Thursday, April 14, 2011

Next Read: Cakes and Ale by W. Somerset Maugham

W. Somerset Maugham's Cakes and Ale is our June read. Discussion will start Thursday June 30. Thanks for voting everyone!

Thursday, April 07, 2011

A Second Chance: The Runner-Up Round

It's time to vote for the next group read. There was an excellent suggestion that rather than coming up with a new list of books that we choose from the runners up from the last few rounds. Since these came so close to being chosen, these books are being given a second chance. Please drop your vote in the comments area. Votes will be counted on Wednesday April 13. Discussion will start Thursday June 30.

A Novel Bookstore by Laurence Cossé: "Ivan, a one-time world traveler, and Francesca, a ravishing Italian heiress, are the owners of a bookstore that is anything but ordinary. Rebelling against the business of bestsellers and in search of an ideal place where their literary dreams can come true, Ivan and Francesca open a store where the passion for literature is given free rein. Tucked away in a corner of Paris, the store offers its clientele a selection of literary masterpieces chosen by a top-secret committee of likeminded literary connoisseurs. To their amazement, after only a few months, the little dream store proves a success. And that is precisely when their troubles begin. At first, both owners shrug off the anonymous threats that come their way and the venomous comments concerning their store circulating on the Internet, but when three members of the supposedly secret committee are attacked, they decide to call the police. One by one, the pieces of this puzzle fall ominously into place, as it becomes increasingly evident that Ivan and Francesca’s dreams will be answered with pettiness, envy and violence. "

The Yacoubian Building by Alaa Al Aswany: "All manner of flawed and fragile humanity reside in the Yacoubian Building, a once-elegant temple of Art Deco splendor now slowly decaying in the smog and bustle of downtown Cairo: a fading aristocrat and self-proclaimed "scientist of women"; a sultry, voluptuous siren; a devout young student, feeling the irresistible pull toward fundamentalism; a newspaper editor helplessly in love with a policeman; a corrupt and corpulent politician, twisting the Koran to justify his desires. These disparate lives careen toward an explosive conclusion in Alaa Al Aswany's remarkable international bestseller. Teeming with frank sexuality and heartfelt compassion, this book is an important window on to the experience of loss and love in the Arab world."

Cakes and Ale by W. Somerset Maugham: "Cakes and Ale is a delicious satire of London literary society between the Wars. Social climber Alroy Kear is flattered when he is selected by Edward Driffield's wife to pen the official biography of her lionized novelist husband, and determined to write a bestseller. But then Kear discovers the great novelist's voluptuous muse (and unlikely first wife), Rosie. The lively, loving heroine once gave Driffield enough material to last a lifetime, but now her memory casts an embarrassing shadow over his career and respectable image. Wise, witty, deeply satisfying, Cakes and Ale is Maugham at his best."

Passing by Nella Larson: "The tale is simple on the surface--a few adventures in Chicago and New York's high life, with lots of real people and race-mixing events described ... But underneath, it seethes with rage, guilt, sex, and complex deceptions. Irene fears losing her black husband to Clare, who seems increasingly predatory. Or is this all in Irene's mind? And is everyone wearing a mask? Larsen's book is a scary hall of mirrors, a murder mystery that can't resolve itself. It sticks with you."

Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson: "Winesburg, Ohio is Sherwood Anderson's masterpiece, a cycle of short stories concerning life in a small town at the end of the nineteenth century. At the center is George Willard, a young reporter who becomes the confidant of the town's solitary figures. Anderson's stories influenced countless American writers including Hemingway, Faulkner, Updike, Oates and Carver. "

Good Morning, Midnight by Jean Rhys: "Sasha Jensen has returned to Paris, the city of both her happiest moments and her most desperate. Her past lies in wait for her in cafes, bars, and dress shops, blurring all distinctions between nightmare and reality. When she is picked up by a young man, she begins to feel that she is still capable of desires and emotions. Few encounters in fiction have been so brilliantly conceived, and few have come to a more unforgettable end."

