Tag Archives: British novel

“TWO-BIT REVIEW” . . . The Way of All Flesh, by Samuel Butler

” I think the Church Catechism has a good deal to do with the unhappy relations which commonly even now exist between parents and children. That work was written too exclusively from the parental point of view; the person who composed it did not get a few children to come in and help him; he was clearly not young himself, nor should I say it was the work of one who liked children. . .”

Samuel Butler by Charles Gogin.jpg

BOOK? . . . The Way of All Flesh, by Samuel Butler (1903)

WHAT KIND? . . . Novel

BE MORE SPECIFIC . . . Realism/Satire

ABOUT WHAT? . . . This is a multigenerational family saga of 19th Century rural England, but it’s much more than just a story about a family’s historical struggles. The family is a typical one full of ordinary people who make the parish church their means of livelihood and the foundation of their self-identity. But, despite their ordinary lives, the insights Butler gives us about such families are extraordinary.

SIGNIFICANCE? . . . Thanks to its eloquent narration and its depiction of the traditional way the older generation raises and instructs the younger generation, The Way of All Flesh is one of the great novels exposing the cruelty of strict religions and other hypocrisies. The book dared to say things rarely, or never before, said about established religion and Victorian morals. The book was monumental in its impact on modern thinking. It was a work of humanist philosophy that used a fictional story as its vehicle.

SO SHOULD I READ IT OR WHAT? . . . Maybe. . . The plot is slow but it’s a slow-motion slap in the face. The characters are unremarkable but that’s how Butler needed them to be, and they’re as well-drawn and real as a portrait on a wall. The dialogue is sparse and the prose is unadorned. But Butler’s message is full of sympathy and kindness.

YOU GOT ANYTHING ELSE TO ADD? . . . . The finished manuscript sat in a drawer for twenty years until Samuel Butler gave it to a friend and as a dying wish asked the friend to arrange for it to be published, finally. It was published a year after Butler’s death.

“TWO-BIT REVIEW” . . . Lady Chatterley’s Lover, by D.H. Lawrence

” The bruise was deep, deep, deep…the bruise of the false inhuman war. It would take many years for the living blood of the generations to dissolve the vast black clot of bruised blood, deep inside their souls and bodies.”

BOOK? . . . Lady Chatterley’s Lover, by D.H. Lawrence

WHAT KIND? . . . Novel

BE MORE SPECIFIC . . . Romance plus philosophical and social themes

ABOUT WHAT? . . . An illicit and potentially scandalous love affair, described in intimate detail, and the emotional conditions leading up to it. The book portrays the sadness and emptiness of the generation that fought and endured World War I. It offers only a glimmer of hope that people so emotionally damaged can find fulfillment in their lives. Clifford, Lord Chatterley, who is left paraplegic from the war, physically personifies the emotional numbness that torments Connie, Lady Chatterley, and leaves her feeling that something is missing from her life and life in general.

The novel also describes the ugliness, the misery of modern industrial society, and laments the loss of pastoral beauty. At the same time the book deplores British class structure, which persists despite the social and economic upheaval all around it.

SIGNIFICANCE? . . . Most people think of Lady Chatterley’s Lover as a daringly sexual book that offended large segments of the public. Unlike other books (by Updike, Roth, Irving, etc.) that unfortunately add sexual content merely to shock or titillate, Lawrence’s novel is rich in sex because sex is a symbol and a symptom. It is there to convey serious feelings that matter to the characters. It is described with wondrous respect, and the love scenes place women and men on the same plane, in terms of desires and feelings.

SO SHOULD I READ IT OR WHAT? . . . Maybe. It may not be a great novel, standing head and shoulders about others. But it’s a very good one, with memorable characters, a lot of remarkable prose and deep disturbing thoughts about men, women, life, love and sex.

YOU GOT ANYTHING ELSE TO ADD? . . . Nope. I said what I gotta say.

Sisterhood

Two fine feminist novels from two of the Bronte sisters. Both novels extraordinarily ahead of their time and written with that Bronte elegance of prose that is practically unmatched. And both novels relatively unknown, or at least unappreciated. And my reading both of them within a six month window (and usually within six feet of a window) was unplanned and unexpected. But I am quite unsorry.

Shirley was the novel that Charlotte Bronte (I don’t have those two little dots) published next after Jane Eyre. Naturally Shirley was a bit overshadowed by her older “sister”. And she was a less romantic novel, and less cohesive and way less compelling. Well, Charlotte had just lost a brother and two sisters to illness, which should account for some shortcomings in her written work product. But Shirley was, I think, a more feminist novel than Jane, which is saying something. Shirley, the title character, was a strong-willed independent and outspoken woman. Caroline was her friend, and Caroline was quiet and cautious. But not a pushover. They shared a romantic interest, Robert. Guess which one won. I’m not telling. You have to read the book. That’s not a heavy burden, it’s a beautiful novel, with plenty of themes besides feminism: friendship, love, political and economic struggle, human decency. It deserves to have the Bronte name on it.

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was one of Anne Bronte’s novels (Anne was the youngest sister), and the title character could possibly be called the Mother of Modern Feminism. I don’t have the historical facts to back that up, that’s just my gut feeling about how amazing this book was for its time. The reason I got the book from the library is that my sister and brother-in-law loaned us a DVD of the movie and I wanted to read the book first. We haven’t watched the movie yet. Maybe Thursday. Anyway, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall should have made Anne just as famous as her sisters, but it didn’t. It has romance, but that’s not the main thrust of it. It’s really a social and psychological study of three characters, this time two men and one woman. The romance isn’t triangle shaped, it’s a line. Helen, the woman in the middle, is the Tenant. And, though she doesn’t know it, for my money she’s a heroic feminist of the first order. The reason she doesn’t know it is that she’s too busy dealing with the Victorian male chauvinist system and a husband whose character was inspired by the dissolute life and death of Branwell Bronte, Charlotte and Anne’s only brother.

