Category Archives: Modernist Fiction

something about the darkness of the streets has a meaning

Voyage in the Dark, by Jean Rhys

This is England, and I’m in a nice clean English room with all the dirt swept under the bed.

Rhys is the poet of hypocrisy and unspoken disapproval. Voyage is the third in her series of four novels exploring the experience of women facing the indifferent cruelty society reserves for those who don’t quite fit.


Anna Morgan is a teenager recently come to the UK from the Caribbean. Her father died and her stepmother pointedly had no place for her, so to England it was. It’s not a voluntary homecoming, or any kind of homecoming at all for that matter. Anna loved the Caribbean, the warmth and colour of it. She was mostly raised by her family’s black housekeeper and (to her stepmother’s disgust) played with the mixed race children. She sees blacks as “warm and gay”, whites as “cold and sad”, which given she’s white says more about her than it does about race relations.

Anna finds England a dismal and dispiriting place. She works as an actress, barely surviving. Her outlook is bleak, as reflected in this quote where she sees a couple kissing:

A man and a girl were leaning against the railings in Berwick Square, kissing. They stood without moving in the shadow, with their mouths glued together. They were like beetles clinging to the railings.

There’s a lot to pull out there. “A man and a girl”, already a power imbalance. That image of their mouths glued together which seems to me somehow nauseating and nauseated. Then the beetle imagery. Anna isn’t a romantic. Except, of course, that she is. How can you be 18 and an actor and not be a romantic?

Anna shares a room with her friend Maudie, also a showgirl. While walking one evening they meet two men who pick them up and buy them drinks. Anna later goes to dinner with one of them at his club and sleeps with him there. It’s the price you pay for the food and company. It’s expected. He puts money in her handbag before she leaves. It wouldn’t do to give it to her directly, she’s not a prostitute after all.

The man is Walter and Anna’s relationship with him is inherently unequal. He’s older and richer. They meet at his club or other places he chooses. She loves him. He pays her rent. It’s not what Anna was looking for but it’s not as if there’s much better on offer.

Of course, you get used to things, you get used to anything. It was as if I had always lived like that. Only sometimes, when I got back home and was undressing to go to bed, I would think, ‘My God, this is a funny way to live. My God, how did this happen?’

Anna places her hopes on Walter, too young to realise what she is to him. When he dumps her he does so by having a friend write to her (cheque enclosed, naturally). It’s the Edwardian equivalent of dumping someone by text. It’s cowardly, though by his own lights Walter hasn’t behaved badly. Surely Anna wouldn’t have expected him to marry her? He treated her well when they were together, let her down as politely as he could, gave her a reasonable sum to tide her over until she finds another man. What more could he do? All he asks now is that she return any of his love letters that she may have kept so as to avoid potential future embarrassment.

Walter isn’t the only one to treat Anna shabbily. Her landladies judge her; when she visits her family in England they want nothing to do with her; her stepmother’s written her off. Anna has no skills, no contacts, nothing to offer save herself to whatever man might be interested.

In modern parlance Anna is depressed, and Voyage in the Dark is (among the many other things it is) a masterful exploration of depression as lived experience. At night she can’t keep her thoughts at bay, by day she can distract herself until the next night:

When it was sad was when you lay awake, and then it began to get light and the sparrows started – that was when it was sad, a lonely feeling, a hopeless feeling. When the sparrows started to chirp.

But in the daytime it was all right. And when you’d had a drink you knew it was the best way to live in the world, because anything might happen. I don’t know how people live when they know exactly what’s going to happen to them each day. It seems to me that it’s better to be dead than to live like that. Dressing to go and meet him and coming out of the restaurant and the lights in the streets and getting into a taxi and when he kissed you in the taxi going there.

In most books sparrows chirping would be a symbol of hope. Rhys is better than that, smarter. Here the sparrows are just another reminder of exclusion and irrelevance. Depression is a stained glass window all in grey. Everything outside is coloured by it.

The language here brings the reader within Anna’s experience. I opened a page at random while writing this piece and found a chapter beginning as follows:

There were two slices of dark meat on one plate, two potatoes and some cabbage. On the other plate a slice of bread and a lemon-cheese tart.

‘I’ve brought you up the bottle of vermouth and the siphon you asked for,’ the landlady said. This one had bulging eyes, dark blobs in a long pink face, like a prawn.

We move seamlessly from a fairly prosaic description of the meal to the line about the vermouth (which tells us that Anna is drinking) and then to the description of the landlady who has herself become a sort of unappetising food. The text is suffused with disgust. Note too that “This one”. Like the men, the landladies change particulars but not nature.

In a decade or so Anna will be Julia Martin of After Leaving Mr Mackenzie. Both live by sharing their emotions and their bodies with men who’ll move on in due course to something more permanent. Both are honest, but nobody wants their honesty. If they were of a higher social class, if they had money, they could live independently but they don’t so they can’t. That doesn’t leave many options.

At the same time Rhys avoids the simplicity of saying it’s all society’s fault. At one point Anna shares with a woman named Ethel, who tries to make a go of herself with a small business. Anna finds that incomprehensible, turning instead to Maudie and another friend Laurie who live outwardly glamorous and inwardly shabby lives wearing clothes bought for them by the men they go out with. It’s another manifestation of depression – Anna finds it easier to drift and to depend on the men she meets than to adopt Ethel’s puritan work ethic.

Novels about teenagers are usually about learning self-reliance, becoming yourself (whoever that might be), finding confidence and discovering the world. Anna discovers the world all right, but she doesn’t like it much and it doesn’t have much time for her. Later in the novel when she meets another man she reflects “My mouth smiled at him.” It’s a true but chilling line (something I could say of a great many of the sentences here). It’s ok though. He only wants her mouth smiling, that outward show. He doesn’t really care if the smile remains once he leaves the room. They never do.

Other reviews

The two I’d immediately single out are by the Lonesome Reader, here, and by Jacqui of JacquiWine’s Blog, here. Both rightly pick out the same key quote:

Soon he’ll come in again and kiss me, but differently. He’ll be different and so I’ll be different. It’ll be different, I thought. ‘It’ll be different, different. It must be different.’

Of course, it won’t be.


Filed under Modernist Fiction, Rhys, Jean

We all go down in battle, but we all come home.’

