Archive for the ‘Reviews – fiction’ Category

Casanova’s Return to Venice

17 September 2016

Casanova's Return to Venice. Arthur SchnitzlerCasanova’s Return to Venice by Arthur Schnitzler

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

 
Ageing, weary, his money gone, Casanova is travelling to Venice, to ask its overlords to forgive his past misadventures there, so that he can live out the rest of his days in “the city of his youth… enshrined in all the charms of memory”.

He is no longer handsome. “His power over his fellows, over women no less than over men, had vanished. Only where he evoked memories could his words, his voice, his glance, still conjure… His day was done!” But such self-admissions surge up against his narcissism, creating great turmoil in his heart. Intellectually he fancies himself the equal or superior to Voltaire, against whom he is preparing a polemic. But he remains addicted to sexual conquest and can’t settle calmly into the life of the mind.

A chance meeting on the road leads him into the lives of a group of local people, creating a forum in which the tensions of his inner life play out. There is his amiable and generous host Olivo; his hostess Amalia, hot to resume an old liaison with Casanova; their 13 year old daughter. There is a playful aristocratic Marchesa and her husband the Marchese, who is enraged at being openly cuckolded by the coolly insolent young soldier Lorenzi. There is the calm and lovely young Marcolina, focused on intellectual pursuits. This group spend two days and nights together, in gardens, bedrooms, at dinners and at the gambling table.

Spoiler alert

The charms of Amalia are stale to Casanova, who tries to put her off by emphasising his own physical decay. It is Marcolina who he must have: Marcolina, who holds the youth and beauty that he has lost. She offers him a dignified friendship across the generational and gender divide, with gentle intellectual sparring between equals, but she recoils at every glimpse of his lust. In fact she is sending him into a confused frenzy of despair, self-deceiving hope, and desperate calculation.

At their introduction, Casanova and Lorenzi “exchanged glances of cold aloofness that seemed to offer assurances of mutual dislike”; but moments later Casanova was staggered by the sense that his own youthful persona stood before him. He is temporarily soothed when he learns that Marcolina has rejected Lorenzi’s offer of marriage, but when he discovers they have a secret relationship the blood rushes to his head.

In the end, it is only by literally taking over Lorenzi’s identity – impersonating him in the dark – that Casanova beds Marcolina. But this “return to youth” is pitiful: when she realises what has happened she feels loathing and disgust, then deep sorrow. His second return to youth, in the form of Venice, is also pathetic: he is only allowed back as a police spy, reporting on hot headed young men of the kind that he once was.

Casanova also manages to rape Amalia’s 13 year old daughter. The girl does not show any distress during or after the event, rather she is excited and conspiratorial. Casanova cynically reflects that he managed to have grandmother, mother and daughter. The incident seems designed to throw further light on his character, but it may overshadow the rest of the story for many modern readers.

Most of the text is a close observation of Casanova’s state of mind. During the climatic events in Olivo’s house it shifts style, and feels more like one of Schnitzler’s plays recast into novelistic form.

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The Man in the High Castle

9 September 2016

The Man in the High CastleThe Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
A Penguin Modern Classic, this book won a sci fi award in 1962, the year of its release, and has now been serialised for television.

The scenario is an alternative 1962, after Nazi Germany and Japan won WW2. The former USA is sliced into an east and centre under Nazi rule, a west coast run by Japan, and a neutral zone around the Rocky Mountains. Most of the action is in San Francisco, where several lives intersect. Nobusuke Tagomi is head of Japan’s Imperial Trade Mission. But he also is intellectually restless, an earnest seeker of Truth. He is learned in eastern and western philosophy and religion, a follower of the Tao, and regularly consults the I Ching. Robert Childan sells antiques to rich Japanese collectors, fawning on his Japanese masters, but yearning toward the east, where white men rule. Frank Frink sells jewellery and metal-work art to the same layer of Japanese collectors; born Frank Fink, he is a Jew – something to conceal at all costs lest he be sent off to the Nazis. Frink’s estranged wife Juliana lives in the Rockies, teaching judo.

