Posts Tagged ‘Books’

“The Optimist’s Daughter” by Eudora Welty

What can we do but enumerate old themes? Love, loss, death, remembrance, and the passage of time that allows us fresh glimpses into these familiar things … It is hard to imagine a time when serious artists won’t want to address such matters. No hankering for novelty can remove these things from the centre of our lives. What is there to be said on these matters that is new? Has not all that can be said already been said?

Perhaps the answer to that question is that it is not a matter of saying anything new about them. Or, indeed, a matter of saying anything at all. For no-one addressing these themes do so because they wish to impart some sort of message: any message capable of being expressed on these matters is, almost inevitably, too superficial. But we can contemplate. Not contemplate to arrive at some sort of answer, or even to arrive at some sort of resolution, but contemplate simply because we cannot help ourselves. And each contemplation is new, because each perspective is personal, individual. We live, we love, and then we die, and those remaining remember. We know ‘tis common – all that lives must die, passing through nature to eternity – but there is little point asking why it seems so particular with us. We know not “seems”.

These old themes are unapologetically at the centre of The Optimist’s Daughter, a short novel, and Eudora Welty’s last, published in the 1970s in her old age. In its concentration, it is almost a short story. Its principal character, Laurel, now living in Chicago, returns to her homeland in the South: her aged father is ill. At first, it does not seem very serious: a standard eye operation. But he fails to recover. His second wife, the vulgar, frivolous, and self-obsessed Fay, much younger than her frail husband, has little sympathy with death; but although she may think that she is on the side of life, she isn’t: life can mean but little if the significance of death fails to inspire awe, or even, as in this instance, adequate acknowledgement. She urges her husband to live – not for his own sake, but for her own. Possibly, she is responsible, in her thoughtlessness, for hastening her husband’s end. But it all means little to her: she is incapable of contemplation, and cannot even begin to understand why it all seems so particular with others. However, for Laurel, the last link with her past is now gone. Her mother had died years earlier; and her husband had died in the war. Though but middle-aged, no-one is now left alive with whom she retains any strong emotional tie: all whom she had loved are now dead. What can she do but remember?

Her remembering is largely left till the closing parts of the novel. The earlier parts of the novel describe, with all the economy of a great writer of short stories, Laurel’s father’s last illness, and the network of relationships between the old man and his young wife, and between father and daughter. The events move swiftly, as the old man fails to recover from what had appeared initially a routine operation; and as the wife, impatient with thoughts of death, and resentful that her feelings (she had felt the operation unnecessary) were being ignored, unwittingly and thoughtlessly hastens his end. At the funeral, Laurel meets again with her old neighbours, and old family friends, but finds herself feeling distant from it all. Her childhood home will now be passing on to Fay. The past is receding quickly. And, unexpectedly, Fay’s redneck family, turn up. She had said previously that she had no family, and it is not hard to conjecture why: even with her limited intelligence, she knew that they would not be approved of.

The resolution of the novel comes when, towards the end, Laurel is left on her own for a while in the old house that she knows she must soon leave for ever. And it is here that all that had gone previously, all that may have seemed fragmentary, fall into place, and we see them in proper focus. Here, at last, Laurel can think about a past that has left nothing behind, that can now exist only in her memory. Now she can re-evaluate.

Re-evaluation of the past, contemplating on why things have turned out as they have, understanding the ground we have occupied in relation to those whom we have loved, are the themes also of Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night; but the past there had been turbulent. The past here seems, in contrast, placid and happy. But, as in O’Neill’s play, love and hatred are not mutually exclusive. Perhaps all loves contain some element of hatred.

A new character, only mentioned in passing earlier in the novel, now emerges in the foreground: Laurel’s dead mother. As Laurel’s mind shifts back and forth between the present and various times from the past, she remembers how she had reacted to her mother’s long illness and eventual death; and she remembers also how her mother had reacted to her parents’ death. A chain emerges, a human chain, of departing and of remembering, stretching back over time, across generations.

Her mother, like her father, had also lost her sight towards the end (vision, and lack of it, are among the recurring images of this novel), but, unlike her father’s, her mother’s illness had been a long one. She had, one suspects, never quite managed to tear herself away emotionally from her strong attachment to her family home in West Virginia – “up home”: for all her closeness to her husband, the home he offered in Mississippi never quite matched up to what she left behind, and the breaking, one by one, of her ties with her past – the death of her father, of her mother – had been for her particularly traumatic. And during her own long, final illness, her mind had deteriorated – or, as Fay puts it, “she died a crazy”. Laurel’s mother had been, towards the end, in despair, and her husband, though loving her, could not acknowledge the nature of the tragedy they were living through:

He loved his wife. Whatever she did that she couldn’t help doing was all right. Whatever she was driven to say was all right. But it was not all right! Her trouble was that very desperation. And no-one had any power to cause that except the one she desperately loved, who refused to consider that she was desperate. It was betrayal on betrayal.

Her loving husband, Laurel’s loving father, is an “optimist”: his nature is such that he cannot even bring himself to believe that certain things are beyond the reach merely of our loving; he could not bring himself to acknowledge the essential tragedy of our lives – the losses, the pains, the passing through nature to eternity.

As Laurel goes through her mother’s things, destroying all which she does not wish to come into Fay’s possession, her mind travels back and forth in time, remembering, interpreting, trying to understand. All the while, a storm is coming; and a bird that has flown down the chimney is trapped inside the house. Symbols, certainly, but to try to pin down these symbols is reductive: better, I think, to take these pieces of imagery at face value, and allow them to resonate in our minds. The course of Laurel’s thoughts may seem random, but they are carefully structured. And finally, her mind turns to her husband, Phil, killed at war:

If Phil could have lived –

But Phil was lost. Nothing of their life together remained except in her own memory; love was sealed away into its perfection, and had remained there.