Monday, April 04, 2011

The Transit of Venus

I was not entirely sure what to make of Shirley Hazzard’s 1980 novel The Transit of Venus while I was reading it, and I’m not entirely sure what to make of it now. I enjoyed the book very much in the way that I enjoy reading slow, demanding books occasionally, and part of that enjoyment comes from the fact that I don’t mind feeling a little bit at sea. It’s not so much the complex language that made me feel that way, although the language certainly is dense. It’s that it took me a while to figure out the mood and the focus of the book, and I’m still figuring it out.

As I read through the first half or so of the book, I kept wondering exactly where Hazzard was taking the story. In the beginning, we learn about two sisters who grew up in Australia and are now living in England. One of the sisters, Grace, is engaged to be married. She is a fairly conventional young woman who is happy to follow the traditional path of marriage and motherhood. The other, Caro, is more complicated, not gifted with Grade’s ability to please others without effort. She is independent and a little prickly. It is clear from the beginning that her life will be more difficult.

So I thought it would be a novel about the relationship of these two sisters and how Grace’s marriage affects it — which is partly what the book is about, but it’s not really the main point. Then we come to a flashback about the sisters’ childhood in Australia growing up with their emotionally manipulative and truly awful half-sister, Dora. I thought then that the book would move back and forth regularly between the past and the present, showing how the one created the other. But that’s not really what happens, either.

Instead, the book expands outward from its opening scenes, moving forward through many years to cover long stretches of the main characters’ lives. And it also shifts from character to character, moving away from the two sisters now and then to tell other stories. It expands outward in terms of place as well; there are sections in New York and in South America, as well as the flashbacks to Australia.

Ultimately, I think, the book is about relationships and the various ways they develop, mostly, unfortunately, in sad ways. Grace’s relationship with her husband, Christian Thrale, ends up complicated. Caro marries happily, but … something goes wrong there too, something entirely different from what happens to Grace. Ted Tice, a character introduced to the two sisters early on, spends his whole life longing for Caro, who is indifferent to him. And then there is Paul Ivory. He is engaged to be married to a neighborhood woman, but he and Caro begin an affair, one that reveals Caro’s depths and Paul’s harshness.

All this sounds a little soap opera-ish, and if I were to give away the entire plot, it would sound even more so. But that’s not the way the book feels. Instead, Hazzard captures the experiences and emotions of her characters with depth and subtlety. One of the most memorable sections for me is when Caro is living alone in London working as a lowly secretary to a horrible, sexist, stingy man. She is lonely and has no money. When Dora is suffering and needs help — Dora, the half-sister who was supposed to raise her and failed utterly at it — Caro raises money and sets out to help her even though it’s a huge sacrifice. Christian Thrale, Grace’s husband, doesn’t lift a finger to help, even though he has the means to do so. The depths of Caro’s isolation seem bottomless. Her life does improve, but it’s hard as a reader to forget just how bad things once were. It makes sense not to trust happiness in this book.

I’ve been discussing the book with other Slaves of Golconda readers over at the discussion boards, and the consensus seems to be that it would richly reward a rereading. There are a couple crucial moments where the narrative flashes forward, and without catching those moments, the reader might be lost at the end. But I hear there are other instances of foreshadowing that I didn’t catch the first time around that would be great to explore on a reread.

If you would like to read more about the book, there are lots of posts on it over at the Slaves site. It’s an excellent book for a group discussion!

The Transit of Venus by Shirley Hazzard

A conscious act of independent humanity is what society can least afford. If they once let that in, there'd be no end to it.

--Ted Tice, in The Transit of Venus

Although I had never heard of Shirley Hazzard before The Great Fire won the National Book Award back in 2003, I was so keen to read it afterwards that I plucked it from a cart down in tech services instead of waiting for it to make its way upstairs and out onto the library floor. It turned out to be a tough read, with its "often oblique writing style, more implication than explanation," as I wrote, after finishing it, at Live Journal. Till then I'd never read such elliptical writing, and while I determined that I did want to attempt The Transit of Venus, her previous novel that she'd published all the way back in 1980, I was of the opinion that Edward P. Jones' The Known World should have won the NBA. I'm a sucker for anachrony, especially flashforwards, and Jones left me swooning with his ability to go forward, backward, all in the same paragraph.

