Oroonoko – 2/5 Stars
This novel, or maybe not a novel, came out in 1688 and like most early novels there is a strong narrative discomfort in the telling of narrative fictionally. So throughout the novel there’s a lot of extra-text discussions of the truth of the story. Novels have often been mistrusted because of this, but of course, the goal and function of fiction is that sometimes truth isn’t fully explored in nonfiction. And like with theater and poetry, there is a need to tell stories in other ways from simply a relation of events. So an early novel trying to sort out whether or not fiction is the right or even a righteous way to tell a story is an interesting piece in its own way. That said, however, this book is a real real drain and drag to read. It’s slow, it’s meandering, and it’s boring, and it’s only 70 pages long. It’s the kind of book you might have to read as part of a 17th century literature class as a literary artifact but not one that’s all that enjoyable. Which is a real shame because there’s so much good English writing near that same time period. So that Behn has been held onto is interesting but the actual reading is not so interesting.
There’s a thread in The Haunting of HIll House about how Pamela by Samuel Richardson (another early example of English novels) is used to put people to sleep in the house. This could be the same.
Charlotte Temple – 2/5 Stars
Early yet, but this time American. In this early novel, we have a young English woman who falls in love with a real cad. Something there is that loves a cad in literature. So Charlote Temple falls for this British officer who whisks her off to America to live. Then the war happens and he must leave her in a house on her own with only one servant. He also decides to leave her, pregnant and alone for another woman. Now alone for real, she has a series of mishaps and misfortunes that cause to put her trust in further men and have that trust abused. It’s a pretty timeless tale.
The issue with this book is that while it’s not super boring, like the above one, it’s a skeleton of a novel hung on a wire frame with almost no depth at all. It’s 100 pages long with 35 chapters. It takes 40% of the book to even have Charlotte Temple born, grown up, and married, so that the bulk of the plot happens in the leftover parts. Also, there’s a really issue with this book being the kind of book where the author has no clear way to tell the story so it’s a tale passed on in three different levels of narrative before it even begins to happen. That can be interesting when the idea is to create distance between the story and the speaker. And as far as early novels go, there’s always a kind of sorting this kind of thing out, but this is an early novel but a super early novel. It’s a 100 years hence Oroonoko, and yet that artificial frame is still being used as a crutch.
The Abbess of Crewe – 3/5 Stars
This short novel takes place in an Abbey as the Abbess in charge dies and the remaining sisters must decide their next steps. This is not a full discussion of this process as several other things happen in the meantime, but that is the main push. Throughout, the stand-in reads Machiavelli and begins to think about how to apply the teachings of the Italian political scientist to the proceedings in the abbey. This obviously doesn’t work as well as it could, leading to profound misunderstandings and other issues throughout. Ultimately it’s a small novel like most of Muriel Spark’s works and like most of Muriel Spark’s works the whole is bigger than the small parts, but also the small parts are bigger than the whole. There’s a kind of paradoxical feel to most of her works. They feel significant at the same time as they feel large.
The novel reminds me of how not Catholic I am, and I am not certain Muriel Spark is either, being Scottish, and so this feels like an exploration in a world that is otherwise alien, with the real need to apply one’s own sense of morality and worldview as a way to begin to process the unfamiliar information that is otherwise presented. And so as the novel proceeds, I am not sure how Catholic of a novel it is, unlike say a JF Powers or Graham Greene story would be, and so it probably remains outsidery in that way.
The Awakening – 5/5 Stars
This is a re-read of a novel I have read and taught several times. Because I might teach it later in the year, I wanted to go ahead and think about it now and begin to put together my primary thoughts on it after years removed from the first time I did read it. In an earlier post I referred to this novel kind of obliquely as a beautifully written novel from 1899 that proves that good writing is good writing and as much as it felt like the other book was interested it was not very interesting writing.
In this novel Edna Pontellier is spending the summer near but off from her home in Lousiana. Her husband does not give her much regard and in fact rebukes her for losing track of her household responsibilities while he himself barely spends times at home at all, only to immediately return from work and move right out the door to the club. This isn’t the kind of novel where a singular event irrupts everything and she understands what is fundamentally off about her life, but the slowly developed gap between her life and her desires and the slightest provocation or possible escape through a visiting male friend introduces enough space not for her to escape, but for her to realize there is no real escape.
Waiting for the Barbarians – 5/5 Stars
I read a few JM Coetzee novels last year, specifically the two that he won the Booker Prize for — The Life and Times of Michael K and Disgrace. Disgrace is very very good, while Life and Times is less so. This book is also very very good.
