Archive for May, 2007

The Hours

The Hours, by Michael Cunningham, is one of those rare, glittery constructions which make you gasp, and sigh, and sets a ribbon of delight twisting inside you. I mean – I loved it. It’s built around Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dallaway, so you need to read this first. But when I say built, I don’t mean roughly or heavily. It is like a river, and a city made of light, and the quick-pulsing heart of a small bird. It is connected to Mrs D so lightly, so elegantly, so deeply and so gently that it made me think of all these things.

When I read the first couple of pages I had reservations. So, I thought, he’s picked up the rhythm and the sentence structure from Mrs D and transplanted it into the 1990’s. Big deal. But two more pages in, and I was lost in the beauty of the refractions, and the way he has formed something entirely new from an engagement with the older text. Incredible.

The novel, set on a single day, oscillates between three time-frames: Virginia Woolf’s 1920’s Richmond, as she begins to write Mrs Dallaway; Laura Brown’s stifling life as a housewife in 1940’s Los Angeles, as she longs to sneak away and read Mrs Dallaway; and Clarissa’s 1990’s New York, as she buys flowers and prepares a party for a dying friend. Clarissa’s name and life echo Mrs Dallaway, and there are subtle refractions which make you gasp with recognition and surprise, almost like deja vu.

I read Mrs Dallaway last year, as I was tutoring on the Reading Prose module for first year English students at the University of Leeds. It is a beautiful book, a perfect book; I enjoyed every page. I love Mrs Dallaway, I feel like I’ve met her somewhere. She is ordinary but extraordinary as well. I think my students had trouble coming to terms with this, and saw her as shallow or a victim. I wonder if, for most people, Woolf is more accessible when you are a little older. I tried Towards the Lighthouse when I was 18 and got nowhere with it.

I haven’t seen the film of The Hours, but I guess I will at some point. I didn’t see it when it first came out, because a few people told me it wasn’t very good, though I’ve since heard otherwise. It’s probably a good thing, because I hadn’t read Mrs D at that point, and it was lovely to read The Hours without knowing exactly how it was going to work.

Writing a novel always involves making choices, limiting possibilities, taking this path instead of that one. The Hours went back to Mrs Dallaway and teased out some of the threads not followed, the roads not taken. When I finished it, I thought – yes, this is the best way to respond to literature! Not writing essays or theses, but making a new story, making it live again. It made me want to run out and get hold of everything Cunningham has ever written. I’m in Norway now, so that will have to wait. But it won’t stop me thinking of rivers, and glittery cities, and the quick-beating hearts of birds.

May 31, 2007 at 5:16 pm 8 comments

Disgrace

This is a very good book – enjoyable to read, haunting, strange, unsettling, inconclusive but satisfying. This is the third book I have read by J.M. Coetzee and it is definitely my favourite. The other two, Youth and The Master of St Petersburg, seem thin and lopsided in comparison (I was never predisposed to like The Master of St Petersburg, however, as I was a Dostoevsky worshiper when I read it, and it doesn’t paint a very flattering portrait of him). In contrast, the characters of Disgrace are human, flawed, warm, embracing contradictions. The novel, set in post-apartheid South Africa, is perfectly balanced between three voices – the disgraced academic, his stubborn and vulnerable daughter, and the silent hurt of wounded, unwanted animals. A peculiar combination, but the voices weave together and create a curious music of degradation, loss and hope, much like the opera that the academic, David Lurie, tries to write about Byron’s lamenting mistress. Touching on grandeur, but horribly comic. The sense I am left with is that of creeping very close to the edge of everything – a blank white mist of fog, unbearably sad – and looking at it coolly, calmly, and stroking it.

May 31, 2007 at 1:48 pm 5 comments

Not again!


Yep, another meme. I’ve been tagged by Literary Acquisitionist. But this one’s simple: turn to page 161 of the book closest to you (no cheating) and copy out the fifth full sentence. Then tag three people. The book closest to me happens to be Congenial Souls: Reading Chaucer from Medieval to Postmodern, by the marvelous Stephanie Trigg. For a less random sample of her writing, check out her wonderful blog.

His primary institutional affiliation was with the Working Men’s College in London, founded by J. M. Ludlow and C. E. Maurice in 1854, where he taught English grammar and literature and where he spent much of his time organizing its social program.

You’ll never guess who she’s talking about here. I’ve included a picture of The Riverside Chaucer, because, aside from the fact that it’s very pretty, Trigg opens her book with a fascinating discussion of this image.

And I’m tagging:

May 24, 2007 at 9:06 pm 4 comments

The Man who was Thursday

This novel by G.K. Chesterton (1908) is a very curious beast! It shifts tone several times, especially towards the end, but it seems to work. It reminds me, quite a lot, of a Jeffrey Smart painting – one of the most extraordinary things about it is the way it portrays light on landscapes and street scenes, mainly London. It’s daring, strange, glowing. I really like it. There’s a narrative trick in it, which Chesterton uses again and again, but I got taken in by it every time because the writing is so good that you just go along with it. In some ways it’s like one of C.S. Lewis’s science fiction novels, but with a much tighter structure.

The premise is a policeman trying to fight a terrifying council of anarchists, but the novel is about a lot more than this, exploring the nature of reality and the concept of God in a chaotic, brutal world. It is subtitled ‘A Nightmare’, and although its straight-forward prose makes you forget this at times, it does switch bizarrely between peaceful illuminated clarity and frightening nightmarish episodes, in a way reminiscent of dreams. Here are some of the passages that stood out for me (there were several on every page, it was hard to choose):

Under the white fog of snow high up in the heaven the whole atmosphere of the city was turned to a very queer kind of green twilight, as of men under the sea.

