Essay

Don’t be Afraid of Virginia Woolf.

Virginia Woolf, 1902

Virginia Woolf, 1902

In London on 7 February 1910 a telegram was received from Sir Charles Hardinge, the Permanent Under-Secretary of Foreign Affairs, by the Commander-in-Chief of the Home Fleet and the captain of the H.M.S. Dreadnought, the flagship of the British navy, then lying off Portland, Dorset. It informed him that Prince Makalin of Abyssinia and his party were arriving in the afternoon and were to receive every attention. When they arrived by private train carriage they were received with an honour guard and taken ceremoniously on board. The chatter of the dusky-skinned entourage was completely unintelligible although one of the party, Prince Mendax, wearing a sky-blue silk robe, beard, jewels and a turban, constantly murmured “Bunga bunga” which their interpreter explained was Abyssinian for “Isn’t it lovely?” They refused all refreshments which the interpreter again explained was due to their religious beliefs as they could not be served food or drink with the naked hand. Gloves were not available.

A few days later the officers and crew of the Dreadnought were amazed and dismayed to learn, via the Daily Mirror, that it was all a monumental practical joke and the Royal navy was pilloried and laughed at for weeks in the national press and at every dinner table in the land. It has become known as the Dreadnought Hoax and was reported all over the world.

One of the hoaxers, Prince “Bunga Bunga” Mendex, was, in reality, a young girl who was quoted as saying “I found I could laugh like a man easily enough but it was difficult to disguise the speaking voice. As a matter of fact the only really trying time I had was when I had to shake hands with my first cousin, who is an officer on the Dreadnought, and who saluted me as I went on deck. I thought I should burst out laughing, but, happily I managed to preserve my Oriental stolidity of countenance.”

This young lady was the 28 year old Miss Adeline Stephen, who two years later married and became Mrs Woolf. We know her better as Virginia.

The Dreadnought hoaxers. Virginia Woolf far left. 1910

The Dreadnought hoaxers, 1910. Virginia Woolf, far left.

Apart from being a practical joker, Virginia Woolf was a very beautiful woman. This is certainly not how we think of her today but all the people who wrote about her, and there were many, used adjectives, especially those that knew her well, like, beautiful, mischievous, intelligent, talkative, and inquisitive. She would say things like, “You said you went for a walk, but what made you go for a walk?” When out walking herself with a friend she would see a farmer tossing hay and say, “Look at that farmer pitching hay. What do you think he had for breakfast?” It was this inquisitiveness that made her attend to everything you said to her; and attend with real interest. When you talked to Virginia you always felt that you were intently listened to, and, once literary fame came into the picture, you didn’t even mind that she was mining you for information, words and reasons for human behaviour; in fact, you were flattered that such a famous and beautiful woman was hanging on your every word; gazing into your eyes and eagerly waiting for your next pronouncement. Of course under such scrutiny, if you simply said ‘I don’t know’ you could be sure that she would lose interest immediately and seek someone else’s company. She had a habit of forcing you to search your brain for the right words, because nothing less than the right words were always expected.

She was tall, with a thin face, slender hands and always wore shapeless clothes of indeterminate colours: fashion was of no concern to her.

She was born Adeline Virginia Stephen in 1882 but almost immediately was called Virginia despite the confusion of initials with her elder sister, Vanessa. She came from a good family of landowners and was well but home educated. She was the third child of her father’s second wife and an incident with her half-brother, George Duckworth, was to have a profound effect on her.

“I still shiver with shame,” she wrote many years after the incident, “at the memory of my half brother standing me on a ledge, aged about six or so, exploring my private parts.” Then, many years later, when her father lay dying from cancer three floors below, George would fling himself on her bed, kissing and hugging her, aged in her early 20s, “to console her”, he later said. Quentin Bell, her biographer and nephew, would write, “in sexual matters she was from this time terrified back into a posture of frozen and defensive panic.”  She briefly considered accepting Lytton Strachey’s proposal of marriage knowing that he was homosexual so she thought a simple brother-sister sort of marriage may be preferable to one that included the ‘horror of sex’. She wanted to be married, since being a spinster was considered a failure and finally accepted the proposal of Leonard Woolf and they were married on August 10 1912 after an engagement that, her sister wrote, was “an exhausting and bewildering thing even to the bystanders.” Virginia said to him “I feel no physical attraction to you, … and yet your caring for me as you do almost overwhelms me. It is so real and so strange.” They were planning a honeymoon in Iceland (how metaphoric) but settled for a Mediterranean one instead. Michael Holroyd wrote,

“There seemed some unfathomable inhibition that made male last, even when compounded with love, if not horrific, quite incomprehensible to her. The physical act of intercourse was not even funny: it was cold. Leonard regretfully accepted the facts and soon brought the word in line with the deed by persuading her that they should not have children. It was a sensible decision for, though she could never contemplate her sister’s fruitfulness without envy, children with their wetness and noise would surely have killed off the novels in her: and it was novel-writing that she cared for most.”

Nicole Kidman as Virginia Woolf, The Hours, 2002

Nicole Kidman as Virginia Woolf in The Hours, 2002.

In 2002 the film The Hours was released with much fanfare and a stellar cast. It was written by David Hare and based on the Michael Cunningham Pulitzer Prize winning book of the same name, which in turn used Woolf’s novel Mrs Dalloway (1925) as the core of the film about, not only Virginia Woolf and the writing of the book, but also its effect on two women. one in the 1950s and one in the 1980s. Readers can find Mrs Dalloway curious, annoying and tedious but when you read you must not let the words wash over you as one lets light from a fire without looking into the flames; into the beauty at its core.