The Japanese have established rigid racial hierarchies and an authoritarian but law-bound regime which will execute rebels, but also price-gouging landlords. A place for everyone and everyone in their place. It is liveable, and liberalism is sprouting in the younger generation of Japanese professionals. But over the mountains a nightmare looms, revealed through the characters’ stray thoughts and comments. The Nazis have seemingly irresistible military superiority: a menace distant but looming ever closer.

The unity of opposites pervades the story: Axis and Allies, Germany and Japan, good and evil, past and present, illusion and reality, the spiritual and material, Yin and Yang, the external world and the world within our heads. And then there is the story-world and our world: a mysterious writer called Hawthorne Absenden, aka the Man in the High Castle, has written a popular novel describing a world in which the Allies had won the war.

It is a philosophical novel rather than science fiction in the classic tradition. The sci fi touches, such as human being landing on Mars, are irrelevant to the story line and could easily have been deleted.

Spoiler alert

After passing a critical moral test, Tagomi meditates on a silver ornament, perceiving it as a unity of the dark mineral earth and the sparkling fire of the heavens; he senses a chance to enter Nirvana, to escape illusion and the cycle of death and rebirth. Instead he finds himself transported to the San Francisco of our world. Without deciding anything about its existential status (though speculating that it might be one of the terrifying transitional places between death and rebirth depicted in the Tibetan Book of the Dead), he finds it dingy, coarse and ugly and a place where whites, offensively, do not defer to Japanese. He realises he is “Out of my world, my space and time” but quickly decides he has “broken from my moorings and hence stand on nothing… One seeks to contravene one’s perceptions – why? So that one can wander utterly lost, without signpost or guide?” The strange new world is no longer awesome to him, but merely a place of half-wakeful confusion, where the conscious and unconscious are all mixed up.

Perhaps he has been vouchsafed a glimpse of another world as a reward for his goodness. Or perhaps we humans are irrevocably anchored to the world we know, so our longings for the Beyond can never be assuaged.

Meanwhile Juliana meets Absenden and seeks wisdom from him. She also receives from the I Ching the message Inner Truth, which she interprets as meaning that Absenden’s book is somehow true: the Axis had lost the war. Juliana urges the novelist to “believe” but he shakes his head, and says he is not sure of anything.

Yet since we are dealing with Yin and Yang, the unity of opposites, Dick seems to suggest that his own book is also “true” – the Allies did lose the war, in some sense. Or perhaps both evil and good won and lost in both the alternative world and our world. Dick is not morally indifferent: he depicts the consequences of Nazi conquest unsparingly. But also he warns us not to absolutise the goodness of the Allies’ victory, and even though the alternate world seems on a path to ever greater horror, he offers a reminder that the actions of individuals can change the course of events. The light of the Yang reappears in the darkest Yin.

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The Oxford Book of Modern Women’s Stories

27 January 2014

The Oxford Book of Modern Women's StoriesThe Oxford Book of Modern Women’s Stories by Patricia Craig

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The writing is accessible, but there is quite a lot to digest in these stories. It depends how much you want to pick from each plate.

As the editor explains, the collection is all-female simply to redress a gender imbalance in earlier short story anthologies. While the authors write ‘as women’ – from life as experienced by a woman – their style and subject matter has little to do with gender. Here are a few of the stories that had most impact on me.

Willa Cather’s Paul’s case describes a nervy boy straining to satisfy his yearning for the lifestyle of the idle rich. His desperation, aesthetic longings, and silliness all draw you into his dilemma.

Afterward by Edith Wharton uses the ghost story to intensify and deepen a tale of business malpractice (I’m paraphrasing the editor here).

In Look at all those roses, by Elizabeth Bowen, we meet a couple suffering from an empty relationship and empty lives, as they drive through the empty prettiness of the Surrey countryside. It seems to hang in suspension; dazed and tired, they encounter a house set in an over-rich rose-garden that accentuates the feeling of unjoyful beauty. The story is like a fairy-tale or a dream in the way that a state of mind is externalised, in a setting where conflicting desires can all be satisfied. Sinister in some aspects, the story speaks of different ways to be captured, to be paralysed, and to escape. The supernatural once again sharpens the storyline, but this time only as an artistic suggestion.

