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Mr Lockwood, who has let Thrushcross Grange from the brooding Mr Heathcliff, decides that his landlord will trouble him, and that is to some extent true, but it’s really Heathcliff who is troubled, by the ghost of Catherine who stalks him long after her death.  Ironically, it is Lockwood who sees Catherine at the window in a dream after he is installed into her old room for the night when he is caught at Wuthering Heights in poor weather.  Already suspicious of Heathcliff’s nature, Lockwood observes him as he gets onto his bed and “wrenched open the lattice, bursting, as he pulled at it, into an uncontrollable passion of tears.  ‘Come in! come in!’ he sobbed. ‘Cathy, do come.’” Lockwood can’t give up the question of what has caused Heathcliff’s heaving sobs and investigates by discussing the history of the relationship of troubled Heathcliff and the imperious Catherine with the Grange’s housekeeper, Nelly Dean.  Nelly takes over the narration of the story for much of the rest of the book, and is a fascinating player in her own right, given the way her actions (and inactions) affect those of the main characters. It all hinges on the moment Heathcliff overhears Catherine’s obtuse dismissal of him as a potential mate.  Says Catherine, (p80):

I’ve dreamt in my life dreams that have stayed with me ever after, and changed my ideas; they’ve gone though and through me, like win through water, and altered the colour of my mind.

She then goes onto tell Nelly that she couldn’t take Heathcliff:

It would degrade me to marry Heathcliff, now; so he shall never know how I love him; … because he’s more myself than I am.  Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same, and Linton’s is as different as a moonbeam from lightning, or frost from fire.

Heathcliff overheard the start of her speech, up until the point she says it would degrade her, after which he stole off. So begins the thrust of much of the story, a revenge tale in which Heathcliff seeks retribution against Catherine, against the Linton family she marries into, as well as the Earnshaw family that raised him as an orphan alongside Catherine, but in which after old Earnshaw’s death, he is treated as more a servant than a member of the family. Nelly tries to make her see that all her reasons for marrying Linton are weak.  By way of reply Catherine says:

… my great thought in living is [Heathcliff].  … My love for Linton is like the foliage in the woods.  Time will change it, I’m well aware, as winter changes trees – my love for Heathcliff resembles the eternal rocks beneath – a source of little visible delight, but necessary.  Nelly, I am Heathcliff.

But Heathcliff has gone, disappeared, run off into the wild night, not to return for some years.  And when he does make it back he is rich and appears every inch the gentleman, save his boorish behaviour. And what about those bleak Yorkshire moors!  They are so evocative of the wildness in the hearts of those who populate the story… (p4):

… one may guess at the power of the north wind, blowing over the edge, by the excessive slant of a few, stunted firs at the end of the house; and by a range of gaunt thorns all stretching their limbs one way, as if craving alms of the sun.

The amount of conflict that exists between the characters is really something.  The engine of the story’s drama, it’s present on every page.  Never have I seen so many tears, so many exclamation marks!  There are aspects of writing craft that might be frowned on today by some, such as the redundant use of adverbs when describing the manner in which a character is speaking, and the overt northern dialect of Joseph, which is hard for the reader to get through.  All those exclamation marks would be trimmed no doubt as well.

What would survive is that quintessential Brontë drama, the desire, the love, the oh-so-poor choices, the suspicions and regrets, and Heathcliff’s scheming and abiding drive to have his revenge. To think of the appalling choices that people make!  There is Catherine’s choice of Edgar.  Isabella’s choice of Heathcliff.  Oh, how my heart was wrung by Isabella’s letter to Nelly asking her (p136), “Is Mr Heathcliff a man?  If so, is he mad?  And if not, is he a devil?  … I beseech you to explain, if you can, what I have married…”

There is Miss Cathy’s (Catherine’s daughter) choice of Linton – what a damp squib of a man he is!  How could anyone in their right mind want to marry him?  (Not that Heathcliff would have given her much choice!)

Then there are the malicious, calculating choices made by Heathcliff, his scheming to gain control of Wuthering Heights and the Grange, his snaring of poor Isabella and diabolical treatment of her, the way he takes Miss Cathy back to Wuthering Heights after Isabella gives birth to her in London, and his later jailing of her and Nelly.

It is the next generation after Heathcliff and Catherine that seek a way out of the mess created by him.  Will they be similarly poisoned or will they escape from the strictures of the past?  The resolution suggests a rebalancing of the Heathcliff-Catherine generation’s tumult, though there is enough violence exhibited by all the characters to indicate that all might not be settled even when we turn the last page.

I think one of the great aspects of Wuthering Heights is this sense that the story is not over, that we could read it many times and see a different angle on things.  It’s part of what makes a novel a classic. The way the world is so cut off, almost like a fantasy, means it is, for all the moors’ open wildness, a very claustrophobic setting.  In part this allows Brontë to sail as close-to-the-wind on thematic taboos as an author of that time might dare, such as incest and the borderline necrophilia of Heathcliff’s desire for Catherine’s dead body.  There’s no overt incest of course, and the love between Catherine and Heathcliff is never consummated, but it’s all very inbred.

There are plenty of other interesting elements of story design I could muse over for longer, such as the similarity of the names: Heathcliff and Hareton and Hindley – and how this makes it difficult for any outsider, be they reader or Mr Lockwood to make quick judgements on the characters. But the above is enough for this reading of a worthy classic.

You can see a layout of Thrushcross Grange here (along with some other famous houses in classic literature).

Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë

Penguin Classics 1847

ISBN: 9780141439556

337 pages

Source: the bookshelf rainbow

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The Savage Detectives follows two poets, Arturo Belano (Roberto Bolaño’s alter-ego) and Ulises Lima (based on Bolaño’s good friend Mario Santiago), as they try to track down a missing poet named Cesárea Tinajero, as well as their subsequent wanderings through Europe as they grow into adulthood.

Written by Roberto Bolaño – the enfant terrible of post-‘Boom’ Latin American literature – it is structured in three, non-linear sections.  The first (entitled ‘Mexicans Lost in Mexico —1975’) and third (‘The Sonora Desert — 1976’) are both narrated in a first-person diary format by an aspiring poet named Juan García Madero.  Madero has joined a group of poets lead by Belano and Lima that is known as the ‘Visceral Realists’ in the bohemian Mexico City of 1975-6.   The Savage Detectives is quite autobiographical: Bolaño himself started a movement in 1976 in Mexico called the ‘infra-realists’.  When Belano and Lima go travelling to Europe, we are travelling in the footsteps of Bolaño himself who lived in Barcelona, and settled in a small Spanish town on the Costa Brava after marrying.  But who are the visceral realists really?  For all the posturing about getting published, Lima and Belano never seem to have had anything of theirs put in print.  Will they ever amount to anything?  And what becomes of their search for Tinajero (and related attempt to outrun a pimp and corrupt cop who are chasing after them)?