What might have been, what might have emerged from their love, cannot disrupt that perfection in which it is now sealed.

There remains only a final confrontation with Fay before Laurel leaves for ever her childhood home. Laurel had wanted to hurt Fay, but when the time comes, it doesn’t seem worth it:

She had been ready to hurt Fay. She had wanted to hurt her, and had known herself capable of doing it. But such is the strangeness of her mind, it had been the memory of the child Wendell that had prevented her.

Wendell was a child who had been with Fay’s ghastly family that had descended so unexpectedly on the funeral. And he, at least, was blameless. Laurel does not know why the memory of that child should now prevent her from hurting Fay: she puts it down vaguely to “strangeness of her mind”.

Fay ends, as she thinks, triumphant: “I belong to the future,” she declares. And Laurel lets her have her moment of triumph because she knows this is not true.

Memory lived not in initial possession, but in the freed hands, pardoned and freed, in the heart that can empty but fill again, in the patterns restored by dreams.

These are all old, old themes. Welty’s perspective is quiet and unassuming. She meditates, as Laurel does, on the nature of loss, and of memory, that fragile and delicate thing that is nonetheless the sole remaining link to that which has been lost. But Welty is also utterly unsentimental: she is well aware of the deep resentment and hatred that can reside even within the most selfless and devoted love; and how even the most buoyant of optimism can be a denial of our lives’ tragedies – a denial almost of life itself. Love does not conquer all, and it is mere foolishness imagining otherwise.

This is a quite exquisite novel from one of the century’s finest writers.


“Pnin” by Vladimir Nabokov

Pnin and Lolita were written at around the same time, and it is hard not to compare the titular character of the one, the academic Timofey Pavolovich  Pnin, with the principal character of the other, Humbert Humbert.  Both are European émigrés in America, and both are highly intelligent; but in everything else, they are direct opposites. Humbert Humbert is personable and good-looking: from the description given (“ ideally bald … an infantile absence of eyebrows … apish upper lip, thick neck … a pair of spindly legs …”), Pnin isn’t. Humbert Humbert deceives his wife, Pnin is deceived by his. Humbert Humbert is a predatory paedophile, who grotesquely exploits his step-daughter: Pnin is selflessly kind and generous to his wife’s son. Humbert Humbert is a monster: Pnin is a good man. Indeed, it may not be going too far to describe him as a saint. And whereas, in Lolita, Nabokov encourages a degree of sympathy, and possibly even empathy, with his monster creation, so we, the reader, can feel shocked by where our empathy has taken us, the game Nabokov plays with Pnin is quite different: he depicts him throughout as an absurd and laughable character, so that we, the reader, find ourselves shocked that we could even think of laughing at so good and so selfless a human. He was one for games, was Nabokov.

In Lolita, Nabokov allowed the vile but deeply seductive voice of Humbert Humbert to tell us his story.  Here, the narrative voice belongs to someone else, and it is not entirely obvious to begin with who this someone else is. What this narrative voice gives voice to is highly individual: there are pot shots at various aspects of academia, for instance; there is also a dislike of fashionable psychiatric ideas (“Victor was a problem child insofar as he refused to be one”), and, frequently, a waspish sense of humour that often descends into outright sneering; and there is an openly expressed dislike of such literary figures as Stendhal, Dostoyevsky, Dreiser, Mann. And all this is expressed a razor-sharp, precise, glinting prose. It is hard, given all this, to escape the notion that this narrator is Nabokov himself. Certainly, it is the same voice I hear in my mind when I read his fascinating (though highly idiosyncratic) literary criticism. But if the narrator is Nabokov, why is he so cruel and so unfeeling to Pnin? Do we put this down to yet another of Nabokov’s games?

But it’s not that the narrative voice misleads us. What this voice depicts is so clearly at odds with its sneering tone, that we learn very quickly not to take that tone of voice at all seriously. It would take a deeply insensitive reader, after all, to share the narrator’s obvious amusement when Pnin breaks down in tears in his landlady’s presence (“I haf nofing left, nofing, nofing!”)

There isn’t really much of a plot, as such. Nor is there much continuity between chapters, with each chapter emerging as a sort of tableau, and not moving anything on noticeably. In one chapter we meet Pnin’s ex-wife, who had shamefully exploited him, and continues shamelessly to exploit; and while Pnin is heartbroken, the narrator invites us to laugh at his heartbreak, and his astonishing lack of rancour. In another chapter, Pnin looks after his wife’s son, and treats him with a greater kindness and understanding than his biological parents have ever done. This, too, the narrator seems to find rather funny. In another chapter, we see Pnin at a gathering of Russian émigrés: here, he seems a bit more at home. And so on. None of these tableaux seems to be part of any particular line of development: they simply reflect different facets of Pnin’s life, of his past, and of his miserable state of exile.

It is in the chapter relating the gathering of Russian émigrés that we learn that Pnin, in his youth, had loved a young Jewish woman, Mira Belochkin, who had later been murdered in a Nazi extermination camp. In a more conventional novel, this would have been at the centre, but here, it is dropped almost as if in passing, as if it were but an incidental detail. And  afterwards, it is never mentioned again. But the few sentences given to this apparently incidental detail gives us all that is needed for our imagination to latch on to:

Pnin had taught himself, during the last ten years, never to think of Mira Belochkin … no conscience, and hence no consciousness, could be expected to subsist in a world where such things as Mira’s death were possible.

The narrator, though at other points seemingly insensitive, goes on to say:

And since the exact form of her death had not been recorded, Mira kept dying a great number of deaths in one’s mind, and undergoing a great number of resurrections, only to die again and again, led away by a trained nurse, inoculated with filth, tetanus bacilli, broken glass, gassed in a sham shower bath with prussic acid, burnt alive in a pit on a gasoline soaked pile of beechwood.

