20 classics #15: A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

Charles_Dickens-A_Christmas_Carol-Title_page-First_edition_1843I’m reading 20 classic, modern-classic or cult books. Read more about this project here. See the other classics here.

Why did I want to read it?

Because I already know and love the story so well (mainly via Scrooged and A Muppet Christmas Carol) and I’ve been meaning to read the original around Christmas-time for years!

When was it published?

First published in December 1843. I read Gerard’s Great Writers Library edition (1987), which is a facsimile of the 1910 Chapman and Hall edition. The book also features other novellas by Dickens: The Chimes and The Cricket on the Hearth.

What’s it about?

Nasty old Ebenezer ‘Bah! Humbug!’ Scrooge is visited by his dead colleague Marley and the spirits of Christmas past, present and future.

Tell us more about the author.

So, what did I think? Does it deserve to be a classic?

scroogescaredA resounding yes. A Christmas Carol obviously has one of the most memorable plots (and characters) in history. And the book has probably done more than anyone can imagine to contribute to the warm-hearted message as to what Christmas is really ‘about’. No matter what religion or nationality you are, or even whether you celebrate Christmas, the message is that kindness is absolutely vital.

While reading, I thought about how the anti-greed message was something instilled in me in childhood (perhaps in part through encountering this story and discussing it with my parents). This led to a lot of confusion as I got older and realised that the capitalist system was feeding me contradictory messages: that I should desire and have everything (and a new version, too); that I deserved to treat myself. Self-help culture also encourages us to be selfish. Of course, our system is morally dubious in more ways than one (I’m thinking of vast environmental degradation here). So, Scrooge today can also symbolise the one percent (as a whole), sitting there counting piles of money and having little regard for anyone or anything else. The descriptions of Scrooge toward the beginning are delightfully funny. I particularly like the line: ‘Foul weather didn’t know where to have him’.

The book leaves with you a series of dark images, like Marley’s face as the door knocker, the chilling spirit that does not speak, and the child spirits of Ignorance and Want—‘Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy [Ignorance], for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased’. The prospect of seeing your own name on a gravestone is also confronting and eerie.

muppet christmas carolMarley’s ghost and the three Christmas spirits are inventive and exciting. As I read I recalled how frightening I found them in different adaptations as a child. I had forgotten about how Scrooge attributes the vision of Marley to indigestion: ‘You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato. There’s more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!’

tiny timAnd poor little Tiny Tim. The story may be earnest, but the humour and the cleverness of the plot mean that it’s effectively able to move you. And maybe it moves me, too, because of the despair I sometimes feel about issues mentioned above. But then again, like Scrooge at the end I often feel that ‘I don’t know anything. I’m quite a baby’.


Get Scrooged.

What’s next?

I’m still reading Gogol’s Dead Souls, and then I was thinking either more Nabokov or Muriel Spark’s Memento Mori.

20 classics #14: Mathilda by Mary Shelley

I’m reading 20 classic, modern-classic or cult books. Read more about this project here. See the other classics here.

Why did I want to read it?

Frankenstein is one of my all-time favourite books, and yet I’ve never read anything else by Mary Shelley. I was also intrigued by the fact that Mathilda wasn’t published in Shelley’s lifetime due to the book’s ‘shocking’ theme. (OK, it’s not really a classic, but I seem to be reading ‘lost’ classics too.)

When was it published?

It was completed in 1820, edited and published by Elizabeth Nitchie in 1959, and published as a stand-alone volume by Melville House in 2008 (the formatting is lovely, you can buy it here).There are also free ebook copies all over the net, including here.

What’s it about?

Mathilda’s mother dies in childbirth and her father is driven into a deep despair. He goes off to the continent leaving Mathilda with her inexpressive aunt, who lives on Loch Lomond (yay, Scotland!). He returns when she is sixteen and after a couple of blissfully happy months he becomes tormented. Mathilda can’t stand that her father is unhappy, and she worries that she may be the cause. When she confronts him about his misery he finally confesses to his unnatural, sinful passions…

Tell us more about the author.

Mary Shelley

Mary Shelley (1797-1851) was the daughter of the feminist and philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft, and the political philosopher William Godwin. Mary Shelley was known and respected in her time as a writer of novels, short stories, plays, essays, biographies and travelogues. She also edited the works of her husband, the Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. She is most well-known for Frankenstein (first published anonymously), which she famously wrote after a dream prompted by Byron’s challenge around the fire at Lake Geneva in 1816: that each of the guests write their own supernatural tale. Other novels include the historical novels Valperga (1823) and The Fortunes of Perkin Warbeck (1830), and one I’m most intrigued about, the apocalyptic novel The Last Man (1826). More info on Shelley can be found here.

So, what did I think? Does it deserve to be a classic?