Her novel of 1928, Orlando, is dedicated to Vita Sackville-West, Woolf’s friend, neighbour and sometime lover and tells the story, over a period of 300 years, of the romantic adventures of a man called Orlando, who suddenly, miraculously, half way through the book becomes a woman. This is revealed in the film version, starring Tilda Swinton, as Orlando with his long, straight, reddish blond hair gazes at himself standing naked in front of a full length mirror and seeing the reflection of a long, straight, reddish blond haired naked woman staring back saying, “Same person, different body.”

Vita Sackville West

Vita Sackville-West, the inspiration for Orlando (1928).

Virginia confessed her affair with Vita to her sister Vanessa and in a letter to Vita describes the moment.
“I told Nessa the story of our passion in a chemist’s shop the other day. ‘But do you really like going to bed with women’ she said – taking her change. ‘And how’d you do it?’ and so she bought her pills to take abroad, talking as loud as a parrot.”

Uncharacteristically a lot happens in Orlando but it’s not plot that interests Virginia Woolf ( “facts are a very inferior form of fiction”) but the feelings, nuanced emotions that precede the action, or arise because of it; she was more interested in, not the ‘What’, but the ‘Why’, and, more importantly, how one                                                would describe that ‘Why’.

Leonard and Virginnia Woolf photographed by Vita Sackville-West, 1926

Leonard and Virginia Woolf photographed by Vita Sackville-West.

Nowhere is this more evident than in her novel (most call it her masterpiece) To the Lighthouse (1927). The very title is full of expectation and when the possibility is revealed to little six year old James he is transfixed, incapacitated with the joy of it. This is the opening, including the title which is really part of the first sentence.

“To the Lighthouse
“Yes, of course, if it’s fine tomorrow,” said Mrs Ramsay. “But you’ll have to be up with the lark,” she added.
To her son these words conveyed an extraordinary joy, as if it were settled, the expedition were bound to take place, and the wonder to which he had looked forward, for years and years it seemed, was, after a night’s darkness and a day’s sail, within touch. Since he belonged, even at the age of six, to that great clan which cannot keep this feeling separate from that, but must let future prospects, with their joys and sorrows, cloud what is actually at hand, since to such people even in earliest childhood any turn in the wheel of sensation has the power to crystallise and transfix the moment upon which its gloom or radiance rests, James Ramsay, sitting on the floor cutting out pictures from the illustrated catalogue of the Army and Navy stores, endowed the picture of a refrigerator, as his mother spoke, with heavenly bliss. It was fringed with joy.”

And what is illustrative, most of all, of her genius, and her deep and all-consuming curiosity of human intention and behaviour, and her determination to create art, is that by the last page the lighthouse itself disappears into a mist and we, the readers, along with the remaining onlookers in the house, can only assume that they have arrived.

Leonardo de Vinci fought tooth and nail to acquire a particular block of marble, also much coveted by, his rival, Michelangelo because he knew that inside there was a statue of David and all he had to do was chip away the extraneous rock to reveal the body within. If Virginia Woolf were present it would be the act of chipping the marble and the chips of marble lying on the floor that would attract her interest and not the finished, polished figure.

Janet Vaughan (a medical scientist and friend) had this to say about Virginia Woolf and ‘genius’.
“Well, it’s a sixth sense. It’s somebody who jumps a gap which other people would need a very, very solid bridge to walk across. She didn’t do it as a scientist might, she did it by interpreting what she saw and what people might be thinking and how they interacted with one another. But she had this quality of jumping gaps.”

And similarly Vita Sackville-West describes it thus: “I always thought her genius led her by short cuts to some essential point which everybody else had missed. She did not walk there: she sprang.”

But it’s the adjectives ‘mischievous, witty, warm and humorous’ that are most intriguing. She loved to tease and teased most those she was most fond of; and those teased seemed to love it and certainly were not offended by it since the teasing was done with such warmth.

In the early 20s Virginia Woolf used the name of writer Berta Ruck (albeit mis-spelt) on a minor character, and a subsequent tombstone, in her novel Jacob’s Room (1920). Angus Davidson, friend, literary critic, and manager for a time of their publishing house, The Hogarth Press, said this was done unwittingly. This is hard to believe as the name Berta Ruck is quite distinctive and her name and the names of her novels were emblazoned on the tops of London buses. However Ms Ruck was a writer of a very different genre than Virginia’s. She wrote romantic stories and almost seventy novels (Khaki and KissesLove on Second Thoughts, etc) where beautiful young women were treated dismissively by fathers, brothers and men in general but who fell in love with one of them and lived happily ever after. One can imagine Virginia Woolf thinking this scenario extremely unlikely and with a name like Berta Ruck, and the married name of Mrs Onions, perfectly ripe for mischief. Ms Ruck, however, did not see the humour in the incident and with urgings from her indignant husband, wrote to Woolf in sorrow and indignation threatening legal action. Virginia wrote back rather sarcastically, “I am more pleased than I can say that you survived my burial. Never will I attempt such a thing again. To think that you have bought my book.” It took Ms Ruck eight years to discover the slight so Woolf could hardly have taken her seriously. However they ‘made up’ via correspondence and almost a year later Ms Ruck got her own back by becoming the success at a party, attended by Virginia, by singing a very risqué song, “Never Allow a Sailor an Inch Above Your Knee.” Virginia was reported as being “filled with amazement and delight.” All animosity was forgiven.