The middle section is by far the longest at some 400 pages.  It’s entitled ‘The Savage Detectives’ and comprises small to long ‘snapshots’, narrated in first-person interviews by some 52 separate characters, all of whom came into contact with Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano, whether from their time in Mexico or in Europe.  Many of these narrators are fellow writers, some are lovers, friends, enemies.  The anecdotes span twenty years, from 1976 to 1996, and provide us with an impression of who these two drifter poets were and what became of them.  But it is only ever an impression, for both Lima and Belano are like ghosts.  They came in and out of focus, literally disappearing and reappearing, while many of the narrators can only give oblique impressions or hazy recollections of their interactions with the men, be they short-lived or more meaningful.

As for the visceral realists, one of poet narrators, Laura Jauregui, who was one of Belano’s lovers, believes she worked out what the whole movement was about: (p134-5):  “…it occurred to me that is was all a message for me.  It was a way of saying don’t leave me, see what I’m capable of, stay with me.  …  The whole visceral realism thing was a love letter, the demented strutting of a dumb bird in the moonlight, something essentially cheap and meaningless.  But that wasn’t what I meant to say.”

Indeed!  Are we getting the right picture here, or the deluded imaginings of a jilted lover?  Later, another friend writes that “they weren’t revolutionaries.  They weren’t writers.  Sometimes they wrote poetry, but I don’t think they were poets either.  They sold drugs.”

The change in structure and narration is quite a jolt and for the first 50 pages or so I was wondering what was going on.  As we progress in a more or less chronological fashion (with short time hops here and there), the effect becomes clear and there is a gradual darkening in the stories being told.  There is a real menace to the final pages, with characters we met in Mexico City dying or being killed or just disappearing.  In the afterword, Natasha Wimmer talks about how Bolaño thought of The Savage Detectives as his ‘own answer to Huckleberry Finn.’  Both novels are about friendship and the loss of innocence.  But where we follow Huck Finn on his journey first hand, here everything is cloaked through the lens of all these other narrators, something which adds to the sense of unease.

As soon as p136 we get a glimpse when a publisher talks about Belano and Lima thus: “I noticed something strange about them, it was as if they were there but at the same time they weren’t there.”

This sense of absence reflects one of Bolaño’s motifs.  Bolaño was a Chilean in exile, but as Wimmer points out, he was never comfortable with Chile or Chileans in general.  He is quoted as saying his home was the Spanish language.

Other narrators tell of hopes being dashed, of ‘doing what we could, but nothing worked out’, of smells of death on the blankets of Lima.  One is a backpacker camping at a site where Belano is the night watchman and writes that “I was sure something bad was going to happen.”  Another talks about how they were losing things without knowing it.  Often in these versions of history, Lima goes missing and Belano sets off to find him.  Later, when they arrive back from Europe, Lima goes off to a fictitious Latin American country and disappears for two years!  The publisher of Belano’s book says that Belano was a ‘phantom author’.  Joaquin Font, who takes Madero under his wing in the first section of the novel in Mexico City, narrates tales from a mental asylum and when he was told a friend of his committed suicide in 1980, he writes, (p281), “…that’s when I knew beyond a doubt that everything was about to go from bad to worse.”  Another: “We didn’t realize, but in those days everything was sliding inexorably toward the edge of a cliff.”

The sense of increasing despair is also reflected in the poetry of the missing Tinajero.  Like the poet, much of her work has been lost.  The one poem they find is actually three pictures.  In each picture there is a square placed on a line.  The first line is flat, like a becalmed sea.  In the second picture the line is wavy, and in the third the line is like a jagged mountain range.  It looks like a little boat without its sails tossed on stormy seas.  That, it seems, is life’s progression: from calm through unease to outright storms.

One of the earlier ‘stories’ in the middle section is narrated by Auxilio Lacouture and forms the basis of Bolaño’s novella Amulet (see my review) which was published two years after Detectives.  This is another feature of Bolaño’s oeuvre: the way characters from one work pitch up in another (like David Mitchell), and also the way stories themselves overlap.  Auxilio tells the story of how the military overran the University of Mexico in 1968: a metaphor for the real-life massacre of Tlatelolco.

When accepting the Premio Romulo Gallegos award in 1999 for The Savage Detectives, Bolaño said: “All of Latin America is sown with the bones of its forgotten youths.”   As Wimmer points out, in The Savage Detectives he “brings those youths back to life.”

The hallucinatory nature of the middle section is also true of the book-ends narrated by Madero as he describes how he is sucked into Belano and Lima’s strange quest to find Tinajero alongside a prostitute named Lupe, and chased by Lupe’s pimp and a corrupt Mexican cop.  We get arm-length views of Belano and Lima, and though we get close at times, we then find ourselves shunted away again.

It’s not all doom and gloom.  There are some very funny sections and stories.  There is a very humorous scene in which Belano challenges a literary critic to a duel after he becomes convinced the man is about to publish a bad review of one of his novels.  And duel they do, with sabres no less, on a Spanish beach watched by their ‘seconds’, who look on with a mixture of bemusement, astonishment, and jocularity.  (Pity the poor reviewer!  For a moment I wondered whether, had he still been alive, I would have found a use for the fencing lessons I enjoyed in my youth!  Alas, we’ll never know, for I’m not writing a bad review and, more to the point, Bolaño is no longer with us, though, having read stories of his very forthright personality it wouldn’t surprise me if a challenge was forthcoming from beyond the grave were I to do so.)  During the duel, the narrator realises that “this scene was the logical outcome of our ridiculous lives.  It wasn’t a punishment but a new wrinkle.  It gave us a glimpse of ourselves in our common humanity.  It wasn’t proof of our idle guilt but a sign of our miraculous and pointless innocence.”

There is also a very funny anecdote from a lawyer who intersperses his testimonial with Latin proverbs and who witnesses Belano make love to his daughter.  And there is the nice post-modern pay-off of the Belano-Bolaño relationship when the only scholar interested in the visceral realists, (who comes across as very strange), says, (p520): “Ulises Lima still lives in Mexico City. … About Arturo Belano I know nothing.”