Nightwood, by Djuna Barnes

Nightwood comes praised by many of my own personal literary heroes. TS Eliot was a fan. So too Jeanette Winterson. Even William Burroughs apparently loved it. With all that to recommend it how could I not love it too?


With that opening it’s probably not a surprise to learn that I didn’t love Nightwood. I didn’t even like it very much. I’m not saying it’s a bad book, given its champions I think that would be arrogant. I’m confident though in saying that if it’s a good book I am not a good reader for it.

Nightwood opens strongly:

Early in 1880, in spite of a well-founded suspicion as to the advisability of perpetuating that race which has the sanction of the Lord and the disapproval of the people, Hedvig Volkbein, a Viennese woman of great strength and military beauty, lying upon a canopied bed of a rich spectacular crimson, the valance stamped with the bifurcated wings of the House of Hapsburg, the feather coverlet an envelope of satin on which, in massive and tarnished gold threads, stood the Volkbein arms – gave birth, at the age of forty-five, to an only child, a son, seven days after her physician predicted that she would be taken.

The child is “Baron” Felix Volkbein. His title is slightly dubious and therefore all the more fiercely clung to. He’s a man with his gaze fixed firmly on the past, intent on preserving traditions his family never had more than questionable claims on.

Note that line about “perpetuating that race”, because Felix’s is part-Jewish and here that’s indicative of character. The first third or so of the novel is filled with characterisation based on racial essentialism, common in the early 20th Century but deeply tedious here in the early 21st.

That essentialism leads to cod-philosophy like this:

It takes a Christian, standing eternally in the Jew’s salvation, to blame himself and to bring up from that depth charming and fantastic superstitions through which the slowly and tirelessly milling Jew once more becomes the ‘collector’ of his own past. His undoing is never profitable until some goy has put it back into such shape that it can again be offered as a ‘sign’. A Jew’s undoing is never his own, it is God’s; his rehabilitation is never his own, it is a Christian’s. The Christian traffic in retribution has made the Jew’s history a commodity; it is the medium through which he receives, at the necessary moment, the serum of his own past that he may offer it again as his blood. In this manner the Jew participates in the two conditions; and in like manner Felix took the breast of this wet nurse whose milk was his being but which could never be his birthright.

Which is frankly bollocks, and not particularly meaningful bollocks at that. Then you get stuff like:

The people of the theatre and the [circus] ring were for him as dramatic and as monstrous as a consignment on which he could never bid. That he haunted them as persistently as he did, was evidence of something in his nature that was turning Christian.

After a long silence in which the doctor had ordered and consumed a Chambéry fraise and the Baron a coffee, the doctor remarked that the Jew and the Irish, the one moving upward and the other down, often meet, spade to spade in the same acre.

I could pick many more examples. To be Jewish or Christian or Irish here is more than an accident of birth and culture (at one point the novel observes that Felix, being Jewish, is ” racially incapable of abandon”). Race here is a fixed part of the self. It’s the breed you belong to, as might a horse or dog.

Mercifully this sort of thing dies back after the first third of the book or so (if it didn’t I sincerely doubt this would be viewed by anyone as a classic). Felix marries Robin Vote and has a frail and sickly child by her. Robin leaves him, and the novel follows her to her relationship with Nora Flood. Felix married Robin because he thought a man of his intended station should marry by a certain age and beget heirs. Nora takes in Robin because she loves her.

Most reviews of Nightwood focus on Robin and Nora and for good reason. Nora’s passion provides everything Felix’s dry and dwindling ambition lacks. Unfortunately, Robin’s is a restless soul. Nora’s love isn’t enough to keep her and Robin starts to stay out late, to pick up other women, to push back against the comfort Nora offers. Nora pursues her but can’t hold her, and soon Robin is poached by “the squatter” in her and Nora’s lives, the aging Jenny Petherbridge.

Felix wanted Robin for reasons that were ultimately sterile, and it’s telling that the child they have is weak and unlikely to live to see adulthood. Nora loves Robin so much that she’ll let her sleep with other women, wait at home and when Robin stops coming home follow her to cheap waterside bars and into the darkness Robin seeks out. Jenny Petherbridge just wants what others have, and takes Robin because Nora has her. As for what Robin wants, who truly knows? She thinks “unpeopled thoughts”. She’s more catalyst than character, aimless and promiscuous though whether from desire or listlessness is hard to say.

Looking up after an interminable flow of fact and fancy, [Felix] saw Robin sitting with her legs thrust out, her head thrown back against the embossed cushion of the chair, sleeping, one arm fallen over the chair’s side, the hand somehow older and wiser than her body; and looking at her he knew that he was not sufficient to make her what he had hoped; it would require more than his own argument. It would require contact with persons exonerated of their earthly condition by some strong spiritual bias, someone of that old régime, some old lady of the past courts, who only remembered others when trying to think of herself.

Observer and chorus to all of this is Dr. Matthew-Mighty-Grain-of-Salt-Dante-O’ Connor, a kind of holy fool. He’s friend to Felix and counsels and comforts him when Robin leaves. He becomes friend to Nora too and in one long dark night does the same for her. He’s a garrulous Irish cross-dresser and whole pages are given to his flights of rhetoric. As Nora asks on first meeting him as he talks with Felix: ‘Are you both really saying what you mean, or are you just talking?’

He’s doing both of course. O’ Connor speaks for the sake of language itself, but there’s meaning amidst the torrent. When Nora comes to him in despair his ocean of words gives her the space for her own pain. His loquacious nonsense is a kind of mercy.

Nightwood is, above all, a novel of emotion. The characters here are damned souls driven by their own passions, the only one of them to achieve any kind of grace does so by abandoning the follies that drive them. In that they’re human, if perhaps somewhat exaggerated humans.

It’s rare for posts here (or at any blog) to get people commenting below the line in strong disagreement. It happened when I criticised Heart of Darkness (which I rather welcomed) but it happened all the more when I reviewed Wuthering Heights which I took to even less than Nightwood. The thing about Wuthering Heights is it’s a novel of sensibility, not sense. Nightwood is the same. If the passion doesn’t speak to you then you’re left with unlikely characters doing improbable things in overblown language.

One little review isn’t going to dent Nightwood’s status any more than it will Wuthering Heights. There is though a chemistry between book and reader as there is between lovers, and just as it wasn’t there for Felix and Robin it isn’t there for me and Nightwood either.