Unfortunately, the memory of her is clouded by her diaries which record her mental suffering and her depression even though her husband, and editor, went to great pains to explain; “…diaries give a distorted and one-sided view of the writer, because, as Virginia Woolf herself remarks, one gets into the habit of recording one particular kind of mood – irritation or misery say – and of not writing one’s diary when one is feeling the opposite. The portrait in therefore from the start unbalanced.”

Her bouts of illness sprung from the effort of writing, and in particular the exhaustion from finishing a particular work. Her headaches would begin and if left unchecked, she would lose coherence of speech, and her brain would race with images and noises (birds crying out in Greek) and delusions (King Edward VII, among the azaleas, swearing in the most foulest language). Complete rest and quiet would eventually restore her normal life but her recovery would be ridden with doubt and worry about the worth of her just-completed work. Praise and encouragement were oxygen to her.  So eventually with Leonard’s care and concern, her own courage, immense courage, she would roll up her sleeves and begin to write again, knowing that creation was hard, completion fearful, and a bout of madness inevitable.

Portrait of Virginia Woolf, 1939 by Gisele Freund.

Portrait of Virginia Woolf, 1939, by Gisele Freund, two years before her death.

And then this: her final piece of writing; a short letter to her husband, written on the day she died.

Dearest, I feel certain that I am going mad again. I feel we can’t go through another of those terrible times. And I shan’t recover this time. I begin to hear voices, and I can’t concentrate. So I am doing what seems the best thing to do. You have given me the greatest possible happiness. You have been in every way all that anyone could be. I don’t think two people could have been happier ’til this terrible disease came. I can’t fight any longer. I know that I am spoiling your life, that without me you could work. And you will I know. You see I can’t even write this properly. I can’t read. What I want to say is I owe all the happiness of my life to you. You have been entirely patient with me and incredibly good. I want to say that — everybody knows it. If anybody could have saved me it would have been you. Everything has gone from me but the certainty of your goodness. I can’t go on spoiling your life any longer. I don’t think two people could have been happier than we have been. V.

She then put on a hat, a coat, grabbed a walking stick and headed to the river. There she put down her stick, took off her hat, put rocks in her pockets and disappeared into the water. When Leonard found the letter, he, along with the house keeper, Mrs Meyer, searched the house, the grounds, and the surrounding countryside and when they found her stick and hat assumed the worst. Three weeks later her gruesome body was found by children as it bumped against the bank of the river many miles downstream. She was 59.

Remember Virginia Woolf as a beautiful and intelligent woman, a prankster, a great and innovative writer, the creator of the outrageous Orlando, and the cheeky biographer of Flush, Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s little cocker spaniel; she was a curious and inquisitive human being, a tease, a lover, and a writer who launched modernism on the literary world. And remember that when her little nephews, nieces, and their friends were preparing for a party who was number one on their invitation list?

“V-i-r-g-i-n-i-a!” they would shriek with delight, because Aunt Virginia always made them laugh. Virginia Woolf, 1927

 

 

Virginia Woolf, 1927, aged 45, the year To the Lighthouse was published. 

 

 

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Arts commentary, Book review, Literary criticism, Literary theory

To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf

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Virginia Woolf

This is not a story, and readers may find it difficult and not worth continuing with, but it takes a little gear change to alter your expectations. However, for readers interested in the life of the novel To the Lighthouse is an interesting read; but before sitting down with it a little research into the times and the literary landscape into which it was written is a good idea. It is considered a pioneering work of literary modernism.

Modernism is hard to define since it’s such a broad term and encompasses other ‘isms’ like expressionism and surrealism to name just two; and modernists did not actively adhere to any philosophy or movement like the visual impressionists did. However, it is generally considered to show a strong feeling for experimentation, and anything that was new, as well as a strong anti-Victorian bent. It is also difficult to pin down a starting date but generally it is agreed that literary modernism began at or near the turn of the 20th Century. While Robert M Kirschen of the English Department at the University of Nevada, opts for the end of Modernism in 1939 (some say 1945) with the publication of Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake: “the ultimate work of Modernism.  It is truly the pinnacle of this experimentation and novelty. After the Wake, it is no longer possible for a writer to attempt to supersede his or her predecessors in the way Modernists often strove to do.  As such, the Modernist movement had reached its natural teleological* conclusion, and anything which came after must be part of a different part of literary history” i.e. Postmodernism. However, these labels are arbitrary and are the result of literary theorists looking back into the immediate past and recognising similar themes, memes, and ideas across the broad spectrum of literary endeavour. James Joyce, T. S. Eliot, Ezra Proud and Virginia Woolf are all considered pioneers and pillars of modernism.

In To the Lighthouse the drama, like many modernist texts, is not in the action, there is very little. Action did not interest Woolf. The book begins with the announcement of a desire, for the boy’s sake, for James, to go to the lighthouse, and ends, 10 years later, with them actually setting out. The drama is internal, the weave and weft of emotional attachments, of familial love and hate, the gamut between, and even dissertations on life matters. There is also an argument, external to the book, but installed in it’s very creation, about doubt of the creative force; about two guests, two of many, at the house: Charles Tansley, a sycophant, who pronounces that women do not have a creative force, and Lilly Briscoe, a woman who desperately yearns, and attempts, to be an artist, a successful painter, but fails. She is a metaphor for Woolf herself and her own legendary self-doubt (thinks Margaret Atwood); but ironically Woolf not only completes this work, and publishes it, but knows its success.