Olivia Manning’s In a winter landscape tells of a journey through eastern Europe by a group of English youth, during wartime dislocations. Squashed together with refugees and complacent bourgeois tourists on trains, they find themselves in the company of a Polish soldier with a difficult personality. The story can be enjoyed simply for its delicate descriptions of snowy settings.

A flashy Indian movie star encounters two prosaic English girls in the suitably titled A star and two girls by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. He shows them a good time, but is baffled by their self-containment, in the face of all his social advantages. A reminder that there is no substitute for groundedness and a strong sense of self.

Is there life beyond the gravy? by Stevie Smith is a real stand-out; it should just be read rather than described.

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Song of Ice and Fire (Game of Thrones series)

18 May 2013

A Song of Ice and Fire, 5 Book Set Series: A Game of Thrones, A Clash of Kings, A Storm of Swords, A Feast for Crows, A Dance with DragonsA Song of Ice and Fire, 5 Book Set Series: A Game of Thrones, A Clash of Kings, A Storm of Swords, A Feast for Crows, A Dance with Dragons by George R.R. Martin

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

From a distance the Game of Thrones/Song of Ice and Fire series looked hypermarketed, blockbusterish, cliched.

No. Real quality.

The books are blockbusterish in some ways – the pseudo-medieval setting, padded out with extended descriptions of secondary people, events and situations. But the series has attracted readers far beyond fans of this genre, due to the rich characterisations, plot, and imaginative depth, garnished here and there by passages of very good writing. It is further enhanced by the TV series, of which more later.

As Wikipedia will tell you there are three intersecting themes. The vaguely European realm of Westeros has fallen apart as the rulers of various statelets vie for the high throne, left vacant by the fall of the 300-year-old Tagaryen dynasty. From the icy north the realm is threatened by wild peoples and other forces less easily understood. Meanwhile from Essos, the Mediterrean- and Mahgreb-like south-eastern lands, the exiled Tagaryen scions, brother and sister, long to retake their family heritage, the Iron Throne. Before long the brother departs, leaving only the young teen Danaerys Tagaryen to carry on.

At first magic is presented only through hints and references, but as the stakes rise a range of supernatural forces and personages step forward.

The warring provinces of Westeros sink down to amazing levels of chaos, carnage and misery. Yet, the darker the night, the brighter the star. Danaerys swiftly matures into someone intrepid, resourceful, brilliant, and above all compassionate. She who at first seemed just one more schemer looks more and more like the hope of the world. For all that, she is sometimes just giggling 14-year-old. Still, she acquires an army. And Danaerys is the only person alive who owns dragons. Three of them: young, but rapidly growing, just like her. But like anyone trying to improve things, Danaerys is, needless to say, set upon from all sides by people trying to drag her down. As her power grows she is a magnet for the sinister and the supernatural. Yet she has aid as well.

There is a vast range of characters, all the central ones complex and well drawn. Some are noble and strong-willed, others vile. A very appealing aspect of the series is the number of characters who are vulnerable or damaged in some way. A dwarf man; a fat youth, kindly but fightened; a woman knight ridiculed for her massive muscularity; a crippled boy; a bastard (when that really meant something); a helpless captive princess; a prince trapped as ward/prisoner in another noble’s household. As a reader I keenly felt the difficulties and pain they each face due these limitations, but I never felt that their lines or descriptions had been vetted for political correctness by reference groups. Such a welcome change. Remarkably for a modern novel, you find older, non-alpha males allowed some dignity, as are older women. Beware though – even central characters can die, which adds sharpness to every menacing situation.

The female characters are generally forceful, and some, refreshingly, are allowed to do genuinely bad things – though at least one of these women has been sanitised in the TV series, lest the audience stir uncomfortably. On other hand there are many prostitutes, and scenes of abuse of both women and men. Westeros is a harsh place. The TV series is R-rated.

The TV series cannot capture the full complexities of the story line, but does bring to life the key characters and scenes beautifully. Magnificent casting in almost every case.

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The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

24 December 2012

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

The setting is a conservative private girls’ school in Scotland during the 1930s. In part this is a story of growing up, as the tale takes us through the teen years of six girls. But it revolves mainly around their teacher, Miss Jean Brodie, who cultivates them and welds them together over their school years.

