Category Archives: Modernist Fiction

the miraculous possibility of their conjunction

Sodom and Gomorrah by Marcel Proust and translated by Kilmartin and Moncrieff

I’m not sure why Proust is so rarely described as a great comic writer. Perhaps it’s because readers focus instead on the beauty of his prose or his extraordinary psychological insight. It could be because contemporary literary culture undervalues comic fiction. I think though the real reason is that those people who read Proust know perfectly well how funny he is, but most people who discuss or refer to him don’t actually read him. See also: Joyce.

Sodom and Gomorrah

Sodom and Gomorrah kicks off with Marcel inadvertently seeing a gay hookup between M. de Charlus and a tailor named Jupien. M. de Charlus is of course one of the Guermantes; at the pinnacle of the social ladder (he frequently looks down on royalty). M. Jupien is a tradesman.

Normally two men of such disparate backgrounds would never become friends or have any kind of social contact. Homosexuality though is a bridge across such barriers. When any romance you might have is already forbidden, it doesn’t much matter if the target of your affections is the wrong class.

Proust uses this apparently trivial incident to springboard a near-40 page consideration of what he considers the miracle of gaydar (though obviously he doesn’t call it that); the misery of isolated gay men living with what they consider a shameful perversion (lacking a wider gay community to contextualise their emotions); and the vagaries of gay love and life in then-contemporary France.

If that sounds modern, it’s because Proust is quintessentially modern. That’s part of his genius. Another part though is that Proust takes these topics, shocking at the time and tragic with hindsight, and just plain has fun with them.

For the two angels who were posted at the gates of Sodom to learn whether its inhabitants (according to Genesis) had indeed done all the things the report of which had ascended to the Eternal Throne must have been, and of this one can only be glad, exceedingly ill chosen by the Lord, who ought to have entrusted the task only to a Sodomite. Such a one would never have been persuaded by such excuses as “A father of six, I’ve got two mistresses,” to lower his flaming sword benevolently and mitigate the punishment. He would have answered: “Yes, and your wife lives in a torment of jealousy. But even when you haven’t chosen these women from Gomorrah, you spend your nights with a watcher of flocks from Hebron.” And he would at once have made him retrace his steps to the city which the rain of fire and brimstone was to destroy. On the contrary, all the shameless Sodomites were allowed to escape, even if, on catching sight of a boy, they turned their heads like Lot’s wife, though without being on that account changed like her into pillars of salt.

For the rest of the book homosexuality remains a major theme. M. de Charlus is a key figure in this volume, and a brilliant comic creation with his mix of vanity, snobbery and lust (I particularly liked that M. de Charlus is widely known to be gay, but utterly convinced that he’s fooling everyone and completely incognito). Lesbianism also features heavily, but I’ll come back to that separately.

From gay sex and cross-class dating (hard to know which is more shocking), Proust goes on to nearly 130 pages describing a party thrown by the Guermantes. After all that, you’re still only a third of the way through the book.

Marcel turns up at Oriane’s uncertain as to whether or not he’s actually invited. As Oriane has burly footmen present to chuck out any gatecrashers he’s naturally a little anxious, but Marcel by now is an accomplished party-goer and something of a figure in society. He is a prized guest, much in demand.

The party itself is full of wonderful comic set-pieces. Here M. de Charlus is speaking with his excellency the Duke of Sidonia. Proust has revealed they share a common vice, but it’s not the one the reader expects:

M. de Charlus and M. de Sidonia had each of them immediately detected the other’s [vice], which was in both cases that of being monologuists in society, to the extent of not being able to stand any interruption. Having decided at once that, in the words of a famous sonnet, there was “no help,” they had made up their minds, not to remain silent, but each to go on talking without any regard to what the other might say. This had resulted in the sort of confused babble produced in Molière’s comedies by a number of people saying different things simultaneously. The Baron, with his deafening voice, was moreover certain of keeping the upper hand, of drowning the feeble voice of M. de Sidonia—without however discouraging him, for, whenever M. de Charlus paused for a moment to draw breath, the gap was filled by the murmuring of the Spanish grandee who had imperturbably continued his discourse.

Marcel passes on leaving them to their soliloquies, but having made it past the door guards soon finds himself facing another social challenge. Marcel has not been introduced to the prince, M. de Guermantes, who is hosting with Oriane. Marcel cannot of course introduce himself, but equally he must greet his host. How then can he arrange an introduction?

What follows is a series of stratagems and ruses to effect an introduction to a man Marcel has previously spoken with, but who by society’s rules he has not been introduced to. After several attempts he gets M. de Charlus to agree to introduce him, but then a chance comment offends the ever-prickly Charlus and Marcel is no closer. Then he tries Mme de Souvré, who knows both him and the prince:

Mme de Souvré had the art, if called upon to convey a request to some influential person, of appearing at once in the petitioner’s eyes to be recommending him, and in those of the influential person not to be recommending the petitioner, so that this ambiguous gesture gave her a credit balance of gratitude with the latter without putting her in debit with the former. Encouraged by this lady’s civilities to ask her to introduce me to M. de Guermantes, I found that she took advantage of a moment when our host was not looking in our direction, laid a motherly hand on my shoulder, and, smiling at the averted face of the Prince who could not see her, thrust me towards him with a would-be protective but deliberately ineffectual gesture which left me stranded almost where I had started. Such is the cowardice of society people.

The party is filled with other comic vignettes, including one man who is so fawning that he has “an excess of politeness which he maintained even when playing tennis, thus, by dint of asking leave of the eminent personages present before hitting the ball, invariably losing the game for his partner)”. There are, however, darker currents also.

At this point in the narrative, evidence is emerging that Dreyfus is in fact innocent and that senior army figures lied. Until now whether you were a Dreyfusard or an anti-Dreyfusard was more a matter of tribal allegiance than anything else; a short-hand for describing your broader politics. With evidence of innocence though, that starts to change.

Some anti-Dreyfusards faced with new facts start to question their beliefs, though mostly quietly so as not to be ostracised by their friends (there is a nice sequence where a husband and wife both form Dreyfusard views, but each keep it from the other). Some however see the weakening of their case as reason to argue it all the more strongly, such as M. de Guermantes “who evidently considered that to denounce Dreyfus as guilty of high treason, whatever opinion one might hold in one’s heart of hearts as to his guilt, constituted a sort of thank-offering for the manner in which one had been received in the Faubourg Saint-Germain”.

Worse yet, as the Dreyfus case begins to unravel the anti-semitism rife in French society becomes even more outspoken. Swann is among those who become known as Dreyfusards. His views are no longer particularly unusual, but while one cannot easily condemn a prince for Dreyfusard sympathies Swann is a Jew and one may always condemn the Jews:

“I have always been foolish enough to believe that a Jew can be a Frenchman, I mean an honourable Jew, a man of the world.”

“Don’t you see,” M. de Guermantes went on, “even from the point of view of his beloved Jews, since he is absolutely determined to stand by them, Swann has made a bloomer of incalculable significance. He has proved that they’re all secretly united and are somehow forced to give their support to anyone of their own race, even if they don’t know him personally. It’s a public menace. We’ve obviously been too easy-going, and the mistake Swann is making will create all the more stir since he was respected, not to say received, and was almost the only Jew that anyone knew. People will say: Ab uno disce omnes.”

There is of course a kind of parallel here; gays and Jews both being outsider groups having to assimilate into a dominant and intolerant culture. Ostensibly, society accepts Jews and condemns gays. Proust, however, has an unerring eye for hypocrisy and is only too aware that his society will accept gays provided they are discrete but will never regard Jews as truly French.

Following the party, Marcel goes on holiday (for several months) to Balbec. It’s his first visit since his grandmother’s death, and while to date he hasn’t really felt her loss somehow being back in that context brings it suddenly home. He can no longer knock on the wall between their rooms and expect her to come round to tend to him. He can knock all day, but she will never again answer.

Proust’s description of Marcel’s grandmother’s final decline and death was one of the highlights (if that’s the right word) of The Guermantes Way. Here Proust writes of grief with the same skill. Once it emerges it’s everywhere. Even when he feels moments of happiness, the fact of feeling happy itself triggers the grief anew as he feels guilty for not feeling sad.

Grief swallows Marcel, and through it he sees too how much his grandmother’s loss has devastated his mother. No emotion though, happy or sad, can entirely consume us indefinitely even if we would wish it to. Soon, Marcel is attending such society as Balbec presents and otherwise spending his days with Albertine, whom he may or may not love but certainly desires.

Proust contrasts the glitter of Paris society, explored in the Guermantes’ party, with the more provincial and bourgois Balbec scene. Here the Verdurin’s rule. They are a family of bourgeois who rent a highly desirable house from the Cambremer family. The Cambremer’s have title and position, but no money, and Proust has great fun with the sniping and condescension between the two.

Marcel is again in high demand (hardly surprising given his status in Paris) and soon becomes part of the Verdurin set. M. de Charlus also shows up, pursuing a romance, and himself becomes a highly prized Verdurin catch (they are however so far out of mainstream society that they ask M. de Charlus if he has ever met the famous M. de Guermantes, unaware that the two are brothers and unsure whether to believe him when told).

Marcel should then be happy. He is in his beloved Balbec; he has society and he has Albertine who being of a slightly lesser family than Marcel’s and not having much by way of money is as affectionate as he might wish. Marcel though has spent his entire life with women who catered to his whims, and as we saw in the first volume when his mother did not come immediately to tuck him in at night he takes poorly to his women (the possessive is intentional) having any kind of life beyond his needs.

In particular, Marcel becomes fixated on the thought that Albertine may be a lesbian. He finds this unbearable, less because it means she is unfaithful than because it makes her part of a world utterly beyond his control. Marcel is both jealous and unreasonable, putting her constantly to the test and never satisfied for long with the answers he gets.

I could have dispensed with seeing her every day; I was happy when I left her, and I knew that the calming effect of that happiness might last for several days. But at that moment I would hear Albertine as she left me say to her aunt or to a girlfriend “Tomorrow at eight-thirty, then. We mustn’t be late, the others will be ready at a quarter past.” The conversation of a woman one loves is like the ground above a dangerous subterranean stretch of water; one senses constantly beneath the words the presence, the penetrating chill of an invisible pool; one perceives here and there the treacherous seepage, but the water itself remains hidden.

To be fair, there is some evidence that Albertine may be gay, or at least bisexual. Partly this allows Proust to discuss gay women just as he has gay men, with Marcel obsessively seeking out information about women he has heard are lesbians so as to discover Albertine’s connections to them. Partly too this shows a less attractive side of Marcel, and his obsessive and controlling nature.

I could easily keep writing, but I’ve already written far too much. In a few weeks I’ll try to write a follow-up post on the role of the car and airplane in this volume and how these new technologies epitomise the arrival of modernity, but I’m already well over 2,000 words here and I’ve not managed to say as much as I’d have liked about the relationship between Marcel and Albertine, or the dynamics of the Verdurin set, or the comic descriptions of the hotel staff (including for me the only missed beat in the book – the hotel managers wearying malapropisms which aren’t nearly as hilarious as Proust seems to think they are), or a hundred other things…

At times I found The Guermantes Way heavy going; I had to push myself through parts of it and it tested my desire to read the whole sequence. Sodom and Gomorrah though, with its insight, its humour and its sheer richness, restored me. This was the first of my #TBR20. If I have another #TBR20 after this one, volume five will definitely be among that number.