The narration is clearly inconsistent here: if Pnin had indeed taught himself not to think of her, Mira could hardly have died and undergone resurrection “over and over again” in his mind. (The narrator does cover his back by saying “one’s mind” rather than “his mind” – my italics – but it’s hard to imagine who this “one” could be if not Pnin himself.) And the whole thing is never referred to again. A momentary mention, and that is it. It is left up to us, the reader, to take what is presented but as an incidental detail, and put it at the centre of things where it belongs. Nabokov plays games with the reader, yes, but, at the same time, he is openly asking the reader to see through his games.

After this little detail is dropped, the narration resumes as before, but the reader now must see the new events in the context of this detail, and re-evaluate everything that has gone before. If Pnin is a man hopelessly lost, a man hopelessly out of place, this is not merely because he is an émigré: it is not merely America in which he is a fish out of water – it is the world itself, a world in which no conscience or consciousness can be expected to subsist.

The comedy, however, continues. There is one delicious scene reminiscent of Joseph Heller’s Catch 22 in which it is decided not to assign Pnin to French classes because he actually knows the language. And, in the final chapter, the narrator emerges, revealing himself to be a fellow academic and fellow Russian émigré: indeed, he reveals himself to be, as we had always suspected, Nabokov himself. And the various inconsistencies in his narrative compel us to consider just why these inconsistencies have been introduced. There is possibly no definitive answer to this question: certainly, all the reams of literary theory concerning the use of the unreliable narrator is of little use to us here (one suspects that Nabokov himself would have aimed some sharp and well-aimed barbs at such theories). I rather suspect that these inconsistencies point to Nabokov’s recognition, and yet, at the same time, his inability openly to acknowledge, that human goodness, and indeed, human saintliness, can still exist in a world in which no conscience or consciousness could be expected to subsist. And Nabokov recognises quite clearly this conflict within himself: his inconsistencies are quite deliberately placed.

In the end, Pnin is relieved of his post, and he disappears. And at this point, the author, Nabokov himself, suspends his game-playing, and the razor-sharp precision of his prose gives way, if only momentarily, to a vision of another world that, somewhere, may still exist:

Then the little sedan boldly swung past the front truck and, free at last, spurted up the shining road, which one could make out narrowing to a thread of gold in the soft mist where hill after hill made beauty of distance, and where there was simply no saying what miracle may happen.

No waspish wit here, no sneering. Just for a single moment, Nabokov has let down his defences, and has given us what is perhaps as close to a religious vision as is possible in a world in which no conscience or consciousness could be expected to subsist.

“New Arabian Nights” by Robert Louis Stevenson

O wad some Power the giftie gie us…

If I were to be given the ability to write prose like any writer of my choosing, past or present, I think I’d choose to write prose like Robert Louis Stevenson. There’d be no point picking someone like Dickens, say, whose prose is so idiosyncratic that anything written in that manner would seem merely like imitation. Stevenson’s prose is also very individual – as, indeed, is the prose of any major stylist – but it is not eccentric, as Dickens’ is. It is supple, rhythmical, and eloquent; and it is marvellously expressive. And it is all of these things without the slightest hint of exhibitionism, of drawing attention to itself. Take, for instance, this passage from the story “A Lodging For the Night”, describing snow falling at night on the streets of Paris:

The snow fell over Paris with rigorous, relentless persistence; sometimes the wind made a sally and scattered it in flying vortices; sometimes there was a lull, and flake after flake descended out of a black night air, silent, circuitous, interminable. To poor people, looking up under moist eyebrows, it seemed a wonder where it all came from.

There is nothing gaudy about this: it is far from purple prose. It flows naturally, its rhythms perfectly in place, creating successive waves and troughs, neither pulling the reader up short with quickfire staccato, nor tiring the reader with long unpunctuated phrases in which, by the time the end is reached, the beginning is all but forgotten. It is almost like the conversation of a highly articulate person, its rises and falls and its pauses imitating the natural patterns of speech. And each word seems so perfectly chosen, and so perfectly in place, that neither the choice of words nor the order in which they are put seems capable of improvement. And as an evocation of the scene, as a picture in words of snow falling from a night sky, can this really be improved upon? I could turn to any page at random in this collection, and I would find the same thing – prose that is eloquent, words that are perfectly chosen, phrasing that is immaculate; and, without drawing attention to itself, writing expresses perfectly whatever the author wants to express.

This collection of stories was first published in 1882, when Stevenson was in his early thirties, but the stories had all been appearing individually in literary magazines and journals for a few years before then. The title Stevenson chose for this collection is an interesting one: The Arabian Nights stood, and still stands, for pure storytelling – storytelling of tremendous exuberance and vitality, unencumbered with anything to furrow the thoughtful brow, innocent of insights or thoughts regarding the human condition, but holding the reader’s attention purely by the question: “What happens next?”

But curiously, Stevenson does not often seem very interested in the question “What happens next?” His interest seems to lie, rather, in creating intriguing situations; and it’s these situations that stay in the reader’s mind rather than how they are eventually resolved. Two of the entries in this collection are actually sequences of linked stories – “The Suicide Club” (what a title!) and “The Rajah’s Diamond”. These stories often end without resolution: it is almost as if, having presented us with intriguing situations, Stevenson doesn’t really care too much about “what happens next”, and is moving on quickly to introduce a new thread, with new situations that are every bit as intriguing as the previous ones. This new story will contain, somewhere along the line, some detail that resolves the previous story, but these details are dropped as if in passing: it is the situations that are important to Stevenson, and the rest merely mechanics of the plot, and, hence, of relatively little interest. The resolutions are dropped almost casually, if they were but trifles. And indeed, when these resolutions are eventually presented, we find ourselves already so wrapped up in the new story, that we don’t care too much about how the previous one had worked out. I don’t think I have ever encountered anything of this nature before.