The man, Mr Ramsey, stands over his wife, while she knits a pair of stockings for the underprivileged boy of the lighthouse keeper, which she hopes to take and give to him, if they ever get there, and he demands sympathy, since he declares himself a failure as a man. While knitting, as the boy, James – loving his mother, hating his father – stands between her knees clutching a book, she assures her husband, “beyond a shadow of a doubt, by her laugh, her poise, her competence” that he is wrong about himself. Look at the undying admiration of Charles Tansley, and his very own fecundity, his own house “full of life” – he has eight children – and in response to his wife’s success in turning his self-doubt into self-admiration- not via the sympathy he sought – but “as a nurse carrying a light across a dark room assures a fractious child” he goes for a walk to watch the children playing cricket. But once he is gone she is exhausted and can hardly lift her needles; can hardly read the fairy tale James so wants to hear, with the demands on her to mend her husband as well as wonder where the fifty pounds will come from to mend the greenhouse roof; and all this laden with the half knowledge that her husband is right about himself, adding lies to the accumulated burden she has to bear.

It is this internal drama, thoughts, treacheries, responsibilities, and admissions that interest Woolf. Then here, while knitting and thinking about why children must grow up; why can’t they stay happy forever, she thinks, “We are in the hands of the Lord?”

What brought her to say that: “We are in the hands of the Lord?” she wondered. The insincerity slipping in among the truths roused her, annoyed her. She returned to her knitting again. How could any Lord have made this world? she asked. With her mind she had always seized the fact that there is no reason, order, justice: but suffering, death, the poor. There was no treachery too base for the world to commit; she knew that. No happiness lasted; she knew that. She knitted with firm composure, slightly pursing her lips and, without being aware of it, so stiffened and composed the lines of her face in a habit of sternness that when her husband passed, though he was chuckling at the thought that Hume, the philosopher, grown enormously fat, had stuck in a bog, he could not help noting, as he passed, the sternness at the heart of her beauty. It saddened him, and her remoteness pained him, and he felt, as he passed, that he could not protect her, and, when he reached the hedge, he was sad. He could do nothing to help her. He must stand by and watch her. Indeed, the infernal truth was, he made things worse for her. He was irritable — he was touchy. He had lost his temper over the Lighthouse. He looked into the hedge, into its intricacy, its darkness.

ToThe Lighthouse Original cover

Original cover design by Virginia’s sister Vanessa Bell: 1927

It is this combination, this ‘conversation’ between the narrator, Mrs Ramsey, and Mr, but all in the narrator’s ‘words’, that, among others, mark this text as a work of ‘modernism’; and, indeed, one of the first.

If you think of the third person narrator as an omnipotent genie commenting and assessing each character, every moment, past, present and future, and sitting on the shoulder of the protagonist listening in to their thoughts and desires and explaining, prophesizing, and assessing them for the reader, here it is like that genie is not just rooted to the shoulder of the main character but, flitting to and fro onto the shoulders of many characters. And in the final short sentence of chapter 11 Woolf has all three voices ‘speaking’: the narrator, wife and husband,

For he wished, she knew, to protect her.

James Joyce’s Ulysses was published in English in 1922 and Woolf’s reaction to it was initially uncomplimentary, “puzzled, bored, irritated & disillusioned as by a queasy undergraduate scratching his pimples,” but she later came around to admitting his genius even if she may have not finished reading it. However, it is clear that she was influenced by him, and, no doubt, by the first English translation of Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu, translated into English as In Search of Lost Time or Remembrance of Things Past, which also came out in English – it was originally published in France – in 1922. What a year!**.

However, it is important to keep in mind that just as fads flutter through most of our civilised efforts, food, fashion, and politics, so too do fads pepper our literary history; and ‘obscurity’ was a particular literary fad of the early 20th century. Writers thought that every story that could be written had been written so they sought ‘the new’ within the structure of the novel itself, the use of the language, and in the relationship between writer, narrator, and reader.

Woolf did not deliberately seek to be obscure, no writer does, but in order to describe, set down, what interested her she had to find new ways of convincing her readers that they would be interested in it too.

The pleasure of the works of Virginia Woolf is immediate; it is in the reading, not the remembering.

godrevy-lighthouse-pic

Although the story is set on the Isle of Skye, western Scotland, Godrevy Lighthouse, built in 1858–1859 on Godrevy Island in St Ives Bay, Cornwall, was the inspiration for Woolf’s novel.

You can find the ebook, in various formats, for free here, as well as other works by Virginia Woolf including all her novels and a large number of short stories. If you are interested in discovering Woolf try her first novel, The Voyage Out (1915); a good place to start.

-oOo-

* Teleology is the philosophical attempt to describe things in terms of their apparent purpose, directive principle, or goal

** THE WORLD BROKE IN TWO: Virginia Woolf, T.S. Eliot, D.H. Lawrence, E.M. Forster, and the Year That Changed Literature, by Bill Goldstein, comes out in November this year.

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Book review, Irish literature, Literary criticism

House of Names by Colm Tóibín

Colm Toibin image

Irish writer Colm Tóibín

When trying to describe the writing of Colm Tóibín it is easier to point out, not what he does, but what he does not do. He does not use contractions which gives his writing formality, gravitas, and weight; he does not use many adjectives and rarely long and compound sentences making the writing plain, stark, and bold; he does not describe places, people, or the weather unless it is absolutely necessary; and he does not use many adverbs or sentimental phrases to steer the reader into an emotional reaction. It is like watching a movie without a soundtrack (and if you would like an example of such a movie try Maren Ade’s superb comedy/drama Toni Erdmann, 2016 – no soundtrack).

Tóibín asks a lot of his readers; he allows readers to supply the detail: he simply says
‘she walked slowly along the corridor of the palace to her room,’ and leaves it up to us to provide the detail: the decorations, the floor tiles, the guards and their uniforms, drapes, and statues. We all have an idea of the a corridor in a pre-christian palace. Our thoughts may not be accurate, but interior design has nothing to with Tóibín’s story. Our imaginative efforts are all he needs.