Of course, about Bolaño we know an awful lot.  A combative personality, he eschewed the great and celebrated Latin American ‘Boom’ authors, many of which are seen differently at home than in the English-speaking world.  Take for instance Garcia Marquez’s very close relationship with Fidel Castro.  Bolaño dismissed Marquez as “a man thrilled to have known so many presidents and archbishops; Mario Vargas Llosa: same thing, but more polished.”(!)  Bolaño’s views are coloured by his personal experience: he got caught up in the Pinochet overthrow of the Allende government in Chile on a return visit, and was briefly jailed.  The revolutionary Mexican PRI party was responsible for the Tlatelolco massacre.  Bolaño and his infra-realist buddies went to the readings of other Mexican poets to disrupt them because they took money from the PRI.  One of his authorial predecessors he had time for was Borges, which is hardly a surprise, for Bolaño’s writing is in many ways as mysterious as Borges’ Labyrinths.  Bolaño is not of the Boom, but he gives us all another way to view the same madnesses that plagued Latin America in the 20th Century and still do so today albeit to a lesser extent.  But he extends the rage to include more modern illnesses, such as the all-powerful drug cartels that seem to run most of Mexico.  He recasts what it means to be a Latin American writer.

The Savage Detectives is one of two of Bolaño’s on the ‘1,001 Books to Read Before You Die’ list, (along with 2666), though many including James Wood and Natasha Wimmer point to his other novel By Night in Chile to be even better.  I for one am looking forward to reading it.

The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolaño

Translated from Spanish by Natasha Wimmer

Picador

1998

ISBN: 97803305509527

577 pages (plus an insightful afterword by Natasha Wimmer)

Source: the bookshelf rainbow

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This is not the first time I’ve read Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey and I dare say it won’t be the last.  I’ve been on a bit of a historical bent of late, and an American friend of mine, recently arrived into Australia, wanted to read it so I thought, ‘why not?’  Winner of the Booker Prize in 1988, O&L sees Carey at his irrepressible best, writing with such vivaciousness that he is able to transcend the technical limitations he constructs, and provide us with a modern classic in the process.

The story is narrated by the great-grandson of Oscar who occasionally pops up with first person, present-day diversions, but whom we never really know much about.  This ‘frame’ allows Carey some freedom with language and also the details which the narrator uses (such as noting historical facts that occur after the time-period of the story).  However, it creates a problem of logic: the narration slips from 1st person in the present day to the close 3rd person in the past and we have to ask how our narrator could possibly know all these details?  It’s a fascinating authorial choice.  The slip between 1st and 3rd person is very sly, almost unnoticeable, but it is noticeable.  So apart from some minor benefits noted above, why does he do it?  I suspect the main reason, (without giving much away here), arises because of a need to set up the tale of the antecedents of the narrator.  That said, I’m not sure it was necessary for the narrator to be constructed in this way, and it might make it hard for some readers to suspend disbelief.

But enough of technical musings!

Our memorable protagonists, both outsiders, both by turns reserved and wild, are brought together quite late on – they first speak to each other only on page 231.  As the narrator tells us [p225], “In order that I exist, two gamblers, one Obsessive, the other Compulsive, must meet.”  Despite this separation, they are tied together by two of the core motifs of the novel: glass, and more particularly their unquenchable thirst for gambling.  These passions are fused together in Oscar and Lucinda’s mad folly to build a glass church for remote Boat Harbour on the Bellinger River in northern NSW – a folly which is sealed with a wager.  It is precisely because of the details with which Carey creates the past that this implausible bargain is made so real, so believable.

Glass appears in the very first paragraph, [p1]: “… the wall which held the sacred glass daguerreotype of my great-grandfather, the Reverend Oscar Hopkins (1841-66).”  Oscar is encased in glass in the very first image, and, as it happens, he is encased in glass at the end too.  It’s a lovely symmetry in a wildly picaresque story.

Not too long after, [p11], we meet Oscar as a boy in a coastal village in Devon England, son to a Christian fundamentalist preacher and accomplished naturalist whose “eyes were fixed, looked straight before him and shamed the devil.”  [p24]  Oscar is re-classifying his button collection, some of which are glass.  The re-ordering of several hundred buttons shows us his obsessive nature, a nature that will ultimately bring him trouble in many ways.

Soon thereafter, [p16], we are introduced to Oscar’s water phobia thus:

Oscar was afraid of the sea.  It smelt of death to him.  When he thought about this ‘death’, it was not as a single thing you could label with a single word.  It was not a discreet entity.  It fractured and flew apart, it swarmed like fish, splintered like glass.

This lovely linking of glass and water* lays the groundwork for the final scene.

When we meet Lucinda, in colonial New South Wales, [p77], we hear of her admiration for the Crystal Palace, a large cast-iron and glass exhibition space (originally built in London’s Hyde Park to house the Great Exhibition of 1851, later moved to a suburb south of London, and sadly lost to fire in 1936).  We also hear the story of how, as a girl, her father obtained from England and then exploded for her a Prince Rupert’s drop: a marvellous accident of glass making, at once incredibly strong and, if nipped in just the right place, overly weak, exploding into glass so fine it was like ‘brown sugar’.  Lucinda finds in this event an emotion—wonder—which is described [p134] as “very more-ish.”  Already we sense in her the thrill of such events, the rush that games of chance and gambling will later bring her.

Arriving into Sydney from Parramatta with a large inheritance, Lucinda comes across the Darling Harbour glassworks.  As chance would have it – and there is much of chance in this story – the factory is for sale, so she has to buy it.  Glass, she knows, “is a thing in disguise, an actor, is not solid at all, but a liquid, … and that even while it is as frail as the ice on a Parramatta puddle, it is stronger under compression than Sydney sandstone, … it is invisible, solid, in short a joyous and paradoxical thing, as good as any material to build a life from.”