Shelley’s Frankenstein is so well-known compared to her other works, and yet she was such a hard-working, prolific author. By the sounds of it most of her work carries interesting themes: politics, gender issues, radical ideas, but also explorations of the potential dangers of change and progress. Mathilda is a moody novella, undeniably Gothic: rain, despair, dreams, death, passions, solitude on a barren heath, and, of course the clashing of nature, reason and spirituality. Oh, how they weep and wring their hands, they agonise and are sorrowful! And there is horror, always horror. But there is such beauty in it, if, like me, you revel in the dramatic and the melancholy.

Mathilda slowly reveals the circumstances of her life, in a letter she is addressing to her only friend in her years on the heath. She reveals that she and her father were happy for two months after his return from the continent, until ‘a young man of rank, well-informed, and agreeable in his person’ began paying attention to her. The reader can guess at this point from where her father’s torment might have sprung. (Hint: his penis.)

Incest made an appearance regularly in the Gothic genre, since a struggle with the unnatural was a trope, and since the Gothic, as a genre, was a combination of romance and horror ie. in Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher, Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto and The Mysterious Mother, and more. Here’s an interesting essay by Min-tser Lin on this particular trope, which touches on social and psychological theories about why this ‘fear’ was played-out in late 18th and early 19th century literature: ‘Domestic space—and how it is compartmentalized, controlled, and infiltrated—plays an important role in the way incest is imagined as haunting horror or unconscious wish.’

The father’s torments lead to tragedy and Mathilda then somehow (she conveniently doesn’t go into detail) gives the slip to all her relations and her guardian to live in:

A solitary house on a wide plain near no other habitation: where I could behold the whole horizon, and wander far without molestation from the sight of my fellow creatures. I was not misanthropic, but I felt that the gentle current of my feelings depended upon my being alone. I fixed myself on a wide solitude. On a dreary heath bestrewn with stones, among which short grass grew; and here and there a few rushes beside a little pool.

The descriptions of her need for solitude are some of my favourite parts of the book. Mathilda is not entirely alone, she has a servant who is barely mentioned (which is something, as a contemporary reader, you can’t help noticing) and she soon makes a friend, a poet, whose speeches are certainly lyrical.

Another favourite passage is the dream Mathilda has in Yorkshire, just after the dreaded ‘confrontation’ with her father, where he confesses his desire. The dream is vivid and haunting and makes me wonder whether Shelley really had an amazingly vivid dream-life (as Kafka did) and whether many of her stories, besides Frankenstein, were inspired by dreams. In the dream, she sees her father seated under a tree. He beckons her to approach.

[T]here was something unearthly in his mien that awed and chilled me, but I drew near. When at a short distance from him I saw that he was deadly pale, and clothed in flowing garments of white. Suddenly he started up and fled from me; I pursued him: we sped over the fields, and by the skirts of woods, and on the banks of the rivers; he flew fast and I followed.

They come eventually to a cliff and the figure of her father plunges down it to the roaring waters. She only just catches a part of his flowing robe.

I also enjoyed the meta-aspect of Shelley’s writing, the constant references to other works (and I was grateful for the footnotes, though the quotes in Latin remain a mystery). She draws from Wordsworth, Lord Byron, Coleridge, Dante and others. It made me want to go and wrap my head in some Romantic and Classical poetry.

My only issue with this book is that, besides descriptions of nature and weather, there is, at times, a lack of detail: as in, those small details that make the world of the story seem whole and real (such as how she actually got away from London and her guardian). Some parts feel rushed, even though the style, overall, is elaborate. If I were Shelley’s editor I would request that she expand on certain parts, and pare back others. But it wasn’t edited in her lifetime because her father was her publisher and he refused to publish it (despite publishing his own radical works). I suppose he was worried about what people would think. At least, for our sake, it was not lost.

Are you a fan of Frankenstein? Have you tried Shelley’s other works? I’d love to hear your thoughts. Also, know of a great bio of Mary Shelley? Her life seems fascinating.

What’s next?

I finished The Lady in the Lake by Raymond Chandler and it was great fun, but I’m not sure I feel like writing about it (this project has been like that, I’ve actually read way more than 14 classics). I’m now reading Nikolai Gogol’s Dead Souls.

20 classics #13: The Fortunes of Richard Mahony by Henry Handel Richardson

I’m reading 20 classic, modern-classic or cult books. Read more about this project here. See the other classics here.

Why did I want to read it?

I haven’t yet reviewed an Australian classic in this series, and The Lifted Brow also asked me to choose one of the Text Classics range to introduce for their October issue. There was a lot I wanted to read on the list so I pretty much chose at random. When the book arrived I baulked at the size of it: almost 1000 finely printed pages. But I do like a challenge.

When was it published?