By this time the afternoon sun was slanting westward, and by its rays Syme could see the sturdy figure of the old innkeeper growing smaller and smaller, but still standing and looking after them quite silently, the sunshine in his silver hair.

… Syme was a type of the poet who seeks always to make the light in special shapes, to split it up into sun and star. The philosopher may sometimes love the infinite; the poet always loves the finite. For him the great moment is not the creation of light, but the creation of the sun and the moon.

And here’s something Chesterton wrote about it in 1936, published in an article the day before he died:

It was not intended to describe the real world as it was, or as I thought it was, even when my thoughts were considerably less settled than they are now. It was intended to describe the world of wild doubt and despair which the pessimists were generally describing at that date; with just a gleam of hope in some double meaning of the doubt, which even the pessimists felt in some fitful fashion.

What’s curious here is that it’s actually more interesting to try to describe how people feel about the world, rather than vainly seek to describe it as it really is. In any case, the way people feel about the world is how the world is for them.

On another note – there must have been conferences about London in literature – I would love to go to one! There are so many books about London, showing it in so many different lights.

May 22, 2007 at 9:23 pm 4 comments

Eight Things

Eva at A Striped Armchair tagged for the eight things meme! It’s been doing the rounds of the book blogs. So, here’s my list.

  1. Colourful teacups, socks and cushions make me happy.
  2. Everything stops for Dr. Who.
  3. I can’t spell
  4. I learnt to paraglide in Austria when I didn’t speak German (although I learnt the words for straight ahead, left, right, and brake very quickly)
  5. Things I miss about Australia: sunshine, fruchocs, Farmers Union Iced Coffee, sandy beaches, my family, rosellas, magpies in the morning, the smell of gum trees
  6. My life in cats: Che Che (the panda cat, long-suffering); Thistledown (fluffy, soppy, blue-grey); Merlin (huge chocolate Burmese, dangerous and beautiful); Mr Cat (inquisitive, ingenious, the gentleman cat)
  7. St Petersburg, Stockholm, Zurich and Berlin are my favourite European cities. And of course York.
  8. Radioactive Man is the best

And here are the people I’m tagging:

Radioactive Man at Radioactive Man
Richard, at Postcards from Richard
Jess, at This Delicious Solitude
Fifi, at Strange Fruit
Jordan, at clash of the bull and the frog
Ilse, at Fraulein Ilse’s Blog
Anne, Emily and Charlotte at Ask the Bronte Sisters
Aquisitionist at Literary Aquisitionist

May 19, 2007 at 7:30 pm 6 comments

From bookworm to butterfly

The Very Hungry Caterpillar. Melanie Mall and the Pie in the Sky. John Brown, Rose and the Midnight Cat. Hundreds of fairytales. And a good dose of A.A. Milne, especially King John, who longs for ‘a big, red India-rubber ball’. From these humble beginnings, we bravely set forth to destinations unknown.

Pippi Long-stocking and The Hobbit – undisputed stars of the primary school years. Until the unsuspecting bookworm is plucked from her cosy hole and dropped in a country town, burrowing for cover in the fat, welcoming, wonderful Lord of the Rings. This proves a good companion for six long years, but there is space for other travelers on the road: Chaim Potok, Susan Cooper, David Malouf. At the end of year 12 she re-reads TLOTR in three days straight, and worries that she loves it more than God.

At University the green leaves of the forest beckon. Leaving Tolkien behind, the intrepid bookworm flirts with Italo Calvino before munching on happily in a much bigger world: Jane Eyre, James Joyce, Eliot – both T.S. and George, Chaucer, Malory, Sir Gawain, Tim Winton, and a heavy, heady dose of Dostoevsky. Bliss.

After four years, bookworm emerges, bewildered, squinting at the light. Finds a job that lets her read at night. Sweeping floors, pushing wheelchairs and wiping bottoms by day, the bookworm gorges sweetly by night: War and Peace, Middlemarch, everything Neil Gaiman ever wrote. And slowly, she hatches the best plan yet.

One long snooze, and the bookworm sprouts wings, big ones. It’s off to England, to read the old books in the old languages. And the shiny new butterfly finds more than she’d hoped. Yes – there’s Ovid and Virgil, Augustine, Dante, the glittery Pearl, Norse Sagas and Anglo-Saxon poems like heavy gold rings. But there’s also Kurt Vonnegut, Milan Kundera, Virginia Woolf, Philip Roth, Umberto Eco and the magical Philip Pullman. Here are fields, broad and bright, their new colours flashing in the sun.

May 11, 2007 at 10:44 pm 5 comments

New Books

I went to the library today but there were no seats due to exams (lots of 18-21 year olds shuffling papers and surreptitiously checking their mobile phones), so I ended up in the university bookshop instead. Oops. And they had 25% off fiction. So I bought:

  • Disgrace, by J.M. Coetzee
  • Orlando, by Virginia Woolf
  • The Hours, by Michael Cunningham
  • The New Life, by Orhan Pamuk

And then I ran very fast so I didn’t buy a couple of novels by Simon Armitage and Brick Lane by Monica Ali. Got to stop somewhere. I’m quite excited about The New Life cos of the medievalist references (to Dante’s Vita Nuova) – I’ve read a paper about it somewhere. The justification was to cheer myself up for feeling a bit down about my PhD. Update – the Randolph Stow fest can slow down a bit cos I still need to keep working on my Les Murray chapter. I’m also part way into The Man Who Was Thursday, by G.K. Chesterton, so p’raps I’ll get back to that.

May 10, 2007 at 9:54 pm 4 comments

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