Other reviews

None on the blogosphere I know of, save for Bookslut’s rather positive one here before she abandoned blogging. She makes a comparison to Proust. I wouldn’t. Jeanette Winterson wrote a characteristically lovely foreword which is reprinted in full in the Guardian here and is worth reading. The spoilers are few and Nightwood isn’t the sort of book that would be spoiled by knowing its slender plot in any event. Winterson is insightful on the book in a way I can’t be, because it spoke to her but merely spoke at me.

As a final aside, I do find the habit in early 20th Century English novels of dropping in little bits of dialogue in other European languages immensely irritating. Here it’s occasional phrases in German, but elsewhere I’ve seen both French and Italian. Huxley loved that sort of thing and I imagine it reflects how people of a certain class spoke, but it is wearying.


Filed under Barnes, Djuna, Modernist Fiction

He should have been a great philosopher, said Mrs. Ramsay, as they went down the road to the fishing village, but he had made an unfortunate marriage.

To the Lighthouse, by Virginia Woolf

My Vintage Classics edition of To the Lighthouse comes in at 224 pages, including the introduction by Helen Dunmore. It would be easy to write a book twice that length about it.

To the Lighthouse

My first completed Woolf was Mrs Dalloway, after two unsuccessful attempts at The Voyage Out neither of which made it past the first couple of pages. I described Dalloway as “an easy and effervescent read that brims with life”, which surprised me because I’d expected something rather difficult and forbidding. Somehow despite that experience I was still daunted approaching To the Lighthouse. It’s curious how much a book’s reputation can be a barrier to it.

Lighthouse opens with the sprawling Ramsay family on holiday in Skye. Mr Ramsay is a philosophy professor, well regarded but perhaps falling slightly from fashion. His wife, Mrs Ramsay, is an extraordinarily beautiful woman largely unaware of her own beauty and who frankly could be Mrs Dalloway after some slightly different life choices.

With them are their many children and guests, most notable in memory their youngest son James who has set his heart on going to the lighthouse the next day and is cruelly disappointed by indifferent adults commenting that the weather will forbid it. Among the guests are Lily Briscoe, a self-doubting amateur painter who may have genuine talent; Charles Tansley, an abrasive young man insecure by reason of his impoverished background; Augustus Carmicheal, a minor poet.

I could pick any of several themes to discuss, but the one that stands out for me as I write this today is the question of what makes a life worthwhile. For James the answer is simple – the much promised trip to the lighthouse. He has the relentless focus of a small child. His whole hopes are invested in that one thing and yet he has no influence at all on whether it happens.

Others’ dreams are more complex, though perhaps no more within their power. Mr Ramsay obsesses on how his work will be remembered by posterity. He’s a vain man, his success and praises to date insufficient bulwark against his ever-encroaching insecurity. He knows his most recent book was not his best.

One in a generation. Is he to be blamed then if he is not that one? provided he has toiled honestly, given to the best of his power, till he has no more left to give? And his fame lasts how long? It is permissible even for a dying hero to think before he dies how men will speak of him hereafter. His fame lasts perhaps two thousand years. And what are two thousand years? (asked Mr. Ramsay ironically, staring at the hedge). What, indeed, if you look from a mountain-top down the long wastes of the ages? The very stone one kicks with one’s boot will outlast Shakespeare. His own little light would shine, not very brightly, for a year or two, and would then be merged in some bigger light, and that in a bigger still. (He looked into the darkness, into the intricacy of the twigs.)

Mrs Ramsay has her own fears and disappointments, but her sphere is firmly domestic. She comforts her husband when he despairs of being remembered and tries to bask in the reflected glory of the intensity of his intellect (yet each time we dip into his thoughts, they are on his legacy, not some great work). She looks to arrange marriages among her guests, seeks to preserve her children’s happiness which she knows cannot last into adulthood. She is the rock the family stands on, a light guiding them through stormy seas (you could write another book no doubt on the symbolism of the lighthouse itself…)

The marriages that happen do so without her help, those she seeks to bring about come to nothing. Her children’s happiness in the case of James can be dashed with a harsh word from the bumptious Tansley, and in the case of the older children is moving beyond her reach. Her husband’s dependence on her reassurance is a sign of a smallness in him, a truth she tries not to recognise.

Universities and people wanting him, lectures and books and their being of the highest importance—all that she did not doubt for a moment; but it was their relation, and his coming to her like that, openly, so that anyone could see, that discomposed her; for then people said he depended on her, when they must know that of the two he was infinitely the more important, and what she gave the world, in comparison with what he gave, negligible. But then again, it was the other thing too—not being able to tell him the truth, being afraid, for instance, about the greenhouse roof and the expense it would be, fifty pounds perhaps, to mend it; and then about his books, to be afraid that he might guess, what she a little suspected, that his last book was not quite his best book (she gathered that from William Bankes); and then to hide small daily things, and the children seeing it, and the burden it laid on them—all this diminished the entire joy, the pure joy, of the two notes sounding together, and let the sound die on her ear now with a dismal flatness.

And yet. What marriage is perfect? We see inside the Ramsay’s thoughts and so we see their failings, but that’s not the whole story. There’s the broader picture too: husband and wife; parents and children; the noise and chaos and love of a large family. The Ramsays are enviable, even if they don’t know it.

From her interior monologues it’s clear that Mrs Ramsay is intelligent, perhaps more so than her husband. She’s alive to beauty and is psychologically astute, but she has no outlet for any of it which is why she spends her days trying to pair up others perhaps so that by replicating her choices they validate them.

BUT WHAT HAVE I done with my life? thought Mrs. Ramsay, taking her place at the head of the table, and looking at all the plates making white circles on it.

Lily Briscoe isn’t a beauty, which in Edwardian Britain would generally be a distinct disadvantage save that Lily’s ambitions lie in her art. She wants to capture a relationship between objects, to solve a problem in a painting, yet doubts she has the ability. Tansley crushes her with a cruel remark that women can’t write or paint. Her confidence is so fragile he dents her even though even he doesn’t seem to believe what he says and in any event plainly knows nothing of either. She can’t bear anyone looking at her canvas.