It was published in three volumes, in 1917, 1925 and 1929 and as a full novel by William Heinemann in 1930. The new Text Classics edition is introduced by Peter Craven.

What’s it about?

The life of the restless Richard Mahony, from the Ballarat goldfields in the 1850s, via many adventures in Australia and abroad, to the latter part of the nineteenth century. It’s also a stunning portrait of a marriage, and an incredibly detailed account of colonial Australia: Ballarat, Melbourne, the bush and the seaside.

Tell us more about the author.

Ethel Florence Lindesay Richardson was born in 1870 in Melbourne. Her father was a doctor (as is Mahony) and tragedy struck the young, affluent family when he was admitted to Kew mental asylum and died of syphilis when Richardson was nine. Her mother took the children to Maldon where she worked as postmistress. Richardson boarded at the Presbyterian Ladies’ College from age 13 to 17 and the experience formed the basis for her 1910 novel The Getting of Wisdom, the only one of her books that has been faithfully adapted to the screen (by Bruce Beresford in 1977).

Richardson’s family moved to Europe in 1888 where she studied music at the Leipzig Conservatorium (and Maurice Guest is set in Leipzig). In Leipzig she also met John George Robertson, a Scot, who was studying German literature. They married and moved to London in 1903. Richardson only returned to Australia once, to conduct research for Mahony. She died in 1946 in Hastings, East Sussex. Her other works include The Young Cosima (novel), short story collections and a supposedly unreliable autobiography.

So, what did I think? Does it deserve to be a classic?

Yes. I would not hesitate to tell you that The Fortunes of Richard Mahony is a masterpiece, a great novel. Reading it was one of the most fulfilling literary experiences I’ve ever had. This is mainly due to the character of Richard Mahony and his self-induced tribulations, and the intimate details of his marriage to Polly (later known as Mary). But it is also due to the historical aspects: Mahony provides complete immersion in the experience of the past, through the eyes of just a few characters. It’s also an incredibly compassionate novel. I only read afterwards that the character of Mahony was partly inspired by Richardson’s father, and that just broke my heart all over again.

Why is this not as well known or regarded as, say, the work of Patrick White? I was speculating to G, upon finishing, that it may not be well known because it hasn’t been adapted for the screen. And Craven in his introduction, when I read it afterwards, suspects the same. It hasn’t become ‘a shared myth’, he says. I can imagine, given its breadth and depth, it would be very hard to adapt, but a miniseries seems doable. Or maybe it is the sheer size of the novel that puts some people off. Well, don’t let it, I implore you. Indulge.

The novel is so large that the characters become more than complex, they become real. The style is naturalistic, and the characters’ mental states are given as much attention as the surrounding landscape. I found myself exasperated at Richard (as Mary is), for his impractical flightiness, but at the same time I was so fond and forgiving of him. And I related at times to his need for peace, quiet; to not be bothered (and then sided with him, too, in his annoyance at Mary’s complete rationality). The Mahonys are truly both kind-hearted—Mary charitable with her being and her space, to her friends; Mahony a gentle doctor who hesitates to chase up bills, and who often rethinks his first, rash opinions of people—but they also are at times hateful, frayed, even cruel. Mahony is a terrible listener, and unable to adapt to colonial attitudes (holding onto notions of gentlemanliness without realising it sometimes makes him a laughing stock). But then! When they go to England he reacts to their snobbishness. You think it will change him…

Mary slowly becomes perceptive to Richard’s foibles—particularly the ones that get them into trouble—and becomes stronger, and less materially motivated. At the beginning you can see how well they match: it centres around their kindnesses, they way they (attempt to) perceive the good in others (though Mary soon learns that sometimes Richard will maintain a grudge). Mary is more likely to see the ‘good’ and that is where she is kind, whereas Richard will crumble when faced with the ‘weak’. Richardson exquisitely renders a long-term relationship: the way they misinterpret each other and begin to keep secrets, the way they manage each other, sometimes fear each other. The novel is an incredible, humble, love story.

The weirdest thing is, writing this, I simply cannot capture it. You just have to read it. Each revelation of character comes about through sections of the novel that are book length. That makes it sound dreary, but it’s not. There are seeds planted (sometimes in conversations with other characters), events foreshadowed. When you begin reading it, you think it is all about the goldfields, and the men (and it is). But then Polly/Mary and a new cast of characters come along. Way, way down the line there are windfalls and travel and children and tragedy. Each ‘event’ is, as mentioned, a book of its own, so I can only be vague here. The whole that these events add up to is so revealing. As an Australian, too. (Though I think this holds up against European novels set in the 19th Century, is in fact much more accessible than many of them.) I had, for example, never thought very much about the way the gold rush messed up the class system for those who clung to it, fresh from the old country, and what that meant, how confusing it could be for them. More generally there is so much to learn (and so much colour) in regards to colonial Australia and the foundation of Victoria.

