Posts Tagged ‘Classic’

Confession time: every time I start to read Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury I get bogged down part way in and pick up something else to read.  I then came across a viewpoint somewhere suggesting that for those readers who are put off by Faulkner’s heavy style, As I Lay Dying was the best place to start, an easier initiation if you will.  And I have to say thank-you to whoever wrote that because I was in part mesmerised by this story and how it’s told.  If you think multiple protagonist and/or multiple points-of-view (POV) is a more recent invention then think again.  Faulkner uses fifteen different narrators, each in first person, some of whom employ small sections of stream-of-consciousness.  There’s a little settling in required, but once comfortable, I found it quite a feat.  The voices are earthy and redolent of the deep south of America in which the book is set, each of them providing us with a slightly different slant on the story to which they are a party to, even if just for one brief encounter.  (Without giving anything away, the single chapter narrated by MacGowan, who serves one of the main characters, Dewey Dell, in a chemist store, is powerful and heart-rending stuff.)

But I’ve gotten ahead of myself.  Let’s have a look at the story.  The Bundrens are poor farmers in Mississippi.  The calculating and vengeful Addie Bundren is dying.  Her husband, the very proud Anse, (surely he gives Mr Darcy a run for his prideful money?), has given his word to bury her with her people back in Jefferson.  Outside Addie’s window, Cash, one of her sons, is sawing wood for her coffin.  The first few chapters go on like this, with Cash sawing, Addie slowly dying, and Anse looking out over the land and rubbing his knees, (and wishing for a new set of teeth to boot!).  Meanwhile, a picture of the family slowly builds, with Darl and Jewel and the young Vardamon all brothers to Cash, and Dewey Dell, their sister.  Darl is quite prominent in these early chapters.

When Addie dies, Darl and Jewel are off earning a few bob making a delivery for a neighbour, Mr Tull.  They see their mother is dead on their return in the buzzards circulating over the farm.  The family set off on a road trip to get Addie to Jefferson but encounter several delays along the way, including a harrowing flood scene wherein they lose the team of mules pulling the wagon, and nearly lose the coffin.  All the while the buzzards grow in number.

It’s only 248 pages but there’s so much going on in this family: affairs, sexual relationships, unwanted pregnancies, revenge-seeking, favouritism, and deep scepticism in some, particularly Darl, about their seemingly mad undertaking, (so-to-speak).  There are disasters and near disasters.  There are falling outs and all sorts of shenanigans.  Poor little Vardamon is so traumatised by his mother’s death, he equates her to a fish, leading to the famous line (and very short whole chapter), in which he narrates: “My mother is a fish.”  Darl tries to end the journey by burning down a barn in which they store their mother’s reeking coffin one night – which lands him in some very, very hot water.  And no matter what the dour Anse does, he seems to have some strange hold over all his brood.

There is one chapter from the POV of Addie who lies dead in her coffin.  It is either her talking from beyond the grave, or we have jumped back in time to hear her deathbed thoughts on family, her unloving relationship with Anse, the way she favours some of her children over others, as well as other insights.

There are some wonderful sentences.  Take this description of the flooding river as the boys try to drive the wagon across: [p128]:

[The river] clucks and murmurs among the spokes and about the mules’ knees, yellows, skummed with flotsam and with thick soiled gouts of foam as though it had sweat, lathering, like a driven horse.   

And this description of Addie’s dying eyes, p39:

Only her eyes seem to move.  It’s like they touch us, not with sight or sense, but like the stream from a hose touches you, the stream at the instant of impact as dissociated from the nozzle as though it had never been there.

In fact, the eyes of all the characters are described with unerring deliberation throughout.

If there is one fault with the novel it is in what Hemmingway derisorily termed Faulkner’s penchant for using ‘ten-dollar words’.  There was a good feisty feud between the authors on the question of fancy words.  Hemmingway, not surprisingly, wasn’t a fan.  He wrote, ‘Poor Faulkner, does he really think big emotions come from big words?  He thinks I don’t know the ten-dollar words.  I know them all right.  But there are older and simpler and better words, and those are the ones I use.’  (Both Faulkner and Hemmingway won the Nobel Prize.)

Now, I like ten-dollar words, but when you’re using first-person narration and the characters are poor rural farmers from the 1930s Mississippi, these kind of words don’t fit.  Faulkner can’t help himself.  Take this moment when little Vardamon is narrating, [p51], and compare the simplicity of the opening words with the ones that follow:

It is dark.  I can hear wood, silence: I know them.  But not living sounds, not even him.  It is though the dark were resolving him out of his integrity, into an unrelated scattering of components—snuffings and stampings; smells of cooling flesh and ammoniac hair; an illusion of a coordinated whole of splotched hide and strong bones within which, detached and secret and familiar, an is different from my is

There is also a moment where Dewey Dell, who has trouble communicating the serious trouble she is in, uses in her narration the word ‘stertorous’* to describe a cow’s breathing — a word so unusual and erudite that Microsoft Word thinks I’ve misspelled it!

Darl’s narration is full of ten-dollar words —‘proscenium’ and ‘portière’** anyone? — but at least his articulate nature is consistent.

Despite this minor quibble, the book soars.  It explores the great existential questions, of what it means to be.  Faulkner says it was written in just six weeks and he didn’t change a word, and if either or both of those claims are true, it’s simply miraculous.  The characters will stay long in the memory.

The book has inspired many others, including Graham Swift’s Booker Prize winning Last Orders, which I highly recommend.  Those of us in Australia will recognise the “My mother is a fish” quote from the start of the beguiling Gould’s Book of Fish by Richard Flanagan.  There are many others, as well as authors who call Faulkner a key influence.  I remember Peter Carey for instance eulogising on Faulkner.  Now I can see why.  Bring on The Sound and the Fury!