All of these elements are in his latest work, House of Names, Tóibín’s retelling of the pagan Greek tragedy of the turbulent family of the House of Atreus, headed by Agamemnon who prepares to besiege the city-state of Troy and return his kidnapped sister-in-law, the beautiful Helen, and return her to her husband, his brother, Menelaus. There is also no sense of good and evil, there is just what must be done to get what you want. Revenge, rape, human sacrifice, incest, matricide, kidnapping, imprisonment, and murder by any means are par for their daily lives as they are for the gods they worship and from whom they seek guidance.

She [Cassandra] had come to us in glory and now, in ignominy, she was running through the palace seeking Agamemnon, having divined that something had happened to him. Aegisthus followed her at a slow pace. When I saw her, I calmly ushered her into the bathroom, where she could see my husband bent over naked, his head in the bloody water. As she howled, I handed Aegisthus the knife I had used on Agamemnon and indicated to him that I would leave him to his task.

Tóibín has used the bones of the story garnered from the Greek playwrights, Sophocles, Euripides, and Aeschylus but has also relied heavily on his own imagination, especially in the Orestes section. The book is divided into parts each focusing on one of the three main characters, Clytemnestra, wife of Agamemnon, Orestes, their son, and Electra, their daughter. The sections labeled Clytemnestra are told in the first person, the others in the third. However, Tóibín uses free indirect discourse (also known as ‘close writing’) where the words used are similar to those the protagonist might use giving the third person narrative a taste of the first; so, whether told in the first or third person this tale is very personal to the murderous trio.

The story opens the day after Clytemnestra has slit the throat of her husband Agamemnon just after he slipped into a warm bath,

I gave orders that the bodies should remain in the open under the sun a day or two, until the sweetness gave way to stench

but quickly takes us back to the reason for this: the death of Iphigenia, Clytemnestra and Agamemnon’s eldest daughter; rather than marrying Achilles, her father’s famed warrior, which she thought was happening that day, she was sacrificed to the gods, with Agamemnon’s approval, to enable fair winds to take him and his fleet to Troy. Clytemnestra plots her revenge which never fades while Agamemnon is away fighting the decade long Trojan War.

This novel, his eleventh work of fiction, is a departure for Tóibín, which may have been his attraction to the idea. Usually his family stories are more about the emotional geography of everyday life of everyday people: the inability of a father to confess love to a lonely son; a recently widowed mother’s attempt to regain her life on her own terms; or how a writer, used to success, copes with failure; rather than the murderous shenanigans of the rich and powerful. However, in the first-person narrative of Clytemnestra, there are similarities with Tóibín 2012 novel, The Testament of Mary. Here too the tone is confessional: a woman, a character from our ancient past, confessing to the reader her inner thoughts, motivations, and decisions.

To facilitate her murderous plans, Clytemnestra has her son, Orestes, still a teenager, kidnapped and sent away along with other young men – to garner silence from their fathers – and guards who might get in her way. Orestes, with two others, the strong and decisive Leander, and the weak and sickly Mitros, escape and in this third-person narrated section there exists, eventually, a taste of domestic happiness, rural contentment, and even romance. But Tóibín only hints at such human pleasures with the same distanced control he uses to describe filial treachery, pride, and murder.

Electra, a sad and rather pathetic character does not have the beauty of her dead sister, Iphigenia, nor the cunning and charisma of her mother, or the courage of her brother, but she hovers over the story biding her time, making plans, until she is able to set up the matricide for her brother to commit.

I enjoyed this tale – it’s a quick read –  but I hanker for Tóibín to get back to what he does best and to the promise he made post Brooklyn (2009), that after three novels about women he would tackle a story about men; his previous, The Heather Blazing (1992), The Story of the Night (1996), and The Master (2004), where a long time ago.

You can obtain this work in various editions here.

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Creativity, How to write fiction, prose

Gulliver’s Travels

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I don’t know who this person is – I found the image on the net – but to me now he is the reason for this work. The look, the attitude, the knowingness, and even the colouring all add up to my image of Robert. Robert, never Bobby or, heaven-forbid, Bob.

This is Robert Gulliver, and he’s in the process of being born.

Over the last few years, longer probably, I have sketched out a story about this curious character in script form. Because that’s how I originally saw him, it. I don’t remember where he, the idea, came from. He is sixteen but the rigours of puberty landed heavily and early on dear Robert; that, and given his unusual parenting, and intellect, he is very much a round peg in a square hole. In fact, he is a man still in high school.

I was inspired to re-visit Robert recently as circumstances are that I don’t have the luxury of blocks of hours at my disposal to give long-form writing the wealth of time it needs. I have a few long-form projects that need just that. I thought polishing and cut & pasting an existing work would be a much better use of the time I have. Unfortunately I had written 80% of Gulliver’s Travels on a script-writing program called Final Draft; my subscription had expired, the update was expensive, and I was locked out of the program. However, although Robert has been sitting there, locked in the ether, he has been a lot on my mind: the story is well formed and remembered, and re-remembering it, but in a different form, was an interesting and challenging idea to dive into.