Romantic and Romanesque, Miss Brodie’s goddesslike quality captivates her group of girls, and also the school’s two male teachers, Mr Lloyd who takes art, and Mr Lowther, music. But her self-assurance shades over into narcissism, hence her many references to being in her prime. She tries to mould the girls into extensions of her idealised self.

Her quirkiness generates tension with the headmistress and most of the other staff, particularly since she disdains the set curriculum in favour of her idiosyncratic takes on culture and history, and anecdotes from her own life and love-life. The headmistress keeps trying to sack Miss Brodie, who exploits her support base in her struggle to hold her ground, and indeed selects for her following ‘those she can trust; or rather those whose parents she could trust’ (25-6). The head tries to split up ‘Brodie girls’; she pokes and probes for a sackable indiscretion of a sexual nature, or any nature.

All this is set against the cultural backdrop of Edinburgh, with its purtianical Calvinist heritage, its Catholic minority, its rich and poor; this backdrop touches the girls to varying degrees, and influences events. The wider background also appears in the Spanish civil war and the rise of fascism, which Miss Brodie naively admires.

Early in the book we have this classroom scene:

“Mr Lloyd showed his pictures from an exhibition of Italian art in London. He had a pointer with which he indicated the design of the picture in accompaniment to his hoarse voice. He said nothing of what the pictures represented, only followed each line and curve as the artist had left it off – perhaps at the point of an elbow – and picked it up, perhaps at the edge of a cloud or the back of a chair. The ladies of the Primavera, in their netball-playing postures, provided Mr Lloyd with much pointer work. He kept on passing the pointer along the lines of their bottoms which showed through the drapery. The third time he did this a collective quiver of mirth ran along the front row of girls, then spread to the back rows.” (p49)

The theme of transformation, the surrendering one form for another, is introduced here – saved from heavy-handedness by the distracting reference to ladies’ bottoms. It plays a large part in the story, alongside the themes of loyalty and betrayal, sex and puritanism, and the deep ambiguities of female bonding.

Spoiler alert

Sandy is only girl developed to any real extent in the story. She is the most imaginative and deep-thinking of them, and most sensitive to cultural influences. She sees a lot through her tiny eyes. Her fantasies are of adventure, but also of belonging, of being valued and loved. She tries to reconcile her awakening sex drive with the puritanical atmosphere around her. At the same time she wants to fit in. She is hungry for a female role models, and inevitably Miss Brodie is the key one.

She is strongly impacted when one of the other girls is confronted by a flasher. The girl is seen by Sergeant Anne Grey, a blonde young policewoman, and the incident is much discussed with her Brodie peers. After a time the girls think less and less about the flasher, ever more about the policewoman: his gross sexuality is slowly transferred, in purified form, into her beauty and glamour. In Sandy’s fantasies she also personifies puritanism, and stylishly strives to stamp out all sexual activity in the neighbourhood.

Sandy matures. She discovers, in Calvinism, a betraying God who springs ‘a nasty surprise’ on almost everyone upon their deaths.

Ultimately she gets caught up in the suppressed, vicarious sex life of Jean Brodie. Miss Brodie and the art teacher Mr Lloyd are in love, but she foreswears it since he is married. At first she transfers her energy to a discreet relationship, sexual but passionless, with Lloyd’s rival, Mr Lowther. But as the Bridie girls bloom she fixes on the idea of a vicarious affair with Lloyd himself – by delivering one of her followers to him: Rose, renown for her sex appeal. Sandy is allocated the role of go-between and spy. Rose sits as a model for Lloyd, but that’s all; it is Sandy who ends up having the affair with him.

All of Lloyd’s portraits of the Brodie girls mysteriously look like Miss Brodie herself. Sandy challenges him about this with ‘an insolent blackmailing stare’. He kisses her, tells her she is ‘just about the ugliest little thing I have ever seen in my life’, and the affair begins. By throwing down her challenge, Sandy has successfully embodied Miss Brodie for him, and become desireable.

A huge wave of bitterness is building in Sandy. She cannot really have Lloyd, who already has his fine wife, his large family and his obsession with Jean Brodie, for whom Sandy is merely a stand-in. Mr Lloyd is a Catholic, and if Sandy cannot have him she can have his religion; she ends up a sequestered nun, clutching at the bars through which she speaks to visitors.