Meanwhile, back in London, Oscar has eschewed living with his father for the local Anglican priest, the Rev Hugh Stratton.  He decides this by throwing a stone over his shoulder onto a hopscotch ‘court’.  It is a game of chance in, but the pebble keeps landing on ‘α’ – alpha or ‘a’ for Anglican.  Oscar takes it as a sign from God.  He moves out, breaking his father’s heart and perhaps his own in the process.  This tragic quality to Oscar rubs off on pretty much everyone he meets, including the Anglican priest who begs Oscar for his betting system and loses his entire wealth foolishly trying to make it work for him, and then commits the sin of suicide.  Later, when studying in Oxford, Oscar sees the arrival of the rouge Wardley-Fish into his life as another sign from God.  Wardley-Fish takes him to Epsom Downs and introduces him to a world he didn’t know existed: the world of horses and betting.  Oscar sees the light, so-to-speak.  He is hooked and develops an elaborate, obsessively maintained and successful betting system.  His decision to come to New South Wales on missionary work is made with the toss of a coin.  As he leaves, his father presents him with the caul from his birth.  Cauls are said to guard against drowning and were once highly prized good luck charms, particularly amongst sailors.

Oscar’s phobia for water foreshadows his tragic relationship with glass, given glass is a liquid.  So when we hear Lucinda think that it is as good a material to make a life from, we know that, for Oscar, such material is like kryptonite, and is not something he should make a life from.  But whereas Lucinda sees her “proty-type” as a dumpy glass ‘outhouse’, Oscar sees [p380]:

… a tiny church with dust dancing around it like microscopic angels.  … The light shone through its transparent, unadorned skin and cast colours on the distempered office walls as glorious as the stained glass windows of a cathedral. 

The die is cast.

One of the interesting facets of the book’s central relationship is the fact that Carey spends so long keeping our hero and heroine apart.  Apart from glass and gambling, Carey ties them together physically through their wild hair: Oscar’s [p13]: “… red hair, that frizzy nest which grew outwards, horizontal like a windblown tree in an Italianate painting…”, and Lucinda’s [p80]: “Her hair was reddish brown, more brown than red except here, by the creek, where a mote of light caught her and showed the red lights in a lightly frizzy halo.”  Later, her hair is described as a mass of unruly ‘snakes’.  Whilst Lucinda only talks to Oscar for the first time on p231, she sees him a few pages earlier.  She is returning to Sydney after a trip to London, made for the purpose of finding a husband.  She is walking along the dock, hoping for some company on the voyage, when [201]: “A hansom clipped past … bursting with clergymen, or so it seemed.  She noticed the unusual red hair of one of them, but only in passing…”

This leads to the wonderful image of Oscar’s whole party being hoisted onto the ship by the crane used to load animals after their attempts to get him up the gangplank end in failure.

What follows is a delightfully rendered and very peculiar love story as these two outsiders and loners are brought together, painfully, in characteristically prudish 19th century fashion (heightened even more given Oscar is so religious).

In a wonderfully comic scene, Oscar comes up to the first class cabin of Lucinda to hear her confession, dreading the view out of the large glass windows of first class, crabbing his way to the table where Lucinda had been playing cards with herself.  She is mortified that he will see the cards, which of course he does.  But he shocks her, because, for Oscar, even religion—the strict prism through which he sees the world—is a gamble: [p261]:

‘Our whole faith is a wager, Miss Leplastrier.  We bet – it is all in Pascal … we bet that there is a God.  We bet our life on it.  …  We must gamble every instant of our allotted span.  We must stake everythingon the unprovable fact of His existence.’

The novel also deals with the thorny issue of colonisation and its effects on the aboriginal population of Australia.  It was one of Carey’s initial themes: he saw an empty church of old Christian stories, having wiped out the old aboriginal stories, now itself being removed from the landscape near Bellingen because of a lack of funds.  Needless to say, the overland expedition, which Oscar’s delivery of the church puts into play, impacts local aboriginals with tragic consequences.

One of the brilliant facets of the book is its overtly visual descriptions.  It teems with life.  Carey has a Dickensian touch when it comes to drawing characters.  Take Wardley-Fish escorting Oscar to Epsom Downs [p109], in his “loud hound’s-tooth jacket with a handkerchief like a fistful of daffodils rammed into a rumpled vase.”  Even the steamer which carries Lucinda to Sydney is alive, [p136]: “The little steamer shuddered, cleared its throat of a clot of smoke, and pushed past the tangle at Market Street.”  Early Sydney is vivid; Lucinda sees the water of Sydney harbour [p136] rippling “with a satanic beauty: mother-of-pearl; spilled oil from a steamer.”  Later, we have the landscape: cockatoos rise off the trees after gunshot like feathers from an exploding pillow.  And there is Oscar sitting in the glass church [p498] as it is towed up the Bellinger River:

The man inside the church waved his hands, gestures which appeared, from the perspective of Marx Hill, to be mysterious, even magical, but which, inside the crystal furnace of the church, had the simple function of repelling the large and frightening insects which had become imprisoned there. 

Oscar is trapped there too, for he is described (relentlessly, repeatedly) throughout as being like a praying mantis.  He’s an insect trapped with all the other insects.  It is a lovely, reasonably subtle link.  Unfortunately for the insects, the church seems to be a hell, for they keep bashing into the ‘nothing’ of the glass.

At other times though, the repetition is odd.  We have the strange situation where images and descriptions are used by both the narrator and then by the characters.  For example, at Epsom Downs, Oscar is described [p117] by the narrator as “such a scarecrow that some ageing Mohawks called out after him.”  Then, the very next page, Wardley-Fish says to him: “You look like a grinning scarecrow.”  How does Carey get away with this mixing between narrator and character’s viewpoint?  Is it merely a perverse effect of the narrator ‘frame’, that our narrator imagines everything?

Some time ago I read a chapter that focussed on Carey’s Oscar and Lucinda in Kate Grenville and Sue Woolf’s book: Making Stories: How Ten Australian Novels Were Written.  In that highly intriguing study, Carey spoke of his process of writing and what he calls his method of ‘cantilevering’, in which he begins from a place several times, trying to get a little further each time, with each effort a little better realised, “more fully imagined.”  There is a print of one of his first pages where Carey is noting down ideas, the word ‘folly’ keeps appearing, as does ‘deuce’ – meaning both the playing card and also the devil.  Here is the brain-stormer at work.  After the interview, there are some pages of his early drafts, containing ideas, character sketches, and examples of cantilevering.  Interestingly, it is on one of these pages that he himself has typed: [p46]: “HOW IS ALL THIS KNOWN IF IT IS FIRST PERSON.  MAYBE THIRD WOULD BE BETTER.”  Carey also notes in the interview that he has already thought of all the problems that bad reviews point out, and how writing is a form of vocation where you spend a fair amount of time in a state of doubt.  It is a fascinating interview and chapter (and book!) for those of us who like to peer behind the curtain and see how the magician works.  But maybe Carey should have listened to himself on the question of first person vs third?

