this rather excellent review by Savidge Reads, this from the bibliolathas blog (particularly good for quotes) and this review by Gaskella which seems to have inspired a lot of different people to read the book.


Filed under Bainbridge, Beryl, Booker, English Literature

‘So just you take care, what you think is the heart might well be another organ.’

Oranges are not the Only Fruit, by Jeanette Winterson

LIKE MOST PEOPLE I lived for a long time with my mother and father. My father liked to watch the wrestling, my mother liked to wrestle; it didn’t matter what. She was in the white corner and that was that.

That’s the opening paragraph to Oranges, and it’s one of the best opening paragraphs I’ve read in a long while. I knew as soon as I read it that I’d like this book; that I was in safe hands.

For some reason I’ve long had the impression that I wouldn’t like Winterson’s work. She’s one of those writers who has a long shadow beyond their fiction, with a public persona that can seem arrogant and offputting (Hensher and McCarthy also spring to mind on that front). I was wrong though, because I absolutely loved this book and I’ve already bought her second novel. Winterson can write, and what’s more she has that unusual knack of writing serious fiction which is also extremely funny.


Oranges is about a girl named Jeanette Winterson, growing up in Northern England as part of a small evangelical Christian church in which her mother is one of the most important local figures. That’s also the early story of Jeanette Winterson, the writer. Does that make it autobiography? No, it just means that like many writers Winterson drew on her own life. It’s a story, and in that sense whether it happened like this or not (or not at all) doesn’t affect its truth. As Winterson observes: “People like to separate storytelling which is not fact from history which is fact. They do this so that they know what to believe and what not to believe. This is very curious.”

Jeanette’s mother divides the world into friends and enemies, and there aren’t many on the friends list. Chief of the enemies of course is the devil, but it also includes the next door neighbours, the godless generally, most of the world in fact. Her life revolves around her church, which gives her a permanent cause to fight for and an endless supply of foes to fight against.

The Missionary Report was a great trial to me because our mid-day meal depended upon it. If it went well, no deaths and lots of converts, my mother cooked a joint. If the Godless had proved not only stubborn, but murderous, my mother spent the rest of the morning listening to the Jim Reeves Devotional Selection, and we had to have boiled eggs and toast soldiers. Her husband was an easy-going man, but I knew it depressed him. He would have cooked it himself but for my mother’s complete conviction that she was the only person in our house who would tell a saucepan from a piano. She was wrong, as far as we were concerned, but right as far as she was concerned, and really, that’s what mattered.

Jeanette of course is among the friends, a virgin birth (well, adopted, which is almost the same thing). As a child she grows up steeped in bible stories, myth and history commingled and inseparable. She views the world through the lens of religion:

Our house was almost at the top of a long, stretchy street. A flagged street with a cobbly road. When you climb to the top of the hill and look down you can see everything, just like Jesus on the pinnacle except it’s not very tempting.

It all works very well indeed, until the local council notices that Jeanette isn’t at school and requires her mother to make her attend (no home schooling in those days, thankfully). It’s the first exposure Jeanette has to worldviews beyond her mother’s.

‘And why, and this is perhaps more serious, do you terrorize, yes, terrorize, the other children?’ ‘I don’t,’ I protested. ‘Then can you tell me why I had Mrs Spencer and Mrs Sparrow here this morning telling me how their children have nightmares?’ ‘I have nightmares too.’ ‘That’s not the point. You have been talking about Hell to young minds.’ It was true. I couldn’t deny it. I had told all the others about the horrors of the demon and the fate of the damned. I had illustrated it by almost strangling Susan Hunt, but that was an accident, and I gave her all my cough sweets afterwards. ‘I’m very sorry,’ I said, ‘I thought it was interesting.’ Mrs Vole and Miss shook their heads. ‘You’d better go,’ said Mrs Vole. ‘I shall be writing to your mother.’

Still, despite all these contradictions in her life (and whose life doesn’t have contradictions, however old they may be?) young Jeanette manages to balance her world at home with the wider world. To her church she’s a shining example, a young missionary with great promise. That’s what she wants, to grow up and one day take the Good Word out to the benighted peoples of the Earth. Unfortunately, not all contradictions can be reconciled. Jeanette falls in love, which might be manageable except that the person she falls in love with is another girl.