It is all carried off with a tremendous panache. And what situations they are! A quiet, retiring man receives a letter from a mysterious woman, proposing they meet; he is stood up, but he returns to his room to find there a corpse. Or there’s the Suicide Club, a secret organization where men meet who are either suicidal, or are seeking excitement; there, cards are drawn, and the he who draws the ace of spades is to be killed, and he who draws the ace of clubs must do the killing. And so on. The stories may end without resolution (although that will be dropped in later) , but no matter: within a few paragraphs of the next story, we are hooked all over again.

Apart from these linked stories, there are four others, of varying character. In “A Lodging for the Night”, Stevenson recreates medieval Paris on a winter’s night, and presents to us the great poet François Villon, who was also a cut-throat brigand. That one could be both intrigued Stevenson, and what emerges is masterly both in terms of evoking time and place, and of evoking also a character of endless fascination. We are in medieval France again for “The Sire de Malétroit’s Door”, where, once again we are presented with an intriguing situation: it eventually resolves itself into a rather charming love story, but I can’t help feeling that it’s the intriguing nature of the set-up that most attracted Stevenson’s imagination. “Providence and the Guitar” is a rather whimsical tale pitting the improvident artistic temperament against more stolid and more dependable – but also more boring – approaches to life; there is, once again, much charm here, and also a vein of the comic that I don’t always find in Stevenson’s writing.

But the masterpiece of this collection is, I think, “The Pavilion on the Links”. It was a great favourite of Conan Doyle’s (another great storyteller, who was born only a mile or so from Stevenson’s birthplace). And no wonder! Adventure stories really don’t come any better than this! The prose, as ever, is tremendously accomplished, but what impresses most is the pacing, and the creation of tension. It is set on a remote stretch of the Scottish coast, and the heroes (as they turn out to be) find themselves protecting a man from bloodthirsty killers besieging them. We have had elements of this in Treasure Island, of course: there, the besiegers had been pirates; here, they are Carbonari. The basic situation later found its way into Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo, and John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13. Marvellous though both those films are, they are not, I think, superior to this story, which, though much shorter, I found every bit as thrilling as Treasure Island. No wonder Conan Doyle thought so highly of this!

New Arabian Nights was Stevenson’s first collection of short stores. He wrote more, of course, but I have only read a small handful of them so far, and can’t imagine why I have left it so long to read the others. In the meantime, if adventure stories are your thing – and even if they aren’t, and you simply enjoy fine writing – this collection can be recommended with the warmest enthusiasm. What a writer Stevenson was!

Oresteia redux: “Mourning Becomes Electra” by Eugene O’Neill

This post is going to be a short one. I know I’m a bit loquacious: when I’m writing about a book, I rarely post less than a thousand or so words, even when I have little to say. But this one, I promise, will be short: Eugene O’Neill has, after all, written Long Day’s Journey Into Night, a work that for many years now has resonated with me most powerfully; and it is frankly painful to have to say anything too detrimental about a writer one of of whose works, at least, has meant to me so much over so many years. So I’ll keep this one short.

Mourning Becomes Electra is a trilogy of plays set in the aftermath of the American Civil War, and is based upon the three surviving Oresteia plays of Aeschylus. Of course, these great myths are capable of renewing themselves for different generations, but the problem here is that O’Neill doesn’t renew anything at all: he merely takes the outline of the story, and dresses it in modern clothes. He dutifully plods through the major events – a general returning triumphantly from war murdered by his adulterous wife, his son and daughter revenging their father’s death, and so on – but, apart from a rather lumbering Oedipal relationship between mother and son, he adds nothing at all. The psychology is crude, the drama plot-driven, the dialogue lumbering and, at times, ludicrously sensational and melodramatic … and it all leaves me shaking my head and wondering how a writer who could have produced that infinitely moving and poetic masterpiece that is Long Day’s Journey Into Night could even conceive of something so ham-fisted as this.

The above paragraph contains merely assertions: I have provided, I am aware, no analysis. The purpose of this post is merely to record my reactions rather than to account for them. I could, I suppose, spend some time analysing these three plays, but such an exercise would, I fear, prove too depressing. I haven’t yet read all of O’Neill’s plays, but of what I have read, The Iceman Cometh seemed to me a fine (though highly idiosyncratic) work; Long Day’s Journey Into Night is a play of searing intensity and of emotions almost too raw to be expressed, but also the work of a profound poetic sensibility; and the rest I have found unremarkable. This trilogy of plays seemed to me even less than merely unremarkable: it is so depressingly ordinary and uninspired – especially given the lofty dramas of Aeschylus that inspired them, if “inspired” is really the word I’m looking for here – that I really can’t see myself returning to them. Not even to check if I have been mistaken.

But Long Day’s Journey Into Night remains as fine a monument as any literary artist could hope to leave behind. It is a work that moves me beyond words. So why dwell on the rest?

“The Member of the Wedding” by Carson McCullers


It might seem a trifle absurd, perverse even, to preface a brief discussion of a novel as plotless as this with a spoiler alert, but, given the few disgruntled e-mails I’ve received when I have previously failed to provide such an alert, it’s best to stray on the safe side in these matters.

For plot appears to be the least of Carson McCullers’ concerns. Which raises questions about what her concerns actually are, and I wish I knew how to answer that. I deliberately delayed writing anything about this novel till a few weeks after I had finished reading it, hoping that its various powerful resonances would settle in my mind somewhat, and allow some sort of coherent picture to emerge; but, so far, that has not happened. It continues, however, to resonate, and if, as T. S. Eliot famously said, a poem may be appreciated even before it is understood, it may, I thought, be worthwhile articulating some of my uncomprehending appreciation. It may even be worthwhile merely to register my bemusement.

