Monday, December 17, 2007

February Book Selection: The Stone Angel

We'll be reading Margaret Laurence's Stone Angel next. Discussion will start February 29.
"Hagar Shipley, age 90, tells the story of her life, and in so doing tries to come to terms with how the very qualities which sustained her have deprived her of joy. Mingling past and present, she maintains pride in the face of senility, while recalling the life she led as a rebellious young bride, and later as a grieving mother."
Thanks for voting everyone. I hope everyone enjoys the book. From what I've read it is considered a classic of Canadian Literature. See you in February!

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Women's Lives

I had a hard time deciding what type of book we should choose for our next selection. Should we get back to the classics? Should we try something contemporary (post WWII lit)? In the end I went to my trusty copy of 500 Great Books by Women (edited by Erica Bauermeister). The last two books we read have been by male authors, so I thought I'd offer some selections by female authors. I hope you will find something appealing here:

The Convert by Elizabeth Robins. Although Elizabeth Robins was American by birth, she spent a good portion of her life in England as an actress and feminist activist. The Convert is about the British Suffrage movement, which the author knew well. Part witty and scathing commentary on the upper classes, part political rhetoric quoted directly from open-air meetings, and part muck-raking realism, The Convert moves back and forth between the personal and the political until the two can no longer be distinguished. The Convert uses as its frame the political "conversion" of Vida Levering, a beautiful, upper middle-class woman. We follow Vida's growing discontent with "country weekend" society and her increasing awareness of the common lot of women. Forthright and direct, Elizabeth Robins discusses issues that must have been shocking in 1907: unwed motherhood, the effects of the inequality of women, and the essential disrespect that underlies chivalry. Reminiscent of Jane Austen and foreshadowing the work of Virginia Woolf, The Convert is a fascinating novel. It provides us with a sense of history and a feeling of pride in what women could and did accomplish. It is also disturbing because far too many of the issues are still relevant.

The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields. This fictionalized autobiography of Daisy Goodwill Flett, captured in Daisy's vivacious yet reflective voice, has been winning over readers since its publication in 1995, when it won the Pulitzer Prize. After a youth marked by sudden death and loss, Daisy escapes into conventionality as a middle-class wife and mother. Years later she becomes a successful garden columnist and experiences the kind of awakening that thousands of her contemporaries in mid-century yearned for but missed in alcoholism, marital infidelity and bridge clubs. The events of Daisy's life, however, are less compelling than her rich, vividly described inner life--from her memories of her adoptive mother to her awareness of impending death. Shields' sensuous prose and her deft characterizations make this, her sixth novel, her most successful yet.

Winter Wheat by Mildred Walker. With an arid "dry-land" wheat farm as both its geographic and metaphoric center, Winter Wheat tells the story of eighteen-year-old Ellen Webb. Her Vermont-born father and Russian-born mother, married during the first World War, have come as homesteaders to Barton, Montana - a grain-elevator and general store. It is 1940, the year Ellen will start college if the wheat harvest is good; it is September, "like a quiet day after a whole week of wind. I mean that wind that blows dirt into your eyes and hair and between your teeth and roars in your ears after you've gone inside." The harvest pays and Ellen goes off to college, where she immediately falls in love: "I hadn't meant to fall in love so soon, but there's nothing you can do about it. It's like planning to seed in April and then having it come off so warm in March that the earth is ready." Ellen and Gil plan their marriage for after the summer harvest. But Gil arrives and doesn't find Montana or the life of dry-land wheat farmers beautiful. Ellen begins to see everything, including her parents, with new and critical eyes in this unsparing and poignant examination of love and life.

Passing by Nella Larsen. Several years ago, beautiful, ambitious Clare Kendry, tired of accepting the narrow lot of black life when she looks white, chose to pass for white and cut herself off from all past relationships. Her childhood friend, Irene Redfield, can also pass, but has chosen not to, and is now married to a black man and has two sons. Each woman faces a dilemma: how much of her heritage can she keep or ignore without destroying her life? Clare, married to a white bigot who does not know about her black blood, desperately misses her old ties and traditions. Irene, living in New York with her successful doctor/husband, wants to ignore the negative parts of her heritage: she refuses to let her husband explain about lynching to their boys and rejects his desire to move to Brazil where he hopes to escape the racism he has seen in the United States. A chance encounter brings Clare and Irene together once again. As elegant, hypnotic, relentless Clare moves increasingly into Irene's life, Irene senses the danger Clare poses to her own safe existence. Although on the surface a story of passing, hypocrisy and adultery, Passing is far more complex than it might first appear, and compels us to ask ourselves where we draw our own lines.