Other reviews

Emma of Book Around the Corner has a page devoted to Proust, here. She wrote three separate pieces on this volume alone, and I recommend all of them. Her main piece is here, she wrote an article on the treatment of homosexuality in this volume here, and I found this piece on the comic nature of this volume (drawing comparisons with Molière) particularly fascinating. If you read only one of Emma’s read the Molière (then read the others, they’re worth it). Emma also helpfully links to this piece from Caravana de Recuerdos and this rather good one from Vapour Trails.

Finally, Allan Massie in The Telegraph, shows here that at least some of the more mainstream commentators do get that Proust is, among much else, a great comic writer.


Filed under French Literature, In Search of Lost Time, Modernist Fiction, Proust, Marcel

everything is harder once you reach man’s estate

 Zone, by Mathias Enard and translated by Charlotte Mandell

Zone is famously, and misleadingly, a novel in the form of a single 517 page sentence. It’s about the least interesting thing you can say about the book, and it’s not even actually true.


Francis Servain Mirkovic is travelling by night-train from Paris to Rome. He’s a French intelligence agent, formerly a Croatian nationalist fighter in the Yugoslav civil war. He’s a fascist sympathiser, a war criminal, and now arguably a traitor as his only luggage is a briefcase full of faded secrets that he plans to sell to the Vatican so that he can make a new life.

Zone follows Francis’ thoughts on the journey. Unable to sleep his mind scatters over his own past and the history of the places the train passes. Geography here is history, with near every inch of European soil the site of ancient or modern atrocities, horror and death. From time to time he dips into a novel about a Palestinian fighter, his stream of consciousness being replaced each time by the far more conventional narrative structure of that tale.

The bulk of the book, all save the three chapters where Francis is reading the novel within the novel, is stream of consciousness. Enard uses commas and natural pauses in place of full stops, so that while the narrative never quite stops (until you reach the end) it has a natural rhythm and is actually very easy to follow. Practically this means that the book does in fact have fairly clear sentences and isn’t any harder to read than most any other book, but the lack of full stops helps convey the sense of irresistible forward momentum.

History too often seems to have an irresistible forward momentum. What happens, happens, and is then left behind vanishing from view as we hurtle ever onwards into the future. If only. The reality of course is that history leaves traces that linger with us, echoes through the years and since we never learn anything from it repeats itself with changed details but a wearyingly familiar pattern.

Zone doesn’t wear its influences lightly (you really don’t need to worry much here about missing them, Apollinaire is about the only one that isn’t pretty much spelled out). Images of the Iliad in particular recur constantly, an epic poem densely packed with the tragedy and futility of war. The Trojans and Achaeans fought for money, pride and a woman, causes no less irrational than most of those which followed in future wars.

As a young man Francis was inspired by nationalist sentiment to fight in Yugoslavia, following a path of radicalisation distinctly comparable to that followed by contemporary teenagers going to join up as Jihadis in the Middle East. Francis thinks of his battles in Homerian terms, and perhaps he’s right to do so since the reality appears to have been one of lengthy waits interspersed with moments of terror and brutality, which is largely what the Iliad portrays.

Francis isn’t the cheeriest of souls:

I dreamed, sitting between two dead cities the way a tourist, swept along by the ferry that carries him, watches the Mediterranean flow by under his eyes, endless, lined with rocks and mountains those cairns signaling so many tombs mass graves slaughter-grounds a new map another network of traces of roads of railroads of rivers continuing to carry along corpses remains scraps shouts bones forgotten honored anonymous or decried in the great roll-call of history cheap glossy stock vainly imitating marble that looks like the twopenny magazine my neighbor folded carefully so as to be able to read it without effort,

By virtue of sentiment and occupation Francis looks out on the landscape and sees not the art, the social movements, the steady advances in comfort and widened opportunity, but instead the endless unmarked graves. He sees the march of industry and technology, but through the lens of two world wars, the Holocaust, the Bosnian camps and the commoditisation of carnage.

Apollo the archer of the East also guided the Turkish artillerymen near the well-guarded Dardanelles, on the banks of the Scamander, facing Cape Helles where the monument to unknown soldiers of the battle of Gallipoli stands, white as a lighthouse, you can read over 2,000 British names there for as many bodies whose remains are scattered throughout the peninsula along with the dusty bones of 1,200 unidentifiable Frenchmen from the years 1915-1916, before the Eastern Expeditionary Corps gave up and went to try its luck near Thessalonica in support of the Serbs against the Bulgarians, leaving the Dardanelles and the Bosporus inviolate after ten months of battle and 150,000 French, Algerian, Senegalese, English, Australian, New Zealanders, Sikh, Hindu, Turkish, Albanian, Arab, and German corpses, like so many Boeotians, Mycenaeans, brave Arcadians, or magnanimous Cephallenians against the Dardanians, Thracians, Pelasgians with the furious javelins, or Lycians come from afar, guided by the spear of blameless Sarpedon,

He’s right of course, ours is a bloody history. Francis was once one of those warriors, he looks back on his soldier-days and remembers companions he loved and saw maimed and killed; it was horrible but at the same time he was filled with youthful passion and purpose, he believed in something. Since then he became a bloodless functionary, recording grim secrets of uncertain importance. His briefcase is a record of testimonies of betrayals and killings across the twentieth century, lost stories destined to be locked in a Vatican archive.

Zone has been hailed as potentially one of the first truly great books of our century. I think it’s far too early to call that, but it is a thoughtful and resonant read. There’s a lot more here than statistics of slaughter. Francis’ mind turns to the three great relationships of his life, one long ended, one more recently and one that he hopes waits for him in Rome. He thinks back to his family; to his companions in Yugoslavia; to the lives and works of people like William Burroughs, Ezra Pound, Malcolm Lowry, Curzio Malaparte (he has a fondness for writers of greater talent than wisdom); reflects on the daily lives and rationalisations of Nazis as they carried out their industrialised murder.

From time to time he dips into the novel he carries, about a Palestinian fighter named Intissar who has just lost her lover to an Israeli machine gun. Francis finds Intissar’s story intensely moving, its deeply personal focus on a single woman’s struggle reminds him of his own experiences in Yugoslavia but given dramatic weight, and her loss is easier to empathise with than the mass anonymity of 3,000 years of organised killing.

Defeat begins with the feet. It insinuates itself first into the same boots that were supposed to lead to victory, the ones you’d gotten ready, for years, for the last parade. Defeat begins with the boots that you polished every morning, the ones that grew misshapen, covered with dust, the ones that kept the blood from your toes as well as they could, that crushed insects, protected you from snakes, withstood stones on the path. Physical at first, like a cramp that makes you limp, defeat is a weary surprise, you begin to stumble, in war you totter on fragile feet. Suddenly you feel what you’d never felt before, your feet can no longer run, they refuse to carry you into the attack—suddenly they’re paralyzed, frozen despite the heat, they no longer want to serve the body that owns them.

Many reviews have commented on the novel within the novel having a notably clumsier technique than Francis’ own narrative, seeing it as a pastiche of banal mainstream thrillers. I think that’s a misreading, partly as I don’t think the Intissar passages are particularly badly written but mostly as Francis makes frequent literary references pretty much every one of which is to highly regarded and influential literary figures (Tsirkas crops up a lot too, and Cavafy). Instead I think the Intissar passages are showing what Francis longs for, a narrative that even if terribly sad follows a path that makes sense, that has personal meaning and that carries at the end a possibility of redemption. Francis wants to leave his own history behind, reinvent himself as a new man in Rome, trade his briefcase of dry tragedy for a life and a future that doesn’t merely continue his past.

I let myself be carried away, page after page, and although I’ve already spent a large part of my day as an ambiguous functionary reading—notes, reports, forms, on my well-guarded screen—there is nothing I desire more then than a novel, where the people are characters, a play of masks and desires, and little by little to forget myself, forget my body at rest in this chair, forget my apartment building, Paris, life itself as the paragraphs, dialogues, adventures, strange worlds flow by,

Because Zone follows the train’s route precisely we can’t of course know what happens to Francis once he disembarks. We have only his journey; his memories, fantasies and brief dreams in snatched moments of sleep. Spend 500 pages in anyone’s skull and it becomes hard not to sympathise with them, particularly if they want to reinvent themselves, to be better than they were. He has doubts himself about the possibility of what he seeks, knowing too well his own history of incipient alcoholism and mood swings as pitilessly set forth in his own personnel file held by his agency and shown to him by a friend.

I’ll have to let myself be carried to Rome and continue the battle, the fight against the Trojans great tamers of mares, against myself my memories and my dead who are watching me, making faces

The Paris-Rome train is a metal cage crossing history but never escaping it. Francis’ own history is carried with him, chained to him as he chains his briefcase to the luggage shelf. Enard avoids any easy redemptive arc; Francis may despair of the past but he can’t let go of it, he enjoys too much the minutiae of old incidents. He knows the Iliad portrays nothing worth praising, but he’s aware too of how it makes that nothing both thrilling and majestic.

I drank as I thought of Andrija’s anger of his tears after the city fell, Andi a toast for you, for your rage that day or the next I forget when Fate sent us two prisoners after an ambush, one was wounded, the other unhurt was trembling with fear he said my father has money, my father has money, if you let me go he’ ll give you a lot of money, he was too afraid to lie, we had picked them up when they were trying to desert, I was tempted to let them run, I was about to hand them over to a grunt so he could take them to Osijek, but Andrija arrived, are you out of your mind? You forgot Vukovar already? Not one of them should escape, and he machine-gunned them at length, right away, without hesitating, looking them in the eyes, fifteen cartridges each in the chest, on my bed in the Hotel Danube a toast for Andi great shepherd of warriors, a toast for the stupefied gaze of the two little Serbs when the brass pierced them, a toast for the Vukovar cemetery in the falling night, for the Ivry cemetery one spring morning, for the soldiers of ’14, the Resistants the ones condemned to death and a toast for my pater probably a murderer neither a Resistant nor a man condemned to death who is keeping them company today, as the train slows down to enter Reggio in gentle and beautiful Emilia,

I chose that final quote because while it doesn’t reference the Iliad it reminded me of it very strongly, and I think intentionally. In one scene Ulysses takes a prisoner and promises life in exchange for information, but kills as soon as he learns what he wanted to know. In another Achilles takes a young man captive who begs for his life offering ransom and who Achilles has no reason to kill, but Achilles is mad with grief for Patroclus and kills the young man anyway. Anyone who thinks the Iliad heroic in the modern sense hasn’t read it. This passage is the Iliad reduced down from myth, stripped back to needless murder.

The difficulty here with quotes is that it’s impossible to get the sense of the sheer sweep of the book. Dark as it is it’s an enjoyable read, filled with frequent diversions (admittedly mostly on rather horrible subjects) and observations. Enard’s prose rocks the reader along; you’re travelling first class here with a writer who knows exactly what he’s doing.

I can’t say of course if Charlotte Mandell’s translation is any good or not (it never jars, but for all I know the original could be clunky as anything), but it’s a hell of an achievement. The sheer number of reviews of this book is in part a testament to how readable it actually is and how rewarding (or to how none of us dare criticise a book so highly praised, something I’m not looking forward to when I review Nora Webster which apparently everyone loves but me).

I’ll end with a brief comment on the publisher, Fitzcarraldo Editions, which is a new small press publisher in the UK with so far only four books published. Zone is exactly the sort of novel I want to see getting published in the UK. It takes risks, it tackles difficult questions of memory and history, it experiments with style without losing itself into unreadability in the process. That doesn’t mean I want more Zones; but I do want more publishers like Fitzcarraldo Editions.