Sandy betrays not only herself, but also Jean Brodie. She tersely furnishes the headmistress with the weapon that can finally accomplish Miss Brodie’s sacking: her facism. When informing Miss Brodie of her dismissal the head does not fail to mention that the fatal piece of intelligence came from one of her own ‘set’. It is this that breaks her spirit; she ends her days a lost soul, fretting over which girl had done the deed.

When challenged about her betrayal, Sandy implies that it was the girls themselves who were betrayed, without further explanation. Miss Brodie’s attempt to pimp Rose to Lloyd comes to mind, but perhaps, more deeply, Sandy feels that Miss Brodie has betrayed all the girls – and herself most crucially – simply by offering her true love to Lloyd, not them. And perhaps, in Sandy’s heart, Mr Lloyd himself is ultimately a stand-in for the longed-for, goddess-like Miss Brodie, a primal figure indeed.

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The Casual Vacancy

11 November 2012

The Casual VacancyThe Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Casual Vacancy radiates anger about the state of modern Britain, but it plays out entirely within one locality: the town of Pagford and the encroaching housing estate of The Fields.

Howard Mollison is a prosperous old shopkeeper, free from the modern male obsession with a flat stomach: the skin of his own abdomen peels and flakes within its flaps and folds, and it spills down over his private parts. He presides over the local council, and a circle of family and friends: his commercial partner Maureen; his aged wife Shirley; his son Miles, equally smug, a senior partner in a law firm; and Miles’ wife Samantha, who runs a lingerie shop, precarious commercially but an escape of sorts from the boredom and competitiveness that afflicts all three women. (The Mollisons’ lesbian daughter left town long ago as a pariah, and makes only a cameo appearance.) The women turn their nuanced malice on each other, and on those who cross their paths – like Miles’ junior colleague, the cold-fish lawyer Gavin.

Gavin has muddled his way into a relationship with the social worker Kay, refusing to commit but letting her back into his life whenever he is lonely or insecure. Kay is desperate enough for a partner to have taken a job in Pagford just to ‘secure’ Gavin for herself; to do she has uprooted her daughter Gaia during the critical years of late-secondary schooling.

Kay’s work takes her to The Fields, the cheerless housing estate built of concrete slabs that are now cracking and grey. Here we meet Terri: massively damaged by her own early life, she keeps getting dragged back into heroin and prostitution by the loathsome Obbo. Terri is the mother of a three-year-old boy, Robbie, and of Kystal, who is in her late teens. Krystal is one of the book’s central characters: belligerent and coarse, big-hearted, she does her dysfunctional best to save Robbie from being taken away by social workers. Kay is of some help to her, being more sensitive than her colleagues, but Kay’s ability to assist depends on the bureaucratic vagaries of the welfare system.

The tragedy for Krystal, and the main driver of the plot, is the death of the story’s hero, Barry Fairbrother, who we lose in the first few pages of the novel. Barry, a rare escapee from The Fields in his own youth, had become a local councillor and leading light in Pagford. He had taken pains to set up a school rowing club, giving Krystal a chance to shine, something for her extended family to grasp onto. One senses that had Barry lived on, Krystal’s angry inner knots might have been untied, and she might have learnt better labels than “muff-muncher” for her rich-girl opponents.

There is a huge cast of characters. Barry’s widow, Mary, is one of the most cleverly drawn. Her loss, coupled with her sylph-like figure and blonde hair, place her above all criticism, which is just as well for her as she is a small-minded princess. But a lot of the action is driven by teenagers. Two school boys are involved in important father-son subplots: Andrew has to live around his brutish, volatile dad Simon; more complex is the relationship between Andrew’s friend Stuart ‘Fats’ Wall, and his father Colin or ‘Cubby’. Here the father is the more obviously insecure one (no shortage of frail males in this book). He struggles to hold together a normal life and conceal his mental disability, a form of paranoia. Fats, apparently in reaction, despises any form of concealment or vulnerability, and repeatedly whacks the fragile structures of his father’s life. A darkness seems to be developing in the mind of Fats, as though he could become a real-world Tom Riddle; it was the only time I was reminded of the Harry Potter series.