Had I known that Hazzard would hinge the reader's comprehension of what takes place at the end of The Transit of Venus on a couple of flashforwards, I'm sure I'd have quit intending to read it--someday, when my brain's up for it-- and actually read it long before now.

The Transit of Venus requires a lot of effort, a lot of focus, from the reader. Being me, I raced through it in a weekend, pencil both asterisking and underlining excessive sentences and paragraphs for further study. I'd read enough of several reviews to know that the ending tripped people up, that a line on the first page that seemed a throwaway at the time was of vital importance, and with that heightened awareness--somehow, that dead body under the bridge, mentioned briefly in the newspaper, is going to come back up--and my own love for flashforwards, I reached the end with a fairly good big picture understanding of what had taken place. Since then, I've been going back through the pages, rereading what I'd marked and noticing many many other glints of literary gold I'd previously missed, foreshadowings and insights and sentences that made more sense now that I was looking at them from the proper angle. Not that I feel that I've mastered the material, but that I'm sure that it's worth my time to read again.

And it seems a fitting book to be reading now, when I'm also reading A Visit from the Goon Squad (another book that breaks your heart in its flashforwards), so I can think how two writers concerned with what's left out, what's told slant, manage to create characters and stories that aren't reduced to the status of second fiddle.

The Transit of Venus

Oh my goodness, I almost completely forgot about today being the day of the Slaves discussion of Shirley Hazzard's marvelous book, The Transit of Venus. It was originally set to take place on the 31st of March and then got moved to today. And all last week nearly everyday I'd think to myself, Hazzard post on Monday, you won't forget because it's your birthday. And here I almost forgot! Bookman and I had the day off from work today to celebrate (there was yummy cake!) and I sat down at my computer to write a blog thinking, hmm, now what should I write about today? And my mind began to wander along, considering different ideas, before the realization struck me right between the eyes. So now, what to say about Transit of Venus?

I loved it. I have not read Hazzard before. She is one of those authors I fully intended to read, I have The Great Fire, but just haven't gotten around to. After this, I have more incentive because I know what a treat will be in store.

The astronomical event called the transit of Venus takes place when the planet Venus passes between the sun and the Earth. It's like a lunar eclipse but because Venus is farther away than the moon, when the transit happens Venus appears as a small dark spot moving across the sun rather than an eclipse. Transits come in pairs. The first part of the most recent transit took place on June 8, 2004. The second part of the pair will happen on June 6, 2012. After that, there won't be another pair until 2117 and 2125. So mark your calendars for next June!

How the title fits the book, I haven't entirely put together. Venus, of course, is also the Goddess of Love, which does fit the book. Oh, and I just realized she is even paired. The book is about two sisters, Caroline (Caro) and Grace Bell, born in Australia and orphaned at a young age when their parents died in a ferry accident. They were raised by their half-sister, Dora, the offspring from their father's first marriage. So here we have our two Venuses. Their transit isn't across the sun though, more a transit through life and a transit through love. So maybe that's how the title fits.

Caro is the eldest of the two sisters, beautiful, but not in a conventional way. She is quiet and intelligent and observes people closely. She has a tendency to be unsettling. She also always seems so sure of herself. She is independent and practical and, in spite of being told by potential love interest Ted Tice that most people (read women) don't pass the exam for a government job at all, let alone on the first try, Caro passes it the first time with flying colors. But of course because she is a woman in late 40s and early 50s London, she can only really work as a secretary.

Grace, the younger sister, is golden and domestic and beautiful and she manages to marry young, a man named Christian Thrale, who turns out to be a tightwad and not at all Christian. At first, of course, she is in love and happy and is everything a devoted wife should be. She has children. From the outside she has the perfect life. The inside, however, does not always match the outside.

Caro, does not get married until she is into her 30s. She has an affair for a number of years with a famous playwright. Eventually she does marry, a wealthy American, who flies around the world attempting to help dispossessed groups in issues of diplomacy and political interventions. It is a happy and satisfying marriage.