The Stone Angel by Margaret Laurence. The Stone Angel is a compelling journey seen through the eyes of a woman nearing the end of her life. At ninety, Hagar Shipley speaks movingly of the perils of growing old and reflects with bitterness, humor, and a painful awareness of her own frailties on the life she has led. From her childhood as the daughter of a respected merchant, to her rebellious marriage, Hagar has fought a long and sometimes misguided battle for independence and respect. In the course of examining and trying to understand the shape her life has taken, her divided feelings about her husband, her passionate attachment to one son and her neglect of another, she is sometimes regretful, but rarely penitent. Asking forgiveness from neither God nor those around her, she must still wrestle with her own nature: "Pride was my wilderness, and the demon that led me there was fear." She has been afraid of being unrespectable, afraid of needing too much, afraid of giving too much, and her pride is both disturbing and inspiring.

Hopefully all titles should be available here in the US, in Canada and the UK. The most problematic might be the book by Elizabeth Robins, though there are lots of used copies out there. I checked in Bookmooch and there appear to be moochable copies of Winter Wheat, Passing, The Stone Angel and lots of The Stone Diaries. I also checked my own library system locally and found all titles available--so hopefully you will also find that to be the case as well if you prefer to borrow the book rather than buy.

Please vote in the comments area of this post. Of course anyone is welcome to join in and read and discuss the book. I will tally votes on Monday December 17 and announce the next selection. Shall we plan on discussing the book on Friday February 29?

Saturday, December 01, 2007

The Owl Service: More Questions than Answers

I'm a bit late coming to the discussion of the latest Slaves of Golconda novel, Alan Garner's The Owl Service. I'm not sure I will have anything new to add to the many excellent posts that the Slaves have been sharing already. But shall I attempt to give my own small spin on it anyway? First, I read a review before I started reading this YA novel that said readers will either love it or hate it. I'm not sure that is entirely accurate, however. I've gone through a variety of emotions while reading this. Confusion, incomprehension, dislike (for characters that is), appreciation. I didn't hate it, though I can't say exactly that I loved it either. I did like it--or aspects of it anyway, though I am still not sure I actually understood it all. At this point it is a book that I have finished with more questions than answers. Certainly this is a good candidate for a reread. I'm not sure I would hand this book to just any young adult reader. I wonder perhaps if they should be a fairly sophisticated reader for their age to understand and enjoy it.

I am rather weak in the area of mythology and fairy and folk tales, though I am becoming more and more interested in them, which is part of the reason I did like this book. It is based on the Welsh Mabinogion, a collection of Medieval stories. More specifically it retells the story of Blodeuwedd, a woman made from flowers who betrays her husband with another man and is turned into an owl. It took a while to get into the novel and then I always felt as though I was working to dig out the meaning--actually digging just to understand what was going on at times. It was written in 1967, and the setting is contemporary to that period. Alison and Roger are stepbrother and sister. Their parents have recently married and have come to Wales on holiday, where Alison has inherited a house from her deceased father. The house is looked after by Nancy and Huw Halfbacon and Nancy's son Gywn. When I first started reading the book I assumed that Ali, Roger and Gywn were actually great friends about to undertake one of those fantastical journeys that you come across in YA literature, as they were all of a same age. In actuality there was a certain amount of tension between them.

When Ali hears scratching noises in the attic above her bedroom, they investigate and find a set of plates. They have an intricate pattern on them, and when Ali traces them they form owls. I won't go into great detail of the plot. If you'd like to know more, the Wikipedia gives a fairly concise summary. I also found this very good review, which was helpful in understanding the mythology of the story. Essentially Ali, Roger and Gywn have set in motion the events of the myth once again. Along with the mythological aspect of the story there are also the issues of class--the wealthier Ali and Roger compared to the poor son of a servant, Gwyn, and issues of nationalism--Welsh and British prejudices. And then to spice things up just a bit more there is lots of what I am guessing is British slang and colloquialisms particular to that time and place that had to be sorted out as well. I've definitely come to the conclusion that YA literature doesn't equal easy reading.

My experience with YA literature and with mythological/fantasy stories is pretty narrow, so for me I could appreciate what the author was trying to do, though it didn't always make for smooth going. Maybe there are better books out there trying to do the same thing without this extent of complexity? I have barely skimmed the surface of what this book is even about and given you only the barest description. This is not a book I would have picked up to read on my own, but I am glad that I have been exposed to it. And still I am left with more questions than answers. By the way, this was not a book with a tidy ending, but I am hoping discussion might shed more light on things. Thanks to Ann for suggesting this novel. I'm always happy to stretch my mind a bit when it comes to books! If you've read the book, please consider joining us for the Discussion.
Cross posted at A Work in Progress.