Every sign in the book points to Lily having talent, but nothing supports her in it. She’s a woman; she doesn’t have the luxury Mr Ramsay has of a Mrs Ramsay to calm her fears. Still, she persists. Mr Ramsay wants immortality from his work; for Lily Briscoe the work itself is enough and she just wants to be true to her vision. The aging Mr Carmicheal meanwhile finds himself somewhere between the two, becoming recognised as a famous poet but seemingly just as comfortable as he was when uncelebrated.

Woolf’s prose continues to have moments of breathtaking beauty:

So she looked over her shoulder, at the town. The lights were rippling and running as if they were drops of silver water held firm in a wind. And all the poverty, all the suffering had turned to that, Mrs. Ramsay thought. The lights of the town and of the harbour and of the boats seemed like a phantom net floating there to mark something which had sunk.

All this written, and I’m not even a third of the way into the novel. Death intervenes, and more death with the war. The second section of the book shifts to an omniscient narrator quietly recording the gentle decay of the Ramsay’s neglected holiday home. The tone becomes elegiac, with occasional square-bracketed asides that reminded me of the muttered asides in Eliot’s poetry:

So some random light directing them from some uncovered star, or wandering ship, or the Lighthouse even, with its pale footfall upon stair and mat, the little airs mounted the staircase and nosed round bedroom doors. But here surely, they must cease. Whatever else may perish and disappear what lies here is steadfast. Here one might say to those sliding lights, those fumbling airs, that breathe and bend over the bed itself, here you can neither touch nor destroy. Upon which, wearily, ghostily, as if they had feather-light fingers and the light persistency of feathers, they would look, once, on the shut eyes and the loosely clasping fingers, and fold their garments wearily and disappear. And so, nosing, rubbing, they went to the window on the staircase, to the servants’ bedrooms, to the boxes in the attics; descending, blanched the apples on the dining-room table, fumbled the petals of roses, tried the picture on the easel, brushed the mat and blew a little sand along the floor. At length, desisting, all ceased together, gathered together, all sighed together; all together gave off an aimless gust of lamentation to which some door in the kitchen replied; swung wide; admitted nothing; and slammed to.

[Here Mr. Carmichael, who was reading Virgil, blew out his candle. It was past midnight.]

In the third section the family return, some ten years later. War and illness have reduced their number, and their relationships have shifted accordingly. Mr Ramsay, tyrant of the first section through his own need rather than any cruelty, is both reduced and yet made better too. He takes James to the lighthouse, praises him for how he manages the tiller on their boat. He has learned to make space for others. He is human, as are they all.

Other reviews

Grant of 1streading reviews it here. I had the advantage of not knowing a major story development around the half way mark of the novel and my ignorance definitely enhanced its impact. Grant assumes (fairly) that most readers are probably aware of the broad thrust of the story and so discusses that element in his first paragraph. I chose not to since I figured if I didn’t know it others might not, but by taking knowledge of the story as a given Grant does give himself more freedom to discuss some fairly key themes which I wasn’t able to explore here as much as I’d have liked.

Grant’s also spot on in saying that there’s no real sense here of the Isle of Skye as a place, but then place isn’t really Woolf’s focus. With this intensity of character and emotion, a certain shallowness of geography isn’t a serious flaw.

On a wholly unrelated note, until I ran a spellcheck on this post I honestly always thought elegiac was spelled elegaic (which still looks right to me on the page). I also thought it was a hard g (which is still how it sounds inside my head). Such are the perils of being largely self-educated. It rather makes me sympathise a bit more with poor Tansley.


Filed under Modernist Fiction, Woolf, Virginia

The lights of the cafés were hard and cold, like ice.

After Leaving Mr Mackenzie by Jean Rhys

Jean Rhys is one of the great writers of the 20th Century. She wrote four novels which are in some senses the same novel, but she’s hardly the only author to keep returning to the same territory. Like Patrick Hamilton she doesn’t flinch from the indifferent cruelty of the comfortable to the marginal.


That’s a pretty much perfect cover image for this book. Here’s the opening two paragraphs to give a sense of the sharpness of her style:

After she had parted from Mr Mackenzie, Julia Martin went to live in a cheap hotel on the Quai des Grands Augustins. It looked a lowdown sort of place and the staircase smelt of the landlady’s cats, but the rooms were cleaner than you would have expected. There were three cats – white Angoras – and they seemed usually to be sleeping in the hotel bureau.

The landlady was a thin, fair woman with red eyelids. She had a low, whispering voice and a hesitating manner, so that you thought: ‘She can’t possibly be a French-woman.’ Not that you lost yourself in conjectures as to what she was because you didn’t care a damn anyway.

Julia Martin is a 30-something woman living in late 1920s Paris. She’s survived on her looks and her lovers, but as the first fades the second are harder to come by. She has neither job nor savings and no cushion of family money to fall back on. She’s barely holding on, coming home each night with a bottle of wine for company and waking up to reflect that striped wallpapers “made her head ache worse when she awoke after she had been drinking.”

Julia was recently dumped by Mr Mackenzie of the title (she didn’t leave him, the title is ironic). Since then she’s been living off a weekly stipend he’s sent her both to assuage his guilt and in return for her not bothering him further. Now he feels he’s paid enough, so he’s stopping the cheques. For him it’s tidying his affairs; for her it’s a desolation.

At least for now Julia’s still an attractive woman, though she’s worried about her weight and signs of fatigue are showing. Charm is a dwindling currency as she well knows. Every day, desperate as things are, she still does her make up.She fears not doing so would be the first step to becoming the woman who lives on the floor above; a feared future:

The woman had a humble, cringing manner.Of course, she had discovered that, having neither money nor virtue, she had better be humble if she knew what was good for her. But her eyes were malevolent – the horribly malevolent eyes of an old, forsaken woman. She was a shadow, kept alive by a flame of hatred for somebody who had long ago forgotten all about her.

With Paris too full of memories and too short on prospects, Julia is forced to return home to London to stay with her sister. Julia’s family are “members of the vast crowd that bears on its back the label, ‘No money’ from the cradle to the grave”. They’re respectable people. They don’t understand Julia’s need to escape a life they’ve all accepted, and they don’t sympathise now she’s forced to return.

Rhys excels at capturing small humiliations and the fantasies that sustain us. Julia approaches an old lover for money, consoling herself that he’s rich and that their affair though it ended years ago ended well and surely he’ll remember her kindly. To him she’s a curio from the past, like someone you lost touch with years before who pops up on Facebook asking to be friends even though you long since stopped having anything in common.