Other reviews

Before I give links to some other reviews, it’s worth flagging a fascinating interview with the translator here which includes some really interesting insights into the book’s structure (including the page count being equal to the number of miles between Rome and Paris, which I hadn’t realised). If you’re cautious about spoilers it may be best leaving the interview though until after you’ve read the book, though this isn’t really a book that’s vulnerable to spoilers particularly.

On the blog front this has been very widely reviewed, particularly brilliantly by Stephen Mitchelmore at thisspace here. Other reviews I found worth noting are by Stu of Winstondad’s Blog here, at 1streading’s blog here, at the ever marvellous Workshy Fop’s blog here, and at David Hebblethwaite’s blog here, There are also of course plenty of newspaper reviews, many very good indeed. The only one I’ll link to though is Nicholas Lezard’s here, because it’s by far the most ambivalent review I’ve read of the book and so provides a nice counterpoint to the others.


Filed under Enard, Mathias, Fitzcarraldo Editions, French Literature, Modernist Fiction

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

Who in this world knows anything of any other heart – or of his own?

The Good Soldier, by Ford Madox Ford

Where to start with a book this good? This is the first book I finished in 2015, and I’ll be amazed if it isn’t on my 2015 end of year list (it would have topped my 2014 list if I’d finished it a couple of days earlier).

It opens with a stark sentence:

THIS IS THE saddest story I have ever heard.

It’s a remarkable claim, an immediate warning that the narrator may be overselling their case. Zoë Heller’s (excellent) foreword to the Vintage edition quotes a 1915 review by American novelist Theodore Dreiser, who picks out that sentence for special scorn. Dreiser saw it as ludicrously overblown, which of course it is, but he also mistook it for an authorial assertion. It didn’t seem to occur to him that the narrator might not be reliable. That makes Dreiser sound like an idiot, but perhaps it’s better seen as a mark of quite how radical this book was when it came out and how familiar readers have since become with what were once highly innovative techniques.

The narrator is John Dowell, on his account a straightforward American gentleman married to rich Connecticut Heiress Florence Dowell. John and Florence were friends for nine years with Edward and Leonora Ashburnham, an upper middle-class English couple. As the book opens that friendship is past tense – Edward and Florence are both dead and the group’s lives were shown to be a lie. John can unravel what happened, but not why. “It is all a darkness.”

You may well ask why I write. And yet my reasons are quite many. For it is not unusual in human beings who have witnessed the sack of a city or the falling to pieces of a people to desire to set down what they have witnessed for the benefit of unknown heirs or of generations infinitely remote; or, if you please, just to get the sight out of their heads.

The sack of a city, the falling of a people, again the comparisons John makes are extraordinary. Still, who wouldn’t sympathise with a man who has suffered a personal tragedy and who is now just trying to get it all straight in his head? Is it so incredible that in his grief and confusion his private sorrows seem like the end of the world? Even so, does he perhaps protest too much? Could his account be not so much an attempt to understand as to justify?


What follows is a rambling account of the time the Dowells and Ashburnhams had together. They met at a private sanatorium in Germany for heart patients (early 20th Century literature would be lost without its sanatoria). Florence and Edward though both in seeming good health are each being treated for heart conditions. John and Leonora are their apparently loving and supportive spouses. The four had an:

… intimacy like a minuet, simply because on every possible occasion and in every possible circumstance we knew where to go, where to sit, which table we unanimously should choose; and we could rise and go, all four together, without a signal from any one of us, always to the music of the Kur orchestra, always in the temperate sunshine, or if it rained, in discreet shelter.

Good form is everything to John. He constantly refers to where people are from, to their family background and the traits one can assign to the English or to Americans or to this group or that. He is a man who lives by categories, expecting everyone to behave according to his perceptions of their class and nationality. He places huge importance on what he considers “good people”.

The given proposition was, that we were all ‘good people.’ We took for granted that we all liked beef underdone but not too underdone; that both men preferred a good liqueur brandy after lunch; that both women drank a very light Rhine wine qualified with Fachingen water – that sort of thing.

Mind, I am not saying that this is not the most desirable type of life in the world; that it is not an almost unreasonably high standard. For it is really nauseating, when you detest it, to have to eat every day several slices of thin, tepid, pink india rubber, and it is disagreeable to have to drink brandy when you would prefer to be cheered up by warm, sweet Kümmel. And it is nasty to have to take a cold bath in the morning when what you want is really a hot one at night. And it stirs a little of the faith of your fathers that is deep down within you to have to have it taken for granted that you are an Episcopalian when really you are an old-fashioned Philadelphia Quaker.

The minuet then wasn’t all it seems, was in fact “a prison full of screaming hysterics”, and yet still he looks back on it as an idyll. He goes back and forth, torn. Was what they had good and true or was it rotten? If it was rotten and he didn’t know does that not mean anyway that it was good and true until he knew? He’s writing partly to answer that question, and yet is it credible that he could be quite so clueless for quite so long?

What he was clueless of was that for most of their time together Florence was having an affair with Edward, and Leonora knew. For nine years they stepped together as one, ate at the same tables, went to the same concerts, and through it all his closest friend was sleeping with his wife. Both marriages were a sham.

As he tries to unpick it all John follows associations rather than the simple order of events. He refers to things he hasn’t yet explained, and puts weight on incidents the reader has no context for. He knows he’s doing it, but he says he’s telling it as it comes to him, and that it’s perhaps a more faithful account of his thoughts and experiences precisely because it’s jumbled. Life is jumbled.

It may be that John rambles through his history because he just can’t face certain facts until he’s deep enough into the telling of it all. Alternatively, it may be that he’s manipulating the listener (reader) and ordering events to his best advantage. It’s hard to say; John’s account bears multiple interpretations.

What does become clear though is that John’s marriage was loveless from the beginning, and he was comfortable with that. He says he saw himself as a nursemaid to a sick wife, one too ill to let him into her bed, yet he seems to have been not too unhappy with the arrangement. He says her money never interested him, but he seems to have made use of it all the same. He portrays himself as a largely passionless man, unimaginative and conventional, an easy gull for “three hardened gamblers, who were all in league to conceal their hands from me”. It may be true, or he could be as good a gambler as any or even the best of them all.

As the book progresses, hints emerge that John may not be all he claims. His description of his relationship with his wife for example:

Yes, she became for me, as it were, the subject of a bet – the trophy of an athlete’s achievement, a parsley crown that is the symbol of his chastity, his soberness, his abstentions, and of his inflexible will. Of intrinsic value as a wife, I think she had none at all for me. I fancy I was not even proud of the way she dressed.

Is she then a hardened adulteress as he portrays her for much of the book; a manipulative flirt? Or is she married to a passive-aggressive (there are hints he may even be outright aggressive at times) man who has her trapped and enjoys a lifestyle that relies in part on her money? As he continues, John describes more of each of Florence, Edward and Leonora and each time he does the perspectives shift and what seemed clearly one thing becomes possibly quite another.

Edward is a deeply handsome man, attractive to women, who on the surface is a good landlord, skilled and courageous soldier and above all honourable. Privately though John describes him as a shallow sentimentalist, a spendthrift womaniser and an utter romantic too easily influenced by cheap novels. The portrait though isn’t always entirely consistent, and at times another image of Edward comes through where he seems cleverer, better read and more thoughtful.

John is in fact highly ambivalent about Edward, which is perhaps fair enough given Edward was sleeping with his wife. I started to wonder though if perhaps it wasn’t just women who were attracted to Edward or if John was too (he is after all is quite happy to be in a sexless marriage). If it’s implied it’s certainly never made explicit; it would be questionable if John himself were even aware of it. The irony is that of all the characters in this book it’s John who’s hardest to get a grip on, even though it’s him of course you spend every page with.

Leonora seems at first to be a stoic woman faithfully standing by her man, despite his many failings and the pain he causes her. She’s an English Catholic who seeks marriage advice from priests and nuns, with predictably bad results. Later she seems more controlling and Edward’s striving to break free of her becomes perhaps more sympathetic, but is that right either? Perhaps she and Edward were just terribly mismatched. Perhaps they were good people after all, not in the snobbish sense John uses the term but more fundamentally.

Perhaps the answer is that there isn’t an answer; Florence, Edward and Leonora were just people and things happened and they were all just doing the best they could. If that’s the case though that doesn’t fit well with John’s description of them as “three hardened gamblers”. Could it be that it’s not even that there were four gamblers, but in fact only one? It’s hard to know, because everything here comes through John and the more he explained the less I trusted him.

The key here is that John isn’t the neutral observer and narrator he claims to be; he was a participant in everything he describes and sometimes the only witness which increasingly makes The Good Soldier a murky read. John emphasises surface tranquility, proper behaviour and good form; everything around him though seems to be passion, confusion, fear, and of course love (the emotion he seems to most struggle with). On another reading, John is in modern terms a sociopath and as the book progresses that becomes more persuasive. Lives are ruined here, people die, and John’s bafflement could be genuine but could also be a mix of front and underlying lack of interest in the tragedies of other people.

If ever a book merited rereading it’s The Good Soldier. It’s short, but packed with possibilities. It’s beautifully written, psychologically complex and in its impressionistic approach to narrative feels much closer to portraying real human beings than most books I’ve read. Real people aren’t entirely consistent, even those we know best surprise us from time to time. Ford captures that, while most authors a century later still write characters who make sense and who therefore aren’t really entirely human.

I could have written many different reviews of this book picking up different facets or interpretations of it. It’s a masterpiece, to use a word I’ve used on this blog before but only very rarely. I plan to reread it, and to read more Ford. The word masterpiece of course can be offputting, and so too can comments about psychological complexity and unreliable narratives and modernism and so on. I’ll end then by also saying that it’s a novel that’s exceptionally rewarding yet at the same time isn’t a particularly challenging read. Quite an achievement.

The prompt to read this now came about due to a readalong between Emma of Book Around The Corner (her review is here), and Jacqui of JacquiWine’sjournal (her review is here). Both their reviews are well worth reading, not least as with a book as subtle as this more than one perspective is very valuable.


Filed under Modernist Fiction

the wild heart of life

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce

ONCE upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was coming down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo….

His father told him that story: his father looked at him through a glass: he had a hairy face.


Generally I avoid reading forewords before reading the book itself. All too often they contain massive plot spoilers, and even where spoilers aren’t an issue they can give so much direction on a book’s themes and ideas that you’re not left with the freedom to meet it on its own terms, without the weight of someone else’s scholarship. I always read them after the book, but almost never before.

The Oxford World’s Classics edition of Portrait has a great foreword, by Jeri Johnson. She’s a lecturer in English literature at Oxford University, a specialist on British and American Modernist literature. Her expertise shows. If you read Portrait, and it’s worth reading, read the foreword first. Yes, it tells you the ending, but frankly that doesn’t matter and you’ll avoid some of the utterly avoidable frustration I had with the book.

As I write this I’m going to share first my thoughts from my initial cold reading of the book, then I’ll talk a little about what the foreword showed me that I’d missed. Only a little, because I missed so much that the book demands a second reading. Besides, I don’t think it does books like this any favours if we all pretend we understood everything on a first read, it makes them too daunting, too much a challenge rather than a pleasure. As I sometimes say, literature isn’t like Pokemon, you don’t have to catch it all.