Robert’s story is about family. And the moment I wrote that word ‘family’ Leo Tolstoy’s famous opening line from Anna Karenina sprang to mind:

Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.     (Translation by Constance Garnett)

And a comment by Patrick Gale, a British and favoured author of mine, in which he said he likes page one to hold some sort of key to the whole work itself.  It’s not that Robert’s family is unhappy or that I need a cryptic smack of the whole thing to begin, but what those two thoughts inspired was this,

Gulliver’s Travels

a novel

by Michael Freundt

Prelude

If you asked a family member – of any family – if they were happy, they would invariably pause, not wanting to simply say “yes”, and try to think of a word, or words, that would accurately describe their … but they would all so quickly realize that they have no idea how to describe how they feel so they say, “Yes,” usually adding, “of course.” You know that this is a lie, but politeness and fear forces you to acquiesce and you smile and say something limp in acknowledgment, like “Good.” This is an example of two lies being better than none. You can both now get on with whatever you were doing; conditioning your hair, mowing the lawn, doing your tax, without upsetting the balance of the universe, happy in the faceless knowledge that you have successfully bypassed the slippery dip to yelling, tears, and/or the breakdown of your world as you know it. This is the bedrock of why families survive; sometimes, even when they shouldn’t.  

If you realise at any time that you have somehow been perplexingly born into the wrong family, or if circumstances render your family suddenly, or slowly, unacceptable to you, you need to – or may be forced to – do something about it. This is a story of a boy who did just that.

Let’s see how it goes.

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Book review, Literary criticism

Personal by Lee Child

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James D. “Jim” Grant, better known by his pen name Lee Child, is a British writer, who for many years worked at the BBC and Granada and was involved in the production of many popular television drama series. After being retrenched he took up writing: his first Jack Reacher novel appeared in 1997. He now lives in New York City.

It’s not that I’m an ‘author snob’ – although I can understand why that might be true – it’s just that procedural crime, thrillers, page-turners and the like, whether books, films or TV series, usually boor me. I just don’t care enough: who did it, how they did it, why, where, and, well … who cares?  But I decided to give Lee Child a go. Everyone else is. This one, Personal (2014) is #19 of 23 and counting. He produces one bestseller every year.

I haven’t tried Stephen King, either. Yes, I know, I know. I should!

I was nearly put off by the quote, from the Independent, on the cover of this one: “Pulseracing”. See it? It’s not even a word, it’s two words: Pulse racing. It means that it makes your pulse race; not the book’s pulse, whereas … Oh, forget it! See what I mean?

I place a lot of faith in page one. Here is the first paragraph of this page one:

Eight days ago my life was an up and down affair. Some of it good. Some of it not so good. Most of it uneventful. Long slow periods of nothing much, with occasional bursts of something. Like the army itself. Which is how they found me. You can leave the army, but the army doesn’t leave you. Not always. Not completely. 

Chatty. Casual. Matey. Short sentences, even if some of those short sentences aren’t actual sentences (no verb) but are there, nonetheless, courtesy of authorial licence. But it was the line, “Which is how they found me.” that sparked my interest.

The chapters are short – 58 in this one – and each one is like a little scene from the movie (there’s bound to be one) with a chapter-ending waterfall, some no more than an amusement – “So I headed for the sound of her voice, and stepped into a room, and came face to face with myself.” – some a major plot point  – ” …first a tiny pinprick of sudden light in the far distance, and then the snap of flags everywhere as a gust of wind blew by, and then Khenkin’s head blew apart, right next to my shoulder.” Although this is action, the first real action (p116), a death, it’s passive action: Reacher doesn’t do anything, it happens to him. Well, it was supposed to happen to him: that little gust of wind, not an act of god but one by the author, blew the initially accurate bullet off course.

I was getting a little restless.

The next chapter continues with the aftermath: “His shattered head hit me on the way down and left a red and grey slick on the shoulder of my jacket. I remember thinking Damn, that was brand new, …” Such black-humoured, character-layering, Tarantino-esque moments are common in popular culture today. It’s been 23 years since Pulp Fiction – a cliche yet?

I re-arranged myself in my seat.

It took another 78 pages to get to the first piece of thrilling action: Reacher violently and swiftly overpowers 2 thugs masquerading as policemen; kills one, maims the other, but in the description of this, this:

and launched the same elbow at the first guy, who was a big strong man, but clearly not much of a fighter. Maybe he had gotten too comfortable with getting by on appearance and reputation alone. Maybe it was years since he had been involved in an actual scuffle. The only way to deal with a sudden incoming elbow was to twist and drive forward and take it on the meat of the upper arm, which is also painful and sometimes numbing, but generally you stay in your feet. But the guy went the other way. He chose the wrong option. He reared up and back…

Three lengthly sentences of explanation, instruction, and justification in the middle of a description of a frenzied fight. This surprised me. But what surprised me more was that it didn’t matter. I was with him all the way. This book is in the first person, which can be limiting: the hero in a first person narrative only knows what they know, but the first person is IN the action, not outside it, and such thoughts and musings don’t subvert the action; the reader is with the narrator, safely in his (the author’s) hands.

This piece of action went on for three chapters and included this description of a man, a villain obviously, getting out of, and back into, a car:

And then a giant climbed out. He led with a bent head and a bent back, folded at the waist, folded at the knees, and then he straightened up in stages, like a complex mechanism, like a child’s toy that starts out as a squat dump truck and then clicks open, one component after another, to reveal an action figure. He was huge. … The action figure became a dump truck again. He bent his knees, and bent at his waist, and tucked in his elbows, and hunched his shoulders, and ducked his head, and backed butt-first into his seat.  