Fats – thin, cool and admired at school – senses the low self-esteem of a vulnerable female classmate, Sukhvinder. He launches a campaign of subtle and refined persecution. Sukhvinder is already the ugly duckling at home, put down by her stern mother Parminder. Parminder is a doctor, status-conscious but her religion brings with it a social conscience that drives her to support Barry Fairbrother’s push to protect the interests of The Fields’ residents.

Barry’s death sets up a casual vacancy on the local council, and the by-election becomes a contest over the fate of The Fields. The Mollison’s faction want to detach it from Pagford, and let it spiral downwards as government cutbacks set in; Parminder and Colin lead the opposition. But the by-election sets other things in motion as well.

Rowling described The Casual Vacancy as “sort of nineteenth-century: the anatomy and the analysis of a very small and closed society”.  But Rowling is also like the great early nineteenth century authors Balzac and Walter Scott in her capacity to anchor her characters firmly in a particular social class, without reducing them to that and that alone. The characters’ social position dictates their status and life experience, within which their personalities steer them on individual courses.

An interesting aspect of the story is the weak presence of the actual working class. The respectable employed working folk seem to be under the wing of the middle class in Pagford, dwelling mainly in a ‘nice’ housing estate that does not come into the story. By contrast the people of The Fields seem to be not just unemployed, but demoralised and decultured, lacking the habits of mind that get you up for work or school each morning. Howard Mollison notes impatiently that they don’t try to help themselves, like the poor of his own youth, by growing vegetables in their yards. They are a lumpenproletariat, permeated by criminals. Of the main characters, the only employed working class people are Simon, who tends toward the underworld anyway, and social workers tied to The Fields. Rowling makes a passing reference to an ex-steelworker, a momentary reference to the way that Margaret Thatcher destroyed vast swathes of industry and unpicked so much of the social fabric of regional Britain during the 1980s.

In its anger at the state of modern Britain it reminded me of Jane Gardam’s Faith Fox and Jonathan Coe’s The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim. It produced an indignant, sneering reaction from The Telegraph and other defenders of the status quo.

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Sunset Oasis

10 June 2012

Sunset OasisSunset Oasis by Bahaa Taher

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Egyptian police officer Mahmoud Abd El Zahir is sent to administer the restive oasis community of Siwa in the late 1890s. He smells a rat, knowing that his English overlords have been suspicious of his role in a major uprising in 1881-82, led by Colonel Arabi or Urabi Pasha against the English, and the Khedive who had acceded to imperial rule.

That uprising is described later in the novel. A sickening mismatch of military power left the rebels in disarray. The bravest, the most far-seeing and generous-hearted layer of the population were mown down – killed off, or damaged internally, morally mangled afterwards as they betrayed each other to save their own lives, or at least denied all part in the rebellion. On the other hand the servile flourished. The foundations for 20th century Egypt were being laid. Mahmoud is one of those mangled – self-hating, deadened within.

Remarkably, he is married to a spirited Irishwoman, Catherine, who has appalled her peers by her choice of husband. A passionate Irish nationalist, she is also a classical scholar fascinated by the story of Alexander the Great, and the mystery surrounding his sepulchre; she wonders if it might have been moved to Siwa, and itches to inspect local relics. She also nurses her own emotional wounds from a failed former marriage. Relations are complicated further by the arrival of her sister, the saintly, frail beauty Fiona, who had once seemed destined to marry Catherine’s own former partner.

With its Berber population, Siwa regards Egyptian Arabs as colonists, quite apart from the English. Its population have a murderous hatred toward the outsiders who impose such heavy taxes. However, they are themselves bitterly factionalised.

For most of the novel Mahmoud manoeuvres between the different players in Siwa – half-heartedly, so little is he attached to life. Catherine wants to revive him, and their relationship, as well as explore her scholarly interests, her poetic sensitivity to the desert, and friendship with locals; but it is she who jars most heavily with the local culture and its brutal restrictions on women.

The theme of deadness is played out from many angles, and has appeared in the author’s other literary work. Perhaps that is not surprising in someone who lived through decades of Western-financed dictatorship in his homeland.