Then there is Ted Tice, the potential love interest. He loves Caro from the start but she doesn't love him back. Still, he can't move on from that. Eventually he marries and has children but his poor wife knows that he still loves Caro. Will he ever get the girl of his dreams? I'm not saying.

And always in the mix is the half-sister, Dora. She is mentally and emotionally abusive and continues to hold a certain power over both Grace and Caro well into their adult lives. She is a real piece of work. An entire blog post can be written about her alone.

Transit of Venus is a rich, gorgeously written book. Not once did anything go clunk. There isn't really a plot to speak of. It is all character and all language, the kind of language that tastes like a square of extremely dark chocolate - the really good and expensive kind - melting slowly on your tongue.

Cross-posted at So Many Books

The Transit of Venus

Litlove's wonderful post goes right to the aspect of the novel that seems to me, also, most provoking: its language. Not that the story or characters or setting of The Transit of Venus aren't interesting--on the contrary, I thought the people had a superb distinctness to them; the story was elegantly constructed, with its crossings and recrossings, its mirrors and inversions and misreadings and accidents; and the settings had a fascinatingly lucid particularity in the details Hazzard used to put them before us. How well this little set piece evokes, for instance, a mildly acerbic colonial bitterness (a tone not altogether unfamiliar to Canadians):

There was nothing mythic at Sydney: momentous objects, beings, and events all occurred abroad or in the elsewhere of books. Sydney could never take for granted, as did the very meanest town in Europe, that a poet might be born there or a great painter walk beneath its windows. The likelihood did not arise, they did not feel they had deserved it. That was the measure of resentful obscurity: they could not imagine a person who might expose or exalt it.

Or, more particular yet, here's a London morning, damply unwelcoming: "At that hour all London was ashudder, waiting for the bus." We feel, as well as see, the place. I thought a lot of Hazzard's descriptions had this tactile quality.

That slightly estranging, too-poetic word "ashudder," though, is a tiny example of just how stylized Hazzard's prose is. It is, as litlove says, difficult, elliptical, opaque. There's a lot of utilitarian prose, or worse, in mainstream and especially genre fiction. Writers whose work I like nonetheless bore me with their assumption that the writer's job is to get the story told without the language getting in the way; they seem to aspire to prose that is as transparent or functional as possible. That is a safer option, no doubt, than venturing into the dangerous territory of overt artistry. It is not easy to tell a story directly and clearly, but it is far riskier to tease and play and experiment with language--riskier, because, for one thing, the measure of success becomes immediately more elusive. Hazzard is a risk-taker.

On the whole, for me, Hazzard's style was successful. One measure that I use is whether the style of the book suits what I discern as the organizing ideas or interests of the book: do the author's verbal tricks seem like sheer display, or does the aesthetic whole have integrity? The Transit of Venus is intensely interested in the degree to which people are opaque to each other, with the uncertainties of their external appearance as indicators of their thoughts and intentions. It sometimes seems that the more literally naked her characters are, the less that is revealed about them; their physical proximity exacerbates rather than overcomes their mental distances, their tendencies to misinterpret or to fill in blanks. So, a prose with gaps and omissions, precise about surfaces but constantly fraught with meaning that seems too weighty to be contained in the sentences that carry it--that seemed right. It's not a realistic mode exactly (I agree with litlove that the dialogue often strains credulity): the novel proffers a heightened reality. Does it make sense to the rest of you if I say there seemed to be something cinematic about it, not because there's a grand panoramic sweep, or a plot of secrets and revelations (though in a way, I suppose both of these things are true), but because there are a lot of effects in each scene and as they play out, you can so easily imagine the ebbing and receding of an emotional score? Music, in films, often brings out emotions that can't be easily displayed through words or actions. I felt like Hazzard's language sought to do the same, without making every thought or emotion explicit. "Everything had the threat and promise of meaing," Hazzard says early on. That threat and promise permeate both the story and the language.