Myth and Mayhem

The latest selection for the Slaves of Golconda is Alan Garner’s award winning young adult novel, The Owl Service. I wondered what I would make of it as I remembered not liking Garner much as a child. As an adult I can see why: Garner has one of those styles that is sparse and enigmatic to the point of being gnomic at times. He is not the author to provide explanations or tie up loose ends. Instead events occur in a metaphorical, symbolic realm that is heavy on atmosphere but light on causality. He falls very much into a particular category of writer to me, producing a certain kind of masculine literature that one reads on the very brink of incomprehension. I enjoyed this novel as an adult because I felt I had the critical tools to do so, but I can see why it would have foxed and alarmed me as a child. Garner’s language is fundamental to the problem; it seems to glance off the objects it seeks to represent without ever fully landing on them. Most of the story passes in dialogue and what dialogue it is! Speech is full of colloquialisms, local idiom, antiquated sayings, casual slang, dialect. Garner’s teenagers sound like old testament prophets, sit com characters and precocious intellectuals all at once, and there’s still room in there to add in the cadences and rhythms of different parts of the country and different layers of class. Reading it gives me the sensation of having an itch I can’t quite scratch. I think it’s very clever stuff, but I do wonder whether a student reading this novel with English as a second language would have a clue what was going on.

It took me a while to get into this novel and figure out what was going on. Essentially Garner takes the story of an old love triangle from Welsh legends The Mabinogian and layers it onto three disparate teenagers brought together on summer holiday in the original valley but in the present day. History repeats itself continually, Garner suggests, unless the spell can be broken by the individuals involved finding it in themselves to transcend their feelings and gut animosities. Trying to get a hold on the structure of the plot, I realized it reminded me of two classics: Sartre’s play No Exit, in which three characters who naturally rub each other up the wrong way are trapped in hell for all eternity (source of the famous line ‘Hell is other people’) and Hitchcock’s classic horror movie, The Birds, in which natural phenomenon go out of control, possibly in response to the heightened emotions of the characters in the story. Of the three teenagers, Alison and Roger have money, class and Englishness on their side, against them they have emotional vulnerability (Alison) and stubborn arrogance (Roger). Gwyn, the Welsh lad whose mother is housekeeping for the uneasy second marriage that is Roger’s father and Alison’s mother, carries the burden of heroism for most of the novel. He has class, Welshness and lack of money against him, but he represents an outward looking force of motivation and strength that the other privileged children lack. Yet his aborted relationship with Alison wounds him so much that in the end he cannot overcome his sense of betrayal and fulfill his role of savior.

The characters who interested me more than the teenagers were in fact the terrible examples of parenting with which the novel abounds. Roger’s father Clive is perhaps the most sympathetic, but he is a weak man, giving in to everyone’s demands for the sake of a quiet life. Alison’s mother is entirely absent from the scene of the action, but provides a powerful off-stage voice as She Who Must Be Obeyed. Everyone is obliged to tiptoe around in order not to disturb her ‘resting’ but she is clearly energetic enough to exert a strong libidinal hold over Alison, forbidding her to associate with Gwyn. Gwyn wins the booby prize for parents, however, his mother, Nancy, the housekeeper being in a state of perpetual bad-tempered hysterics throughout the narrative (caused because of the bad associations of the place for her, we are told), easy with her fists on Gwyn and incapable of giving love. Over the course of the tale Gwyn discovers that his father is the semi-incoherent halfwit, Huw Halfbacon, whose primal association with the valley offers their only hope of understanding and breaking the chain of mythic events that are unfolding. It says something that by the end of the book, Huw isn’t looking too bad as parental material in comparison to the others. How could these children break free of the bonds of bad parenting and transcend their constraints, both inherited and nurtured, in order to rise to the challenge of the mythic curse on the valley? Well, they do and they don’t, and it strikes me that I would have appreciated that story more than the one I got. But then it would have been a classic children’s adventure tale, and instead we are given a frustrating but profound piece of literature. I ought to be pleased about this, but I do wish I understood who or what it was that was doing all that scratching in the attic in the very first place. A few more answers wouldn’t have gone amiss.