Oranges is sometimes described as a lesbian novel. Winterson doesn’t agree with that description, and she’s right not to. The key relationship here is not between Jeanette and the women she sleeps with as she grows into adulthood, it’s between Jeanette and her mother. This isn’t a coming out novel, it’s a novel about the gulf between parent and child as we come to realise that our parents may not, after all, be right about everything and definitely may not be right about us. (Well, that’s one of the things it’s about – no truly good novel is about just one thing.)

The problem Jeanette the character faces here isn’t an unusual one. She wants to be the child her mother wants, but who she is isn’t compatible with that. Here it’s because she loves the wrong people, but it could be too a child that realises they can’t face working in the family business; they want to marry outside their community or faith; they don’t want to be a doctor or concert pianist or whatever; there are so many ways parents can expect more from their children than just their happiness.

In part I actually found this quite a painful novel to read. It brought back a great many memories of my own childhood and adolescence; of trying to be someone I wasn’t and could never be. I was shy back then, terrible at sport and with no interest in it unlike my father’s side of the family who were (are) confident and naturally athletic. I was bookish, as were two of my grandparents but nobody else and the things that interested me were often so far from the interests of my family that we could barely talk to each other. I was transitional, born to a working class family but wanting more. None of this is unusual. As Winterson says: “Everyone thinks their own situation most tragic. I am no exception.”

Winterson of course, the real Winterson, left home and went to Oxford and from there became a writer. Winterson in the fiction leaves town too, escaping but at times returning, as most of us do. Few of us, however much we may wish to escape from home, truly leave it behind forever. Few of us truly wish to, because however much we may fight with our parents, our family, we love them and they us and that remains true even as we may deplore each others lives.

There is much pain here. Some people think you can have your cake and eat it. The cake goes mouldy and they choke on what’s left. Going back after a long time will make you mad, because the people you left behind do not like to think of you changed, will treat you as they always did, accuse you of being indifferent, when you are only different.

I talked above about the key relationship here being between Jeanette and her mother, and it’s that tension between expectation and love that it captures so well. To Jeanette’s mother Jeanette is unnatural, one of the Godless, damned for passions against God. Jeanette however comes to accept her nature, to be happy with who and what she is. Logically that must be a divide that cannot be bridged. How do you reconcile two such different perspectives?

Well, you don’t I suppose. Still, only in the saddest cases do parents and children remain permanently estranged. We make allowances, permit exceptions to our most vital beliefs, because the alternative would be to deny love. My maternal grandmother was a devout Catholic, in her later years she took to referring to the family as heathens for our lack of faith, but she wouldn’t have dreamt of rejecting us over so small a thing as god or the fate of our immortal souls.

I should add that Oranges is not as straightforward a novel as the (marvellous) tv adaptation of it would suggest. While most of the novel is told fairly straight, it dips from time to time into fable, stories which reflect the wider story but which introduce an element of myth into the mundane. It works, because it fits. Winterson, the real Winterson, is telling a story and there are more ways of telling a story than just saying what happened.

Oranges is a superbly written novel. I was never a lesbian growing up among Pentacostalists in the North of England but I found it resonant and unsettling for all that – it isn’t remotely limited to its own particularities. Winterson is adept at arresting turns of phrase, women with “shoulders bared and white like hard-boiled eggs”, “ripe plums of indignation”, but she’s not one of those writers who place one beautifully crafted sentence after another ending with a result that while beautiful is somehow sterile and cold. All that and she’s funny too. Frankly, I wish I’d started reading her sooner.


Filed under English Literature, Winterson, Jeanette

‘Your Loyalty is to me!’

The White Goddess: An Encounter, by Simon Gough

The line between fiction and memoir can be a tricky one. Memories are unreliable, perspectives inevitably partial. We create narratives of our past, assign meanings and interpretations, but the truth of it all is open to challenge and our truth may not be that of others who were there. Rashomon remains one of my favourite films.