For most of the novel Rhys focuses on Julia’s thoughts and feelings, but in her encounters with others the viewpoint slips across so that we see their perspective.  It’s impossible not to sympathise with Julia, but equally what does she expect? She’s moody and volatile, far from easy to live with; for the men she’s a passing affair that nobody, including her, ever expected to last.

Rhys doesn’t look away from the uncomfortable. It would be easy to make Julia a nicer person and the men heartless, but it’s not that simple. Julia rebelled against her class and expectations. She fled to men and Paris and a life her family would never approve of. Rebellion however is expensive, and this is a world and a time without a safety net. Julia’s problem isn’t her age or her weight or the very real constraints of her gender. Julia’s problem is money. If she had money the rest could be managed. As M. Folantin found in Huysmans’ With the Flow, when you’re broke your wallet determines your options.

The great sin here is hypocrisy. Julia is condemned even by those who once slept with her, yet who doesn’t want to find a little life before they die? Her real crimes are to lack the advantages of her lovers – their gender and their money – and to lack the acceptance of her family that all you’ll ever have is what the status quo allows you. Her men and her family both judge her, but like all hypocrites they don’t weigh themselves in the same balance.

The contents page tells you she returns to Paris but even if it hadn’t no reader would be surprised when she does. Julia left London for good reasons and she can’t fit back in to the world she quite purposefully left behind. Paris of course was a failure too, though of a different sort, and part of Rhys’ talent is to sail a fine course between hope and despair. Julia is demoralised, rejected and pushed aside but she never quite gives up.

She knew herself ready to struggle and twist and turn, to be unscrupulous and cunning as are all weak creatures fighting for their lives against the strong.

The specifics of Julia Martin’s world are gone. Women today have more options and more opportunities to realise themselves other than through men allowing them to. Even so, the book still rings true. A spot of prolonged unemployment; a divorce after years raising children; a bout of depression; many of us are only a stroke of bad luck away from everything falling apart. If you’re young you can probably bounce back. Even 85 years after this was published though if you’re older you’d still best have money or the world can be a very cold place indeed.

Other reviews

I’ve reviewed Rhys’ Quartet here, a Penguin Modern Classics pocket edition of four of her short stories here, and probably her best novel Good Morning, Midnight here. Otherwise, Dovegreyreader reviewed this one here, and there’s an excellent piece in the Guardian about it here (which lays out pretty much the whole plot, but honestly knowing it doesn’t make much difference).

Edit: Jacqui of JacquiWine’s Journal also wrote a particularly good review, here.


Filed under Modernist Fiction, Paris, Rhys, Jean

Oh! thought Clarissa, in the middle of my party, here’s death, she thought.

Mrs Dalloway, by Virginia Woolf

Mrs Dalloway is perhaps the poster-child for high modernism and stream of consciousness fiction. As a result, for years I had the impression it was an austere and technically demanding novel.

The reality is quite different. Mrs Dalloway is an easy and effervescent read that brims with life. Better yet, it’s not perfect. It’s a snobbish book which is a definite flaw, but which here is no bad thing because it would be terribly off-putting if it actually were flawless.


Clarissa Dalloway is an upper middle class society hostess. She’s married to a slightly dull and only moderately successful cabinet minister whose career has reached its peak and who will never see truly high office. On one level the entire novel takes place within a single day as Clarissa prepares for a party she’s hosting that evening. On another level it ranges across time, because while our bodies can only exist in the present our minds are constantly travelling to remembered pasts and imagined futures.

The novel opens with Clarissa’s viewpoint, but skips effortlessly to other characters’ perspectives – like a skimming stone on a sea of consciousness. Clarissa is concerned with the party and with old memories stirred by the unexpected visit of an old suitor, Peter. He’s in London to arrange a divorce so he can remarry, but seeing Clarissa opens old doors for him too and invites comparisons between his new love and his old.

The story spirals out. Septimus Smith is a shell-shocked war veteran hallucinating dead friends to the dismay of his young Italian wife Lucrezia. She does her best to calm him, but his experiences and terrors are utterly beyond her experience. Meanwhile Sally Seton, Clarissa’s girlhood friend, is in town. She’s no longer the daring and unconventional free-spirit Clarissa once knew but now a settled mother of five. Their various ages, genders and social positions differ; the connecting thread is life.

Here’s Clarissa in Bond Street near the start of the novel:

Bond Street fascinated her; Bond Street early in the morning in the season; its flags flying; its shops; no splash; no glitter; one roll of tweed in the shop where her father had bought his suits for fifty years; a few pearls; salmon on an iceblock. “That is all,” she said, looking at the fishmonger’s. “That is all,” she repeated, pausing for a moment at the window of a glove shop where, before the War, you could buy almost perfect gloves. And her old Uncle William used to say a lady is known by her shoes and her gloves. He had turned on his bed one morning in the middle of the War. He had said, “I have had enough.” Gloves and shoes; she had a passion for gloves; but her own daughter, her Elizabeth, cared not a straw for either of them.

For me, there’s both a truth and an elegance to that prose. Clarissa’s attention moves seamlessly from a glove shop to Uncle William to Uncle William’s death back to gloves and then on to her daughter Elizabeth. It’s thought as river, flowing and eddying and never quite repeating.

Clarissa, who “knew nothing; no language, no history; she scarcely read a book now, except memoirs in bed;” is full of life and fascination with the world “to her it was absolutely absorbing; all this; the cabs passing;” but she has little outlet for any of it and it’s not clear now if she’d even want one. It’s evident that she once loved Sally Seton, and there’s no sign she felt anything like the same emotional pull to either her husband or Peter (or any other man), but her only choice was between the men on offer.

Sally Seton’s choices weren’t much better, and while she seems happy enough the contrast between the freedom she once embodied and the respectability she’s since embraced is a painful one. Nobody here has quite captured their youthful dreams, but then again who does?

Septimus too seems closer to his dead friend Evan than to his living wife. The past overwhelms him; the choices not taken or denied by circumstance. Better to be Richard Dalloway whose career may not be what he’d once hoped but who has done his best and is content with the now and not the then.