Friday, November 30, 2007

The Owl Service

The Owl Service by Alan Garner, is--interesting. And if you live in Minnesota or you know someone who does, you will probably understand that when we say "well now that was interesting" with a certain inflection it is a nice way to say "I'm not quite sure what to make of it. I sort of like it. I sort of don't. I'm leaning towards don't but I'm willing to consider what others think of it and possibly as a result end up liking it but it has to be a convincing argument." Of course sometimes it also means, "This guy is a real nutcase and I'm just going to humor him and hope he goes away soon." See, Minnesotans pride ourselves on being nice--Minnesota Nice--and have found all kinds of ways to make it seem like we are nice an polite when on the inside we are thinking, "wtf?"

But I am getting off topic. Owl Service was interesting in the "I'm not sure what to think of it" way. Briefly, the book is about three kids, two English step-siblings Roger and Alison, and a Welsh boy, Gwyn. The English kids are on holiday with the family at their Welsh country house which was left to Alison, by her father who is deceased. The kids--teenagers--find a full dinner service in the attic. The dishes have what look like an odd flower pattern on them. Alison figures out that with some tracing paper and some clever paper turnings here and there, the design turns into an owl. After all the flower/owls have been traced off the plate, the pattern on the plate disappears. The Welsh myth of Blodeuwedd is awakened and the three kids are caught up in it and someone could end up dead.

I voted for the selection of this book because I was interested in the Welsh mythology aspect of it. I don't know much about Wales and its myths so I thought it would be a fun introduction. Unfortunately the parts of the book I liked least were all related to the myth. Whenever the myth was at the forefront of the plot, things got confusing.

Take out the myth and I thought the story was pretty good. I liked the historical cultural dynamic between the Welsh and English, and the Welsh themselves, trying to change their image from rural farmers to sophisticated cosmopolitans. There was also the servant dynamic tossed in to make relationships even more muddled. Gwyn, the Welsh boy is also a servant, or rather, the son of the servants. The kids get along until classism and English/Welsh prejudices rear their ugly heads and get in the way.

And I enjoyed the depiction of the relationship between the kids as they try to figure out the identities they want to claim for themselves. They struggle with choosing the ones that are being imposed by their parents or the culture at large or one they invent for themselves.

But then Blodeuwedd gets in the way and instead of the myth adding to and enriching all that the kids are going through, it detracts from it. The myth portions of the book seemed contrived, imposed, artificial. There should have been two books, one about three kids coming of age and one a retelling of the Bloeduwedd myth. Instead we've got one book that is--interesting.

Cross posted at So Many Books

But how do you pronounce that Welsh "ll"?

I'm pleased to say I've never had such rough going with a YA fantasy novel. My unfailing good taste failed once but The Owl Service's formidably "elliptical" writing style -- conversations are brief, emotionally fraught scenes are written with no dialogue, and important ones take place off-page -- provided a kind of reading experience I just didn't expect from a teen book.

I will not blow its subtlety out-of-proportion. The truth is that I took one look at the plot, read the first two pages, and at a glance wrapped and labelled it as a fun ol' quest through Welsh mythology, with thrills and chills and a gripping end. I was even a bit concerned that I wouldn't be able to come up with much of a post at the end of it all. It's so short (155 pages)! It's why I left it for so long. Usually I start a Slaves of Golconda book a month before the deadline: I gave The Owl Service only two weeks -- keep in mind that this is along with my usual 2 - 3 other fiction reads and Life.

The first reading was...not great. Everything started swimmingly, then characters started getting pissy with each other, kicking rakes and books, apparently Gwyn and Ali were (trying to be) an item, Roger and his Dad were elitist buttholes, Nancy was psycho, Huw really wasn't making any sense, there were killer paper owls on the loose, and I had no idea how to pronounce any of the proper names except Birmingham, Roger, Alison and Clive. (Do you know how distracting that is?) Plot developments seemed to leap out of hitherto non-existent corners and the ending was a big question mark. What is this book? I thought to myself as I slammed it shut. W.t.f.?

My reaction not only stemmed from displeasure but frustration. I sensed that the bewildering experience was not insignificantly my fault because I came in with a set of expectations that the book stubbornly rejected. I wasn't paying as much attention as I should have to the details, expecting that I'd still grasp a fair enough portion of the book's offering. It was a perilous mistake because this is a book that is entirely created out of small details, superficially unassuming moments, of single sentences and lines that carry great importance not only thematically, but on the most basic level - plot. I read up on the Blodeuwedd, oak blossom, broom and meadowsweet on Wikipedia (which kinda helped), searched for a trusty guide on Welsh pronunciation (simpler than English my butt) and embarked on a quick reread against the (alleged) author's expressed wishes. (That comment worked as a challenge rather than an admonition.)