But what do I want to talk about? I want to talk about Richard (though I really cannot possibly capture him). He is self-absorbed, he is manic at times—bursting with excitement for an idea, mainly a change—and then he sinks into deep depressions. He is over-sensitive: ‘How strange Richard was… how difficult! First, to be able to forget all about how things stood with him, and then to be twice as upset as other people’. He is definitely fickle, an ‘unpractical old dreamer’ as Mary thinks of him at one stage. He is paranoid and nervous, more so as he gets older. He loves isolation, but becomes bored of that too and surprises Mary (and the reader) with bouts of socialising. He is a skilled doctor, he is curious (a great reader, at one point becoming obsessed with spiritualism: ‘He believed and would continue to believe it impossible wholly to account for life and its phenomena in terms of physiology, chemistry, physics’). He is not humourless but his sensitivity sometimes gets in the way. He is sometimes confused. He is embarrassing to his son, Cuffy. Cuffy is such a surprising and wonderful voice added to the novel in later parts. Cuffy allows the reader to see the relationship of his parents, the places they live, their life and his father from a different angle. The way Richardson writes him captures the wonder and confusion (and temper) of childhood.

I’ll share one longer extract which is revealing of Richard. After a description of travel and all of its difficulties, this is what follows:

Yes! there was always something. He never let himself have any real peace or enjoyment. Or so thought Mary at the time. It was not till afterwards, when he fell to re-living his travels in memory, that she learned how great was the pleasure he had got out of them. Inconveniences and annoyances were by then sunk below the horizon. Above, remained visions of white cities, and slender towers, and vine-clad hills; of olive groves bedded in violets; fine music heard in opera and oratorio; coffee-drinking in shady gardens on the banks of a lake; orchards of pink almond-blossom massed against the misty blue of far mountain valleys.

This gives you an idea of the contradictions within, and the changeability of Richard, and how he values having experienced different things (no matter how troublesome at the time). It also gives you an idea of the rhythm in the prose, and the humour in the novel, too. It is not a solemn affair, even tragic circumstances are often given fresh views (ie. by Cuffy, the son).

And I’ll leave this rather disordered (but honest) blog post here. I hope I have at least inspired you to give The Fortunes of Richard Mahony a go. I certainly would like to add Richardson’s other novels to my collection, and I’d love to hear from you in the comments if you have anything to say on those also.

What’s next?

I’ve finally started on my first Raymond Chandler novel: The Lady in the Lake.

This post will be added to my tally in the Australian Women Writers Reading + Reviewing Challenge.

20 classics #12: Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen

I’m reading 20 classic, modern-classic or cult books. Read more about this project here. See the other classics here.

Why did I want to read it?

I’d only read Emma and Pride and Prejudice of Austen’s novels, and when I heard that Northanger Abbey was a sort of satire of the gothic novel, I was intrigued. I also visited Bath last year, where much of the novel is set.

When was it published?

Northanger Abbey was first published in 1818, posthumously, though it was one of the first novels Austen completed. My edition is the 2003 Penguin Classic with an informative introduction by Marilyn Butler. There are many editions available.

What’s it about?

‘Our heroine’ (referred to as such by the author within the novel) is Catherine Morland. She is young, impressionable, and experiencing Bath, and fashionable society, for the first time. There’s a sort of rivalry for her friendship and love between two new sets of acquaintances, the Thorpes and the Tilneys. The novel is also a very early example of metafiction, where the author is present and the characters have conversations about reading, the worth of a novel, fiction versus nonfiction/history, women writers, and more. The plot and events are also (seemingly fondly) parodic of both Gothic novels and ‘novels of sensibility’.

Tell us more about the author.

Jane Austen was born at Steventon on 16 December 1775. Her family moved to Bath when her father retired in 1801. When he died in 1805, she moved around with her mother. I learnt, when I visited the Jane Austen Centre in Bath, that after her father died her family had quite a difficult time, financially. She certainly got to see Bath and its ‘fashionable society’ from different points of view, and she was more productive living quietly at the family home before and after Bath (at Chawton). She received a marriage proposal while there, and accepted (one can assume, thinking of her family) but the next day withdrew her acceptance. She wrote to her niece, Fanny White: ‘Anything is to be preferred or endured rather than marrying without Affection’. It is believed much of Austen’s genuine feelings on this subject are due to the true-love relationship of her parents. There is so much more to say about her, but I’ll keep this brief (see this blog for all the info you could ever need on Jane Austen). She is undeniably one of the warmest, cleverest writers who ever lived, and was modest about her own genius. She died at the age of 41 on 18 July 1817.

So, what did I think? Does it deserve to be a classic?

