Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Elizabeth Alone

Elizabeth Alone - William Trevor

William Trevor's Elizabeth Alone is not a novel that I had heard of. In fact, there are a number of Trevor novels I haven't heard of. Although many people have praised him to me, and I've read positive press, there are only a few titles that I've retained. These include the two I've read Two Lives and Felicia's Journey, both of which I enjoyed immensely. And his great short story The Ballroom of Romance.  I don't know why this is. Maybe I just wasn't paying attention.

Sunday, 18 March 2012

Something Special

Something Special  - Iris Murdoch.

I'm reading this in part to partake in Irish Short Story Week and also to finally post something on Iris Murdoch who is one of my favourite writers. I went through a 'phase' of reading everything by her I could get my hands on. This short story is quite different from her novels, both in setting and in style.

This is, or so the fly leaf tells me, the only short story that Iris Murdoch wrote for publication in her life. It is also, I feel, the most distinctly Irish of her writings, feeling very much like an offshoot of Joyce's Dubliners.

The connection is made quietly explicit by the reference to Araby in this quote. "'It's the women's magazines,' said her uncle, 'and the little novels she's forever reading that are putting ideas in her head until she won't marry except it's the Sheik of Araby.'" Joyce's story Araby examines the difference between romantic expectation and reality and Something Special treads similar ground.

Friday, 16 March 2012

The Guermantes Way (First Post)

The Guermantes Way

I am now half way through Proust's masterpiece, and, I feel, gathering some impetus. In The Guermantes Way, Proust focuses even more strongly on society as Marcel makes his first forays into the Fauborg Saint Germain - the aristocratic center of Parisian society. The Guermantes whose family gave their name to one of the paths Marcel and his family used to walk on in the halcyon childhood days at Combray are at the centre of the wittiest Parisien drawing rooms. The Guermantes wit is famous, at least in the mind of our aspiring social climber cum narrator. We are told that this impression has been altered by time, however. All the time we are being told that we are moving towards the maturity of Marcel, a time when he is less credulous, less fatuous in his obsessions, when he becomes the author of this work.

The book explores many social issues as well as the evolution of the artist. As we move through society our viewpoint is often turned towards instances of anti-semitism, homophobia, the life of servants and  the emptiness at the heart of 'society'.

Early on we are given a view of the 'young master' from the family's servant Francoise. This gives us a different angle on the narrator than he paints himself, and ties in with further thoughts on the position of servants amoung his circle. "Ah, Combray, when shall I look on thee again, poor land! When shall I pass the blessed day among thy hawthorns, under our own poor lily oaks, hearing the grasshopper sing, and the Vivonne making a little noise like someone whispering, instead of the wretched bell from the young master, who can never stay still for half an hour on end without having me run the length of that wicked corridor. And even then he makes out I don't come quick enough; you'd need to hear the bell ring before he has pulled it, and if you're a minute late, away he flies into the most towering rage." The fact that Francoise starts out reminiscing about Combray and the hawthorns that Marcel values so highly serves to emphasize both their similarities and differences. The thwarted desires of one of the Guermantes' footmen to see his betrothed is revisited many times in the book, with his wishes often being raised and dashed on a malicious whim.

The narrator realizes the awful situation of servants and tells us that it is only our tendency to see what is as normal and acceptable that allows us to accept this. This ties it to the recurring theme that the world we see is never the world before us but one altered and edited by our preconceptions. "The life led by our servants is probably of an even more monstrous abnormality, which only its familiarity can prevent us from seeing."

But Marcel, at the time, was dazzled by the Guermantes name, and felt that they and their circle must be somehow superhuman. As his love for Gilberte earlier, so his feelings for the Guermantes can never survive reality as they are wildly unrealistic. "The life which I supposed them to lead there flowed from a source so different from anything in my experience, and must, I felt, be so indissolubly associated with that particular house that I could not have imagined the presence, at the Duchess's parties, of people in whose company I myself had already been, of people who really existed. For not being able suddenly to change their nature, they would have carried on conversations there of the sort that I knew; their partners would perhaps have stooped to reply to them in the same human speech; and, in the course of an evening spent in the leading house in the Fauborg Saint-Germain, there would have been moments identical with moments I had already lived. Which was impossible. It was thus that my mind was embarrassed by certain difficulties, and the Presence of Our Lord's Body in the Host seemed to me no more obscure a mystery than this leading house in the Fauborg, situated here, on the right bank of the river, and so near that from my bed, in the morning, I could hear its carpets being beaten."

Sarah Bernhardt was one of Proust's models for Berma.
Here she is playing Hamlet.
We are also reminded of his visit to the theatre to see the great actress Berma in an earlier volume. Then, he was in love with the idea of plays and actresses but now they are only secondary to the aristocracy who he can see in their boxes. Also he has changed his views on art and is now besotten with painting and tapestries - "..since my visits to Elistir, it was on certain tapestries, certain modern paintings that I had brought to bear the inner faith I once had in this acting, in this tragic art of Berma.."