Part of the reason why themes and concerns of this novel are so difficult to articulate is that Carson McCullers herself leaves them unarticulated. Much of the novel is filtered through the consciousness of its principal character, the twelve-year-old girl Frankie, or F. Jasmine as she likes sometimes to style herself, or the conventional Frances as she becomes at the end; quite frequently, she does not have the ability to articulate what she thinks, or feels. Throughout the novel, we are told that she feels things that she does not know how to name, and Carson McCullers is happy to leave these feelings unnamed. And there is much unfinished also: the only plotline of sorts that develops concerns a soldier who, mistaking Frankie for a girl somewhat older, tries to have his way with her in a hotel room, whereupon she strikes him on the head with a glass pitcher, and runs off. She does not know how badly hurt the soldier is, nor, indeed, whether she has killed him. And we, the reader, never get to know either. It is left as unfinished and as unresolved for us as it is for Frankie. To introduce a narrative line and then refuse to resolve it may seem a cardinal crime in the art of storytelling, but here, it is quite deliberate: the narrative strands, such as they are, remain unresolved, because they are, by their very nature, incapable of resolution.

And yet, the novel is certainly about something. Edmund Wilson, presumably frustrated and bemused by it all, declared the entire work to be “pointless”, but it seems highly unlikely that so fine an intelligence and so subtle an artistry as Carson McCullers’ would labour so many years over a narrative that is ultimately “pointless”. Leaving that aside – for, of course, biographical details of the author should play no part in literary criticism – the novel, whatever may lie at its centre, resonates far too powerfully for “pointlessness” to be a valid option. If the novel refuses to articulate its themes clearly (under the cover that Frankie herself cannot articulate them), we must conclude that they cannot be articulated – that they are, essentially, as incapable of being articulated as the narrative strands are of being resolved.

What we can say with some confidence, I think, is what this novel is not. This is not a coming-of-age novel. Neither is this a novel about teenage angst (or, more accurately, pre-teenage angst): Frankie Addams is not a female equivalent of Holden Caulfield. We may say this with confidence because neither of these pat explanations can account for the effect the novel makes upon the reader. (Well, this reader, at least.) The appreciation that Eliot spoke about that precedes understanding is, in this instance, an appreciation of certain vague, mysterious regions that are well outside the scope of novels of adolescent angst.

We are taken at some length into Frankie’s thoughts, and, at the centre of her thoughts, it seems to me, is a vaguely glimpsed concern for the nature of her individual identity. Here, I think, we need to be careful, because there is so much guff currently spoken and written on the question of “identity”, that it might be easy to see this novel as a comment on what is currently termed “identity politics”; but such a view of the novel would be even more facile and reductive than to see it as a coming-of-age novel, or as a novel about adolescent angst. What concerns Frankie, though expressed with a childlike naivety, is that age-old philosophical issue of our consciousness of our own individual identity, as distinct from the individual identities of others:

“Doesn’t it strike you as strange that I am I and you are you? … And we can look at each other, and touch each other, and stay together year in and year out in the same room. Yet always I am I and you are you. And I can’t be anything else but I, and you can’t be anything else but you.”

What is it that fixes us in our own, personal identity? Is there some sort of essence of self, of “I”, that is independent of this person whose body I happen to inhabit, and whose name I happen to bear? If not, why not? And if so, why am I stuck, constrained, to be this person?

Frankie wonders also about our perceptions. Are they consistent from person to person, from “I” to “you”, from “I” to, perhaps, another “I”?

“I see a green tree. And to me it is green. And you call this tree green also. And we would agree on this. But is this colour you see as green the same colour I see as green? Or say we both call a colour black. But how do we know that what you see as black is the same colour I see as black?”

If we are indeed, each one of us, an “I” and nothing but “I”, how can we be confident of a commonality of perception? And if we cannot be confident of this, how can we even communicate with each other?

Frankie is isolated from others. Her father works in a store, and barely appears in the novel. She is what is known is a “tomboy”, and appears, for reasons not entirely made clear, to have no friends of her own age. She spends most of her time hanging out in the kitchen with Berenice, a black cook, and John Henry, her six-year-old cousin, and much of the novel is taken up with scenes set in the kitchen with the three of them – a child, an adult, and Frankie, on the borderline between these two states – talking to each other, seemingly inconsequentially. But their conversations, while believable as conversations between a small child, an adolescent, and an uneducated adult, always seem to be pointing towards something else – towards something none of them can articulate, and which Carson McCullers refuses to articulate on their behalf.

Frankie longs to inhabit identities other than her own. John Henry would like everyone to be half-boy, half-girl. Berenice, a black woman with a blue glass eye, wants a world where people are all the same colour – a light brown, “with blue eyes and black hair”. These characters may not be able to articulate or even perhaps recognise it as such, but all three of them, in their own ways, feel constrained by the fixed nature of the world, that allocates them but one identity that they must regard as uniquely their own.

For Berenice, a black woman living in the Deep South in the 1940s, her identity – however fluid she may like it to be – is certainly fixed: she is “black”. This one simple fact of her identity condemns her. And yet, she had been happy once. Her first husband, Ludie Freeman – whom, we learn with a shock, she had married when she was only thirteen, just a year older than Frankie – she had loved, and had been happy with. And the memory of that happiness remains for her something precious, something she did not at first wish to share with Frankie. But then he died, and she married again, three more times, with each marriage more disastrous than the previous. She had chosen her later husbands with no better criteria than that they had shared certain superficial resemblances with her beloved first, but these resemblances did not define them: identity, despite its fixed quality, remains an elusive and unnameable matter. Her fourth and last husband had been the worst: he was violent, abusive, possibly mentally unstable, and had gouged out one of her eyes. This horrible detail is imparted to us in an almost casual manner. Although Bernice still dreams of a world in which all racial identities are merged into one, her first husband, whom she continues to love even beyond his death, had an individual identity that cannot be replicated: “he” was “he”, and no-one else.