Existence here is a brief but blazing thing; we are most alive when we let the world in raw and immanent. In one of the novel’s most dazzling sequences Clarissa’s daughter rides on the top deck of a bus feeling a sense of liberation after a stultifying lunch – it’s an entirely quotidian experience yet here vibrant and real because of the directness with which she lives it free as she is of the weight of recollection that holds down her elders.

Where the book works less well is in its slight sense of superiority. Woolf is often very funny; it’s hard not to love lines like:

He thought her beautiful, believed her impeccably wise; dreamed of her, wrote poems to her, which, ignoring the subject, she corrected in red ink;


(she herself when alone in the evening found comfort in a violin; but the sound was excruciating; she had no ear)

However, at times there’s a definite air of condescension. Septimus reflects, “it might be possible that the world itself is without meaning”, but for Woolf that doesn’t appear to justify a poor choice of wallpaper. Status is among the book’s concerns and within the fiction it’s clear both that Clarissa is a snob and that other characters see her that way, but that doesn’t innoculate the wider novel from sharing its primary character’s chief flaw. Mrs Dalloway is a snob, and Mrs Dalloway is a snobbish novel.

Still, it’s also a brilliant novel and it deserves a better reputation than the one it has. Better not because it has a bad reputation (it obviously doesn’t), but because it’s not widely seen as the entertaining,engaging and thought-provoking novel that it actually is. Clarissa’s situation – society wife of an Edwardian government minister – may be highly specific but her sense of the vitality of life and the incredibility that it must end is something I’ve certainly felt myself and that I suspect most others have:

All the same, that one day should follow another; Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday; that one should wake up in the morning; see the sky; walk in the park; meet Hugh Whitbread; then suddenly in came Peter; then these roses; it was enough. After that, how unbelievable death was ! – that it must end; and no one in the whole world would know how she had loved it all; how, every instant . . .

Other reviews

Grant of 1streadingblog just reviewed this himself, which is very timely. His excellent review is here. Otherwise, Kaggsy of Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings (a lovely blog name by the way) reviewed Mrs Dalloway’s Party which is a related collection of short stories including the original first chapter of this novel and viewpoints of other characters on the party itself. That review is here.

I’m sure there are many more out there, so as ever please let me know what I’ve missed in the comments.

Edit: I meant to link to my own previous Woolf review, of her Jacob’s Room. My review of that is here.


Filed under Modernist Fiction, Woolf, Virginia

(events! if you want those, you’d best stop reading now)

Satin Island, by Tom McCarthy

When I started Satin Island I already knew it was Booker-nominated. I’d read multiple glowing reviews, and I remembered absolutely loving McCarthy’s first novel Remainder. Everything then, every authority including my past self, told me that it was a significant book. Perhaps it is, significance after all is a collective judgement. Having finished it though I’m not persuaded it’s a very good book.

Satin Island

U is a corporate anthropologist (“Call me U”), working for “the Company” on the “Koob-Sassen Project” – a project so huge and complex that it will touch the lives of almost everyone in the developed world (perhaps beyond) and yet that will be so subtly pervasive that nobody will even notice it. The Company is a kind of advertising/marketing/strategy consultancy, headed by a gnomic corporate guru whose every sentence seems weighted with meaning and whose every recommendation is received with gravity and respect.

U’s role in the Company is an ambiguous one. Years previously he wrote an anthropological treatise on the club scene, one where he was as much participant as observer, and this brought him to the guru’s attention and now U works in the Company basement putting together files of possible phenomenological observations that somehow transmigrate into sellable product.

Currently U’s obsessed with a possible murder case involving a parachutist whose chute didn’t open. He spots an apparent pattern of similar crimes with similar investigations each unfolding in similar ways but across multiple jurisdictions. At the same time he’s fascinated by a major oil spill and sits absorbed by rolling news footage of the oil blossoming out, coating and transforming all that it touches. McCarthy is good on the curious sterility of modern news reporting and the odd juxtaposition and equal weighting of car bombings, earnings reports and natural disasters:

I popped the news page open as I talked to her. The airspace lock-up was announced halfway down, adjacent to and in the same font-size as the marketplace truck bombing. Above it, slightly larger, the oil spill, with a sequence of photos showing tugs, oil-covered men wrestling with grips and winches, those black-ringed outlying islands, the giant oil-flower and so forth. The editor had chosen a “fade” effect to link the shots together, rather than the more abrupt type of succession that recalls old slideshow carousels. It struck me as the right effect to use, aesthetically speaking.

U himself is a cipher, which is fine because this isn’t a novel of character. He’s a coldly distant narrator fond of a kind of pseudo-French style philosophising which involves a great deal of placing interpretative significance on the world but shows little evidence that any of it has any meaning to anyone beyond those indulging in it. Here’s an example of how that feeds into his work:

I got really into creases. Jeans crease in all kinds of interesting ways: honeycomb, whisker, train-track, stack … I catalogued no fewer than seventeen different crease-types, each of which has slightly different innuendos. To frame these—that is, to provide a framework for explaining to the client what these crease-types truly and profoundly meant—I stole a concept from the French philosopher Deleuze: for him le pli, or fold, describes the way we swallow the exterior world, invert it and then flip it back outwards again, and, in so doing, form our own identity. I took out all the revolutionary shit (Deleuze was a leftie); and I didn’t credit Deleuze, either. Big retail companies don’t want to hear about such characters. I did the same thing with another French philosopher, Badiou: I recycled his notion of a rip, a sudden temporal rupture, and applied it, naturally, to tears worn in jeans, which I presented as the birth-scars of their wearer’s singularity, testaments to the individual’s break with general history, to the successful institution of a personal time. I dropped the radical baggage from that, too (Badiou is virtually Maoist). This pretty much set up the protocol or MO I’d deploy in my work for the Company from then on in: feeding vanguard theory, almost always from the left side of the spectrum, back into the corporate machine. The machine could swallow everything, incorporate it seamlessly, like a giant loom that re-weaves all fabric, no matter how recalcitrant and jarring its raw form, into what my hero would have called a master-pattern—or, if not that, then maybe just the pattern of the master.

As ever, we’re into issues of authenticity. We’re back into the exploration of repetition which McCarthy manages so well in Remainder, and in many ways this novel is itself a repetition of Remainder, save with a less interesting execution. Beyond that, well, just because one can say that ripped jeans represent birth-scars of the wearer’s singularity doesn’t make that interpretation a thing in the world. It’s just words. We could say anything, apply almost any meaning we can create, but the jeans remain the same and I doubt any of it reflects why someone actually buys a pre-ripped pair of jeans.