* Stertorous: from stertor: ‘a heavy snoring sound in respiration’.

** Proscenium: in short, ‘the stage of an ancient theatre’.

** Portiere: ‘a heavy curtain hung across a doorway.’

As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner



ISBN: 9780099479314

248 pages

Source: the local municipal library


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“Please, sir, I want some more.”

It was one of the classic lines isn’t it?

I’ve been doing some reading on Newgate Gaol of late which is why, when I decided to celebrate Charles Dickens’ 200th birthday, I chose Oliver Twist, for it is typically classified as a ‘Newgate Novel’.  This seems to me to be a bit of a misnomer because there is precious little of the novel set inside Newgate.  (As an aside, the nefarious place went by endless nicknames which, according to Kelly Grovier in his excellent book, The Gaol: The Story of Newgate (2008), include: ‘Whittington’s College’, ‘The Quod’, ‘Rumboe’, ‘The Start’, ‘The Stone Pitcher’, ‘The Stone Jug’, and ‘The Mint’.  Presumably ‘The Start’ was coined because of the role Newgate played in the education of young thieves.  But I (sort of) digress!)

We’ve all grown up with Oliver Twist.  His is a classic tale, the poor orphan boy brought up in the workhouse and escaping off to London where he falls in with Fagin’s gang of thieves, including the evil Bill Sikes and the boy who runs the pickpockets, the Artful Dodger.

The interesting thing is that there is much of the novel in which Oliver is ‘off-stage’, or at its edges.  Often when he appears in a scene he says very little.  Things happen around him, affecting his prospects.  He is a pawn in a larger game.  I felt a surprising distance to Oliver which was, I believe, exacerbated by the omnipotent narrator, who calls himself a ‘biographer’ of Oliver, but he is much more than that.  This framework goes some way to explaining the very mature and learned diction of Oliver’s dialogue, but it read unevenly to me; some of it sounded like that of a young boy, while elsewhere it sounded more adult-like.

The streets of London are suitably dark, grimy, and – for children particularly – full of menace.  Oliver’s introduction to them is described as follows: [p63]:

A dirtier or more wretched place he had never seen.  The street was very narrow and muddy, and the air was impregnated with filthy odours.  There were a good many small shops; but the only stock in trade appeared to be heaps of children, who, even at that time of night, were crawling in and out at the doors, or screaming from the inside.

The story is populated with memorable characters – or caricatures if you prefer.  There is the arch-criminal (though uncomfortably racially stereotyped) Fagin, with his “My dear(s)” reeking of malevolence.  His whole ethos is captured in his advice to Mr Claypole, [p360]:

Every man’s his own friend … Some conjurers say that number three is the magic number, and some say number seven.  It’s neither, my friend, neither.  It’s number one. 

Working for him is the Artful Dodger, who sadly has far less of a part than I expected.  There is the menacing Sikes.  There is Nancy, the prostitute whose heart wins over her shortcomings but who, maddeningly, cannot see a way out of her relationship with Sikes.  There is the scheming, bumbling, ‘parochial’ Mr Bumble, always complaining of the pauper’s demands; there’s a great scene in which he edges his chair around the table to lay a kiss on Mrs Corney, in which her feigned protests – “I shall scream!” – are indeed a scream.  Monks’ ravings are perhaps less successful.

Dickensian humour is found throughout, too.  Take Oliver’s first night spent in Fagin’s den, [p64-6]:

One young gentleman was very anxious to hang up his cap for him; and another was so obliging as to put his hands in his pockets, in order that, as he was very tired, he might not have the trouble of emptying them when he went to bed.

There is a wonderful recurring motif of the noose as neckerchief/cravat.  (The irony of course, and I’ll give a small spoiler alert here, is that when Oliver meets Fagin, Fagin is described as having a bare throat.)

Adding to the enjoyment is the dark artwork of George Cruikshank.

As with any satire, the thematic aims are lofty: the treatment of the poor, how they are at the mercy of those with wealth and power, how they are exploited by the criminal class.  It explores how criminals operate and instil their code and methods into the young boys who find themselves cast out of society with little choice but to play the game.  Much of this is summarised when the lowly Nancy says to the lady Rose [p333]: “Oh, lady, lady! … if there was more like you, there would be fewer like me…”

Part of the intrigue of Dickens’ writing is the way he published in serial form.  In the case of Oliver there is disagreement as to how much of a plan he had for the story when starting out.  Often his writing was only a few chapters ahead of the latest published ones.  It’s a remarkable achievement in many ways, especially considering modern writers’ editing practices using all manner of word processing and other organisational tools.  In the case of Oliver Twist it means somewhat ‘loose’ plotting and some astonishing coincidences (all those handily placed aunts and chance meetings!), though serialised ‘novels’ were not usually tightly plotted.  Many of his later novels were far more controlled in this regard.

Even more astonishing is his work ethic and the fact that he had often started – and had published the first chapters of – a new story before reaching the end of the one in progress.  This overlap was more than just chronological; it was often thematic as well.  The end of Oliver Twist is set in Newgate, while the start of his next book, Nicholas Nickleby, sees Nicholas in a fright at seeing Newgate and has him imagining an execution.

For all that, Oliver Twist was slightly disappointing.  Though I can point to some reasons, I don’t fully understand why I felt the distance between myself and the eponymous hero because, on paper, the fact his life is at risk should be moving.  The result was that I didn’t love Oliver Twist in the way I did Great Expectations (see my review here).  In a sense, I was a boy like Oliver, wanting just that little bit ‘more’.

Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens

Penguin Classics


ISBN: 9780141439747

455 pages & additional appendices.

Source: the bookshelf rainbow

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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 wine 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 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 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, 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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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


ISBN: 9780141182711

228 pages

Source: The Local Municipal Library.

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