Northanger Abbey is generally considered to be Austen’s most ‘light-hearted’ novel, and the characters certainly don’t stick in your mind as much as, say, Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Darcy. However, Catherine Morley’s innocence (and almost transparence) is a deliberate method on the part of the author—Catherine is both a parodic character and a vehicle for the reader. The reader is also stumbling, wide-eyed, into this strange and undeniably shallow world (Mrs Allen, with whom Catherine stays, is obsessed with clothing, fashions and second-hand remarks). But the reader is also allowed distance by the intrusive, authorial voice. In one of my favourite parts, Catherine allows herself to be whipped into a kind of grotesque fancy by Henry Tilney’s comparisons of Northanger Abey to the settings of Gothic novels. She then spends a sleepless night wondering what could possibly be in the locked drawer of the cabinet! The reader (permitted ironic distance) knows it will be something ordinary, but we still can’t help but wonder.

Though it may be more ‘light-hearted’ than other novels by Austen, Northanger Abbey’s intellectual engagements and layers of meaning (and humour) are hugely impressive. I’ve read modern metafictional novels like John Fowles’ The French Lieutenant’s Woman and Italo Calvino’s If On A Winters Night a Traveller and I didn’t realise Austen had beat them by about 150 years, winking to her readers. She even acknowledges (and rallies with) her fellow writers of novels, encouraging them to create heroines who read novels (the layers!):

Alas! if the heroine of one novel be not patronised by the heroine of another, from whom can she expect protection and regard? I cannot approve of it. Let us leave it to the Reviewers to abuse such effusions of fancy at their leisure [turn over a novel’s insipid pages with disgust], and over every new novel to talk in threadbare strains of the trash with which the press now groans. Let us not desert one another; we are an injured body.

Catherine and Henry Tilney have a sparring relationship throughout the book. They debate the merits of fiction versus nonfiction/history, and have an exchange about women’s writing which cleverly inverts an idea and reveals Austen’s feelings on equality (we know she contradicts this in some ways, in her work, but I see her as being both within and ahead of her time). The exchange is as follows:

Catherine tells Tilney that she does not keep a journal and he thinks she must be lying. He says (among other things): ‘How are your various dresses to be remembered, and the particular state of your complexion, and curl of your hair to be described in all their diversities, without having constant recourse to a journal?—My dear madam, I am not so ignorant of young ladies’ ways as you wish to believe me; it is this delightful habit of journalising which largely contributes to form the easy style of writing for which ladies are so generally celebrated. Every body allows that the talent of writing agreeable letters is peculiarly female…’ He goes on a little. Catherine baulks. She says: ‘I have sometimes thought… whether ladies do write so much better letters than gentlemen! That is—I should not think the superiority was always on our side’. Very wry. The superiority is no doubt not always on the side of one sex or another in other matters, too.

But it is still this bullying fellow that Catherine begins to fall for. Maybe it shows that her character isn’t really so impressionable, that she enjoys a little intellectual sparring (and will grow to enjoy it more—the reader, as the reader of novels, often would side with her in these debates). Maybe she is more imaginative than impressionable, though the extent of what she imagines possible does result in her putting her foot in her mouth at one point…

Northanger Abbey’s cleverness impressed and delighted me at times, but the overall story is a little disjointed, and I was a bit underwhelmed at the end. I think the romantic hero is much less memorable than, say, Mr Darcy (*cough*). But there aren’t many endings that satisfy (on a specific level) as that of Pride and Prejudice. That said, it’s actually not one of my favourite books. That was another reason for trying Austen again. Emma is the best of hers I’ve read, and though everything about Austen and her work can be appreciated—she was undeniably ahead of her time, intelligent, genuine, clever—on some level my personal tastes swing more towards the (admittedly, often flowery) dramatic and romantic Gothics…

What’s next?

Perhaps, on that note, I should read a Bronte next, or Hardy’s Tess of the D’ubervilles? I’m also slowly making my way through Hemingway’s To Whom the Bell Tolls.

20 classics #11: Malone Dies by Samuel Beckett

I’m reading 20 classic, modern-classic or cult books. Read more about this project here. See the other classics here.

Why did I want to read it?

I adore Beckett’s plays Waiting for Godot and Endgame. Masterpieces.

When was it published?

Originally published as Malone Meurt in Paris and first in English in 1956 (author’s own translation) by Grove Press. My edition is by Faber & Faber, 2010.

What’s it about?

Like most of Beckett’s work, not much and a whole lot, all at once. Malone is lying on a bed in a room. He is dying. He is making up stories.

Tell us more about the author.