Frankie, however, longs for a fluidity within which individual identities may merge. Her older brother, a soldier (this novel is set during the final stages of WW2), is to marry his girl-friend, and Frankie dreams of, and, eventually, becomes obsessed with, leaving behind her home town, which restricts her in ways she cannot articulate, and go off with her brother and his newly-married wife. Frankie is not satisfied being a “member of the wedding” only in the sense of being the groom’s sister: she longs for nothing less than to be one of the wedded parties herself, to merge her own personal identity with those of the married couple. This obsession she develops of merging her personal identity with those of others soon takes centre-stage in this novel. Thoughts of the wedding begin to obsess to such a degree that even the sudden death of an uncle barely makes an impact on her, because, after all, it’s nothing to do with the wedding, is it?

Typically, the wedding itself is not narrated directly: resolving narrative strands in terms of “what happened next” is not what this novel is about. We are given to understand, however, that Frankie had had to be physically restrained and pulled back when she had tried to leave with the newlyweds. She is utterly disgraced, humiliated. The world of fixity may be questioned when one is a child, but as an adult, it has to be accepted. But with this acceptance comes a loss:

She was sitting next to Berenice, back with the coloured people, and when she thought of it she used the mean word she had never used before, nigger – for now she hated everyone and wanted only to spite and shame.

Everybody is caught, one way or another, as Berenice says at one point.

Frankie makes one final attempt to escape this world of tyrannical fixity: she tries to run away, she knows not where. But the police are alerted, and she is soon found, and taken back home. In a novel such as this, where everything seems charged with meaning, it is no accident that the police are referred to as “the Law”, with a capital “L”. She has tried to escape, but the Law returns her to where she had been.

All through this, the war, now in its final stages, is raging in faraway Europe, and forms a sort of discordant background music. News from the distant war comes through – the horrors of the fields of combat, the slaughter of civilians, the unimaginable and unnameable abominations of the newly liberated death camps. Berenice muses on a perfect world that – who knows? – may be possible still, if only the Law would allow for it:

“No killed Jews and no hurt coloured people. No war and no hunger in the world. And, finally, Ludie Freeman would be alive.”

The very ending of the novel is as enigmatic as the rest of it. John Henry has died suddenly and horribly, from an attack of meningitis: this is related so directly, and so casually, that it is brutal. Frankie is now Frances, older and more mature, no longer yearning for a fluidity that the Law will not allow. The final paragraph seems charged with meaning:

Frances turned back to the window. It was almost five o’clock and the geranium glow had faded from the sky. The last pale colours were crushed and cold on the horizon. Dark, when it came, would come on quickly, as it does in wintertime. “I am simply mad about – “ But the sentence was left unfinished for the hush was shattered when, with an instant shock of happiness, she heard the ringing of the bell.

The sentence, like so much else in the novel, is left unfinished, and we don’t know what it is she is “mad” about – or, indeed, whether her “being mad” refers to her loving something, or being angry with something. Neither is it explained what the bell signifies at the end. It’s possibly just someone at the door. For, after all, what else can it be?

This is a novel I shall be returning to.

Penny-in-the-slot criticisms

TRIGGER ALERT: This post contains some intemperate views, and expresses no small degree of irritation on my part regarding various comments I have seen online over the years. If such things trigger you, then I would advise giving this one a miss.

There is a kind of criticism that I have heard referred to as “penny-in-the-slot criticisms”. Which means that these criticisms are automatic reactions, instinctive and unthinking – reflexive rather than reflective.

When it comes to literature, and to books in general, there is a set of criticisms that, I think, could come under this category. Perhaps the worst thing about these criticisms is that they are immutable: no matter how vehemently you may argue against them, you won’t change anyone’s mind, because your argument will not be engaged with. Not that your argument was necessarily right: one is – or, at least I am – grateful when one’s argument is shown to be flawed, and one is forced either to refine one’s ideas, or to rethink them, or even to withdraw them altogether. But no, in an environment in which even to questions someone’s opinion is viewed as an act of aggression, that kind of thing doesn’t happen. It’s not even a case of one’s argument not being countered: it’s simply not engaged with. But nonetheless, as sure as night follows day, that penny-in-the-slot criticism you had argued against will re-appear, as if you’d never said anything at all to counter it.

Here are a few such criticisms I’ve picked up over the years (in bold), along with brief arguments against them (in italics) that are regularly ignored.

“People don’t really enjoy reading difficult books: they only read books such as Ulysses to show off.”

If it were true that it is not possible to enjoy anything that is difficult, it’s hard to explain why so many are attracted to chess, say, or to difficult cryptic crossword puzzles.

And show off to whom? We do not live in a world where erudition is much valued. Reading something like Ulysses in order to “show off” seems like an awful lot of hard work for very little in return.

“People who write difficult books – again, like Ulysses – are just showing off how clever they are.”

Once again, showing off to whom? And why?

And if you don’t like “clever” writers, do you really prefer stupid ones?

“Male authors couldn’t/can’t create convincing female characters.”

Odd, isn’t it? Good writers of fiction can imagine themselves into the minds of all sorts of people different from themselves – children, old people, people from different walks of life, people from different social class, and all the rest of it. But the one barrier that is, seemingly, insurmountable is the barrier of gender. Not sure why: no-one has bothered explaining.