The difficulty with a novel of ideas is that once you’ve jettisoned character and plot what remains had better be pretty damn good. It’s a common issue in SF, albeit for a very different sort of idea. You want to write a novel about some bizarre implication of contemporary physics, but to sell that to the typical SF fan (in which for these purposes I’d include myself) you need characters and plot.

That by the way is why it’s often a category error to criticise big SF novels for weak characterisation. The characters aren’t the point – they’re just the sugar-coated pill that the big idea sits inside. Take away that sugar coating and the ideas have to sell themselves. That’s McCarthy’s challenge here.

So, the first half of Satin Island is a novel of ideas examining issues of authenticity and the imposition of meaning, narrated by a protagonist who utterly fails to persuade of the validity of his own insights. It’s also a sort of corporate satire, though not a successful one as I got the distinct impression that McCarthy knew as much about modern corporate life as I do the life of Amazonian rain forest tribes. I’ve seen a bit on tv, but I’ve never met anyone from those cultures. On the other hand, it’s not quite the same since I’m aware I know nothing of those people and I don’t write smug books about them.

U refers to “sub-clauses of contracts sitting in the drawers of cabinets” which is a lovely sentence but bears no real resemblance to how things actually work (we have electronic filing these days). The depictions of meetings and workplace conversations seem to owe more to how characters behave in sitcoms than in real offices. None of the work can be described save in the blandest generalities, and while that seems to be intended as satire I found myself wondering if it also reflected a simple ignorance of what most people actually do in their jobs.

Perhaps the best example is the descriptions of the Koob-Sassen Project, which mimic real corporate conversations about how lives will be revolutionised by some new process or design. Unfortunately, I actually work on multi-billion pound projects in real life and while from a distance I can see how it might sometimes sound like nothing real is being discussed that doesn’t make it so.  In reality large projects tend to have very concrete anticipated outcomes, and if those don’t materialise very hard questions start to be asked very quickly.

I’m at risk of being a car-enthusiast criticising a Virginia Woolf novel because it references a make of car that didn’t come out until a year after the time in which the novel  is set. It’s another form of category error to complain of a novel not getting details right where those details aren’t the focus of the novel. Still, if you’re going to have an element of corporate satire in your book it does help to give the sense that you’ve at least spent a day in an office.

[Edit: After writing this I found a review on a consultancy firm’s blog where they comment on the accuracy of the depiction of their business. I’m not changing what I wrote since I don’t like editing pieces once written, and it remains true that I wasn’t persuaded, but it seemed fair to flag the contradiction. I link to the consultancy piece at the end.]

By about the halfway mark I was very close to abandoning Satin Island, but then McCarthy does something clever. U gives a Ted talk in which he waffles on in his usual unconvincing fashion about issues in contemporary anthropology, and something wonderful happens:

To understand that question fully, though (I concluded), what we require is not contemporary anthropology but rather an anthropology of The Contemporary. Ba-boom: that was my “out”. My talk was met with silence, then, when my audience realized that I’d finished, a smattering of polite clapping. No one approached me to discuss it afterwards. Later that evening, in the “wet” or Turkish sauna, I recognized one of the other delegates. He recognized me too, but broke off eye-contact immediately before slipping away into the steam.

Until that point, I’d taken U largely at face value. Suddenly it became apparent however that within the fiction others had much the same reaction as I did. U spent his 15 minutes on stage saying nothing that means anything, and the audience recognised that, which means that McCarthy recognises it and which means U isn’t to be trusted. If that’s the case then U’s patterns, his borrowings from French philosophers and impositions of meaning, none of it can be trusted.

Soon U is fantasising about how his talk might have been received; about the talk he might have given and how he would verbally crush a dissenter and win rapturous acclaim from all present. It’s a bit pathetic, and as it marks a return to U’s uninterrupted voice it resonates with most of what’s gone before and calls it all into question. Since U is the narrator he’s able to present each of his ideas as being somehow incisive and intelligent, but it’s not at all clear that anyone agrees with him save possibly his boss (and even he seems to regard U primarily as a form of corporate mascot).

With that I read on with renewed interest, but as I did so I ran into another difficulty. Satin Island is a novel of ideas in which the vehicle for those ideas himself undermines them by his own unpersuasive advocacy. It becomes terribly meta, as we’re examining questions of authenticity through a character who is himself inauthentic, both in that he’s (intentionally) not a convincingly drawn human being and in that even to others in the novel he’s quite evidently talking bollocks. That’s clever, but I’m not sure it’s interesting.

In his fantasy Ted talk U says “Nature is senseless.” That’s true. U’s boss commissions him to write a great report; a definitive anthropology of our age. It’s no spoiler to say that the task is impossible. U is trying to capture reality in words, and the task is beyond him (Lee Rourke grapples with the same idea to an extent, though for me more successfully, in his Vulgar Things). U philosophises, finds apparent patterns, interprets, but none of it means anything because beneath it all the raw stuff of reality just continues.

If you wished you could read say the Deepwater Horizon spill as a metaphor for how capitalist realism consumes and transforms our relationship with the natural world, drowning the real in the commercial. Perhaps that metaphor might be useful in some contexts, but it doesn’t save a single bird or fish. We can describe the world however we like, but if we confuse our descriptions for the thing itself we commit a worse category error than any of the others I’ve mentioned so far in this piece.

Where does that leave me? The second half of Satin Island undermines and validates the first, making the whole a much better book than its (initially disappointing) parts. For all that though, McCarthy already wrote a better book on these issues and there’s nothing he does here that he didn’t do better in Remainder. I don’t regret reading Satin Island because McCarthy can write and because at his best he does capture something of the strangeness of our age, but so does William Gibson and frankly I think Gibson does it better.

Other reviews

While this had massive press attention (generally favourable, save the FT which was much closer to my take), I don’t think it’s received quite the same interest from the blogosphere. In fairness, if I were McCarthy that’s the way round I’d want it. David Hebblethwaite wrote a couple of short pieces on it, one of which is here. Trever Berrett of the ever-reliable mookseandthegripes blog (which desperately, desperately needs a search box Trevor) writes a fairly favourable review here, though I note that he says he admired it more than he loved it. I’m sure I’ve missed others, so please alert me to them as usual in the comments.