The White Goddess: An Encounter is a novel by Simon Gough about, in part, his relationship with his great-uncle Robert Graves. It is, Gough says in a foreword, true in the sense that it captures the truth of what happened between them, possibly untrue in terms of precise chronology or incident. It is history then that has been turned into myth, and that’s something that I think Graves would have approved of.


In 1989 Simon Gough is a dealer in second hand and antique books. He’s been given five years to live, and he’s been invited back to Deya, in Majorca. Simon hasn’t been to Deya for nearly thirty years, not since, well, to say not since what would be giving far too much away for those who don’t already know Graves’ story.

The book cuts back swiftly to Simon’s first visit to Deya, in 1953 at the age of ten. He’s a lonely boy, from an English public school which treats him brutally. He is a nervous and rather formal child. His mother, an actress, is in Deya and he is flying to meet her there for an extended holiday. As the plane descends he starts to feel ill from the changing pressure. The stewardess checks that he’s ok:

‘Is your mother meeting you?’
The question came as such a shock that I almost forgot the pain. Of course she would! Unless she had asthma or bronchitis or something, I’d see her in a few minutes – oh, God, please make the pain go away so that she needn’t know. She’d make a fuss, get tired, cross-

I quoted that becauseI liked how much implicit context it carries. Immediately it’s obvious that Simon’s relationship with his mother is a difficult one. Simon is constantly afraid of her moods, of upsetting her or triggering her anger. It’s not that his mother’s abusive, but she is raising Simon on her own and she is deeply temperamental. He is a lightning rod for her fears and anxieties.

Deya though holds more than Simon’s mother and a bit of relaxation. It holds his great-uncle (grand-uncle, as Graves instructs Simon, “Great is for steamships and railway lines, don’t you think? Grand is for fathers and uncles, and Russian dukes, of course!”). Simon’s existence until now has been grey and painful, but Graves is a vast charismatic explosion of a man filled with life and passion and sheer vital force. He dazzles.

The White Goddess is a slow burner of a book. The first 100 pages or so didn’t particularly grab me (it’s over 600 in total). It’s not really until after around page 140 or so it really kicks into gear (Part 1 ends on page 140). Gough spends a huge amount of time painstakingly setting up his characters, his locations, ensuring that the reader can see Deya as he saw it, that they know Graves and his family and his various hangers on.

That early part of the book is made more difficult by a couple of annoying stylistic tics that Gough has as a writer. He vastly overuses italics in quoted speech. This quietens down later on but in the first 100 pages or so there’s scarcely a sentence without some italics in it telling the reader where to place the emphasis. Gough wants you to know how these people spoke, this is an act of memory after all, but I found it bludgeoning.

Similarly annoying is how characters rarely in fact do speak. Instead they grin, they gasp, they explain. Grin is actually a particular favourite. Characters grin, grinned, are grinning. Gough is planning a sequel, which I plan to read, but his editors should strike that word whenever he uses it going forward.

With all those problems why would I read the sequel? Because once the book gets going it turn’s out there’s a point to all that scene-setting. Part 1 is critical because when Simon returns in Part 2, in 1960 aged 17, you feel why this place is so important to him. You understand why Graves is so important. Sometimes a book needs a little patience, a small act of faith on the part of the reader, and this is one of those times.

Gough’s portrait of Deya makes it an attractive place, a place a ten year old might find magical. Is a ten year old’s view reliable though? Are all these people, these artists and writers and actors who hang around Graves, are they all as remarkable as they seem? As the time comes to depart back in 1953, Simon begs his mother to let them stay, to send him to school locally, to never go home again:

She took another gulp at her drink, put it down on the mantelpiece, and began to pace up and down. ‘I couldn’t bear to live here, anyway,’ she went on, in her ‘trying to be reasonable’ voice. ‘The heat, the lotus-eaters, the drunks and layabouts… the thought of becoming like them-‘

‘But Uncle Robert isn’t-‘

‘I don’t mean Uncle Robert – he’s remarkable, although how he can work in this climate defeats me – and surrounded by all these so-called writers and artists who never sell a word or a picture and live off private incomes and drink themselves into a stupor every night.