And this piece of light-hearted description of a “hideous old farm vehicle” gearing up for motion:

The transmission was slower than the postal service. She rattled the selector into reverse, and all the mechanical parts inside called the roll and counted a quorum and set about deciding what to do. Which required a lengthy debate, apparently, because it was whole seconds before the truck lurched backward. She turned the wheel, which looked like hard work, and then she jammed the selector into a forward gear, and first of all the reversing committee wound up its business and approved its minutes and exited the room, and then the forward crew signed on and got comfortable, and a motion was tabled, seconded and discussed. More whole seconds passed, and then the truck slouched forward …

And it reads so well. I read it many times, and each time it made me smile. Great creative passages like these are worth the time and put this thriller writer a little above the rest, in this, my learning opinion.

But, back to the action, the second piece of action. Serious action only 23 pages on. Similar to the first but on a bigger scale. The first was 2 men, dressed like, but not, policemen asking Reacher and partner, Casey Nice, (her name. Nice.) to nicely get into the back of a van. Reacher didn’t oblige. The second was not a van but a one-door-one-window room behind an auto-shop which they, foolishly it turned out, walked into, with not 2 men present but 4 outside. “He closed the door behind him. And locked it.” End of chapter. The next chapter opens with just over 2 pages describing the 6 seconds of deductive thought going through Reacher’s mind after the click of the lock. This for two reasons: 1) it shows you what a smart-arse our hero is, and 2) it sets the time scale, 100-ish words per second. Reacher and Nice have a little chat which ends with them totting up what they have. A chair, a desk, a dirty jumper in a drawer, an arm chair, a window, a locked door. She says, “We’ve got nothing.” He says, “We’ve got what we’ve got.” “What are we going to do?” And the chapter ends with

So I told her what, and we rehearsed it carefully, over and over again, and then we started doing it. 

Note the verb tense. Not the past tense, and then we did it = action completed; but the past continuous tense: and then we started doing it = action not finished yet. (Now, that’s a waterfall!)

Well, you’ve just got to turn the page!

So, man number 1 bursts into the room lured by the noise of the armchair going though the window, and while Nice deals with him with her hand wrapped in the dirty jumper and holding a large slither of glass (“Aim for his eye.” She does), Reacher quickly renders unsuspecting but hurrying man number 2 unconscious with the chair and then confronts men numbers 3 and 4, not in the boxed room but in the auto-workshop, bigger space, more to play with, where he can see both of them at once. He deals with them, expertly of course, telling us how and when and why they made the wrong choices and why he didn’t – he’s a smart-arse remember, taking about 1500 words, which adds up to 15 seconds of screen time, just over 5 pages of book time. So that’s how you write action! The chapter ends with

Then I hustled back to the boxed-off room, to see how Casey Nice was doing.

Would you stop there and start preparing dinner?

However, after this bit of page-turning there was over 100 pages of chat, explanation, assumptions, predictions and justification; a long wait for more thrills. This being a ‘thriller’. In fact in terms of pages, ‘thrills’ take up a very small number indeed. Or have I been seduced by the jacket quotes “Another cracker …” “The best one yet.” “Generates relentless momentum … Child’s dedication to suspense … approaches the Hitchcockian” and Child’s soaring reputation? Yes, the thrills happen expertly but not very often. Relentless momentum? I don’t think so.

Oh, the plot? Some sniper has taken a potshot at the French president. The Russians, French, and the British all have their theories, but the Americans know who it was, and the only man to find him is Reacher. But then we learn that the French president was only a decoy/rehearsal; there’s a G8 summit coming up in London. So who’s the target?However on the way there’s two London gangs who get involved – one led by that giant! And, yes, the climax is in the giant’s house where everything is 50% bigger than a normal house (great design opportunity for the movie-version) but Child throws a naked woman in the final scene. Tacky, but you’ve got to be true to the genre, I suppose.

The first Jack Reacher movie, One Shot, of book No. 9, came out in 2012. Child wasn’t impressed, I hear: Reacher is more the build and temperament of a beefy Arni Schwarzenegger, not a weedy Tom Cruise. So we’ll see if there’s more.

Child’s Reacher #20 is in the 3rd person, which might be an interesting comparison to this one in the 1st. But, maybe I am a snob when it comes to airport genres, after all. No. 20, Make Me (2015) is there on the shelf. I’ll think about it.

You can find Lee Child novels, well,  … everywhere. Read one and tell me what you think.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Australian Literature, Book review, Literary criticism, prose

Merciless Gods by Christos Tsiolkas: a short story collection.

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Australian writer, Christos Tsiolkas.

These stories are masterful, enlightening, moving, shocking, blasphemous, erotic, breath-taking, and scary: some of the best I’ve ever read. They are so good, they could render a yearning writer silent.

The opening, and title, story sets the bar. A group of young Australian professionals, close friends, at a deliberately over-indulgent dinner party thrown to celebrate an important new editing job in San Francisco for one of their number is destroyed by another: his ego, self-importance, and jealousy – he wanted the job – combine with a silly game to allow him to dominate the room and shatter these long-time university-born relationships forever. The story has a tricky structure: a story-telling within the story, and set-up information is economic enough not to turn you off or lead you to wonder where it’s going, but detailed enough that you understand what’s happening. Tsiolkas also tells the story from a more recent time reminiscing about a lost past, lost friendships, and lost innocence. This creates an expectation that the point is big: it is, even though on the surface it’s a bunch of mates boozing, snorting, talking, and toking at, and after, a dinner party. Thinking back on the story a day later some of the necessary plot-points seem over-stretched but at the time nothing jarred. There is nothing for the reader to do except go along with it. This, I believe, is a sign of a good writer: the reader will believe whatever is thrown at them even if, on reflection, some things are a little bumpy; but in the moment, while reading it, the reader is completely in the thrall of the writer, ready for anything. It’s what a reader – well, this reader – craves.