Samuel Beckett is undoubtedly one of the most influential writers of the twentieth century, an early postmodernist and a key writer of the ‘theatre of the absurd’. He wrote Malone meurt between November 1947 and May 1948 ‘at the height of a period of intense creative activity’ according to Peter Boxall in the preface of my edition, in which he also wrote the novels Molloy and L’Innomable (which came to be known as the Trilogy) and the play En attendant Godot. Godot was the work which first brought him international recognition. Beckett was born in Ireland and received a BA from Trinity College, Dublin, before becoming lecteur d’anglais in the École Normale Supérieure in Paris. There, he met and was influenced by renowned Irish author James Joyce. He won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1969. His works are still incredibly striking—playfully tedious, absurd, moving, gross and funny.

So, what did I think? Does it deserve to be a classic?

For many reasons. Imagine what it was like to break the mould when there was a mould. Exciting. Dangerous. But I think Beckett is still relevant because there is such depth to his work. The ‘absurd’ elements express profound themes: mortality, lack of fulfilment, desperation, distraction, boredom, exasperation, routine and repetition, hopelessness, alienation and a little bit of light shining in.

‘Live and invent. I have tried. I must have tried. Invent. It is not the word. Neither is live. No matter. I have tried. While within me the wild beast of earnestness padded up and down, roaring, ravening, rending. I have done that. And all alone, well hidden, played the clown, all alone, hour after hour, motionless, often standing, spellbound, groaning.’

This is part of Malone’s thought process, in this bed where he is dying. He doesn’t really know where he is. The clues are all contradictory. Sometimes he believes himself large, taking up space. There is always another pen. He makes up stories, about the Lamberts, about Lemuel, and about Macmann and Moll.

Beckett’s characters peel away the layers and reveal us for what we really are.

‘But what matter whether I was born or not, have lived or not, am dead or merely dying, I shall go on doing as I have always done, not knowing what it is I do, nor who I am, nor where I am, nor if I am.’

‘… if my memories are mine, and which you savour doddering about in the wake of the fitful sun, or deeper than the dead, in the corridors of the underground railway and the stench of their harassed mobs scurrying from cradle to grave to get to the right place at the right time. What more do I want? Yes, those were the days, quick to night and well beguiled with the search for warmth and reasonably edible scraps.’

I will try to explain how Beckett makes me feel, as a reader. First, there’s something addictive about the base kind of explorations of his characters. Morning and night, birth through death, we are each just a speck in the universe (with misbehaving body parts). And we stink of failure. He’s the first author I’ve read who has articulated boredom to me, in a quite unironic, un-boring way. Many contemporary writers write ironically about ‘inevitability’, whereas, I think, Beckett is actually very earnest. Some writing that is supposedly ‘absurd’ falls down, because it is either too distant (and ‘clever’), or is closer to bizarre. Beckett is an anti-realist who never departs from a notion of what is true. What could be more real, or true, than facing death?

I adore the small, tangible objects that tie Malone (and other Beckett characters) to a living, breathing (if altered, exaggerated, grotesque or confusing) world—objects so simple as a club, a brimless hat, and one old boot.

‘… I never saw a boot with so many eyeholes, useless for the most part, having ceased to be holes, and become slits. All these things are together in the corner in a heap. I could lay hold of them, even now, in the dark, I need only wish to do so.’

The objects have ‘remained quietly in their place, in the corner’ while he has been in the room, but it is also impossible for him to know, ‘from one moment to the next, what is mine and what is not…’ Objects, and reality, are tangible and exist (and are his), and are also intangible, and do not exist (and are not his).

Beckett is comforting to me, as a reader, in a way that is like looking at the stars. Your blood beats quick and warm, at the realisation that the universe is so large and cold. Tangible, intangible.

There is… taking up space, making up stories (distraction?) and someone, in the night, has bloodied your cane. Feeling the carpet under your feet and the silence at your questions. Not being able to be outside yourself, as Malone is unable to move from his bed. Not alone. Only alone. Writing crap. Tedium.

‘But the part he [Macmann] struck most readily, with his hammer, was the head, and that is understandable, for it too is a bony part, and sensitive, and difficult to miss, and the seat of all shit and misery, so you rain blows upon it, with more pleasure than on the leg for example, which never did you any harm, it’s only human.’

What’s next?

I got distracted from Doris Lessing, but I’ve picked up Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey.

20 Classics #10: The Well by Elizabeth Jolley

I’m reading 20 classic, modern-classic or cult books. Read more about this project here.

Why did I want to read it?

There are way too many Australian authors I haven’t read. People told me I’d click with Elizabeth Jolley.

When was it published?

It was first published in 1986, which makes it a very young ‘classic’ (a little younger than me, even), but it is already spoken of as being one. My edition is a lovely orange Popular Penguin.

What’s it about?

Miss Hester Harper adopted Katherine some years ago and now Katherine is growing into a young woman. Hester increasingly fears that Katherine will leave her. They live a cloistered life, indulging in both memory and fantasy, and the money dwindles. One night on the road, they hit something large with the Toyota. In a panic, they drive it to the edge of the well.