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The Handmaid’s Tale

10 June 2012

The Handmaid's TaleThe Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Handmaid’s Tale

Gilead is the fundamentalist dystopia that replaces the USA, in the bloodbath that follows a series of social and environmental disasters. The victorious Christian right takes on the character of sections of the Islamic right in parts of today’s Middle East. Women’s social status is hurled into the abyss. Fertility and the birthrate have collapsed. Few women can conceive, even fewer successfully.

Women are channelled into rigid castes with colour-coded apparel – the relatively privileged but infertile Wives; the Aunts, lieutenants weilding a level of authority, backed up by electronic cattle prods; working class Econowives; Unwomen sent to work to death in the poisoned land of colonies, African-American house-servants called Marthas; and Handmaids – fertile baby-makers, concubines of the patriarchal Commanders, but living day to day under the thumb of the Wives.

These are the early days of Gilead. People can still, inconveniently, remember their former lives in the USA. One of the stronger aspects of the book is its glimpses into how personal life changed during this time, seen from the perspective of a hitherto apolitical woman. The female protagonist recalls how she had been stripped first of her job and bank account (her money become the responsibility of her huband) and then, after a failed attempt to escape Gilead, stripped of her daughter and her own name. She is now the Handmaid Offred, “of Fred”, a Commander. There are many ideas to be corrected, facts to be suppressed. Terror is still more important than propaganda, with mutilated corpses of men and women on public display. Because political resistance continues, and she is caught up in it.

Apart from women, sexuality itself has been suppressed by extreme puritanism. Offred does what little she can to resist both: swinging her hips as she walks past guards in the street becomes a subtle act of defiance. The sexual act itself has become a bizarrely ritualised, joyless threesome of Wife, Commander and Handmaid – though needless to say the Commanders have other sexual outlets, pathetic and furtive though they may be.

The style of the novel is fragmentary, reflecting the smashing of cultural and personal life, the tight confinement of Offred’s existence, and her inner turmoil/deadness after the agony of losing her daughter.

The book was written in the aftermath of the Iranian revolution (which had begun so heroically with the smashing of the Shah’s revolting terror machine. For the mullahs, the suppression of the women’s movement was indeed the first tactical step in the process that ended with the destruction of more powerful oppoents, such as the independent workers’ committees in the oil industry. As I write this review, women protestors in Egypt are being brutalised by backers of the old regime). But the author reminds us of how much latent hatred against women still exists in the west, and how a deep crisis could bring it out.

[Spoiler alert]

An epilogue follows up on society long after the fall of Gilead, in which ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’, Offred’s secret account, is subjected to supercilious discussion at an academic conference. Clearly something close to the author’s heart, but it depressingly suggests that society can’t escape the pendulum swings between authoritarianism and neoliberal banality.

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The Robber Bride

9 June 2012

The Robber BrideThe Robber Bride by Margaret Atwood
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Reading Robber Bride I sometimes felt that I was eavesdropping on an intimate woman-to-woman talk. Yet the book is just as powerful and relevant for men. Dated in some details, but by no means in essentials, Robber Bride conveyed a real sense of dread at times.

Three midlife women have been bonded, for many years, through the common woe dealt to them by Zenia, a stunning beauty who ‘stole’ and then morally destroyed each of their male partners, and brought material damage to the women themselves. Years after attending her funeral they still feared her memory. Now they now discover that Zenia not only hasn’t died, but has recently made contact with the current men in their lives.

Roz is an earthy, practical-minded boss, Tony a cold-fish academic, Charis an intuitive, spiritualist hippie. Half-paralysed by anxiety, they now try to understand what is happening – to those around them, and inside their own heads – and take defensive action. Along the way we learn at length about the psychological damage they each received in their childhoods, and how it has shaped their later experience of Zenia. In fact their backgrounds take up a large part of the text.

The sociopathic aspect of Zenia is pretty clear – someone unencumbered by conscience or empathy, x-raying people to view the skeleton of their deepest drives, but entirely missing the beauty and soft appeal of their rounded personalities. She feeds only off challenge and victory and new kicks: for her a sustained relationship equals boredom, not the chance to grow close.