Another measure I use is the balance of pleasure and annoyance. I was sometimes annoyed, reading along. I found the missing word trick (more accurately, the omitted word trick) especially annoying, even though I have offered sort of an explanation for its thematic fitness. One example: "Caro might have asked, How old. But was silent . . ." It's like a writing exercise, or an excercise in close reading: What difference does it make, to the sentence, to the rhythm, to the meaning, to our reading experience, to put "she" back in? "Caro might have asked, How old. But she was silent . . ." What is lost in that smoothing out of the syntax, that restoration to normalcy? Or, what is Hazzard doing to us by refusing us that smoother process? The immediate result for me, each time, was to force me to reread: had I just missed something? Had I not grasped the actual grammar of the sentence? These moments always made me stumble and have to gather myself up again. That's not necessarily a bad thing. And annoying as it could be, the prickly sense of irritation at what seemed, sometimes, just a mannerism was outweighed by the number of times I sighed with appreciation over a sentence that seemed pure and satisfying in its precision. Every word seemed chosen and placed (or omitted!) with such care, which is not to say that the language becomes precious, just that it has a deliberate cerebral quality that is just what you don't find in so much other fiction. And this is not to say that the book is ponderous: wit can be cerebral as well. I particularly liked this little bit, for example, on the changing fortunes of the perversely pastoral poet Rex Ivory, who keeps on writing poetry about the natural "glories of his native Derbyshire" even during and after his time as a POW:

[H]is story was soon one of the items of victory, for the newspapers took it up and he became "the poet Rex Ivory" in publications where an indefinite article had formerly done for him well, and rarely, enough. A Selected Poems went into print on coarse, flecked wartime paper, and there were no more witticisms about ivory towers. He read that he had been correct in spurning the First World War, and prescient in endorsing the Second; and he pondered the new idea that he had shown acumen. The BBC brought electrical equipment into the Dukeries in a van and a camera followed the well-known and prescient poet Rex Ivory as he walked between flowering borders with a pair of Sealyhams borrowed from a neighbour. Despite his unrehearsed analogy between the British mental asylum and the Japanese camp, the interview was a success; because, when people have made up their minds to admire, wild horses will not get them to admit boredom.

The otherwise quite dark conclusion of the novel is lit up with some fine satire on his posthumous academic prestige, marked by the publication of a "brilliant critical biography" with the spot-on title Abnegation as Statement: Symbol aand Sacrament in the Achievement of Rex Ivory: "Dr Wadding had suspended his groundbreaking work on the Lake Poets so that Rex Ivory might benfit from critical elucidation. . . . 'My task, as I see it, is to adumbrate the sources of his entelechy.'" Perhaps, with that darting stab at an entirely different order of difficulty, Hazzard seeks to justify her own degree of elusivenss, which is, at least, in the service of human feeling.

A few of us exchanged some thoughts on Twitter as we worked our way to the end, and I think we were all equal parts startled and puzzled by the revelations about Paul Ivory's past. I wonder if we were surprised on purpose, to make a point about the layers of deceit or performance that come between us and certain knowledge of each other. It works as a plot device, giving Caro a new perspective on her own choices and relationships, but still, why that particular backstory? It seemed discordant, somehow.

The Art of Being Difficult

How hard should a reader be made to work when confronting a piece of literature? At what point does an elliptical sentence become an opaque one that causes the reader to set the book aside in irritation? Or is the complex book, the demanding book, something to be welcomed like a really good mental work-out? A version of sit-ups for the brain? These questions were very much to the forefront of my mind as I was reading the latest pick for the Slaves of Golconda book group. Having wondered in yesterday’s post whether language could be too simplistic for pleasure, Shirley Hazzard’s award-winning novel The Transit of Venus, gave me the opposite experience of wondering whether language could become too weighty, too portentous, too pregnant with meaning for its own good.