The quote above is the opening lines of the book, and they have probably on their own done more to put people off this than any reputation for difficulty. Portrait is divided into five chapters, each a snapshot of a period in the life of Stephen Daedalus, the artist as a young man. The first is him as a small child being sent off to school for the first time, tiny and uncertain. Of course, that’s a story you could tell in a very traditional way with a nice clear omniscient narrator telling us about Stephen’s thoughts and experiences, but Joyce opens with something much more interesting. It’s third person narration, but written with the vocabulary and understanding of Stephen Daedalus as a baby, as a small child.

This is the stream of consciousness often alluded to when people discuss Joyce, but it’s not quite that simple. This isn’t an internal narrative stream, as for example in Arthur Schnitzler’s marvellous Fraülein Else. That book is stream of consciousness, the entire text is the interior monologue of its central character. Here though it’s “His father told him that story” – his and him, but in his own language. It’s as if the tools Joyce has to tell his tale are those Stephen has to voice his own thoughts, and following that the language gets more sophisticated in each chapter so reflecting Stephen’s own development.

If you can get past that first paragraph, the shock of it, what follows is brilliantly written. Stephen’s mind jumps about from topic to topic, questioning a world he barely understands and making connections an adult might well struggle to follow. The language is playful, fun even, and once I’d got a sense for the style it was a pleasure to read (the rhythm of the text works better by the way if you read it with an assumed Irish accent).

The bell rang and then the classes began to file out of the rooms and along the corridors towards the refectory. He sat looking at the two prints of butter on his plate but could not eat the damp bread. The tablecloth was damp and limp. But he drank off the hot weak tea which the clumsy scullion, girt with a white apron, poured into his cup. He wondered whether the scullion’s apron was damp too or whether all white things were cold and damp. Nasty Roche and Saurin drank cocoa that their people sent them in tins. They said they could not drink the tea; that it was hogwash. Their fathers were magistrates, the fellows said.

I was particularly impressed by a bravura scene of a Christmas dinner where the adults fall to arguing about politics, a discussion Stephen doesn’t understand at all but which imprints itself on him in all its fury and increasing bitterness. It’s one of the best depictions of an argument I’ve read in fiction. It ebbs and flows. People try to make peace, then one makes one final remark and sets it off again. It grows out of all proportion and relates to matters that nobody at the table has any influence over at all. Here it’s an argument about Parnell and Kitty O’ Shea, but it could just as well be an argument about the merits of the Iraq war or government austerity measures. The details differ, the emotions don’t.

It was there though that I started to run into problems, in particular the fact that Joyce clearly expects the reader to follow the argument even if Stephen can’t. My knowledge however of early 20th Century Irish history is scant, I’d vaguely heard of Parnell though without context and never of Kitty O’ Shea, and I had to put the book down and check wikipedia to work out what the hell they were all talking about. Naturally, Jeri Johnson explains that context neatly in her foreword, which I hadn’t read.

That summarises what for me was a key difficulty with this book, one that led to me taking to twitter half-way through asking who else had read it and if they’d actually enjoyed it. There’s a lot of assumed contemporary knowledge here. Joyce assumes a broad familiarity with what would have been the Irish current affairs of the day, as well as with the broad principles of the Catholic faith.

Since half my family are Catholic and I have links to Ireland I’m probably a bit more aware of some of those currents than the average contemporary non-Irish reader, but not by much. The simple fact is that without notes there’s an awful lot in this book that’s obscure now not by virtue of the language, which is actually much easier than you’d imagine, or because of the structure or anything else a reader would normally associate with a supposedly difficult book, but simply because the world it’s set in is so very specific and so very long ago. It’s a key reason I think why this is a book more studied than read.

Once I accepted that there was simply going to be a fair bit going on that I wouldn’t understand the significance of my enjoyment of the book picked up again. Are there frequent allusions to Dante’s Inferno? There are? A shame I haven’t read it then. Are there subtleties in terms of the competing philosophies and demands of the Church and Irish nationalism? Well, even I can see that there are, even if the particulars are now as obscure to me as the debate between the big-endians and little-endians of Lilliput and Blefuscu.

The chapters that follow seem almost random in their choice of subjects, but that’s because life isn’t merely a series of this happened then that happened then something else happened. The chapters focus on key moments of Stephen’s youth, eliding over the links and gaps between one episode and the other. Generally you can fill in what’s left out, because generally it’s clear that what’s been left out is fairly ordinary. We don’t see Stephen progressing through his schools – he’s a junior at one school and next chapter a senior at another, his family having moved as their fortunes have declined, but we hardly need Joyce to tell us what it’s like to go through a few years of education particularly since the first chapter established the nature of the priest-run schools Stephen attends; the manner of tuition, the meals, routines, crimes and punishments.

Always though Joyce’s observations are acute. I’ve not felt myself inside the head of a small boy so persuasively since I was one, when of course I gave it no thought at all.

Chapter 3 contains perhaps the most obviously impressive example of Joyce’s writing. By this point in the narrative Stephen is a teenager who has taken to sleeping with prostitutes and to focusing more on his appetites than his mind. He is sent with the rest of his class to a Catholic retreat, where he is treated to an extended sermon on the properties of Hell. The speech is intended to terrify the boys, to drive them back into the protective embrace of orthodoxy and the Church. It works, Stephen is terrified, and I wasn’t surprised because it’s so well written I felt chilled myself. Here’s two long, but in the context of the whole sequence very short, excerpts:

Every sense of the flesh is tortured and every faculty of the soul therewith: the eyes with impenetrable utter darkness, the nose with noisome odours, the ears with yells and howls and execrations, the taste with foul matter, leprous corruption, nameless suffocating filth, the touch with redhot goads and spikes, with cruel tongues of flame. And through the several torments of the senses the immortal soul is tortured eternally in its very essence amid the leagues upon leagues of glowing fires kindled in the abyss by the offended majesty of the Omnipotent God and fanned into everlasting and ever increasing fury by the breath of the anger of the Godhead.


—A holy saint (one of our own fathers I believe it was) was once vouchsafed a vision of hell. It seemed to him that he stood in the midst of a great hall, dark and silent save for the ticking of a great clock. The ticking went on unceasingly; and it seemed to this saint that the sound of the ticking was the ceaseless repetition of the words: ever, never; ever, never. Ever to be in hell, never to be in heaven; ever to be shut off from the presence of God, never to enjoy the beatific vision; ever to be eaten with flames, gnawed by vermin, goaded with burning spikes, never to be free from those pains; ever to have the conscience upbraid one, the memory enrage, the mind filled with darkness and despair, never to escape; ever to curse and revile the foul demons who gloat fiendishly over the misery of their dupes, never to behold the shining raiment of the blessed spirits; ever to cry out of the abyss of fire to God for an instant, a single instant, of respite from such awful agony, never to receive, even for an instant, God’s pardon; ever to suffer, never to enjoy; ever to be damned, never to be saved; ever, never; ever, never. O what a dreadful punishment!

It’s impossible though with a couple of quotes to capture the power of this section. Paragraph after paragraph, page after page, detailed near-forensic description of the sufferings of Hell. It’s claustrophic to read, a mid-book harrowing of Stephen. For a while he even considers entering the Church himself, becoming a priest, but of course as the title of the book itself tells us that isn’t where his true vocation lies.

Language is a recurring theme in the book, even from the first chapter when Stephen is too young to be aware of how he uses it. As the book advances though he becomes more conscious of it, of words themselves and the meanings and associations they carry and of how they may be used.

Words. Was it their colours? He allowed them to glow and fade, hue after hue: sunrise gold, the russet and green of apple orchards, azure of waves, the greyfringed fleece of clouds. No, it was not their colours: it was the poise and balance of the period itself. Did he then love the rhythmic rise and fall of words better than their associations of legend and colour? Or was it that, being as weak of sight as he was shy of mind, he drew less pleasure from the reflection of the glowing sensible world through the prism of language many coloured and richly storied than from the contemplation of an inner world of individual emotions mirrored perfectly in a lucid supple periodic prose?

He falls into debates, with friends, with his dean of studies, as to the nature of art and the role of the artist. They’re often rather pretentious and adolescent conversations (Stephen at one point inwardly considers himself as “a priest of the eternal imagination, transmuting the daily bread of experience into the radiant body of everliving life”, a wonderful but rather portentous phrase), but then when he was a baby the text reflected that so is it so strange it should reflect also the grand sweeping certainties of adolescence? Whatever its level though the language remains beautiful. Here are some more scattered quotes, lines I thought worth sharing lest anyone reading this thinks the book just a clever puzzle requiring intellectual but not emotional response:

From under the wide falling leaf of a soft hat Cranly’s dark eyes were watching him.


Cranly pushed solemnly through the throng of students, linking Stephen and Temple like a celebrant attended by his ministers on his way to the altar.

Or indeed:

The park trees were heavy with rain and rain fell still and ever in the lake, lying grey like a shield.

You can see the religious imagery that runs through the book very clearly in that second quote there (and the Eucharist metaphor in the quote above about the priest of the eternal imagination). The first and third quote though, those are simply lovely, words made supple and evocative.

Portrait is a novel of an artist emerging. Stephen faces claims of nationalism, religion, bonds of family and friendship and the body’s own insistent demands and through it all devotes himself to his ideal of art. That makes it sound worthy, but it’s not because the physical is always present, because those other claims and demands are so real and vital.  I’ll include one final quote:

It was not thought nor vision though he knew vaguely that her figure was passing homeward through the city. Vaguely first and then more sharply he smelt her body. A conscious unrest seethed in his blood. Yes, it was her body he smelt: a wild and languid smell: the tepid limbs over which his music had flowed desirously and the secret soft linen upon which her flesh distilled odour and a dew. A louse crawled over the nape of his neck and, putting his thumb and forefinger deftly beneath his loose collar, he caught it.

There’s a tremendous sensuality there in those first few lines, as Stephen contemplates the girl’s smell, her “tepid limbs” and “secret soft linen” (and no prizes for guessing where his thoughts are trending when he imagines her distilling “odour and a dew” onto that linen). Suddenly though there’s that louse, a quotidian irritant intruding on his flight of desire. For me that passage contained a heart of the book (not its only heart, but certainly a heart). It’s that clash between the mind and the body, between fantasy and reality, theory and practicality. These are the issues Stephen is grappling with here, and which Joyce is addressing of course through him.

Right, I said I’d say a bit at the end about the foreword. Well, firstly I entirely failed to notice when reading the book that, as Johnson says, “Within each chapter a similar pattern of rising action can be seen: each opens with Stephen in humility and ends with him triumphant.” I’m sure it can be seen, but I didn’t see it. This is an immensely carefully structured book, and I largely didn’t pick up on that structure as I got too bogged down in unfamiliar details of faith or politics.

The foreword brings out too quite how shocking much of the book’s content would have been when first published. Joyce touches at various points on bedwetting, masturbation, family squabbles, sex, the louse of course in that final quote above, an exuberant and vulgar physicality and normality. Of course life is physical, but when this came out none of that was seen as suitable subject matter for fiction. You don’t need to know that to appreciate the book, but it’s interesting and shows one of the ways in which Joyce pushed boundaries.

More than those specific details though, Johnson gives enough background that the context makes sense to the modern reader. As I said above I’d never have run into problems with that family argument if I’d read the foreword first, Johnson gives you what you need to know to make sense of it. She analyses how the chapters fit together, how the themes emerge and develop, but not in a way that suffocates the text but rather to illuminate it. She shows how the chapters relate to phases of Stephen’s life, why those chapters are here and not other chapters that could have been included (were included it seems in an earlier unpublished version of the book). She’s like a guide pointing out the landmarks to you before you set off on a hike, telling you to look out for this river, that unusual rock.