I haven’t mentioned Emily. I read her book in college. Even though this little essay doesn’t give equal time to her book, I don’t think we have to feel too sad about where she stands in the halls of literature. She’s right up there with her sisters.

More of Lawrence Durrell

I introduced my daughter to Justine (see https://chuckredman.wordpress.com/2015/05/15/learning-about-love-in-alexandria/ ) but she introduced me to The Dark Labyrinth. Though it’s not the artistic triumph that Justine is, The Dark Labyrinth is a fine novel of mystery and the search for answers, both factual and moral. Durrell’s prose is flawless and his characters sharply developed. Their lives and fates converge in what is essentially an allegory.

At a time (1948) when Europe was lost and groping in the post-war twilight, these English travelers sail to the isle of Crete on the ship Europa. They set out upon an excursion into a labyrinth of fabled caverns, where natives believe a deadly Minotaur lurks. Each of the travelers is escaping something and searching for something better. Durrell weaves their pasts, brings them together at a critical point in each of their lives, and then leaves them divided and lost in the labyrinth. The careful and powerful manner in which he does all this is the work of a great novelist. It is the work of a deep thinker, as well, who saw a stormy, uncertain future for Europe, with nations divided and searching for light, beneath an angry cloud of nuclear proliferation. Overshadowed perhaps by Justine and the rest of her Quartet, The Dark Labyrinth is nevertheless a book well worth reading for those who enjoy the vast sub-genre of twentieth century post-war fiction.

 

Learning about love in Alexandria

“She lay, staring out those wonderfully expressive dark eyes, as if from a high window in her own memory.” 

I came across it browsing at the library. I had never heard of it, or its author. Had I browsed left toward Dumas instead of right toward Ellison, I may never have discovered Justine. Seldom has a book so intrigued me with its language, flavor, earthiness. By its juxtaposition of intimate detail and vague half-thoughts, the novel builds a mystery in its own world. I was hooked, to the point that I read straight through Justine, then on to her three sister novels Balthazar, Mountolive, and Clea, which altogether make up Lawrence Durrell’s atmospheric saga The Alexandria Quartet.

Set in pre- and post-World War II Alexandria, Durrell created one of the more existential works around. Much, perhaps, of his close friend Henry Miller, of Camus, of D.H. Lawrence, wanders through its pages, but Durrell colonized a new literary frontier of his own. And when his prose is waxed and polished, which is most of the time, it is stunning.

Now, if you want to read the entire Quartet, be sure you read in the above order, the order in which they were written. The third volume, Mountolive, unlike its two elder sisters, is written in the third person, so it doesn’t grip your shirtfront and pull you into the story with the same intensity. I generally prefer the third person, but as you will see, Durrell’s first person narrative of Justine, et al., is true artistry. Mountolive is a very good book, and it advances the mystery effectively. But you’re almost led to speculate that Durrell brought in James Michener or Leon Uris to write his third part, so that he could take a well-deserved break from the understandable emotional toll of Justine and Balthazar (written in roughly a year or less), and prepare for the climax of Clea.

I have recommended Justine and the Quartet to my daughter, because she is a great fiction reader, and she is a lyricist and artist. She is reading Justine at this moment, and I am anxious to hear her thoughts.

A Tree Grows in London, too

You might say that Rebecca West’s 1956 novel The Fountain Overflows is more or less a British version of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. They do have much in common, subject-wise. But there is a difference: While A Tree Grows has more warmth and poignancy, more emotion and power, West’s novel has not only that wonderful British cleverness, but it has perhaps as much depth of perception and depth of character as anything I’ve read in recent years (which is about as far back as my dwindling memory goes). I can’t claim to have read much Proust, but it seems to me The Fountain Overflows is almost Proustian in its youthful but sublime sensibility.

The book is quite autobiographical, and Rebecca West was a leading feminist of her day. The mother she depicts is such a strong, loving person, regardless of constant adversity, that she will certainly stick in my mind for many Saturdays to come. Every child should have such a mother (I did, thankfully). And I felt so much in common with this family, their love of books and classical music, and refinement without superficiality. Given that Rebecca West wrote this fine book, and given that she and her real family were its inspiration, I have a pretty good hunch that she was at least as beautiful to know as she is to read.

Maybe I’m wrong, but . . .

Should I keep reading? 70 pages into the book and hopelessly intrigued by a neat and clever plot? Or should I dump the book into the return slot at the library first chance I get? That was my moral dilemma. After a brief soul-search, I decided to keep reading, and except for one detail the book is a bright little gem. The book is called Jacob’s Ladder, the year was 1921, and the author was E. Phillips Oppenheim. The detail that stopped me cold in the middle of a paragraph? The thinly-veiled indication that E. Phillips Oppenheim was an anti-semite.

I know nothing about the man except that he was an English writer who published more than 100 novels and dozens of story collections and thus was one of the most prolific and popular writers of his time. And it wouldn’t be the first case of anti-semitism in mainstream literature, by a long shot. What about The Merchant of Venice, or take a look at Oliver Twist. Of course, the Jewish characters in those classics were stereotyped candidly and directly. And, Shakespeare and Dickens both instilled redeeming qualities into the characters to somewhat offset the stereotype. The characterization that bothered me in Jacob’s Ladder was obliquely done and so insidious that it almost went by me undetected. I cannot, even now, be absolutely sure of my theory: it was a hint of racial prejudice, a descriptive word or two plus a stereotyped occupation.

So I would really like to know if others have read Oppenheim’s books and come away with the same impression. Maybe what I saw in Jacob’s Ladder was just a tiny moral hiccup in a vast body of otherwise creditable work.