In that one little exchange everything we’ve seen of Deya is transformed. Again, that wouldn’t work without the slow buildup.

The heart of the novel comes when Simon returns, in order to attend university in Madrid. That’s when he meets Graves’ muse, Margot Callas. Margot is young (though older than Simon), beautiful, effortlessly herself. To Graves she is an incarnation of the Goddess, a mythic intrusion into reality which fuels his poetry, and he sees himself first and foremost as a poet. Graves cannot write poetry without a muse, for him poetry is both divine gift and act of worship. If Margot were to leave she would not just be taking herself away, she would be taking his art, and destroying her own purpose. Simon, of course, immediately falls in love with Margot, but then who doesn’t?

A core theme of Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time was the creation of personal myth, a myth of self that could guide one’s own life and that somehow through one’s own belief in it could become true. Graves lives steeped in myth, he wrote a book titled The White Goddess which delved deeply into the relationship between supposed-ancient Celtic belief and poetry. He sees himself as a mythic figure, the Poet with capital P inspired by the Goddess with capital G.

Graves’ force of personality is so strong that his myth sweeps up those around him, particularly the young and impressionable, like Simon. He talks of how at Deya there are no secrets, but that is just another part of his myth. Graves has no secrets, everyone else does being merely mortal. Graves is a classicist, and so his myth is classical drawing more on the traditions of Greek tragedy than the Christian arc of fall and redemption. It is the Poet’s destiny to have the Goddess withdraw her favour, to be usurped by the False Poet.

This is a haunted novel. Haunted primarily by Graves of course, who by 1989 is dead and yet still a lowering presence. Not just by Graves though. In 1953 Simon is part of a play put on for his birthday in a grotto in Deya. When practising there he feels presences, spirits, what Graves believes are ghosts of people yet to be. Myth lends meaning to landscape, not perhaps in a way that is true but in a way that is nonetheless meaningful. Were there ghosts in Deya? I don’t believe in ghosts, so I don’t believe so. Does myth have power though? Undoubtedly.

Gough is often at his best when capturing how fragments of places survive, in our memories and imaginations but also in occasional remnant pockets which preserve what was before. When Simon returns in 1960 what was once rocks and scrub is showing signs of nascent development. Just a few houses and a restaurant so far, but the signs are there of what will follow. By 1989 Majorca will be transformed. What was though remains, sleeping until we awake it by our acts of recognition.

His absence was almost as tangible as his presence, seeming to conjure him. In the sudden air of suspense I found myself holding my breath, expecting him at any moment to come crashing through the double doors, eyes staring, words half-formed, muttering to himself as he strode to his desk and grabbed his relief-nib pen, dipped it in the ink well and started to write while still in the act of sitting down-

This is, ultimately, a compassionate novel. Simon’s mother may seem the villain to him at ten, but later their relationship improves and he understands her better. Graves is impossible, his attitude to Margot possessive and suffocating (and denying her her own agency in favour of her significance within his myth), but he is also funny and brilliant and it is easy to see why he was loved. Margot is perhaps selfish, but what woman can live up to being a goddess? And of course there is Simon himself, miserable at ten and conflicted at 17, pulled between Graves and Margot neither of whom should ever have asked as much of him as they did.

The White Goddess is also a peculiarly unfashionable sort of novel. It is written as if from an earlier age, as if Maugham were still a leading writer and Greene cutting edge. It is an old man’s novel, which sounds dismissive but isn’t. It is concerned with telling what happened, long ago, truthfully if not always with precise accuracy. It is concerned with being fair, which must be difficult when one of those the author most needs to be fair to is his earlier self. It is emotional, but not sentimental, and it is kind which is no small thing.

Often I read reviews on blogs of books that form part of a series, and the blogger praises the book but when asked if they will read the sequel is uncertain. If the book is so good why wouldn’t you? The White Goddess is flawed. Gough has some stylistic habits that he should break, that do get in the way, but his story is a fascinating one and over the course of his narrative he does bring back places and people long past and brings us into their w0rld.