The irony is that this time he is able to appreciate Berma whereas the previous time he was too full of expectation to actually appreciate her skills "-the talent of Berma, which had evaded me when I sought so greedily to seize its essential quality, now, after these years of oblivion, in this hour of indifference, imposed itself, with all the force of a thing directly seen, on my admiration."

He explains the difference between the two theatrical experiences. "My own impression, to tell the truth, though more pleasant than on the earlier occasion, was not really different. Only, I no longer put it to the test of a pre-existent, abstract and false idea of dramatic genius, and I understood now that dramatic genius was precisely this. It had just occurred  to me that if I had not derived any pleasure from my first hearing of Berma, it was because, as earlier still when I used to meet Gilberte in the Champs-Elysées, I had come to her with too strong a desire."

The whole theatre scene is long and vivid, one of the centerpieces of the book. Once again Proust calls on the metaphoric assosciation between the social lives of the aristocracy and the lives of fish in a tank. "The Marquis de Palancy, his face bent downwards at the end of his long neck, his round bulging eye glued to the glass of his monocle, was moving with a leisurely displacement through the transparent shade and appeared no more to see the public in the stalls than a fish that drifts past, unconscious of the press of the curious gazers, behind the glass wall of an aquarium."

Later in the novel Marcel will get into the fish tank and get to see these queer fish up close. Unlike Alice the world at the other side of the glass will prove similar to the one in which he has spent his life so far. Only imagination makes it different.

For a novel with so many words (approx 1,500,000 apparently, I haven't counted) we are presented with arguments outlining that words don't quite do what they say: "We feel in one world, we think, we give names to things in another; between the two we can establish a certain correspondence, but not bridge the interval." - "..at that time I still supposed that it was by means of words that one communicated the truth to others."

Proust, of course, withdrew from society and wrote in a cork lined room, so silence was the companion to the writing of these words. Indeed a world without the spoken word might in fact be an improvement - "And for this totally deaf man, since the loss of a sense adds as much beauty to the world as it's acquisition, it is with ecstasy that he walks now on an earth grown almost an Eden, in which sound has not yet been created." Like the temporal distance which allowed Proust to look back on his earlier life and infatuations with ironical disregard, we need to be aware that our view of the world will change as our relationship to it changes. We need to find some distance in order to appreciate the world more clearly.

This series is a challenging read, and just as challenging to blog about. The sheer size of The Guermantes Way alone (800 plus pages) makes it difficult enough to write about but the fact that it is referring back and also referring forward makes it more so. However, the size and complexity of the novel seems to be getting some of the ideas inserted deeply into my consciousness. I hope to post again on The Guermantes Way in the next few days and to be back in a few weeks with posts on Cities of the Plain.

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

The Old Man of the Sea - Maeve Brennan

The issue of The New Yorker
in which the story was published.
Click through to read abstract.

The Old Man of the Sea - Maeve Brennan

As I outlined in a previous post, I intend to contribute  few posts on Irish Short Story for The Reading Life's Irish Short Story Week.

This is only the second short story that I have read by Maeve Brennan and like the first , The Morning after the Big Fire, it is brief, at 8 pages. It was originally published in The New Yorker in 1955.

The story, which may well be partly autobiographical, is a low key  slice of suburban life which is given mythical overtones when the narrator, who is nine and called Maeve, compares it to the legend of the Old Man of the Sea, who "had attached himself to Sindbad the Sailor" and when "Sindbad began to hate him" dug his "cruel, talon like hands" "into Sindbad's shoulders."

Sunday, 11 March 2012

Hamlet, Prince of Denmark


It's hard to post on Hamlet. What hasn't been said? So I'll just put down some rambling thoughts, some puffs of smoke across this tragic sky. The play feels freshly minted to me, always renewing itself with each read. It's language is a testament to the genius of Shakespeare and our shared humanity with the denizens of centuries long past. But writing about it feels like being enveloped in a cloud of chalky schoolroom dust,  lit by tired sunlight. My ideas dismissed as if they had been expressed in a different language. Some of my ideas were, anyway, little more than reflexive rebellion. "Youth to itself rebels, though none else near."

Saturday, 10 March 2012

Dexys (after 25 years)

Nowhere is Home
A preview track from the forthcoming Dexys album. (They've dropped the Midnight Runners)

Starting off with an affected voice Kevin excavates his identity, crossing terrain familiar from Sean Campbell's Irish Blood, English Heart.

A singer searching for a voice.

Thursday, 8 March 2012

Short Stories

My Short Story Shelves
 Short Stories

I have been thinking quite a bit about short stories recently. In part this may be because of reading Proust, which is pretty certainly not a short story. I thought that rather than reading other novels in parallel it might be interesting to read and post on short stories. I have gone as far as separating my books of short stories onto their own shelves in order to make the selection of short stories easier and to keep them in mind. One difficulty is that it is often very hard to write about a short story without giving away the plot. I've put warnings below where this is about to happen. However, I think that both stories thus compromised would be just as enjoyable after reading this post. The pleasure is in the writing rather than suspense.
One of the gatekeepers
of my reading life.