This is a book now somewhat obscured by its own weight and history. Partly that’s because of its reputation as being difficult, as being Joyce, is now a barrier to simply reading it. Partly too though it’s because the world Joyce sets his novel in is so very particular in time and space that it can be hard sometimes simply to understand the significance to the characters within the fiction of what’s being said. The foreword helps you past that, and when I reread this (which I hope to do) it’ll be bearing those insights in mind so that next time I’m not wandering through the territory squinting at a map trying to work out which way up to hold it and wondering if I’m still on the right trail.


Filed under Irish Literature, Joyce, James, Modernist Fiction

You had such a vision of the street / As the street hardly understands;

Prufrock and Other Observations by T.S. Eliot

It’s often thought that modernism is difficult, inaccessible, not the sort of thing most readers will enjoy. When the BBC carried out a survey to discover Britain’s favourite poet though the winner was T.S. Eliot, high priest of Modernism with a capital M.

It’s not a surprise of course that the winner was a poet taught in schools, few people read poetry after school (poetry often seems more written than read). I find it a cheering result, at least partly because Eliot isn’t the easiest poet to read (though he’s not nearly as hard as his reputation might suggest). It’s certainly a much better result than the BBC’s 2003 best novel survey which came up with a top 100 list that was staggering for its obviousness and mediocrity.

I didn’t vote in the poll, but if I had I’d have voted Eliot too. The reason I’d have voted Eliot isn’t The Wasteland, masterpiece as that is, but because he wrote what is probably my favourite poem – The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.


Prufrock and Other Observations was first published by The Egoist in 1917. Nowadays there’s a lovely little Faber and Faber imprint – pocket sized and printed on good quality paper and generally a pleasure to hold (as the Faber poetry volumes tend to be).

Prufrock and Other Observations contains twelve poems of varying lengths and styles. Of these the big beast is clearly The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, but there are other stand-outs such as Portrait of a Lady; Preludes (“And then the lighting of the lamps”); Rhapsody on a Windy Night; Morning at the Window; Aunt Helen; Hysteria; La Figla che Piange; as well as arguably lesser efforts such as The Boston Evening Transcript; Cousin Nancy; and Mr. Apollinax. I suspect Conversation Gallante is also a lesser effort, but one I liked and I’ll talk a bit more about below.

There isn’t a single poem in this collection that hasn’t been the subject of exhaustive academic analysis, none of which I have read. There isn’t a poem here which hasn’t been comprehensively picked clean of references, inspirations, influences and subtexts. I don’t do this for a living though, nor do I have exams to sit, which means that I have the luxury of just reading the poems for themselves, taking from them those parts that speak to me.

Here, after an introductory quote from Dante in the Italian, are the opening lines of Prufrock:

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table;
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question. . .                               10
Oh, do not ask, “What is it?”
Let us go and make our visit.

This is profoundly alienated language – “muttering retreats”, “restless nights in one-night cheap hotels”, “Streets that follow like a tedious argument”. There’s a sense of a grubby, tawdry reality. This is an internal monologue weighed down by the futility of its own debate (I’m aware there are other argued interpretations).

What follows is a man arguing with himself as to whether or not to confess his love for a woman. He plays through the whole encounter in his mind – the journey to her, climbing up her stairs, and then the impassable barrier of indifferent decorum.

Time for you and time for me,
And time yet for a hundred indecisions
And for a hundred visions and revisions
Before the taking of a toast and tea.

The poem is rich with images taken from religion and myth – opening with Dante, referencing Hamlet, John the Baptist, Lazarus, mermaids. Against all that though is the suffocating mundanity of a room with tea and polite conversation and the sheer impossibility of breaking through to something that actually has meaning, something profound (Mr. Apollinax brings out these contrasts much more clearly, but for me to lesser effect).

The poem is suffused with desire:

Arms that are braceleted and white and bare
(But in the lamplight, downed with light brown hair!)

but there is no certainty that the desire is in any way returned. Polite Edwardian England has no place in it for passion. Prufrock, middle-aged and painfully conscious of his own absurdity, has no power to shake the age and transform it.

Eliot then shows the gap between the dream and the suffocating reality, leading to some of the most painful lines I have ever read:

Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?
I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.
I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.

I do not think that they will sing to me.

That gap, that pause for reflection between stanzas, makes the line “I do not think that they will sing to me” hit like a hammerblow. It underlines the full tragedy of Prufrock’s (far from unique) situation. It is a poem which speaks of disenchantment, not just in the obvious sense but in that referred to by Josipovici in his What Ever Happened to Modernism? Prufrock is modern, as is the world, and our old dreams are dead and all we have in their place is form emptied of substance.

Preludes and Rhapsody on a Windy Night also explore the disillusionment brought by mucky prosaicism and the sheer pain of existence among indifference, as does Morning at the Window (repeated below in full):

They are rattling breakfast plates in basement kitchens,
And along the trampled edges of the street
I am aware of the damp souls of housemaids
Sprouting despondently at area gates.

The brown waves of fog toss up to me
Twisted faces from the bottom of the street,
And tear from a passer-by with muddy skirts
An aimless smile that hovers in the air
And vanishes along the level of the roofs

Again there’s that impressionistic conjuring of the city and the urban environment, there’s that feeling of terrible isolation and there’s that wonderful and surprising juxtaposition of images – “the damp souls of housemaids”. Above all though, for me, there is disenchantment and alienation. If this were religious poetry I would talk here as I would have with Prufrock of how the sacred remains barely visible but forever out of grasp in a fallen world, but it’s not religious poetry and the world isn’t fallen because the truth is worse than that. If the world were fallen we could climb back up, be restored to grace, but grace was only ever a dream and human voices have woken us.

The last poem I’ll single out to discuss is much lighter in tone, and it’s Conversation Gallante. Here it is, also in full:

I observe: ‘Our sentimental friend the moon!
Or possibly (fantastic, I confess)
It may be Prester John’s balloon
Or an old battered lantern hung aloft
To light poor travellers to their distress.’
She then: ‘How you digress!’

And I then: ‘Someone frames upon the keys
That exquisite nocturne, with which we explain
The night and moonshine; music which we seize
To body forth our own vacuity.’

She then: ‘Does this refer to me?’
‘Oh no, it is I who am inane.’

‘You, madam, are the eternal humorist
The eternal enemy of the absolute,
Giving our vagrant moods the slightest twist!
With your air indifferent and imperious
At a stroke our mad poetics to confute — ‘
And- Are we then so serious?’

This is Eliot in much more playful form. It’s not a great poem as say Prufrock is, but it does capture nicely a certain kind of flirtatious conversation, of the woman constantly slightly ahead of the narrator. The majority of the speech is the man’s, apparently driving the conversation, but at each turn the woman outwits him and he finds his flurry of words effortlessly parried with a single line.

There is of course again here an example of the fantastic being defeated by the mundane, but for me at least without the despondency carried by the other poems. I’ve been in that situation, trying hard to impress someone who knows that’s what I’m doing and who doesn’t plan to make it easy for me, and there is an inherent comedy to it which Eliot is well aware of.

The poem illustrates one final point, which is that throughout this collection (and perhaps in Eliot’s poetry more broadly) it’s men who are sensitive and experience deep emotions for which they have no outlet. Women by contrast are sometimes attractive, but rarely reflective. Eliot is brilliant and his poetry is I think as good as art gets, but he writes firmly from a male viewpoint. Even with that though Eliot’s perception is so acute, his observations so universal, that I would have thought as many women as men would recognise themselves in his work.

In a way Eliot’s gender representations reminded me of a conversation I had years ago, where I described to a woman how as a teenager I’d sometimes been awed by girls I thought too cool to approach – utterly diminished by their impenetrably aloof beauty and unable to even speak to them. I’d naively thought it a uniquely male experience, but of course it isn’t. Her comment was that she’d had the same thing with some boys, and why wouldn’t she? Disillusion, desire, the need for something beyond the everyday, if these aren’t fundamental human experiences then what is?


Filed under Eliot, T.S., Modernist Fiction, Poetry

a style of scrupulous meanness

Dubliners, by James Joyce

Dubliners is a portrait of paralysis. In the first story it’s a literal paralysis, the last illness of a dying priest. It extends beyond him though, to a much wider moral, political and national paralysis. Both the entire collection and each story within it is superbly written and observed. It’s a book with a mammoth reputation, that even so isn’t praised as much as it should be.


Dubliners consists of fifteen short stories, told from the perspectives of increasingly mature protagonists (moving from children eventually to married adults). Some are easily read by anyone, with only perhaps the odd word of period slang to cause any difficulties. Some (particularly Ivy Day in the Committee Room) are hard to follow without at least some knowledge of 1914 Irish current affairs (which I distinctly don’t have).

This isn’t a collection where you should read one story, pause for a few days then return later to read another, spacing them out and perhaps interspersing them with other books. While there are no real links from one tale to the next there is a cumulative effect here which is greater than any of the individual parts. Each story stands alone, each is exceptional, in combination though they form a masterpiece.

Joyce’s Dublin is a colonised city, an occupied city. It’s a provincial place, not yet the Dublin of international literary fame that decades later this book in part helped it become.

Lives here revolve around three key Ps: priests, pubs and propriety. By priests I don’t mean faith – the Church is simply another social institution that provides rules to live by but no vision to be inspired by. Over the course of the stories Joyce turns his eyes to religion, politics and literature among other things, but none of it offers any real escape from a timid and tawdry Ireland.

To an extent then this is state of the nation stuff, but if that’s all it were nobody would read it now. Who cares after all about the state of a nation a century past, before its independence, before it found its own identity? Part of Joyce’s brilliance is that he shows that a nation is simply its people, and here it’s his focus on his characters’ inner experience that makes this timeless. Well, that and the writing.

Joyce enters the thoughts of children, of drunks and scoundrels, of young men and women both, of mothers ambitious for their daughters and husbands jealous of their wives’ past loves. There’s a fierce interiority here, literature as a profound telepathy taking us inside another’s experience and through it illuminating something wider.

Often much of the content of a story is left unsaid. In one, An Encounter, two boys out for the day meet a man who seems more interested in them than is entirely natural. He leaves them briefly, the strong implication being that he goes off to masturbate nearby, then he returns and the conversation moves into uncomfortable territory:

He said that if ever he found a boy talking to girls or having a girl for a sweetheart he would whip him and whip him; and that would teach him not to be talking to girls. And if a boy had a girl for a sweetheart and told lies about it then he would give him such a whipping as no boy ever got in this world. He said that there was nothing in this world he would like so well as that. He described to me how he would whip such a boy as if he were unfolding some elaborate mystery. He would love that, he said, better than anything in this world; and his voice, as he led me monotonously through the mystery, grew almost affectionate and seemed to plead with me that I should understand him.

Nothing really happens. Once or twice as a child myself I met men like that. Men who seemed to have an odd interest in talking to me, and whose chosen subjects of conversation weren’t those you’d normally raise with children. One once worried me so much I went into the nearest shop and asked the manager to hide me until he’d gone. After a while he went, so I went on my way.