All these words and I’ve not spoken of Gough’s evocation of Franco’s Madrid, of his sympathetic portrait of Graves’ wife, Beryl, or his wild cousin Juan. This is a rich book that ultimately merits its length, provided you’re able to take that leap of faith with the first 100 pages or so.

I received my copy of The White Goddess as a free review copy from the publisher.


Filed under English Literature, Epics and Sagas, Gough, Simon

‘Tis my belief she’s a very good woman at bottom.” “She’s terrible deep, then.”

Under the Greenwood Tree, by Thomas Hardy

Romcoms get a bad press. They’re often seen as nothing but megaplex filler, Saturday night entertainments for the undemanding. Mostly of course that’s true.

As with anything though there are exceptions. Steve Martin’s LA Story is for me a thoroughly likeable film that’s easily borne several viewings, even though I hate every English character in it (including the female romantic lead). It’s a romcom, but it’s a good romcom. They do exist.

Thomas Hardy’s Under the Greenwood Tree isn’t of course a romcom (it predates cinema for one thing). Except, well, it sort of is. Boy meets girl. The path of true love proves bumpy. Will the boy and girl end up together in the final reel/chapter? All this against a backdrop of the impact of social change in mid-19th Century Britain as seen through the declining fortunes of a traditional church choir, facing replacement by new technology in the form of the church organ.

Hardy is a writer with a formidable reputation, perhaps for many readers too formidable as his classic status can be offputting. Some years ago my wife persuaded me to read The Mayor of Casterbridge which she was convinced I would love, and as so often she was right. The Mayor of Casterbridge is, quite simply, brilliant and utterly deserving of the word classic (and, as is true of so many classics, it’s actually not a difficult book to read at all).

More recently Emma of Book Around the Corner and Guy of His Futile Preoccupations have both been singing Hardy’s praises, and their reviews made me want to give him another try. Where better than at the beginning, with Under the Greenwood Tree, his first Wessex novel?

And, even though I didn’t read this edition but because it’s the best cover for it I’ve seen, here’s how the Oxford World Classics version looks:

The clue to Under the Greenwood Tree lies in its subtitle, “A Rural Painting of the Dutch School”. To draw analogies from another media again this is a pastoral, a romanticised and somewhat nostalgic depiction of an imagined country life.

It’s easy when reading a nineteenth century novel today to think of it as being contemporary fiction of its time, but Under the Greenwood Tree isn’t. It was written in 1872, but is set in (as best I can tell) the 1840s and it deals with the passing of country traditions that at the time of writing must already have been lost for a generation. It’s not therefore, strictly speaking, a realist novel. What it is though is a delight.

The village of Mellstock, in Hardy’s fictional county of Wessex, has a new vicar and that means change. The old vicar, much loved by all, was a respectful man who didn’t bother you if you didn’t attend church and who would never have dreamt of visiting his parishioners as they went about their business. He kept to himself, and kept church for Sundays.

The new fellow, by contrast, is always calling on people to see how they are and making an effort to get to know his flock. That’s strange enough, but much worse is that he plans to abolish the ancient Mellstock Quire (choir) – a collection of locals who sit in the upper gallery in church and play music for the congregation, as well as going round at Christmas time to everyone’s homes and playing carols whether those inside want to hear them or not.

The quire by the way play string instruments, as god surely intended:

“I can well bring back to my mind,” said Mr. Penny, “what I said to poor Joseph Ryme (who took the treble part in Chalk-Newton Church for two-and- forty year) when they thought of having clar’nets there. ‘Joseph,’ I said, says I, ‘depend upon’t, if so be you have them tooting clar’nets you’ll spoil the whole set-out. Clar’nets were not made for the service of the Lard; you can see it by looking at ’em,’ I said. And what came o’t? Why, souls, the parson set up a barrel-organ on his own account within two years o’ the time I spoke, and the old quire went to nothing.” “As far as look is concerned,” said the tranter, “I don’t for my part see that a fiddle is much nearer heaven than a clar’net. ‘Tis further off. There’s always a rakish, scampish twist about a fiddle’s looks that seems to say the Wicked One had a hand in making o’en; while angels be supposed to play clar’nets in heaven, or som’at like ’em, if ye may believe picters.” “Robert Penny, you was in the right,” broke in the eldest Dewy. “They should ha’ stuck to strings. Your brass-man is a rafting dog–well and good; your reed-man is a dab at stirring ye–well and good; your drum-man is a rare bowel-shaker–good again. But I don’t care who hears me say it, nothing will spak to your heart wi’ the sweetness o’ the man of strings!” “Strings for ever!” said little Jimmy. “Strings alone would have held their ground against all the new comers in creation.” (“True, true!” said Bowman.) “But clarinets was death.” (“Death they was!” said Mr. Penny.) “And harmonions,” William continued in a louder voice, and getting excited by these signs of approval, “harmonions and barrel-organs” (“Ah!” and groans from Spinks) “be miserable–what shall I call ’em?–miserable–” “Sinners,” suggested Jimmy, who made large strides like the men, and did not lag behind like the other little boys. “Miserable dumbledores!” “Right, William, and so they be–miserable dumbledores!” said the choir with unanimity.

At the same time, the village has a new schoolmistress, Miss Fancy Day, daughter to a wealthy local farmer. As the quire perform their annual Christmas carrolling one of its youngest members, Dick Dewy, sees her and falls immediately in love. She’s pretty, spirited, has some measure of refinement and is every inch the desirable catch. So desirable in fact that Dick isn’t the only one with an eye on her. There’s another farmer who has considerably more money and position than Dick, and who is therefore a better match, and that new vicar is in need of a wife too. Can Dick win Miss Day’s heart, and if so can he keep it? It doesn’t help that Miss Day turns out to be something of a flirt…

The romance is at the forefront of the novel, but the looming obsolescence of the choir is never far away either. Miss Day you see will be the new organist. The vicar and Miss Day are modern, forward looking, bringing new ideas and new fashions (some shocking – a hat in church!) to Mellstock. Against that what chance have a group of old men with their fading traditions and battered instruments?

Looking at what I’ve written what strikes me is how dark this novel could have been. It isn’t at all. The quire make their case for survival, but they understand that times change and they’re not resentful men. Dick has rivals better placed than him to win Miss Day, but he’s a sound lad and not daunted. Miss Day hasn’t perhaps the most constant of hearts, and is perhaps overprone to vanity, but there’s no real harm in her. This is an extraordinarily affectionate work in which there is drama, yes, but a very gentle drama. Things may change, are changing, but Mellstock will remain.

Part of what makes Under the Greenwood Tree such a joy is Hardy’s slyly humorous prose. Dick is a young man “consisting chiefly of a human skeleton and a smock-frock, who was very awkward in his movements, apparently on account of having grown so very fast that before he had had time to get used to his height he was higher.” After he falls in love with Miss Day:

It followed that, as the spring advanced, Dick walked abroad much more frequently than had hitherto been usual with him, and was continually finding that his nearest way to or from home lay by the road which skirted the garden of the school.

There’s some lovely character humour within the quire, as well as comic interplay between wives and husbands. I loved too a throwaway line when a man is late for his wedding due to some honey bees suddenly swarming – “Marrying a woman is a thing you can do at any moment; but a swarm o’ bees won’t come for the asking.” Everything is a chance for comedy, from the quire’s debate with the vicar as they argue for more time to a country dance where Dick desperately tries to get as many dances with Fancy as propriety permits (and certainly more than his main rival).

Finally, it almost goes without saying that Hardy is a master at portraying nature itself. The novel follows the seasons, from Winter through to Winter and on to Spring again (and if you’re reading this because you’ve been set this book at school and found this blog looking for something to crib off, do look at how Hardy uses seasonal and weather imagery to underline the progress of the plot and character emotions, easy marks). Here’s one final quote:

The last day of the story is dated just subsequent to that point in the development of the seasons when country people go to bed among nearly naked trees, are lulled to sleep by a fall of rain, and awake next morning among green ones; when the landscape appears embarrassed with the sudden weight and brilliancy of its leaves;

Isn’t that lovely? The whole book’s lovely, though with sufficient notes of melancholic ambiguity to prevent it becoming oversweet. If you find yourself, as I did when I picked this up, in need of a book that’s well written but in which nothing bad can truly happen (and however robust we may be, we all at times need a little escape) this couldn’t be a better choice. My wife (naturally), Emma, and Guy were all right. Hardy deserves reading.