“The title story of Merciless Gods is stunning and should be read by everyone in the country who cares about fiction. It is worth the price of the book alone.”                   Sydney Morning Herald

Saturn Return is about dying. And grief.

When the door finally opens again, Barney rushes out sobbing and falls on me. I hold him tight. It is not as if he his crying exactly; rather, sorrow is pouring out of him, from every heaving breath, from every lacerating tear. The warm lounge room is suddenly freezing and the only heat comes from where our bodies touch. I strengthen my hold on him. I’m scared that if I let go,not only the room, not only this city, but the whole world will go cold forever.

I cried. Not bad for a story of twelve and a half pages.

Tsiolkas has never shied away from writing about sex, particularly in its extremes. His novels Loaded (1995) and Dead Europe (2005) are testament to that.   There are stories here that may curl your toes; this book may not be a good idea as a Christmas present for Gran.

A reviewer at The Guardian labeled Tsiolkas as “the master of the stain”.

The Slap (2008) was his breakout hit; publication in Europe and around the world set him up as one of Australia’s premier writers. However, he had already established a small group of fans in Australia with challenging works like, Loaded, – adapted for the screen in 1998 as Head On – Dead Europe – which some considered the best book of 2005 – and The Jesus Man (1999). The television series of The Slap (2011) in Australia and the US version (2015) consolidated his reputation and broadened his readership. His 2013 novel, Barracuda, was also adapted for television in 2016.

Read these stories. You won’t forget them.

You can get the kindle edition here.

 

 

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Book review, Literary criticism

The Obelisk by E. M. Forster: a short story collection,

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English writer Edward ‘Morgan’ Forster 1879 – 1970

A lot has been written about Forster, and especially recently about his sexuality. He was a closeted homosexual, which was far from rare for an Edwardian Englishman of his education. His novels, A Passage to India, Where Angels Fear to Tread, A Room with a View, among the best of them, were mostly about the love lives of strong wilful English women usually traveling away from home. His other famous works, Howards End is a more London domestic story and Maurice, his only homosexual love-story, was not published until after his death, as is the case with these stories in this collection.

Sex to Forster was something hidden, and due to the ambiguous and wide-ranging forms of human attachments, physical, emotional and psychological all amorphously gathered together in English under the banner of the single word ‘love’, Forster was able to write about the ‘love’ of young English middle-class women and be applauded for it while experiencing none of that ‘love’ himself, so great is the imagination of the novelistic mind; until, that is, at age 37 on an Egyptian beach when he lost his virginity to a wounded soldier. His last, and greatest novel, A Passage to India, came out seven years later, in 1924, at which time his novel writing stopped. Why? “I should have been a more famous writer if I had written or rather published more, but sex has prevented the latter.”

Wendy Moffet, in her 2010 biography of Forster, E.M. Forster: A New Life asserts that sexual fulfilment (at last!) sapped him of his writer’s imagination and drive. This could possibly be true, given the above quote and that since his awakening on that beach near Alexandria he had several relationships with working class married men including a tram conductor and two policemen. He continued to live with his mother, however, until she died when he was 66.

This collection contains stories that are sexually charged and gently subversive. They are sometimes farcical, funny, satirical, and even, experimental. The comic, and clever, twist of the title story involves a young married couple and a pair of sailors they meet on a holiday to a famous landmark, and sets the tone of the collection. The second story, The Life to Come, is a colonial fable of religious hypocrisy and the plot turns on the many definitions and misleading consequences of the English word ‘love’ and how it is used in the Christian Bible.

Dr Wollacott, a story he told T.E. Lawrence was the ‘best thing he had done’, has been described by some as ‘weird’. It is an experimental tale of an invalid who is infirmed, more so by his amorous thoughts than any bodily ailments and dies because of them; or did the handsome young farm-hand who climbed in through the window (a particularly frequent fantasy in Forster’s work) from the park while looking for mushrooms, novelistically exist?

Arthur Snatchfold, is similar, but written more realistically, about an educated, married, and aristocratic man, Conway, who, while staying at a less-than scintillating country-house with his equally-lacking hosts, sees a milk-boy in the garden, seeks him out early next morning and has sex with him in a wood. Some money languidly changed hands.

“I didn’t do it for that.”

“I know you didn’t.”

“Naow … keep your money.”

“I’d be pleased if you would take it … please yourself.”

“Can you honestly afford it?”

“Honestly.”

“Well … people don’t always behave as nice as you, you know.”

Later, in town he hears that the later stages of their tryst were seen by the local bobby who waylaid the departing boy, arrested him, but the other unidentified man, got away. Conway knows it was himself, and is appalled and amazed that the boy chose not to give him away. “It all had seemed so trivial”, on both sides. He writes down the boy’s name, Arthur Snatchfold, in order never to forget it.

The rest of the stories are less successful; they read like first drafts that the writer lost interest in. Except, the final story, The Other Boat: it involves a ship-board romance that leads to tragedy. Its interest lies in its post-colonial flavour: the attraction of ‘the other’ and the social and emotional consequences of the day.

This volume is part of a handsomely produced series of volumes from Hesperus Press, Modern Voices, of the lesser works of an eclectic list of famous writers: Anthony Burgess, Colette, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Franz Kafka, D.H. Lawrence, Katherine Mansfield, John-Paul Sartre, Bernard Shaw, Leonard and Virginia Woolf, among others.

The South African novelist, Damon Galgut, has fictionalised the adult life of Forster, his private passions and relationships as well as his writing of The Passage to India, in his 2014 novel, Artic Summer; my blog about it you can read here.

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