The Encounter opens with children playing wild west games and reading pulp western and detective novels. The two boys go in search of real adventure, the narrator saying that “The mimic warfare of the evening became at last as wearisome to me as the routine of school in the morning because I wanted real adventures to happen to myself. But real adventures, I reflected, do not happen to people who remain at home: they must be sought abroad.”

Dublin though has no real adventure. Instead it has poverty, sectarian division, sailors who do travel to distant places but to whom the boys never speak, and a random pervert.

I could easily write 2,000 words or more just on An Encounter, and countless academics of course have. These are stories that are as rich as the time you want to give them – every one of them could easily have an essay written on it that would be much longer than the story itself. It isn’t necessary though, and arguably isn’t desirable, to approach them with antennae alert for symbolism and technique.

This quote is from the story A Little Cloud. In it a dissatisfied man with a young family meets up again with an old friend who’s made a success of himself in London since they last met.

He remembered the books of poetry upon his shelves at home. He had bought them in his bachelor days and many an evening, as he sat in the little room off the hall, he had been tempted to take one down from the bookshelf and read out something to his wife. But shyness had always held him back; and so the books had remained on their shelves. At times he repeated lines to himself and this consoled him.

I found that paragraph almost unbearably painful. There’s a whole marriage-full of needless incomprehension captured there. A popular theme in pre-pill literature was the writer’s (male writer’s, they were always men) fear of the pram in the hall; of domesticity as enemy to art and of wives who cared more about paying for the weekly shop than they did about literature or music or whatever. A Little Cloud explores that fear, but questions it too because that pram is an easy thing to blame.

Looking back at that quote, is it the wife that’s holding the protagonist back? He’s chosen family, there’s no sense here that his wife somehow trapped him. His friend made a different choice, chose adventure (overseas, again there’s no adventure to be had in Ireland). The protagonist’s wife isn’t why he isn’t living his dreams, rather he simply didn’t have the courage to live them.

Dubliners is full of these moments of private doubt and disappointment. The drama here is not some narrative arc (many, most, of the stories end without clear resolution), instead it’s born of the intensity of private emotions – emotions all the more intense for most of them never being expressed.

Joyce has a wonderful ear for dialogue, and many of these tales would work particularly well as audiobooks. In this excerpt, from the first story The Sisters, two women discuss a priest’s recent death:

My aunt waited until Eliza sighed and then said:

—Ah, well, he’s gone to a better world.

Eliza sighed again and bowed her head in assent. My aunt fingered the stem of her wine-glass before sipping a little.

—Did he . . . peacefully? she asked.

—O, quite peacefully, ma’am, said Eliza. You couldn’t tell when the breath went out of him. He had a beautiful death, God be praised.

—And everything . . .?

—Father O’Rourke was in with him a Tuesday and anointed him and prepared him and all.

—He knew then?

—He was quite resigned.

—He looks quite resigned, said my aunt.

—That’s what the woman we had in to wash him said. She said he just looked as if he was asleep, he looked that peaceful and resigned. No one would think he’d make such a beautiful corpse.

—Yes, indeed, said my aunt.

The awkwardness of the conversation, the skipping over words too sensitive to say (—Did he . . . peacefully?), the sheer banality of the sentiments expressed, it’s all of it utterly credible and utterly dispiriting because so credible. The story shows the priest as a learned man (not something you could assume of clergy back then, I’ve no idea as to now). This though is his congregation. This is what Ireland had to offer his education. There is no mystery here, no sense of some great beyond for which he was the gatekeeper. Just sherry in front rooms and the importance of things being done properly, whatever that might mean.

As I hope that quote also showed, there’s nothing stylistically daunting here. We’re not into the wilder experimental territory of Joyce’s later works. There’s depth, but accessible depth. Joyce’s descriptions are clean and matter of fact:

He had himself bought every article of furniture in the room: a black iron bedstead, an iron washstand, four cane chairs, a clothes-rack, a coal-scuttle, a fender and irons and a square table on which lay a double desk. A bookcase had been made in an alcove by means of shelves of white wood. The bed was clothed with white bed-clothes and a black and scarlet rug covered the foot. A little hand-mirror hung above the washstand and during the day a white-shaded lamp stood as the sole ornament of the mantelpiece.

He’s also a master at capturing people or places in a single telling, but often also very funny, sentence or phrase. These are from a range of stories:

He had a brave manner of coming up to a party of them in a bar and of holding himself nimbly at the borders of the company until he was included in a round.

The other houses of the street, conscious of decent lives within them, gazed at one another with brown imperturbable faces.

I thought little of the future. I did not know whether I would ever speak to her or not or, if I spoke to her, how I could tell her of my confused adoration. But my body was like a harp and her words and gestures were like fingers running upon the wires.

Her beliefs were not extravagant. She believed steadily in the Sacred Heart as the most generally useful of all Catholic devotions and approved of the sacraments. Her faith was bounded by her kitchen but, if she was put to it, she could believe also in the banshee and in the Holy Ghost.

More interestingly though, even when I didn’t understand the context of a story I often found I’d still understood the mood it was aiming for. I mentioned up front that the story Ivy Day in the Committee Room was hard to follow without a knowledge of then-contemporary politics. The story deals in issues of stillborn nationalism and the gap between current politicians and the semi-mythologised Charles Stewart Parnell who died in 1891. Parnell may well be a major figure in Irish history, but I barely recognised the name and had no idea what it meant to people in the 1910s or today.

Even so, take a look at the following paragraph:

The old man left the hearth and, after stumbling about the room returned with two candlesticks which he thrust one after the other into the fire and carried to the table. A denuded room came into view and the fire lost all its cheerful colour. The walls of the room were bare except for a copy of an election address. In the middle of the room was a small table on which papers were heaped.

I wrote a note against that which simply said “Britain after Rome”. It reminded me of the dark ages, of the sense of civilisation having left and of barbarians making fires in ruins left by better men. I’ve read up since, and it’s fair to say that’s part of what Joyce was going for. He’s a good enough writer that even though I recognised none of his references, I still felt the significance of what he was trying to convey.

It would be easy to continue, but I’m already over the 2,000 words I said I could could spend just on An Encounter, so it’s time to stop. I’ll end with a quick note on editions. I have two, the Canongate one above with the Colm Toibin introduction and a Penguin Modern Classics edition.

If you’re studying Joyce, or you’re not from the UK or Ireland and want help with what may be a lot of obscure references, then you want the Penguin version. If you’re reading as I was for pleasure then you don’t, because it has such a density of endnotes that they become an interruption to the text. The Canongate was note free, which arguably is going too far the other way. Of the two approaches I prefer the Canongate, but the Penguin notes are very helpful even if there are far too many of them (at one point an endnote explains what RIP means, which I don’t think is that difficult for most readers).

The Toibin introduction in the Canongate is exceptionally good. It has some wonderful insights (“The characters in Dubliners were consumers before they were citizens.”) and is as beautifully written as you’d expect of Toibin. The foreword is legitimately available for free at the Guardian here.

Edit: I forgot to link to Emma of Book Around the Corner’s review, which is well worth reading and which comes with an excellent discussion in the comments. It’s here.


Filed under Irish Literature, Joyce, James, Modernist Fiction

SOMEWHERE IN LA MANCHA, in a place whose name I do not care to remember

Don Quixote, by Miguel De Cervantes and translated by Edith Grossman, the first volume

How do you write about a book widely considered as being the first modern novel, the first novel in the sense in which we use that word today? A book thought by many, some of whom have even read it, as one of the greatest ever written? Well, the same way as any other I guess. Nothing kills literature faster than treating it with respect.

Emma of bookaroundthecorner has mentioned in the past having a mental category of daunting books. If ever a book fit that category, it’s Ulysses. And perhaps Gravity’s Rainbow. But however you cut it, Don Quixote is probably in the top three.

It’s not just a question of sheer physical bulk, though the Grossman translation clocks in at around 940 pages which isn’t to be sniffed at (though by way of comparison, the first two Game of Thrones’ novels alone add up to over 1,500 or so). It’s also a question of complexity, of unfamiliarity, and if I’m honest of the question of whether I’m up to a book that important.

What does it mean though to be up to a book? It speaks to us or it doesn’t. We enjoy it or we don’t. If others get more from it, well, that’s great for them but it doesn’t diminish our own experience of it (or shouldn’t anyway). If I knew more about early 17th Century Spain, about chivalric literature, about the cultural scene Cervantes was part of there’s no doubt that I’d take more from this book. That isn’t, however, a reason not to read it.


What’s odd when you start Don Quixote is of course how familiar so much of it is. Don Quixote, the old knight driven mad by his books of chivalry who imitates what he read in them as if it were all true. Sancho Panza, his loyal if not particularly bright squire. Rocinante, Don Quixote’s broken down old nag of a horse. The makeshift armour, and of course the windmills.

If it were just all that this would be a fun book, but not perhaps a great one. It’s also though a satire of contemporary politics and of popular fiction, it embraces exploration of psychology rather than mere recounting of deeds, it mixes tragedy and comedy so that as I read it I alternated between laughing and being appalled. It asks whether it’s better to live in a mediocre and indifferent reality rather than a glorious but wholly fallacious fantasy. It’s all that and more. It’s slippery.

Don Quixote inhabits a dream of a better world, a dream informed by the chivalric romances that he has read so many of (and which the book sets out to skewer, an element of satire perhaps slightly less topical now than when it was written). His is a kingdom inhabited by noble knights, beautiful and virtuous maidens, sorcerors both helpful and maleficient, giants and magical devices of great power. It is literally a wonderful place, driven by grand passions. A knight errant can do great deeds, be remembered in this world and rewarded in heaven.

Don Quixote inhabits a Spain driven by commerce and petty cruelty. His world is one inhabited by grasping innkeepers, lecherous prostitutes, irreligious priests, bandits and poverty. It is a profoundly vulgar place, driven by self-interest. A man can do what he likes and can get away with, but in the end he like everyone else will die and be forgotten.

“That’s the way,” said Sancho, “I’ve heard it said in sermons, we should love Our Lord: for Himself alone, not because we hope for glory or are afraid of punishment. But I’d rather love and serve Him for what He can do.”

It’s that contrast, the gap between Don Quixote’s shining and beautiful dream and his grubby reality, that drives the book’s comedy and its tragedy. I loved watching Don Quixote justify to Sancho Panza the absurd outcomes of their adventures by reference to evil enchanters and strange illusions and truths that only a true knight can see. At the same time, it’s hard to avoid the realisation that much of the book consists of an old man with dementia being repeatedly humiliated and beaten.  

Much of the comedy is at the character level, but there is a great deal too at a metatextual level. In one scene two characters go through Don Quixote’s library in his absence, deciding which books should be burnt as dangerous and which preserved as worthwhile:

But what’s that book next to it?” “La Galatea, by Miguel de Cervantes,” said the barber. “This Cervantes has been a good friend of mine for many years, and I know that he is better versed in misfortunes than in verses. His book has a certain creativity; it proposes something and concludes nothing. We have to wait for the second part he has promised; perhaps with that addition it will achieve the mercy denied to it now; in the meantime, keep it locked away in your house, my friend.”