As the Guardian review and the chapter in Ten Stories will tell you, Carey’s inspiration for the opening of the story – with the fractured relationship between Oscar and his father, Theophilus, comes from Edmund Gosse’s memoir Father and Son.  Every book we read is very much part of a larger conversation; new books ‘speak’ to older ones constantly.  Carey is no stranger to this, of course.  I’ve heard it said that Illywhacker is a re-imagining of The Odyssey, (though I can’t find any references to back that up!); Jack Maggs is inspired by Magwitch from Great Expectations; True History of the Kelly Gang is inspired by Ned Kelly’s ‘Jerilderie Letter’; and his most recent novel, Parrot and Olivier in America, is a re-imagining of Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America.

Oscar and Lucinda has its faults – the narrator framework and the repetition.  But do you know what?  I don’t care.  It is a small wonder that Carey can get away with such things and in so doing produce a classic, a book that lives long in the memory, something that will be read decades from now with as much love and affection as it received when it first hit the shelves.  The reason is the care in which he builds his characters and how they in turn breathe life into story.  Some might not like the ending, but for me it’s a worthy Booker winner and member of the ‘1,001 Books to Read Before You Die’ list.  (It was also shortlisted for ‘The Booker of Bookers’, won by Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children.)

Given my slight misgivings I can’t give it 5/5 … but I’d dearly love to.

I’d love to hear your thoughts.  And what do you think of the movie adaptation with Cate Blanchett and (the excellent) Ralph Fiennes?  Did you like the (much altered!) ending?

For more on Oscar and Lucinda, see the Guardian’s book club excellent discussion led by John Mullen here:

Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey

faber and faber

1988

ISBN: 9780571153046

516 pages

Source: the bookshelf rainbow (aka: personal library)

* Spoiler alert: It is not just linking water and glass here – but death too.  This phobia of water that Oscar, also extends to his father who listens to Oscar’s lungs with a stethoscope every morning: [p26]: “They were always clear … but it gave him no peace, for God had told him there was something wrong with the boy.”  Oscar’s lungs might well be clear of water here, but by the end they’re not.  We see on the expedition too, his total abhorrence of water when he refuses to bathe, embarrassed to be naked in front of the other men, but perhaps just as likely, he knows he’s in a life-and-death struggle with water and senses that water will finally win out.  Not even his caul will protect him.  So we have this wonderful linkage: water, glass (which is a liquid), religion, gambling, and death.  Oscar’s fate is sealed right from the start of the novel, he is caught in the glass frame photo, and in the end he drowns, trapped in the glass church.

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“Call me Ishmael.”

It is one of the most famous opening lines in western literature, and one that immediately introduces the reader to the musical rhythm inherent in much of Melville’s acclaimed Moby-Dick, the story of the monomaniacal Captain Ahab and the crew of the Pequod as they circumnavigate the globe in search of whales – and one whale in particular, the white whale, Moby Dick, who Ahab has lost his leg to and now seeks revenge upon.  And yet, for much of the book, Ahab is either below decks, unseen and unmet until well after the Pequod has left Nantucket one cold Christmas Day.  Contrast this to the last pages when Ahab stands on deck, feverish in his searching, smelling the white whale’s presence, never once leaving to go down below, never once quitting the trail, even when every conceivable ill-omen befalls the ship and its crew.  It is a great allegorical tale of a man driven to something at the expense of all else, and made me think of Daniel Day Lewis in There Will be Blood, a similar tale of a man driven to extremes and damn the consequences!

We meet Ishmael, previously a merchant mariner, as he seeks a whaleboat to sail on.  Looking for a bed for the night, he comes across ‘The Spouter Inn: Peter Coffin.’  He thinks it an ill omen, and so do we!  There are some other wonderful hints about what is to come too, as the supposedly unlettered Ishmael talks of ‘blubbering’ [p11] as he considers the Spouter Inn, and how, when considering a dark painting on its wall, he sees in it something resembling the ‘great leviathan himself’ [p12].  Further to these, Ishmael reads the marble tablets erected in the local church to commemorate those lost at sea.  Thinks Ishmael:

Oh! ye whose dead lie buried beneath the green grass; who standing among flowers can say – here, here lies me beloved; ye know not the desolation that broods in bosoms like these.  What bitter blanks in those black-bordered marbles which cover no ashes!

Methinks Melville had the dictionary open at the letter ‘b’ whilst writing that sentence!  I like alliteration; and there is a lot of it in Moby Dick.

There are no more rooms left and so Ishmael is forced to share a room with Queequeg, “a cannibal with a tomahawk” – and his God-idol, Yojo.  At first suspicious of the tattooed islander, the two end up being best of friends and their burgeoning relationship is depicted with real joy, so much so I could not help but sense a homo-erotic angle, not just in their sleeping together, but in Ishmael’s later bathing in a tub of sperm where his task is to squeeze out the lumps with some of his fellow crew but he seems happier playing with their lumps rather than the solidifying sperm(!)  (Or I am reading a little too much into things here?)

It is also in these early pages that we see Ishmael question faith and religion, seeing as there is so much death in the whaling business.  Speaking of the tablets, he thinks [p40], “… Faith, like a jackal, feeds among the tombs, and even from these dead doubts she gathers her most vital hope.”  He then goes on:

Methinks we have hugely mistaken this matter of Life and Death.  Methinks that what they call my shadow here on earth is my true substance.  Methinks that in looking at things spiritual, we are too much like oysters observing the sun through the water, and thinking that thick water is the thinnest of air.

What a beautiful last sentence.

The story of Jonah is referred to several times, as are countless other biblical and classical stories.  Ishmael places Jonah before us, “not … to be copied for his but … as a model for repentance.  Sin not; but if you do, take heed and repent of it like Jonah.”

Long before we get on the ship, and even longer before we get to meet the darkness within Ahab, Ishmael, snug in his bed with Queequeg, muses [p59], “… no man can ever feel his own identity aright except his eyes be closed; as if darkness were indeed the proper element of our essences, though light be more congenial to our clayey part.”  Whilst out bodies enjoy and need the sun, perhaps our minds are better considered through darkness.