Tell us more about the author.

Elizabeth Jolley was born in England in 1923 but we claim her as ‘one of ours’, since her literary career blossomed down under. She grew up in a German-speaking household (and she gives Hester a German-speaking childhood friend/governess in The Well). Jolley did not start to receive literary recognition until she was in her 50s (though she had been writing since her 20s). She won the Age Book of the Year Award three times, for Mr Scobie’s Riddle, My Father’s Moon and The Georges’ Wife) and the Miles Franklin Award for The Well. She was awarded with an AO for services to literature and received no fewer than four honorary doctorates. She was also a pioneer of creative writing teaching in Australia. She died in 2007. Jason Steger said of her, in the Age: ‘As a writer, there was no one like her. She had a distinctive style, idiosyncratic subjects and an original voice. Her work was peopled by eccentric characters and imbued with a deep sense of compassion.’

Elizabeth Jolley memories are welcome in the comments. (I received a few lovely ones via Twitter when I mentioned I was reading this.)

So, what did I think? Does it deserve to be a classic?

There’s such a dark cosiness about this story. There’s the dark well with its unknowable depths, and there’s the small, obsessively protected world of Hester and Katherine. Miss Hester Harper is possessive of Katherine. There are hints of repression, loneliness, the still-grieved loss of her childhood governess, the slow realisation of what really happened and why. In some ways Hester does not want to grow up. And the money allows that.

But then the money is ‘misplaced’. (I won’t give it away.)

Katherine is obsessed with movies and magazines. She loves John Travolta. She’ll adopt different accents and play dress ups. Hester is often annoyed by her. But she is more fascinated by her. Katherine will dress Hester up, too; cook for her, brush her hair. They exist together in a vortex of memory, illusions and fantasies; champagne, cornflakes and poultry.

The neighbours and the townsfolk talk to Hester, hint that it isn’t quite right to keep a young, healthy girl cooped up. They make offers for Katherine to babysit and suggest that she go to more dances. Hester won’t have it. She is also worried about Katherine’s friend from the orphanage who is coming to visit. The novel does something clever with that, too. As you’re reading, you keep thinking that the visit is going to be the big event that comes between them. Hester chats to a local writer at the shop who is writing a novella and must ‘keep to certain rules which have been accepted in literary circles’. She needs an intruder, in her story. There has been an intruder in Hester and Katherine’s story, but the reader is still thinking of the other, potential one (the friend). Both Hester, and the reader, ignore the local writer, in a way, just as Hester ignores everything that may have some impact on the little world she has built with Katherine. She ignores it or tries to make it go away. Through this, Jolley is also playing with the reader’s expectations about what will unfold and when.

Hester has succeeded, by the end, in making their world yet smaller. But it is also beginning to be less cosy, and more shadowy, like the inside of that well.

What’s next?

I need to finish writing up Beckett’s Malone Dies and I’m currently, slowly reading Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook. I think I need to exit the 20th Century after that.

I’m counting this post toward my review tally in the Australian Women Writers Reading + Reviewing Challenge.

20 Classics #9: Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

I’m reading 20 classic, modern-classic or cult books. I aimed to read them all in 2011, but that’s beginning to look unlikely. Read more about this project here.

Why did I want to read it?

I think I knew about the film before the book, but I’m yet to see it. The main reasons I wanted to read it were gothic + romance. Also because it is a more ‘modern’ gothic novel.

When was it published?

First published in 1938. My copy is a sexy, red 1994 Avon paperback. There are plenty of other editions.

What’s it about?

A nervy young lady with good morals meets a handsome rich man with a dark past. Maxim de Winter (how great is that name?) owns a famous country manor called Manderley. The rich flowers and woodland surrounding the house are constantly to be kept at bay. There is also a cove, where his attractive and charismatic late wife, Rebecca, drowned. Our young heroine does not know the first thing about running a household (or anything much at all), and feels severely inadequate. But Maxim prefers her this way.

Tell us more about the author.

Daphne du Maurier came from a creative family. Her father and mother were actors, her grandfather was an actor and cartoonist, and her older sister was also a writer (Angela du Maurier). She was born in London in 1907. She was a fan of the Bronte sisters and wrote novels, stories, a few plays, and biographies. Works include The House on the Strand, The Scapegoat and The King’s General. Many of her works have been adapted for the screen. She died in 1989 in Cornwall and there is a festival held there each May in her honour. This website has du Maurier news and reviews of her work.

So, what did I think? Does it deserve to be a classic?

At the beginning, I was captivated. What a champagne storyteller. What gorgeous descriptions. But after a certain revelation in the plot, I felt cranky. Then I began to notice all the metaphors.