Similarly, Cervantes has fun with the conceit that this isn’t actually his book but merely one that he has found and had translated  (apparently a common literary device at his time):

Saying this, and grasping his sword, and protecting himself with his shield, and attacking the Basque were all one, for he was determined to venture everything on the fortune of a single blow. The Basque, seeing him attack in this fashion, clearly understood the courage in this rash act and resolved to do the same as Don Quixote. And so he waited for him, shielded by his pillow, and unable to turn the mule one way or the other, for the mule, utterly exhausted and not made for such foolishness, could not take another step. As has been said, Don Quixote was charging the wary Basque with his sword on high, determined to cut him in half, and the Basque, well-protected by his pillow, was waiting for him, his sword also raised, and all the onlookers were filled with fear and suspense regarding the outcome of the great blows they threatened to give to each other, and the lady in the carriage and all her maids were making a thousand vows and offerings to all the images and houses of devotion in Spain so that God would deliver the squire and themselves from the great danger in which they found themselves. But the difficulty in all this is that at this very point and juncture, the author of the history leaves the battle pending, apologizing because he found nothing else written about the feats of Don Quixote other than what he has already recounted.

Cervantes loves playing this kind of game with the reader. There’s often a sense of him winking at you, commenting on what he’s doing as he’s doing it and knowingly playing with the artificiality of his form. This is not a book you can disappear into, a sort of alternate reality that offers escape from the everyday.

Gabriel Josipovici in his What Ever Happened to Modernism? argued that Don Quixote was the first modernist novel, and while so far at least I don’t fully agree with him (I think he underemphasises the traditions that Don Quixote grew out of) he does still have a point. Most fiction does present a world that the reader can escape into, a sort of Quixotean alternative to the quotidian. Cervantes denies that. As you read he reminds you that you are holding a written artefact, crafted by a person behind the narrative. Ironically Don Quixote is a novel that precludes the reader from the Quixotean experience that fiction generally offers.

I don’t want though to give the impression that reading Don Quixote is a highbrow experience. The more you dig the more you’ll get out of the book, certainly there’s more in there than I’ve discovered, but it’s also deeply rooted in physical comedy and a certain theatre of the absurd:

“… come here and see how many molars and teeth I have lost, because it seems to me I do not have a single one left in my mouth.” Sancho came so close that his eyes were almost in his master’s mouth; by this time the balm had taken effect in Don Quixote’s stomach, and just as Sancho looked into his mouth, he threw up, more vigorously than if he were firing a musket, everything he had inside, and all of it hit the compassionate squire in the face. “Mother of God!” said Sancho. “What’s happened? Surely this poor sinner is mortally wounded, for he’s vomiting blood from his mouth.” But looking a little more closely, he realized by the color, taste, and smell that it was not blood but the balm from the cruet, which he had seen him drink, and he was so disgusted by this that his stomach turned over and he vomited his innards all over his master, and the two of them were left as splendid as pearls.

This is of course only a review of the first volume. The second volume was written about ten years after the first, which means that for the book’s earliest readers this first volume was all there was. I’ve found before with major classic works that were published over a space of years that it can be much more rewarding not to try to swallow them all at once. There’s a risk of turning a book into a chore if you don’t allow yourself a break, whereas if you take it in the original installments you can have the pleasure of looking forward to the next part.

In this case I’m particularly pleased to have taken that approach. The first volume of Don Quixote contains two interpolated novellas within the text. These are stories told by characters within the narrative which bear no particular relation to the wider story. One is a tale of the perils of too rigorously testing your wife’s fidelity, while the other is a romantic tale of adventure among the Moors.  Apparently this sort of interpolated text was routine in Cervantes’ day, As the ever-helpful endnotes explain – “it was a fairly common practice to insert a romantic tale with Moorish themes into works that otherwise seemed to have little to do with either romance or the Moors.”

Unfortunately, I haven’t the faintest interest in romantic adventures with the Moors, and so I found that part of the book fairly heavy going. In the context of knowing that I was just reading the first part that was fine. There was plenty otherwise that I liked and there was an end in sight. Had I been going straight on to the second part I might have been a bit more demoralised by having to plough through a section that I just plain didn’t care about with several hundred pages to go afterwards.

My edition is the Edith Grossman translation. I’ve not read the original, but I can say that the language here is fluid and lively and a pleasure to read. The volume and content of the endnotes is well chosen – not so many that you drown in references, but illuminating and identifying elements I might have missed or explaining things that genuinely puzzled me. There’s also a nice sense of humour occasionally in the explanations, as here where Grossman explains a latin quote:

These lines are from Ovid, not Cato, and they translate roughly as “Nobody knows you when you’re down and out.”

As I write this I’m preparing to launch back in and read the second part. Perhaps that’s the best compliment I can make, both to the book and the translation. I’ve read some 450 pages so far and I plan to read another 500 or so more. I’m looking forward to them. This really is a great book, and like most great books while it can seem a little forbidding from a distance once you launch into it it’s quickly apparent why it’s lasted as long as it has.


Filed under Cervantes, Miguel de, Modernist Fiction, Spanish Literature

It was in those days when I wandered about hungry in Kristiania

Hunger, by Knut Hamsun and translated by Sverre Lyngstad

I’ve read few novels as unsparing as Knut Hamsun’s Hunger. Written in 1890 it follows the needless descent of a young writer into starvation and alienation. The novel doesn’t blink, doesn’t look away even for an instant. Put that way it can sound like a work of social critique, but it absolutely isn’t. It’s much more interesting than that.


The unnamed narrator lives in Kristiana, now known as Oslo. He survives by writing freelance newspaper pieces and pawning his few possessions bit by bit (down to the buttons on his coat). Increasingly though he’s too hungry to write, and the pawnshop gives less on each visit as he slowly works through anything he owns of any value. As time goes on he goes longer and longer without food, becomes more and more estranged from the society around him.

The book opens with him living in a dismal one room apartment, barely furnished. He’s not paid the rent in an age, and time is running out there. He has to leave, and when he packs it becomes quickly evident quite how poor he is:

I decided to buckle down at once and get going with my move. I took out my bundle, a red handkerchief that contained a couple of clean collars and some crumpled newspapers I had carried my bread home in, rolled up my blanket and pocketed my stack of white writing paper.

He finds his situation deeply embarrassing. The blanket isn’t even his, it’s a loan from a friend. As he wanders the streets desperately trying to fill the long days (“I couldn’t go to a café with empty pockets, and I didn’t know of any acquaintance I might look up at this time of day.”) he worries about how he seems to people, keen to maintain some minimum form of appearances:

Meanwhile the green blanket was an inconvenience to me; nor would it do to walk around with a parcel under one’s arm in plain sight of everybody. What would people think of me? So I wondered how to find a place where it could be left for safekeeping for a time. Then it occurred to me that I could go over to Semb’s and get it wrapped; that would make it look better right away, and there would be nothing to be ashamed of any more in carrying it. I entered the store and stated my errand to one of the clerks. He looked first at the blanket and then at me. It seemed to me he mentally shrugged his shoulders in contempt as he accepted the parcel. I felt offended. ‘Be careful, damn it!’ I cried. ‘There are two expensive glass vases inside. The parcel is going to Smyrna.’ That helped. It helped a lot. The man begged my pardon in every movement he made for not guessing right away there were important articles inside the blanket. When he had finished his wrapping, I thanked him for his help like someone who had sent precious objects to Smyrna before, and he even opened the door for me when I left.

The text follows his internal monologue, which moves from depression to euphoria as his brain fills alternately with despair or wild schemes that will restore his fortunes. Perhaps his next article will be bought by a publisher? Surely it will! He can feel now how well written it is, how subtle the thoughts and arguments in it are. Rereading it though, perhaps it’s worthless after all, and anyway he can’t finish it as the hunger causes his head to pound and blocks his focus.

Here there is no Cartesian dualism. The narrator is his body, and his body is hungry. His mind can turn away from food, but not indefinitely and as his hunger increases his character begins to erode. At first he is scrupulously honest, but how honest can one remain without food? It’s important to him to think of himself as an honourable man, but as his hunger grows so does his ability to self-justify his actions. Theft becomes a possibility, sharp dealing, the hunger eats away as much at his conscience as it does his strength. Always however, his hunger remains profoundly physical.

My hunger pains were excruciating and didn’t leave me for a moment. I swallowed my saliva again and again to take the edge off, and it seemed to help. I hadn’t had enough to eat for many, many weeks before this thing came up, and my strength had diminished considerably lately. When I had been lucky enough to get my hands on a five-krone bill by some manoeuvre or other, the money generally didn’t last me long enough for my health to be fully restored before a new hunger spell descended upon me. My back and shoulders had borne the brunt of it; I could stop that gnawing pain in my chest for a moment by coughing hard or by walking extremely bent over, but there was nothing I could do for my back and shoulders.

As the narrator’s plight continues his behaviour deteriorates. He begins to laugh when nothing is funny. Smashes his head against lampposts. Shouts meaninglessly but aggressively at strangers. He becomes paranoid. You’ve almost certainly seen people behaving like that in real life. Most of us cross the road to avoid them.

It’s easy to read this as an attack on the lack of a social welfare safety net, and of how society can ignore the artist. The thing is though, none of that is quite right. As you read it becomes apparent that there is a safety net, he’s just too proud to use it. At one point he’s locked up by the police, and in the morning they give bread to the homeless that they’ve imprisoned overnight for vagrancy. In his pride he pretends not to be homeless, to have been sleeping rough simply through drunkenness, so they don’t feed him.

Time and again he spurns possible help, too proud to accept it. His situation is terrible, but it’s not the fault of a society that will do nothing to aid its most vulnerable. That’s not what’s happening at all. Still, if it’s partly his fault (and it’s only partly, poverty itself begets poverty), does that make it less awful?

Hamsun here is making it hard for us to have the comfort of pity. One can’t read this and simply think, oh, isn’t all this shocking. Something should be done. Hamsun ultimately makes it clear that the narrator’s situation is fairly easily escaped, just not on the terms he sets for himself. That’s why I talked about the book being unblinking, what we’re examining here isn’t the society that the narrator falls between the cracks of, but his internal experience of his situation. His plans, justifications, thoughts, flights of emotion.

Hunger is famously semi-autobiographical, and because of that it’s easy too to assume that the narrator has talent as a writer since Hamsun himself does. If so, do we have a condemnation of how a bourgeois society ignores and devalues art? The text though is largely silent on how good the narrator actually is. He does write some decent pieces for some of the local newspapers, but nothing spectacular. He’s driven to write, but does that actually mean he’s good at it? Again the reader is denied the comfortable option, it becomes apparent that it’s the narrator’s idea of himself as a writer which is itself in part the source of his predicament.

Hunger then is an inward-facing novel. Time here passes not steadily, but psychologically. When the narrator has food a week can be disposed of in a sentence, then a single hungry half hour can take a page. The focus here is on the internal experience, things exists as they are perceived, not as they are in the world. Everything is seen through the prism of the narrator’s viewpoint.

The point of interest here is the process of thought, which is of course a process of language. In one scene the narrator imagines he’s created a new word, but he doesn’t yet know what it means. It’s an act of mania, and the text follows his ricocheting thoughts as they echo around his head. I’ve read plenty of novels which feature stream of consciousness, but few that capture it so accurately.

In a sense, Hunger is the collapse of 19th Century narrative fiction. The characteristics of the 19th Century novel, the detailed descriptions of the characters’ environment, the interest in social context, the godlike authorial perspective casting its gaze over a panoply of richly detailed fictional personalities, all of that is discarded here. Instead we have a descent into the self which results in the collapse of that self. The narrator is left without god, without society, without the values he called his own, ultimately even without language that he can rely on.