The Transit of Venus is essentially a love story that spans several decades of the twentieth century, involves the romantic fortunes of a web of protagonists and moves between England and America. The main focus of the narrative falls on Caroline Bell, who, with her sister, Grace, has come over from Australia in search of meaningful experience. The Bell sisters were orphaned young, their parents drowning in a ferry accident off Sydney Bay. In consequence the girls were brought up by their older half-sister, Dora, whose vibrant negativity makes her one of the most engaging, if dislikeable characters in the novel. Dora has been required by fate to make an unreasonable sacrifice of her youth, and her revenge is never to let anyone forget it. Escaping Dora is an influential factor in Grace’s rapid engagement to a man she meets in a cinema, Christian Thrale, and when the novel opens, we are at the home of the Thrales. Christian’s father is an eminent astronomer, involved in siting a telescope in the UK. Ted Tice, displaced from his class by his mind and his education, awkward but with the strength of his own integrity, comes to stay at the house as an assistant to Professor Thrale and falls in love, deeply and irrevocably, with Grace’s sister, Caro. But Caro is not attracted to him other than as a friend; instead she begins an impetuous but passionate affair with an arrogant young playwright, Paul Ivory, who is himself engaged to be married to someone else. The fates and fortunes of this cast of characters are revealed in a series of beautifully examined tableaux that extends over many years.

The transit of Venus stands over the narrative as its guiding star. In the first pages of the novel, we are told a cautionary tale by Professor Thrale and Ted Tice, of a French adventurer who longed to see this particular, extremely rare event, when Venus partially eclipses the sun. Having been delayed by wars and misadventure that caused him to miss one transit, he waited in a form of exile for eight years until Venus should pass again, only on that day conditions were too poor for the spectacle to be seen. It would be another century before it happened again. The transit of Venus mirrors the trajectories of Caro Bell and Ted Tice, who circle each other repeatedly over the course of the narrative, but seem destined never to unite. In this first, early encounter, the love Ted feels for Caro is not reciprocated, but will he finally win her in the end? Venus, the planet of love, is notably capricious. “The calculations were hopelessly out,” Ted Tice explains about James Cook’s equally disastrous attempt to view the transit. “Calculations about Venus often are.”

The sense of complex delays that are inevitable but perplexing structures the entire narrative, which inserts into its opening scenes a seemingly casual remark about a man’s body being found after a flood. It will come back to haunt the protagonists only towards the very end. Equally gnomic is an off-hand remark about Ted Tice, accompanying the early descriptions of him, that he will one day take his own life. Perhaps if nothing else, this structure indicates the necessity for the reader to exercise great patience with the text. Hazzard slows her action down to a crawl, with each gesture and thought of her characters inviting narratorial intervention, as its significance is teased out and analysed. For the most part, I was happy to go along with this, because it produces some splendid observations: ‘nothing creates such untruth as the wish to please or to be spared something’, ‘the absence of self-delusion in itself is liberty’, ‘[i]n its first appeal, security offered an excitement almost like romance, but that rescue might wear down, like any other.’ The tone of these remarks is not so much lyrical as philosophical, but philosophical with a cosmic edge. We are given love and life through a telescope that brings us closer to these huge forces that sear through existence, but seem almost impersonal and beyond our control, spiritual in the way they inhabit us but also transcend us. I wondered at first whether the story, so focused on romance, would not be too slight for the weight of observation Hazzard brings to it, but in the end I capitulated; primary emotions, like love, desire, rage, fear, are ordinarily downplayed so we might keep living without incurring too much damage, but given their true significance, we might have to admit their overwhelming, potentially devastating importance.

However, it takes a certain kind of reading attitude to accept that characters might say things like: “She mistakes suspicion for insight.” Or, “I loathe the undernourishment of this country, the grievance, the censoriousness, the reluctance to try anything else.” Whilst the intelligence of Hazzard’s prose never falters, her protagonists risk at times becoming mouthpieces for existential insight, rather than flesh and blood people. In fact, the huge weight of significance that the narrative is made to bear makes it at one and the same time startlingly true and suspiciously artificial. We have so much contact with the discerning, interpreting writerly mind, that we can feel oddly shielded from the action, as if it takes place behind a gauze curtain of wise remarks. I passed through many emotions myself reading this; I found it surprising and profound and frustrating and sometimes disengaging and sometimes piercing. Overall it was a triumph of language, but one that came, for me at least, at the cost of emotional immediacy. But it was also a book that I longed to discuss with others, so I’m hoping my fellow Slaves will hurry up and post so I can know what they felt about it.