It is only on page 74 that Ishmael boards the Pequod to interview, not with Ahab, but with Captain Peleg, the owner of the Pequod.  Ishmael is put on the list, but wants to (rightly) lay eyes on Captain Ahab before he sails.  Peleg describes Ahab, and this is our first introduction to him, “I don’t think thou wilt be able to [see him] at present.  I don’t know exactly what’s the matter with him; … a sort of sick, and yet he don’t look so.  … He’s a grand, ungodly, god-like man…”

Ahab is busy brooding over his lost leg and the whale who stole it.

Yet for all the wonderful musicality and alliteration in the writing, there are swathes of the novel that seem pointless, as if the real monomaniacal man in this story is perhaps poor Ishmael who, after surviving the voyage, has had some of the old Ahab’s single-mindedness rub off on him as he recounts his tale.  The story’s themes are myriad, dealing with: religion, politics, slavery, capitalism, good vs evil, class, and so on.  Education too, for Ishmael tells us [123], “a whale-ship was my Yale College and my Harvard.”  This is a wonderful line and often quoted, (though one wonders how it is that unlettered Ishmael learnt his classics on a whale-ship!)  As a measure of how the book holds within it themes which speak of America, Ahab sees the Pequod and says [p631], “The ship! … its wood could only be American.”

A number of narrative forms are employed, though why is beyond me; most of the novel is in prose, interspersed with sections like plays with stage directions, dramatic soliloquies, and asides to the audience.  This seems to be Melville experimenting with format, with what the novel can be, well ahead of modernism.

When we finally meet Ahab, 134 pages in, he is described as follows:

His whole high, broad form, seemed made of solid bronze, and shaped in an unalterable mould, like Cellini’s cast Perseus.  Threading its way out from among his grey hairs, and continuing right down one side of his tawny scorched face and neck, till it disappeared in his clothing, you saw a slender rod-like mark, lividly whitish.

Note how the mark, whose origin is unknown, links with the whiteness of the whale he seeks, as if it is part of him, and he part of it.  Note also, Ahab’s ‘unalterable’ self: nothing will deter him from his aim.

Ahab stands erect, with an “infinity of firmest fortitude, a determinate, unsurrenderable wilfulness, in the fixed and fearless, forward dedication of [his gaze].”  Melville was keen on ‘f’s that day!

After all this lead-in, this build-up of ill omen and danger, of Ahab’s brooding sickness, we are left in no doubt of Ahab’s trajectory when we hear his first words [p137]: “It feels like going down into one’s tomb … for an old Captain like me to be descending this narrow scuttle, to go to my grave-dug berth.”

Just as things are getting interesting, Melville diverts us off into the musings on different whales, before he thankfully brings us back to find Ahab co-opting the crew into the search for Moby-Dick.  Only poor Starbuck, the brave first mate, is against the hunt, saying [p180], ‘I came to hunt whales, not my commander’s vengeance.’  But even Starbuck acquiesces.  The die is cast, the ship and crew committed.  Says Ahab afterward [p185], “’Twas not so hard a task.  I thought to find one stubborn, at the least; but my one cogged circle fits into all their various wheels, and they revolve. … They think me mad – Starbuck does; but I’m demoniac, I am madness maddened!”

There are many fine passages, including the hunts, as well as delightfully depicted moments like the whale blubber being unfurled off a dead leviathan like an orange peel.  But there are long passages which, had they been left out, I doubt would have been missed, such as an examination of whale references in other books, though there is a great observation when discussing canallers [p280], in that, “… scarce any race of mankind, except Sydney men, are so much distrusted by our whaling captains.”  (I am presuming he means Sydney, Australia with all its convicts!, though am conscious he might be referring to Sydney Nova Scotia, Canada, also on the eastern seaboard of North America like Nantucket, Mass.  I wonder which it is?)

In any event, we learn everything there is to know about whales and whale history, how they are caught and cut, how they are stored and burned.  To my mind, the last 130-pages or so bring the story back to life, with little fat, though Melville’s sudden preoccupation with adverbs drove me a little to distraction.  (Placed end-to-end, one could walk clean across the Pacific Ocean on all the adverbs.  Some are truly(!) ponderous.  Take, for example, [p 626]: “… Moby Dick seemed combinedly possessed by all the angels that fell from heaven.”  Combinedly?!  Wouldn’t the sentence work better without that bizarre concoction?)

If there were ill omens at the start, then they positively pile up in these final 100 pages, as does Ahab’s madness.  He stays on deck, and every ship they meet the very first thing he asks their captains is ‘Have ye seen the white whale?’  Then, at last!, we come to the memorable meeting with the mighty Moby Dick, coming in the last 34 pages of 634 – and a wonderful ending it is too.

I shall quickly forget all the adverbs and think instead of the rhythm in the writing, the musicality of it, and the masterful way in which Melville builds Ahab as the paragon of monomaniacal man, a mysterious, ungodly god that will live long in the memory.

Moby-Dick by Herman Melville

Vintage Classics

1851

ISBN: 9780099511182

634 pages

Source: The Bookshelf Rainbow (aka: personal library)

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This is a wonderful and charming book.  Winner of the Whitbread Book of the year Prize (UK), The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is a coming of age tale with a difference.

Our narrator, fifteen-year-old Christopher, lives in Swindon and sets out to write a detective novel in which he finds the killer of his neighbour’s dog which he finds one night with a garden fork pitched through it.  When the police arrive they begin to ask him questions.  But because his mind works in a rigid way he has trouble answering their questions and when they touch him he assaults one of the officers and is quickly arrested.

We know straight away that Christopher is different from the way in which he tells his story.  He suffers from Asperger’s Syndrome which means he lives his life in a very structured way.  He cannot tell a lie; he likes red but hates brown and yellow; he loves numbers and science; and he only eats food when it is not touching any other food on his plate.  He goes to a special school but wants to take his A-Level Maths exam, the first in his school to do so.   He also wants to be an astronaut.  And Christopher decides to number his chapters not in the usual sequence of 1, 2, 3 and so on, but using prime numbers.

Haddon convincingly gets us into the mind of this very special narrator.  The prose is child-like but rigorous and methodical.  Take, for instance:

“.. the psychologist at school once asked me why 4 red cars in a row made it a Good Day, and 4 red cars in a row made it a Quite Good Day, and 5 red cars in a row made it a Super Good Day, ad why 4 yellow cars in a row made it a Black Day, which is a day I don’t speak to anyone and sit on my own reading books and don’t eat my lunch and Take No Risks.”