Update: Emma of bookaroundthecorner posted a review of this the same day I did (unfortunately I accidentally deleted her pingback). Her review is, as ever, excellent and well worth reading – particularly for how it brings out the novel’s musical themes. Emma’s review is here.


Filed under 19th Century Literature, English Literature, Hardy, Thomas

some approximate memories which time has deformed into certainty

The Sense of an Ending, by Julian Barnes

I grew up, like many people, believing memory to be a sort of hologram stored in the brain. An accurate image of what was once perceived, once felt. Of course that’s not true. Memory is a reconstruction, and frequently a faulty one. As a factoid I think that’s fairly widely known now, but knowing that and feeling the truth of it are of course two very different things. We may know that our memories are not necessarily reliable, but they often seem so very definite.  Besides, without our memories who exactly are we?

That’s a question beyond the scope of this blog (though if I had to answer I’d say we’re a constellation of cognitive processes with an illusion of continuity, and that the very concept of self is deeply problematic). It’s at the heart though of Julian Barnes’ coolly distant Booker winning novel The Sense of an Ending.

The book opens with a short list of memories. not all of which the as yet unnamed narrator actually saw. Immediately we’re on warning, if one of these memories is imagined rather than real, can any of them be trusted? As the narrator says, “what you end up remembering isn’t always the same as what you have witnessed.”

From there the novel develops in two reasonably distinct halves. The first is the narrator’s (who we eventually learn is named Tony) memories of his final years at school and his early years at university. The key here is that as a reader we’re not experiencing Tony’s early life directly, we’re experiencing what he remembers it as being like which may not be the same thing at all. This is underlined, time and again, with barely a page passing without Tony/Barnes reminding the reader that none of this can necessarily be trusted (“Later that day – or perhaps another day –”, “Was this their exact exchange? Almost certainly not. Still, it is my best memory of their exchange.”).

A new boy, Adrian, joins the school and becomes a key member of Tony’s small clique of friends. They consider themselves philosophers, intellectual rebels, they look to great art and literature for inspiration and they are convinced as was I and as no doubt were many reading this that they have insights that the old and adult world never knew or has long since forgotten. They look down on those around them with all the haughty certainty of adolescence, and they look forward to lives which whatever they may be will not be like their parents, or so at least they hope.

This was another of our fears: that Life wouldn’t turn out to be like Literature. Look at our parents – were they the stuff of Literature? At best, they might aspire to the condition of onlookers and bystanders, part of a social backdrop against which real, true, important things could happen. Like what? The things Literature was all about: love, sex, morality, friendship, happiness, suffering, betrayal, adultery, good and evil, heroes and villains, guilt and innocence, ambition, power, justice, revolution, war, fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, the individual against society, success and failure, murder, suicide, death, God. And barn owls. Of course, there were other sorts of literature – theoretical, self-referential, lachrymosely autobiographical – but they were just dry wanks. Real literature was about psychological, emotional and social truth as demonstrated by the actions and reflections of its protagonists; the novel was about character developed over time.

After school they separate, as school friends tend to do, and Tony goes to university where he meets his first girlfriend, Veronica. It’s the 1960s, but one of the charms of the novel is how it brings out that for most people the 1960s is not the 1960s as we now picture it (just as having grown up in the 1980s I can testify it wasn’t for me much like the 1980s I now see on tv). If the sexual revolution is happening, it’s not happening anywhere near Tony. If people are turning on, tuning in and dropping out they’re not inviting him to do it with them. 1960s England for most is not that different to 1950s England. Our collective memories turn out to be not that reliable either.