This edition of Hunger comes with a hugely perceptive foreword by Paul Auster. It’s well worth reading, and while it contains spoilers it’s fair to say that this isn’t really a book where knowing the ending matters. I could quote the entire foreword, and even were this not easily the best translation into English available I’d recommend this edition just to get hold of what Auster has to say. Auster describes Hunger as “existential art”, “a way of looking death in the face”, death “as the abrupt and absurd end of life.”

This is the essence of Modernism. It is the confronting of meaninglessness, an act which is intrinsically absurd since it is an attempt to bring meaning to meaninglessness, an attempt which by definition cannot succeed. At the end of his essay Auster evokes Beckett:

Hamsun’s character systematically unburdens himself of every belief in every system, and in the end, by means of the hunger he has inflicted upon himself, he arrives at nothing. There is nothing to keep him going – and yet he keeps on going. He walks straight into the twentieth century.

Of course, none of this occurs in a vacuum. I talked before about how this differs from 19th Century fiction, but that’s shorthand, because this is 19th Century fiction. It’s the strand of it though that was moving away from the dominant form of that time, and which would soon(ish) give rise to writers such as Joyce, Beckett, Woolf and indeed eventually Paul Auster. If you’ve any interest in any of them and haven’t read this, you’re in for a treat.

I’ll end with a word on translations. Get this one. There’s an 1899 translation by George Egerton which while accurate is censorious, removing the novel’s (admittedly few) erotic scenes and so fundamentally changing the tone of the book. There’s then a 1967 translation by American poet Robert Bly, which is I understand riddled with questionable interpretations, errors and outright changes. There’s a lengthy translator’s afterword here which explores the difficulties with the previous translations in forensic detail, but the upshot of it is that if you’re reading this in English then this is the copy you want.

Hunger sat on my to be read pile for some time. The prompt to finally read it came from this review by Emma of Book around the Corner. That’s the beauty of the blogosphere. What newspaper would have released a fresh review of a book from 1890, however well regarded? Emma did though, and her review inspired me and led to my discovering this extraordinary work. Blogs aren’t for me a replacement for newspaper reviews (though that’s a topic for a blog entry all its own), but they do provide something that increasingly the newspapers don’t. Breadth of coverage.


Filed under 19th Century Literature, Hamsun, Knut, Modernist Fiction

So we drove on towards death through the cooling twilight.

The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald

I reread The Great Gatsby because of the Baz Luhrmann film. Sometimes I find films can affect how I read books – a film’s interpretation can overwhelm the text stripping a myriad possible interpretations down to just one. I didn’t want when next I read the book to see Leonardo DiCaprio as Gatsby, Carey Mulligan as Daisy. The danger seemed all the greater given I like both actors and both seem to me quite astute choices for their respective parts.

As it happens, I still haven’t seen the film. That’s ok though, because any reason to reread a book as good as The Great Gatsby is a good reason.


That’s the original cover, so loved by Fitzgerald that he wrote it into the book “I had no girl whose disembodied face floated along the dark cornices and blinding signs,”.

First off, The Great Gatsby isn’t about any one thing. Ten bloggers could write ten pieces about it, each with their own take, and what’s more they could all be right. That’s part of why this is genuinely a great book. In under 200 pages it contains multitudes. For me, on this reading, the key themes were mortality and money, but on another reading I could well come back with something quite different.

Nick Carraway is a comfortably off young man just starting to make his way in the world. He’s a veteran of the Great War, now working in bonds in New York. He lives on Long Island in a small house next door to a vast mansion which hosts extraordinary parties to which much of fashionable New York and the eastern seaboard appear to be invited. His place isn’t much to speak of, but it does have “the consoling proximity of millionaires”.

Nick’s the narrator, but here’s the thing – he doesn’t narrate events as they happen. He narrates in hindsight, everything he speaks of is already gone. Everything that follows needs to be read in that light, as something past and receding into memory.

Gatsby turned out all right at the end; it is what preyed on Gatsby, what foul dust floated in the wake of his dreams that temporarily closed out my interest in the abortive sorrows and short-winded elations of men.

Over the water live Nick’s old college friends, his cousin Daisy and her husband Tom Buchanan. It’s because of them that he meets his neighbour, Gatsby, who loved Daisy years past and has kept her image inside him. Gatsby has only built his huge mansion so that he can live opposite Daisy. He only throws his parties in the hope that she might come to one. Gatsby is enthralled to a love that’s long since slipped from his grasp.

Soon Nick is part of their charmed circle, a friend to Gatsby because Nick is a route back to Daisy. Nick though is an outsider in their world, present only by chance. Gatsby and Tom Buchanan are both extraordinarily rich. Daisy grew up with money and has since married it, she knows Tom has affairs but she doesn’t leave him. Daisy and  Tom are insulated from the world by Tom’s money, settled now in Long Island but with no great attachment to it or any other place.

They had spent a year in France for no particular reason, and then drifted here and there unrestfully wherever people played polo and were rich together.

The other member of their little group is Jordan Baker, a professional golfer, Daisy’s friend and for a while Nick’s girlfriend. Jordan doesn’t have the money that Gatsby or Tom do, but she has celebrity. Nick merely has a job. If it weren’t for his connection to Daisy these people wouldn’t look twice at him. 

Few authors capture the allure of money quite so well as Fitzgerald. Here’s Daisy and Jordan at dinner:

Sometimes she and Miss Baker talked at once, unobtrusively and with a bantering inconsequence that was never quite chatter, that was as cool as their white dresses and their impersonal eyes in the absence of all desire. They were here, and they accepted Tom and me, making only a polite pleasant effort to entertain or to be entertained. They knew that presently dinner would be over and a little later the evening, too, would be over and casually put away.

There’s a tendency for people to assume that Daisy is a great beauty, a stunning creature who inspires overwhelming passions. The text though doesn’t support that. She’s certainly pretty, but so are a great many women of her set. She is a bright and attractive young woman of the upper middle classes who married well. Her charm is in part born of the utter confidence of never having to work, never having the slightest financial concern. Her voice is perhaps her best feature. Nick tries to work out quite what makes her voice so special, then it finally clicks – ‘Her voice is full of money’.

Fitzgerald captures here a truth of the jazz age. Most people never lived it. This is lifestyles of the rich and famous, 1920s style. It’s a collision of money and celebrity, washed down with champagne and soundtracked by the hottest acts of the age. Even as it’s lived it’s fleeting, and that’s part of what makes it wild because everyone knows the parties can’t last forever.

Daisy is drawn back to Gatsby, now as rich if not richer than Tom. She’s discontented, bored, and Gatsby returned is something new. The summer accelerates into disaster, Gatsby, Daisy, Tom, Tom’s affair, all an onrushing car crash that leaves shattered lives in its path.

I talked above of how Nick is an outsider, but Gatsby is too of course. The book is full of people hinting as to how he made his money, but in 1920s America the truth is it doesn’t need spelling out how a man comes from nowhere to a vast fortune. Nick describes Gatsby as “an elegant young roughneck, a year or two over thirty, whose elaborate formality of speech just missed being absurd. Some time before he introduced himself I’d got a strong impression that he was picking his words with care.” Gatsby is a showman, an imitation of a man from Daisy’s world. It’s not for nothing the book’s titled “The Great Gatsby”, with the impression that carries of Gatsby as a circus act.

Gatsby is also a gangster, an oligarch, a man of great fortune whose origins don’t bear examination. He’s obsessed with Daisy, but Daisy is in some ways more than a person to him, she’s a symbol. Daisy was the first rich girl he ever dated. That’s what made her so special. She was an ice cream on a hot day, and an emblem of an America beyond his grasp that yet he did briefly hold in holding her. That’s why it’s a mistake to think that Daisy is especially desirable. She’s vital to Gatsby because of what she was to Gatsby, money and class in a summer dress.

Gatsby is driven by nostalgia. He’s chasing a dream which he’s clothed in Daisy’s flesh but it’s not truly Daisy, and she’s not really the girl he remembers. If Gatsby were poor Daisy would never consider preferring him to Tom. Gatsby knows that, it’s partly why he’s not poor any more.

In the classic Anglo-American 19th century novel money dominates all. This is a pre-social security world, one with no safety net. The concept of ruin is often interpreted morally, and that’s part of it, but it was also profoundly fiscal. A family that fell into ruin could no longer support itself. That’s why 19th century fiction is so obsessed with incomes and dowries.

Gatsby’s world is one in transition. The Great War has swept away the old order, but the new one isn’t yet clear.At one of Gatsby’s parties Nick observes:

I was immediately struck by the number of young Englishmen dotted about; all well dressed, all looking a little hungry, and all talking in low, earnest voices to solid and prosperous Americans. I was sure that they were selling something: bonds or insurance or automobiles. They were at least agonizingly aware of the easy money in the vicinity and convinced that it was theirs for a few words in the right key.

That captures in a paragraph the decline of the UK and the rise of the US. The sweeping away isn’t complete though. There have always been Toms and Daisys, securely wealthy and sailing above change (just as their descendants continue to sail above it near a century later). Gatsby’s emerge, they occasionally manage to join the elite, but whatever happens to the new pretenders the old elite never entirely seems to fade away.

The Great Gatsby becomes then an almost forensic examination of new and old money, and of the extraordinary power of money. Tom and Daisy are rich enough to buy off consequence. They harm each other in part because nothing else can harm them. Us against the world only makes sense when the world isn’t already set up to your benefit.

They were careless people, Tom and Daisy – they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.…

Above all else, The Great Gatsby is a superbly written book. I could easily fill this piece with quotes, and what’s more with incredibly relevant quotes like the one above, which is the book in miniature. As an exercise in prose this is high art, and made all the higher by its richness in themes (most of which I haven’t even touched on) and the strength of the characters. At the same time, it’s acutely well observed, with a sharp sense of the physical and capturing small details that other novelists wouldn’t even think of let alone describe (I particularly liked how in one tense scene Nick is distracted by his underwear “cimbing like a damp snake around my legs” and of how “intermittent beads of sweat raced cool across my back” – that’s the kind of absurd detail that intrudes all the time in real life but very rarely in fiction).

I’m going to end on one final image, one that captures for me the book’s fascination with wealth. The word glamour used to mean a form of magic, a sort of illusion which seemed more real than reality itself. A glamour was a vision put by a faery or magician upon a thing to make it seem beautiful, desirable, better than muddy reality. The green light is a glamour. Daisy too is glamorous in this sense,  made magical by Gatsby’s memories of her but all the more by her husband’s wealth which keeps her free from the world and her own part in it. A belle dame sans merci.

Daisy, gleaming like silver, safe and proud above the hot struggles of the poor.

I’ve avoided reading other reviews while writing this, as I wanted to first get my own thoughts down. Here though is a piece by Sam Jordison of the Guardian about the role of mortality and the fleeting nature of experience in the novel. Here‘s another excellent piece on what makes Gatsby great, by Sarah Churchwell who recently wrote a well-received book on the Fitzgeralds, and here‘s the first of two tremendous pieces by Lorinda J. Taylor about metaphor and symbolism in the novel (a subject she’s much stronger on as a rule than I ever am). Lorinda’s pieces are quite long, but I do urge you to read them anyway – they more than repay the time required.

Finally, here is a link to one of the odder things on the internet, an NES computer game based on The Great Gatsby. You can play it directly online at this link, and you too can see if Nick can survive Gatsby’s party and the threat of newspaper boys and charlston-dancing flappers. Seriously, follow the link, it’s deeply strange.


Filed under Fitzgerald, F. Scott, Modernist Fiction, US Literature