The book also uses a plethora of pictures and puzzles that Christopher uses to explain things or explain how he understands the world.  Haddon creates some difficulties for himself in creating this character, but uses the straight-jacket to his advantage.

Of course ‘detecting’ who killed his neighbour’s dog gets him into situations that he would normally avoid.  He needs to talk to people he doesn’t know, something he feels uncomfortable with.  And he’s also living in the aftermath of his mother’s death – although we suspect there is something wrong with this death as when his mother went to hospital with heart problems his father wouldn’t take him to see her.

What Christopher wants is to find out who killed the dog, Wellington.  But what Christopher needs is something else – an understanding of what happened to his mother and how he can fit into the world.  The murder mystery kicks Christopher off into this journey of discovery and we want him to win.  He speaks to neighbours he hasn’t spoken to and goes places he doesn’t know.  His father is against all this – he doesn’t want Christopher to get into more trouble with the police and so dissuades his son from his mad scheme.  He confiscates the book he’s writing and warns him off his search.  It is when Christopher searches through his father’s room – something he has told him never to do – and finds his book that he finds other things that create more questions in his mind about what really happened to his mother.

There are some cringing moments as this fish out of water stumbles into situations which for him are quite terrifying.  There are also many humorous things.  His drawing of the Orion constellation is a prime(!) example, where he turns the archer into a dinosaur

A worthy winner of the Whitbread (now known as the Costa Book Award) in 2003, the same year that a certain DBC Pierre won the Whitbread Best First Book Award for Vernon God Little.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Costa_Book_Awards#2003

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon

David Fickling Books

2003

ISBN: 9781849920414

272 pages

Source: The Bookshelf Rainbow (aka: personal library).

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Is it possible to have a love-hate relationship with a book…?

What’s not to like about Virginia Woolf’s prose?  It overflows with ripe visual and auditory experience, and marks her as one of the lyrical greats.

Regarded as Woolf’s most experimental novel, The Waves (1931) traces the lives of six characters from childhood through to adulthood.  Bernard, Rhoda, Jinny, Louis, Neville and Susan—speak in what Woolf termed ‘dramatic soliloquies’, which are interspersed with sections of prose of one to two pages in length that focus on water and waves at various points of the day.  There is no authorial ‘voice’ or narrator presenting the story for us; we see mainly through the six characters’ eyes.  Events occur, yet there is no plot as such—hardly surprising for an author who saw the main purpose of the novel as the exploration of character.  Woolf’s trademark poetic prose is thus a vehicle for her characters to internalise developments in their lives and understand their sense of identity.  It is interesting that the characters ‘speak’ in these dramatic soliloquies rather than talk to each other and yet one of Woolf’s concerns is interconnectedness!

This interconnectedness is reflected in part of Bernard’s long soliloquy that ends the novel in which he reflects [p212] on his individuality thus:

… it is not one life I look back upon; I am not one person; I am many people; I do not altogether know who I am – Jinny, Susan, Neville, Rhoda, or Louis; or how to distinguish my life from theirs.

(By-the-by, I love a good semi-colon, don’t you?)

Consciousness for Woolf is, as Kate Flint writes in her introduction, somewhat similar to waves, “with their incessant, recurrent dips and crests … consciousness is … fluid”.  The language used by the characters links them, with constant references to water, waves and light—a commonality that also links the sections of prose.  In her diary at the time, Woolf wrote constantly of her own state of mind and activities in terms of waves and water.  Of course, water features prominently in some of her other novels, such as The Voyage Out (1915) and the wonderful To The Lighthouse (1927).

Blurring the lines between prose and poetry is nothing new for Woolf, whose stories are rife with lyrical and poetic images.  There is the unforgettable (p73):

Now the day stirs.  Colour returns.  The day waves yellow with all its crops. 

There is line after line of such prose… another example (p7):

Flower after flower is specked on the depths of green.  The petals are harlequins.

We are presented with early clues on how this story will be an exploration of what it means to be conscious: [p8]: “The leaves went on moving. … What moved the leaves?  What moved me heart, my legs?”

How is this for an observation from Rhoda as a child in the classroom she shares with the others:  [p14]:

I am left alone to find an answer.  The figures mean nothing now.  Meaning has gone.  The clock ticks.  The two hands are convoys marching through a desert.  The black bars on the clock face are green oases.  The long hand has marched ahead to find water.  The other, painfully stumbles among hot stones in the desert.  It will die in the desert.

I don’t know how it can be believed that children think in these wildly poetic terms, with such flair, but after questioning that for a moment I realise I don’t care – how can you when writing and imagery is that good?

One of the most striking aspects of the writing is the amount of colour served up by Woolf’s cast of characters, all of whom seem predisposed to note the finest details.  This is carried over into the narrator’s short meditations on waves too.  Take, for instance, the start of the third such section [p54]:

The sun rose.  Bars of yellow and green fell on the shore, gilding the ribs of the eaten-out boat and making the sea-holly and its mailed leaves gleam blue as steel.  Light almost pierced the thin swift waves as they raced fan-shaped over the beach.  The girl who had shaken her head and made all the jewels, the topaz, the aquamarine, the water-coloured jewels with sparks of fire in them, dance, now bared her brows and with wide-opened eyes drove a straight pathway over the waves.

Yet for all its undoubted brilliance, this is a very difficult book to like.  It is difficult to ‘get into’ as they say.  The fact that there is no central protagonist doesn’t assist the reader in this regard, not does the overt lack of plot, nor ultimately does the overly poetic language.  It is not language which most people would use to tell their story, to reflect on the meaning of their lives.  The result is a distinct inaccessibility.

I had similar feelings after I read Mrs Dalloway.  She was just too vacuous a character for me to like.  I realise this was the point of the story, to satire such people, and so on this account it is a brilliant satire, but it wasn’t an enjoyable story.  Yet the writing was sublimely lyrical.  It is exactly the same with The Waves.  That said, I feel there are many layers to this book, or at least I suspect there might be, layers which may become more appreciated with a second reading; for instance, it is said that Woolf based the six characters on people she knew, people like TS Eliot.  What is also interesting is how much of her own life comes through into the lives of her six – Rhoda commits suicide, as does the very troubled Septimus in Mrs Dalloway.  One can see the great swings that Woolf herself must have suffered when reading the characters’ observations at the various points of their lives: as children with all their sense of promise, through to old age, when life’s die has been cast, positively or negatively.