And in any case, how do you know that men writers cannot create women? Do all women think and feel in the same way? And are you privy to all their thoughts and feelings?

A good many of these penny-in-the-slot criticisms refer to Dickens. Some do lead to a bit of an exchange, but they never really get anywhere:

“Dickens really couldn’t create women.”

Miss Havisham, Betsey Trotwood, Sarah Gamp –

“Yes, but those are caricatures.”

But caricatures are not failed attempts at portraiture. You did not specify –

“You know what I meant. Dickens could not depict real women.”

Esther Summerson, Lady Dedlock, Harriet Beadle, Rosa Dartle, Lizzie Hexam…

“Dickens could only create caricatures.”

As said previously, a caricature is not a failed attempt at portraiture. It takes skill to create a memorable caricature. And as for Dickensian characters who are complex people and most definitely not caricatures, we have Steerforth, John Jarndyce, William Dorrit, Pip, Miss Wade …

“But Dickens’ heroines are awful”.

Some of Dickens’ romantic heroines, especially in his early novels, are certainly bland and colourless. But so are his romantic heroes. Nicholas Nickleby is as colourless as Madeleine Bray, the adult David Copperfield as colourless as Agnes Wickfield, Martin Chuzzlewit as colourless as – and so on. It’s not just his heroines. The convention that romantic heroes and heroines had both to be spotless created all sorts of problems for writers. Dickens later overcame this and created heroes and heroines who are genuinely interesting – Pip and Estella, Bella Wilfer, Louisa Gradgrind, etc.

Silence. No response. And then, soon after:

“Dickens couldn’t create female characters, and all his characters are merely caricatures anyway.”

And also, for good measure:

“Dickens was just soap opera of his day”.

Just for clarity, could you define what you mean by “soap opera”, and specify how it differs from other (and presumably superior) forms of drama?

No, of course they can’t. At least, they don’t. The whole point of these criticisms is that you don’t need to follow them up.

And then you get the killer one:

“Dickens is sentimental.”

Sentimentality is a difficult thing to define adequately. Yes, in many of his works – especially the early ones – he can be genuinely mawkish. But that is by no means the full story: there is also much in his novels that has real emotional depth and complexity. For instance …

And you put together a long, detailed catalogue of examples, but no-one is listening. They have demonstrated how superior their taste is to yours by proclaiming that they are above Dickens and you aren’t, and that’s the end of the matter. They may even add, for good measure:

“I don’t have to like something just because the critics say I must.”

The implication is that I am blinded by the authority of these “critics” (whoever these mustachio-twirling pantomime villains may be), but they, being more independent in their thought, aren’t. And you might as well stop there, unless you want to create a scene.

Dickens certainly gets more than his fair share of penny-in-the-slot criticisms, but other writers aren’t exempt either:

“The Brontës were the bodice-rippers of their day.”q

“Austen was the chick-lit of her day.”

You can write entire essays trying to refute these claims, safe in the knowledge that no-one will engage with anything you may have to say. Well, some might, I guess – but you know that the same comments will come up again, and from the same people.

And then, on Shakespeare, there is that old bugbear of mine:

“Shakespeare’s plays were meant to be seen, not read.”

How do you know this? Are you privy to what Shakespeare intended? And even if that is what Shakespeare had intended, why deny ourselves the experience of reading these plays when reading them can be so enriching?

Then there is that perennial one:

“I read to enjoy myself.”

My protestations that I, too, read to enjoy myself pass unnoticed.

“At the end of the day, it’s all just a matter of personal opinion.”

This is the point where you decide you’ve had enough of book boards, and create your own blog where you can let off steam to your heart’s content. As I have done here.

(If anyone has been triggered by any of this, please do bear in mind that I had placed a Trigger Warning at the start of this post, and I don’t think I can be held responsible for any distress or trauma caused.)

Dostoyevsky in Europe

Winter Notes on Summer Impressions by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, translated by Kyrill Fitzlyon, published by Alma Classics. All quotes in the post below are taken from this translation.


Among the many things in life I find myself utterly at a loss to account for is the tremendous attraction I feel for the writings of Dostoyevsky. When his many faults are listed to me, I can do little but nod away in agreement. Yes, his novels are hysterical, irrational – indeed, he seemed to laud irrationality; they are loosely structured baggy monsters. He was also a fervent Slavophile, while I despise nationalism. He was politically conservative, and hated liberalism and liberals with a vengeance, whereas I tend to describe my politics as “liberal”. (Indeed, I was amused to find recently that I had described my politics on my Facebook profile as “Turgenevian liberal”. I don’t remember writing this, and suspect I was drunk at the time and not entirely serious; but I did laugh at what was presumably my own joke, and decided not to change it.) Dostoyevsky hated those Russians such as Turgenev who had adopted the values of Western liberalism, and I can’t help but see my own adherence to these same Western liberal values, despite my Indian background, as a sort of parallel (even though I have, I suppose, the excuse of having lived most of my life in the West). I suspect that if Dostoyevsky had known me personally, he would have despised me, and my values. And, by rights, I should also be repelled by Dostoyevsky, who stood for so much that I do not, and who loathed so much that I do. And yet, I find myself irresistibly drawn to Dostoyevsky. Which, I suppose, demonstrates Dostoyevsky’s dictum that we are far from being the rational creatures we like to imagine ourselves.