Our heroine is well-rounded, and endearing with her anxieties and her desires. She meets Maxim, and he slowly draws her away from the horrid, gossipy lady she is ‘companion’ to. I love her first description of him:

I don’t think I should care for Palm Beach’, he said, blowing out the match, and glancing at him I thought how unreal he would look against a Florida background. He belonged to a walled city of the fifteenth century, a city of narrow, cobbled streets, and thin spires, where the inhabitants wore pointed shoes and worsted hose. His face was arresting, sensitive, medieval in some strange inexplicable way, and I was reminded of a portrait seen in a gallery I had forgotten where, of a certain Gentleman Unknown. Could one but rob him of his English tweeds, and put him in black, with lace at his throat and wrists, he would stare down at us in our new world from a long distant past – a past where men walked cloaked at night, and stood in the shadows of old doorways, a past of narrow stairways and dim dungeons, a past of whispers in the dark, of shimmering rapier blades, of silent, exquisite courtesy.

Evocative, isn’t it? At this point, we fall for Maxim along with our protagonist, and we want them to be together.

Newly married, back at Manderley, the new Mrs de Winter struggles to fit in. She is afraid of having to give orders to the servants, she is overwhelmed by the customs of her new social standing. To top it all off, the presence of Rebecca de Winter, her husband’s late wife, is still strong in the house. The more curious our protagonist gets, the more inadequate she feels, compared to this gorgeous, charming woman. The house and its gardens close in. Rebecca’s rhododendrons are ‘too powerful’, a ‘slaughterous red.’ Yes, there is something controlling, fecund, luscious about everything that was Rebecca’s. Our heroine begins to feel that the marriage might be a mistake. She is not feeling good enough for Maxim.

Before I explain where the book went wrong for me, I must throw up a *spoiler alert*. I hate to do it, but I’d like to discuss the problems I had.

So I was hooked up to this point. I knew there was more to Rebecca – something sinister about her that no one would talk about. And then we find out. A ship runs aground in the bay and they find Rebecca’s boat underneath. Her body is inside.

I’d suspected that she probably was murdered, but I never guessed it would have been Maxim. Aren’t we supposed to like him? Well, our heroine still does. Even more so. All she can think of when she finds out – and here’s the part where I flinched – is the fact that Maxim ‘did not love Rebecca’. How pleased she is, to learn this. Plot-wise it makes perfect sense – our heroine was anxious and shy; her cyclical, inward-facing thoughts stopped her from finding out the truth, or even guessing at it, beforehand. The reason it disturbed me, though, was that this woman did not care an ounce that her husband had killed another woman! Shot her dead!

Okay, okay. Rebecca was ‘evil’. But why? The reasons we are given are that she was manipulative, cold, clever and promiscuous. So it’s not a feminist book. The shy, young virginal woman is ‘good’, and the femme fatale – the sexy woman who gets what she wants – is so bad she must die. And the ‘moral’ woman agrees with that. Oh, she would never take money she didn’t earn (we learn at the beginning) but she would be okay with murder. Yes, she changes when she finds out about the murder. But Maxim likes her because she is wide-eyed and uncorrupted, the opposite of the carnal Rebecca.

Another problem is that du Maurier makes Rebecca sound so intriguing to the reader, just as she was to the characters she won over in her lifetime. I wanted to know more about her. She seduced me, in a way. I wanted to know her story (though I’m sure she would have told me a lie). But was she really a psychopath? Or just a powerful woman? We know how the main man in her life eventually saw her…

I think this is one of those novels that is exciting, well-written, a ripping yarn etc. but unfortunately too politically incorrect for me to fully enjoy it. Other books I’ve read for this project have been un-PC in some ways, but here the un-PCness is crucially related to the plot. It’s also backed-up by metaphor. The binary of nature and reason, carnality and innocence, excess and restraint. The flowers, excessive and luscious – threatening, to our heroine – are one aspect. Then there is Rebecca’s cousin (with whom she had an affair). When he is handed a whisky-and-soda Favell drinks it ‘greedily, like an animal.’ She goes on: ‘There is something sensual and horrible the way he put his mouth to the glass.’ Our heroine is disgusted by any reminder of sex, nature and excess. She also comments on his neck pushing at his collar, how he would soon lose his physique. There is such a fear of things spiralling out of control.

But there is much to enjoy in this book. I read it very quickly. I was interested to learn that in 1994 it was revealed that du Maurier was bisexual, and that she felt she had two sides to herself. Could Rebecca de Winter be her ‘masculine’ side, powerful yet publicly stifled? It’s a very interesting way to read it. I must watch the Hitchcock film and compare. Have you read the book or seen the film? Did you have any issues with it, or was it pure enjoyment? How does the film compare?

What’s next?

I’ve finished Elizabeth Jolley’s The Well and I’m reading Samuel Beckett’s Malone Dies. I might pick up Doris Lessing after that?

author image via