What are the parameters by which we should judge a book as ‘great’?  Wonderful language?  Originality and experimentation with form?  The inability to forget it once finished?  Certainly there are others, but if it were just these three, then The Waves could indeed be judged as something approaching greatness.

So how to conclude these musings?  I can see that in some moments I’d read The Waves and think ‘what abstract tosh!’, whilst in others think ‘what brilliance!’  Can you see where my love-hate comes from?

For now, I think I’ll go with something in between, but I’ll never forget the ‘day waving yellow with all its crops’.  Sublime.

The Waves by Virginia Woolf

Penguin

ISBN: 9780141182711

228 pages

Source: The Local Municipal Library.

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Confession time!  Sue over at Whispering Gums rightly took me to task a few months back after she perused my ‘Favourite Reads’ only to find no Dickens.  The reason?  Even more shocking than not having him on my list was the fact that, as I quipped to Sue, the closest I’d come to reading Dickens was the thoroughly enjoyable Jack Maggs by Peter Carey(!)  (Jack Maggs is Carey’s Dickensian homage based around Magwitch—the convict who spooks Pip in the opening pages of Great Expectations.)  Now, my single brush with Dickens is not completely true, for in primary school did put on a musical production of Oliver one year, in which, thankfully, I had only a bit part.

I’m not really sure how my lack of Dickens came to pass, though I had for some years been operating under the (very false) perception that I did not need classic realist tales, so engrossed was I in my favourite magic realist genre.  I am a dilettante after all.  But, as Sue will be glad to hear, I am very fond of Jane Austen!  So it is a little strange that I hadn’t got round to Dickens.  In any case, what can I possibly add to what has already been written on such a great book?

Famous for his characters (and caricatures?), I think one goes in expecting over-the-top characterisations, yet I was very glad to find myself enjoying all the characters that Dickens establishes and defines so well and with such flourish.  It is no wonder his characters are some of the most memorable in literature.  Yet for all of the sense of character, for me Great Expectations is a wonderful illustration of plot and structure.  It is here that Dickens so excels, with an intricate—and yet completely controlled—plot.  Yes, there are some happy co-incidences here and there, but they are easily forgotten.  The three-part ‘stages’ of Pip’s expectations are equal in length and perfectly balanced.  Straight from the off we are introduced to a character who might seem a bit player in the form of the convict Magwitch, to whom Pip offers some food and drink, and yet it is these characters, so expertly stage-managed within the structure of the story, who go onto play very important roles in Pip’s life.

WARNING: SPOILER ALERT – FOR ALL THOSE WHO HAVEN”T READ IT (WHAT HAVE YOU BEEN DOING WITH YOUR TIME?!):

In each stage we see a very different Pip, from the boy ‘raised by the (Rampaging!) hand’ of his very much older sister and her blacksmith husband Joe Gargery, who comes into his ‘great expectation’ of inheritance at the end of the first stage, to the snobbish, ungrateful, devil-may-care Pip, carelessly living beyond his much increased means in London in the middle stage, to the final stage in which he realises the errors of his ways, and begins to redeem himself by admirably assisting his good friend Herbert Pocket.  Along the way he also finds the truth behind his benefactor and his wealth vanishes before he finally comes to rest in a comfortable position.

Great Expectations is a bildungsroman story—i.e., the tracing of a youth growing into adulthood, gathering wisdom along the way, but it has very definite thrills and action sequences.  Set against the highly stratified and rigid class hierarchy of Victorian England, we follow Pip’s internal struggle with his guilt over jumping up the social ladder and the ill-treatment of those he left behind.  The story pretty much has a bit of everything, with the rise and fall of Pip’s wealth, his attaining of wisdom, his finding and losing and finding again of love,  whilst all around him the lives of very rich cast of characters evolve, including the slighted (and simply wonderful) Biddy who finds love, the rise of Magwitch (as a convict done well in our very own Australia, we should be so proud!), the memorable Mr Jaggers, who seems to act as lawyer to just about everyone—and why not?, for he’s seems unbeatable in any argument!—to the deceitful and cloistered Miss Havisham and her adopted and seemingly heartless Estella.  The list goes on.  And in each of them is traced out an arc of growth or retardation.  The book even has two different endings offered(!), with the original and discarded ending offered after the revised, refined, far more enjoyable and, dare I say it, more ‘Hollywood’ ending.

Last, but by no means least, there is the language.  The prose’s exuberance and vitality is so overwhelming it almost threatens at times to be a little too much, but it never is.  Instead, we are totally entranced by Pip’s (very erudite!) narrative of this wondrous and eventful story.  Humour abounds, with wry observations such as ‘one always feels better when one has a lot of stationery’ (how true!), to the more overt: take Trabb’s Boy’s mimicking of the pompous Pip when he returns a gentleman to the village he grew up in, as well as the delightful Mr Pocket lifting himself up by his pulling his own hair.

The evocation of place is another highlight – particularly when that place is either a very old house(!) or anything to do with London.   Early on (p14), we get a taste of Pip’s abilities to describe a scene:

Now I saw the damp lying on the bare hedges and spare grass, like a coarser sort of spiders’ webs; … On every rail and gate, wet lay clammy, and the marsh-mist was so thick, that the wooden finger on the post directing people to our village—a direction which they never accepted, for they never came there—was invisible to me until I was quite close under it.  Then, as I looked up at it, while it dripped, it seemed to my oppressed conscience like a phantom devoting me to the Hulks.

It is also quite moving at times too, none more so than Magwitch’s death (p436):

‘Dear Magwitch, I must tell you, now at last.  You understand what I say?’

A gentle pressure on my hand.

‘You had a child once, whom you loved and lost.’

A stronger pressure on my hand.

‘She lived and found powerful friends.  She is living now.  She is a lady and very beautiful.  And I love her!’

With a faint effort, which would have been powerless but for my yielding to it, and assisting it, he raised my hand to his lips.  Then he gently let it sink upon his breast again, with his own hands lying on it.  The placid look at the white ceiling came back, and passed away, and his head dropped quietly on his breast.

Wonderful, and what great use of ‘passing away’ to refer to his gaze and, of course, his life.  I am so very glad I finally got around to reading it.  With thanks to Sue for her rightful prompting, it is left only for me to say: a classic.

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

Vintage

ISBN: 9780099511571

460 pages

Source: The Bookshelf Rainbow, (aka: Personal Library).

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