Dostoyevsky had not always been a right-wing Slavophile, of course. In his youth, he had been very left-wing indeed. He had been member of a revolutionary group, had narrowly avoided the death sentence (he had, famously, been led out to be executed before it was announced that his sentence had been commuted), and had served many years in a labour camp. His early works had been of a somewhat sentimental nature, focussing on “poor folk”, on the “insulted and the injured”, and lamenting the social injustice that cause so much suffering. But then, in the early 1860s, a very profound change took place in his outlook. As translator Kyrill Fitzlyon says in his preface to Winter Notes on Summer Impressions:

His earlier novels aim at the entertainment of the reader; undeterred by considerations of verisimilitude or psychological probability, they glide over the surface of life without stopping to take soundings of what goes on underneath; they shun deep analysis and they lack the later Dostoyevskian eagerness to reconcile the actions of men with their consciences, conceived in terms of spiritual anguish.

It was in the summer of 1862, at what we may see as the turning point between Dostoyevsky’s earlier viewpoints and his later, that Dostoyevsky visited Europe for a few weeks. That winter, he wrote of his travels in Winter Notes on Summer Impressions, and here we may see quite clearly his mature thoughts and ideas taking shape.

The West was what liberals, such as the hated Turgenev, pointed towards: it was in the liberal values of the West that Russia must seek salvation; by looking West, and adopting its values, Russia, so far from the major centres of civilisation, could, at long last, civilise itself. But Dostoyevsky was not having any of this. This is not necessarily because of his Slavophilism: what he saw in the few weeks he spent in Paris, and the week he spent in London, did not suggest to him a Heaven to be aimed for. That Russia was no Heaven he already knew: but salvation did not lie in emulating the West.

Before he goes into all this, he writes a preface, to which he gives the title “Instead of a Preface”. This sense of playfulness is apparent throughout the book. Dostoyevsky tells us right away that he is not a reliable narrator. He has spent only a few weeks in London and in Paris, he tells us, and his views are not only based on limited exposure, but are also, no doubt, biased and jaundiced in all sorts of ways. As he goes on to expand on this, he seems to create an authorial persona that may or may not be himself. At times, he seems almost to present himself as of those Gogolian grotesques who can’t stop digressing into all sorts of irrelevancies. The narrator he presents is, in short, a comic character, the first of the many weird and unreliable voices who come and go in the narration of his later novels. Giving the authorial voice such a persona allows Dostoyevsky to pursue his ideas into unexpected areas, and explore thoughts and concepts that may appear eccentric or whimsical, but without necessarily giving these ideas the seal of authorial approval.

He spends some time in London, and presents it in almost apocalyptic terms. He is shocked by the level of extreme poverty and vice. This may be surprising: as is apparent from his own novels, extreme poverty and vice aren’t exactly unknown in Russia. But perhaps he had expected better from London. What shocked him, I think, was the open acceptance of these things. He gives a description of a pathetic half-starved young girl, a child, openly trading herself in Haymarket, right in the centre of fashionable London. The English are often chided for their hypocrisy, but it seems to be the lack of hypocrisy, the openness of such moral depths, that seemed particularly to strike Dostoyevsky.

He has more to say about France, and, rather interestingly, he seems shocked by the very aspects of Russia that had shocked Europeans of that age – the lack of freedom, adulation of the Emperor, police informers, and the like. And he considers especially the middle classes, the bourgeoisie. The inspiring slogans of the French Revolution – liberty, equality, fraternity – are, he feels, an immense sham: all that has happened is that the middle classes have now taken on the power to exploit the lower classes. All ideals, all morals that people pretend to live by, are sham:

Paris has an unquenchable thirst for virtue. Nowadays the Frenchman is a serious and reliable man, often tender-hearted, so that I cannot understand why he is so afraid of something even now, and is afraid of it in spite of all the gloire militaire which flourishes in France and which Jacques Bonhomie pays so much for. The Parisian dearly loves to trade, but even as he trades and fleeces you in his shop, he fleeces you not for the sake of profit, as in the old days, but in the name of virtue, out of some sacred necessity. To amass a fortune and possess as many things as possible – this has become the Parisian’s main moral code, to be equated with religious observance.

Dostoyevsky keeps probing: what, exactly, are the bourgeoisie afraid of?

Whom should he fear then? The workers? But the workers are all of them capitalists too, in their heart of hearts: their one ideal is to become capitalists and amass as many things as possible.

This is not the solution, Dostoyevsky felt, for Russia. Rational precepts, and noble sentiments – liberté, égalité, fraternité – end up meaning nothing, and not merely because humans are not rational creatures: as he goes on to examine in Notes From Underground (which was written shortly after this book), humans are, if anything, anti-rational creatures, who, far from accepting ideas because they are shown to be rational, would choose, rather, deliberately to reject them in order to proclaim their freedom from the tyranny of reason. All he can see in the great cities of Europe are “anthills”: any attempt from above to bind humans into a unity is bound to fail disastrously, because they misunderstand the essentially paradoxical nature of humanity.

I can understand Dostoyevsky’s argument – at least, up to a point. Our lives have, if anything, become worse in certain respects: they have become “atomised” – to use the word popularised by the title of Michel Houellebecq’s novel – as never before. Not only do we not have fraternité between the classes, solidarity even within the social classes is becoming more problematic. But I don’t really understand what Dostoyevsky’s own solution is. Are we to expect a mystical fraternité to spring up spontaneously?

Of course, Dostoyevsky was not so foolish as to think that. His novels are not didactic novels: they are multi-voiced works, in which many of the voices rebel against their author and speak out against him, unanswered; and where, furthermore, many of the voices articulating some of Dostoyevsky’s own most deeply held beliefs are presented in a ridiculous light. Those great novels are seething cauldrons of ideas and counter-ideas, endlessly contesting and intermingling with each other, never resolving; but never are these ideas presented as something abstract: they are, as Kyrill Fitzlyon says in his preface, “conceived in terms of spiritual anguish”.

I still do not know why I am so drawn to the writings of Dostoyevsky, when, all things considered, I shouldn’t be. But there is something about these very strange books of his that has about it the air of prophecy.