Edit: I also found this review from what I think is a consultancy firm’s blog, which is much more positive than I am about the depiction of the corporate environment. Perhaps then McCarthy does know what he’s talking about in terms of this world, and it’s me that’s wrong in extrapolating from my different form of advisory business experience. To be fair to McCarthy this seems to be a real outfit, and yet their mission statement reads “River dives in to the trends, needs, experiences and expectations of consumers. We use these immersion platforms to create new opportunities for our clients’ products and brands” which I suspect wouldn’t look out of place in U’s Company. Also, in fairness to McCarthy, after poking around their site for a bit I honestly couldn’t tell you what they actually do.

If anyone reading this is wondering why I didn’t make any comparison with DeLillo, it’s because I’ve only read one DeLillo and only know there are comparisons to be made because people have mentioned it to me. The comparisons tend to be unfavourable.

Finally, I received this as a free review copy from netgalley. I don’t think however that inclined me to be unduly kind to it.


Filed under Booker, McCarthy, Tom, Modernist Fiction

Kitty Finch was mental.

Swimming Home, by Deborah Levy

One of the weird things with fiction is how even the most tired of ideas can work in the right hands. In Swimming Home Levy writes about a group of middle class Brits on holiday in the South of France, and how the introduction of an ambiguous newcomer brings out all the tensions that were simmering below their comfortable surface. Put like that, it sounds awful.  As ever though, it’s the writing that matters. Levy had me from the first sentence:

When Kitty Finch took her hand off the steering wheel and told him she loved him, he no longer knew if she was threatening him or having a conversation.

Swimming Home

Joe Jacobs is a famous poet who draws on his past as a Jewish exile who fled Nazi-occupied Poland as a child. Before he was Joe he was Josef; to his readers he’s JHJ; to family friend Mitchell he’s the “arsehole poet”. His several names reflect his own act of self-creation.

Isabel, Joe’s wife, is perhaps more famous still. She’s a highly regarded war correspondent; cool under pressure. Isabel knows that Joe is repeatedly unfaithful to her; how she feels about that is less clear.

Staying with Joe and Isabel is their 14-year-old daughter, Nina, and friends Mitchell and Laura who own a shop together selling exotic knickknacks. Mitchell is an obsese glutton who has lately taken to hunting with antique guns, some of them clearly Chekhovian. His twin passions are consumption and extinction. Like Isabel, Laura is a loyal wife let down by an errant husband, but Mitchell’s indiscretions are financial rather than sexual and their business is teetering on the brink of bankruptcy.

Into this uneasy mix comes Kitty Finch, human catalyst, found floating face down in the villa’s swimming pool which is “more like a pond than the languid blue pools in holiday brochures.” Her hair splayed out around her, at first they wonder if she might be a bear. It would be better for them if she were.

The setup is pretty conventional. The execution isn’t. Swimming Home is an uncertain text, fluid and Freudian and brimming with sex and death. Kitty claims to be the victim of a mistaken double booking of the villa, but that’s fairly obviously untrue. Even so, Isabel offers her a spare room, a curious act given Joe’s history with available young women. Isabel is seen by others as controlling, by giving space to Kitty is she relinquishing control or is this some form of extension of it?

Kitty is thin and intense. She’s prone to standing around naked at times of stress, a distracting habit but one everyone rather puts up with. She has a history of depression, but then so does Joe – it’s something they have in common. She becomes the whirlpool around which they all spin, even the supporting characters: the villa’s hapless caretaker Jurgen who is besotted with her and the elderly next door neighbour Madeleine who is convinced that Kitty is distinctly dangerous. Kitty is a catalyst. Her nudity and youth suggest sex, but her skeletal frame suggests a different kind of annihilation.

Kitty’s presence isn’t an accident. She’s there for Joe, because she writes her own poems and she tells him that she writes every one of them for him. She’s an obsessed fan, and naturally she’s brought a poem of her own for him to read. This happens to him a lot, but if he wants her body the least he can do is read her poem even if he would much prefer not to. Levy shows a wry sense of humour here, though disquiet is never far away:

‘Why are you shaking?’ He could smell chlorine in her hair. ‘Yeah. I’ve stopped taking my pills so my hands are a bit shaky.’ Kitty moved a little nearer him. He wasn’t too sure what to make of this until he saw she was avoiding a line of red ants crawling under her calves.

The narrative switches perspective between the various characters, not all of whom are equally well developed. Joe and Kitty obviously stand out, as does Isabel caught as she is between the expectations of her role as wife and mother and her exposure to the horrors of the world. Laura, 6’3″, is uncomfortable in her own body but otherwise it’s fair to say she doesn’t get anything like the development Joe, Isabel, Kitty and Nina do (even if Nina’s voice sometimes felt a little young for a 14-year-old to me). Even less so does Mitchell, who comes dangerously close at times to one-dimensionality.

Although Swimming Home is a short book, it’s a dense one and it’s not a particularly quick read. It’s often dreamlike, filled with fragmentary repetitions and foreshadowings. Like Greek drama it unfolds according to its own inexorable logic, not always as we would expect it but with the inevitability of hindsight. It brings in to the mix the burden of history (Joe’s past and Isabel’s reporting), art and literature (Joe), commerce (Laura and Mitchell), marriage, sex, old loves and new ones. It’s a rich brew and while I’ve only read it once I have a suspicion that if anything it would work even better on a reread.

I’ll leave the last words with Kitty, a sentence spoken to Joe in a scene we visit repeatedly in the text, each time revealing a little more detail.

‘Life is only worth living because we hope it will get better and we’ll all get home safely.’

Nobody here is getting home safely.

Other reviews
I’d like here to point to John Self’s review for the Guardian, which he links to from his blog here, Trevor’s review at themookseandthegripes here, and savidgereads’ review here. Edit: I also missed a review by Caroline of Beauty is a Sleeping Cat, here.

I mentioned above the neighbour, Madeleine. A thread here is her birthday, which everyone is ignoring. At various points she loses clumps of hair in drinks and food. I wondered if all of this was a Mrs Dalloway reference, but only The Independent seems to have picked that up, here. I’ve not yet read Mrs Dalloway so I’d be grateful for any comments on that front from tose better informed.


Filed under Levy, Deborah, 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