The second half of the novel is years later, in the present. Tony is in his 60s now. He’s retired, divorced though still on good terms with his ex-wife, he has a daughter and while they’re not as close as he’d like they get along. He has a grandson he dotes on. His life is calm, comfortable, untroubled and deeply ordinary. That’s how he likes it. His teenage yearnings for more were a product of being a teenager, nothing deeper (“I would never do those things adolescence had dreamt about. Instead, I mowed my lawn, I took holidays, I had my life.”).

Tony’s existence is placid, and then he gets an unexpected bequest from Veronica’s mother who’s recently died and who he’s not heard from since an unsuccessful visit to meet Veronica’s parents decades previously. That leads him to contact Veronica, and to proof that how he remembers those years (and in particular how he remembers what lead up to a particular terrible incident) may not be quite how they actually happened.

How often do we tell our own life story? How often do we adjust, embellish, make sly cuts? And the longer life goes on, the fewer are those around to challenge our account, to remind us that our life is not our life, merely the story we have told about our life. Told to others, but – mainly – to ourselves.

I won’t talk more about the plot. What happened is interesting, but it’s not the point. The point is memory, age and the myth of self (Anthony Powell would have liked this book). Back in their schooldays Adrian challenged a history master with the idea that all one can say of history is that “something happened”. Later Adrian quotes what appears to be a French historian named Patrick Lagrange who said that “History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation” (what appears because as best I can tell Patrick Lagrange is himself fictional, whether Adrian made him up or Tony misremembers is unknowable).

As a teenager Tony looked forward to an uncertain future. Now he looks back to an uncertain past. He has his account of what happened, but of what use is that? After all, “historians need to treat a participant’s own explanation of events with a certain scepticism.” Tony sets off on a dogged quest to understand what really happened all those years ago. As a narrator though he’s hopelessly compromised. If he can’t trust his own memories, and so we as readers can’t trust his descriptions of the past, how can we trust his perceptions of events now or the conclusions he draws? The whole book becomes slippery, with all that can be relied upon being Tony’s own emotional response. Everything else is, at best, approximate.

To the extent The Sense of an Ending has a weakness it lies in its tone. At the start I called this a coolly distant novel, and that’s in large part because Tony is a rather detached figure (detached from his own life in fact). As Tony is the narrator the book’s nature must follow his, and the result is a book that can at times be hard to love. When Josipovici criticised Barnes, and other contemporary English writers, it was exactly this sort of bloodless text he was arguing against.

Against that is one simple fact. Barnes can write. The book is filled with sentences that are absolute delights, frequently very funny and sometimes cruelly telling. I loved this as a summary of a certain kind of life: “We bought a small house with a large mortgage; I commuted up to London every day.” And similarly this as a description of a certain kind of English town: “one of those suburbs which had stopped concreting over nature at the very last minute, and ever since smugly claimed rural status.” As a final brief example, I thought this line unbearably sad: “I had wanted life not to bother me too much, and had succeeded – and how pitiful that was.”

At the end The Sense of an Ending becomes a sort of detective story, but one in which the solution doesn’t really matter and anyway can never be certain. Tony tries to understand what really happened in his past, how his personal account differs from the truth, and the extent to which he was responsible for what happened.  Those are all the wrong questions though. All of them amount to an attempt to fix that which is by its nature fluid, and to ascribe responsibility.

Tony’s investigation therefore becomes a more personal search. His choices are largely behind him. His life is now set in the path it will likely stay in until he dies. He thought he knew what the future held, but it wasn’t as he dreamed. He thought he knew what the past held, but it wasn’t as he remembered. The only certainty left is death, and that before it something happened.

The Sense of an Ending has naturally been the subject of a great many reviews. Some I’d point you to are (in no particular order) by Will of Just William’s Luck, here, Kevin of KevinfromCanada here, John Self of theasylum here, Kerry of Hungry Like the Woolf here, Tom of Tomcat in the Red Room here (and if you don’t know Tom’s blog you should, it’s definitely worth checking out), and just today as I wrote this at whisperinggums here. If I’ve missed your review (and I’m sure I’ve missed some blogs I follow, I’m very late to this book), please let me know in the comments.


Filed under Barnes, Julian, Booker, English Literature, Novellas