This book takes on the end of Empire from the British in South Africa perspective. Our narrator, known to us as the Magistrate, is the head of a command post awaiting the potential invasion of “barbarians”, which will never come. The novel then focuses on his relationship with a young injured local woman and an abusive colonial attache who is itching to start the war that in decades has never come.
Among other things, this novel is about middle-age and death. The empire is a hulking and lurching beast that won’t die but also is not vital in the slightest. And so the waiting for the barbarians is a clear metaphor for waiting for the death that will definitely come, but is slow moving. So for the aging bureaucrat, he understands that there’s not actually much to do and wait for that death to come, while for the abusive younger man, that loss of vitality is a greater possibility.
Barbarian is an interesting word and an interesting concept. It literally means outsider, but for the sake of a dying empire it’s both a threat, a fear, and possibly a salvation. For Britain, 70 years or so past the end, maybe there’s the chance of rebirth, but as an American looking down our own barrel the change itself is the problem. This novel is beautifully written and beautifully told, and as a person looking back at my own experiences and as a citizen of a country in some set of throes, it’s a very real and very scary book.
Letters to a Young Poet – 3/5 Stars
I am no young poet. Nor am I much a fan of Rilke’s poetry. But I am a teacher and I think anything that encourages young people to write, to take stock of their own writing, and to pursue in the face of setback is a beautiful sentiment that is worth pursuing. This is the book that set off all the different kinds of books like it. This is the book that showed everyone how to write these kinds of books.
It’s interesting though because while Rilke is the “author” of this book it was published after he died. These kinds of collections of letters are dicey. What could be revealed about a famous person and their private thoughts after they have died feels like a violation. A book I really enjoy is Madame de Treymes by Edith Wharton where a man gets hold of a scandalous book of letters and publishes it for his own profit. This book does not contain any sort of problematic language or thoughts, but there are lots of references to Rilke’s illnesses and other health issues, some 20 years before he died, but that aside. I wish I knew about whether or not he approved this. When I reviewed 84 Charing Cross, I took note that the author of that book asks permission before the book is out to ask to publish it.
Ways of Going Home – 4/5 Stars
Alejandro Zambra is a weird kind of writer. He grew in the throes of “war” in the sense that he was alive in the aftermath of the famous Chilean coups of Augusto Pinochet. This is a coups where American economist Milton Friedman worked as an adviser, advised massive privatization and militarization, and the result was the murder of the president, the deaths of tens of thousands of political enemies and the devastation of two generations of Chileans. The only remotely silver of silver linings is that in a fit of arrogance Pinochet allowed for calls of a plebiscite to dictate policy and he lost, was tried, and died in prison. I dream of such a future. (Only the last part)
And so Zambra grew up in this and now writes. And so this novel starts in the a Pinochet-ian childhood and moves on to a post-Pinochet present. The resulting novel is a mixed bag, a scattered affair, but one where the ruminations about life and literature and storytelling permeate and punctuate the life of the novel. The novel is about the very act of writing this novel itself. It makes it difficult to talk about but easy to read and enjoy.
“Instead of writing, I spent the morning drinking beer and reading Madame Bovary. Now I think the best thing I’ve done in recent years has been to drink a lot of beer and reread certain books with dedication, with an odd fidelity, as if something of my own beat within them, some clue to my destiny. Apart from that, to read morosely, stretched out in bed for long hours and doing nothing to soothe my burning eyes–it’s the perfect pretext for waiting for night to fall. And that’s what I hope for, nothing more: that night will come quickly.”
The Great Gatsby – 5/5 Stars
And so. I am going to be teaching probably starting in February for 11th graders. Some of them will love it and some of them will hate it. It’s a beautifully rich novel that I have always liked, and now that I am older than Nick and Gatsby, I think I love it, and think it’s about as technically perfect a novel that I could imagine. The story is incredibly tight, the digressions are rich, the themes are present but not ham-fisted and everything is earned. I used to think it’s boring but now I have read it so many times, I fly through it and sort of just revel in it.
From the moment the novel begins, it’s clear that we are not simply reading a novel about all these characters but a novel written from Nick’s perspective, and a book that he knows he is writing. This distinction is always important because it takes what might otherwise be an unreliable narrator and turns it into a careful craftsman of the tale and ideas in it.
I don’t know if Nick is in love with Gatsby and Daisy, but I will allow for that possibility. I will also allow for him to be so fascinated by the whole process as to not know what to think of him. I know that Nick has thoughts and thoughts and thoughts. I know that he hates masculinity as portrayed by Tom and that he loves it in Jordan. I know that the violent death of Myrtle repels him but doesn’t fully repulse him.
I also know there’s some weird references to swastikas and holocausts in this novel. So that’s weird for sure.