She is also of course a femme-fatale: in Zenia, the woman who defines herself in terms of the male gaze has sharpened herself into a deadly weapon. You start with a body that is socially defined as lovely; work on it; bring to bear all the tricks of charm; add insight, cunning, self-discipline, composure under pressure. Now supply the rationale, the excuse he needs to get past his conscience (you are vulnerable and need his help, for example), and you have him. Sex opens a mine-shaft to the inner psyche, which she knows how to explore. As sex-goddess Zenia becomes 90% of reality to her men. But this is all seen from a distance, from the perceptions of the three women and the apocryphal comments of Z herself.

Sex is not her only hook, and in the case of her female victims it is always some other longing – Zenia finds out whatever people yearn for, and finds a way to embody it. This we get in some detail (we see far more of various imagined Zenias than of the woman herself).

However she gets hold of you, once she has you you are gone. After that, any public hint that she is using you feels threatening, not because of what it says about her, but because it might displease her and have her withdraw from you. Her approval is everything. But the judgments she delivers to men and to women – once she has sucked them dry – are of the greatest brutality, resonating with the worst messages they have internalised from the past. She now walks the corridors of their dreams.

Even once they understand what she is, and hate her, they can’t help wanting to identify with, celebrate, even cherish her, thanks to her intense vitality and the passions she has summoned up in them.

The book is similar to Balzac’s Cousin Bette and Thackery’s Vanity Fair in having an evil female agent who works against a backdrop of male depravity and moral weakness; there are strong hints that this is the real problem to be addressed. The men are never seen from the inside; two of them remain almost entirely blank to us, though they all seem to end up with some kind of self-loathing. One of them, in the final break-up scene with his partner, gives a fine example of the malice that comes out when someone abandons their ideals.

A few reviewers have complained that the book demonises the ‘other woman’ and non-monogamous women generally. It could be used that way, though it is unlikely to be the author’s intention, given her support for female sexual expression in other contexts.

The book warns that high-minded thoughts and finer feelings draw their sap from dark roots: poison them and the whole tree sickens.

It is also very funny in parts. And there are the references to fairy tales and the supernatural – it really needs an extended review.

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Hunchback of Notre Dame

13 May 2012

The Hunchback of Notre-DameThe Hunchback of Notre-Dame by Victor Hugo

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It may be hard to read this great novel through all the noise created by subsequent adaptions, send-ups and other references. It is also strange, for the modern reader, to encounter vast wads of historical description, anecdote and conjecture, sometimes occupying a whole massive chapter, as with Moby Dick. But the essential story is clear enough. The 16 year old Esmeralda has been raised by gypsies and tours with them as a dancer. She is a model of youth, beauty, grace, compassion vitality and innocence, as befits a nineteenth century heroine. Like her, the hunchback Quasimodo has lost his parents. He was abandoned as a baby and left to the care of the Church, to begin his notorious career as bell-ringer in the famous Church. The book tells their interwoven stories.

At another level the story is a study of males and their common faults. Esmerelda stirs interest whereever she goes, but doesn’t usually bring out the best in men. Archdeacon Claude Frollo is a cold intellectual, the product of a joyless youth: unattractive in appearance, dried-up inside, obsessed with his sterile struggle with alchemy until Esmelda comes along. Once released his sexual passion flare up but stay intellectualised and internalised, coming out only as cold machinations and wild speeches not likely to appeal to her. He exemplifies the Church’s disconnect between mind and body and between the male and female. Phoebus is the dashing soldier who rescues Esmelda at one stage, as a more or less routine duty to keep the peace, but in doing so wins her heart. Under his gentlemanly polish he is a boor and brute. Gregoire the writer is amiable but weak. Jehan, the only major male character not linked romantically to Esmelda, has abundant vitality wasted on a dissolute lifestyle.

Her mother, tortured by the kidnapping of her daughter as a tot, has had herself walled herself into a small room with barred windows opening to the public, a concept developed elsewhere in the feminist novel Women in the Wall. Victor Hugo remarks in passing that this sort of self-mortifying behaviour excited only moderate compassion from the medieval populace, due to their limited sense of personality and the world that each of us has within us.
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