I emerged from the darkness a second time clearer, my mind changed on most things and along with a better grasp on what I still found fault with. I find my negative criticisms on this score a bit galling -- especially after having to eat humble pie and admit the book wasn't that opaque if you just paid attention -- because they pretty much boil down to this: most of the characters were not pleasant to be around. There's Clive banging on about "barrack-room lawyers", the children's scornful attitude towards adults and, in Alison's and Roger's case, their utter lack of regard for those beneath their social class, Gwyn's violent temper, Nancy's crazy harridan routine -- all of it. Let the valley's power blow 'em up and have done with the lot; the sheep are peaceful and (could possibly) go well with curry.

I'd hate to think I fall into the class of readers who can only enjoy books that contain "likeable" characters with whom they can "relate". I know that the valley's antagonistic power was influencing the trio's behaviour, most obviously Alison. But much of it still felt inexplicable and lazy. Nancy is a one-dimensional psycho who hates her son (so he believes) and his father and doesn't mind smacking the former around to have things done her way. In the one moment when she mellows enough to give Gwyn some information on the house's former owners she comes off as a schemer rather than slightly mental. "But there isn't the pound notes in London to pay me for losing my Mr. Bertram, just when I had landed him high and dry," she said. Not very romantic, is it? Some may want to argue that it's due to the supernatural consequences of her generation's avoidance of their responsibility but I'm not one of those readers who can put everything down to the fantastical. "Oh, it's the valley, that's why she's mad!" doesn't cut it.

The women come off the worse in this book and no few understanding lines from Huw Halfbacon -- to be expected, as he seems to be the only sensible person in the lot -- when he and Roger talked about the Blodeuwedd myth can change that. Alison is little more than a passive conduit for nature's desire to have things set aright, and must be saved. I could understand and was sympathetic to her conflict between pleasing Gwyn and her mother when her own self-identity was in flux -- and this is more ably shown as not being all down to magic plates and pebble-dashed paintings. In her singular confrontation with Gwyn in which he again insists that she defy her mother's wishes to meet with him she shouts,

"Stop it...Stop it, stop it! Stop tearing me between you. You and Mummy! You go on till I don' t know who I am, what I'm doing. Of course I can see! Now. But afterwards she starts, and what she says is right, then."

"I only want you to be yourself," said Gwyn.

"And what's that?" said Alison. "What you make me? I'm one person with Mummy, and another with you. I can't argue: you twist everything I say round to what you want. Is that fair?"

That outburst gave her character and circumstances more dimensions than any other scene before or since that included her or any other character. It breathed life into her, made her seem more human over Gwyn's overblown operatics and Roger's flat insolence and tabloid past. Even during the first reading it stood out. Then she went back to smelling petrol and being possessed.

Her mother and Roger's exist off-page. From various character reports the first holds the family's best interests at ransom in the interest of her delicate sensibilities and the other caused some kind of scandal that the tabloids flogged, and about whom Roger is sensitive and very close-lipped. Unfortunately, his reserve works so well I could only muster some token sympathy and curiosity for what I imagined someone in his (vaguely) difficult situation must be going through. On the other hand, he's quite outspoken about his disdain for the Welsh, never hesitates to verbally lash a "servant" if she doesn't instinctively revere his precious photographs, and holds about 10 ml of respect for his father.

Then there's Gwyn, my darling Gwyn. I liked him best of all and it is his and Roger's privy thoughts to which readers are given the most access. He has a temper (wonder where he got it from? Couldn't say), an anguished, feebly returned attraction for Alison and an inherited connection to a centuries old myth, the reverberations of which could be fatal. He's ambitious, intelligent and resourceful. He's quite proud so when he willingly bares his vulnerabilities to Alison you can't help but melt. (Ok, I can't help it.) He thinks his mother hates him, and he never knew his father! You just want to hug him up. (Ok, I do.)

Lest you think he's perfect he also has a penchant for picking up a thing or two (or five) that don't belong to him. (Garner admirably resists moralising his behaviour or going to painstaking lengths to present it in as sympathetic a light as possible -- he puts it out there and you make of it what you will.) He's insolent to everyone and anyone at any moment, young or old. As a Jamaican perhaps I find this sort of thing more shocking as I find adult-child relationships here far more...casual, let's say, that I'm used to. It's not even deference I require here -- out of sheer frustration with the Halfbacon's seeming lack of corporation in solving the owl plate mystery Gwyn walks right up and kicks the rake out from under him; and I just couldn't buy that one would do something so physically aggressive for that reason. (Good thing he didn't have a taser -- Halfbacon would have had a heart attack by page 60 and then where would they be?) There are little moments like this peppered throughout the book in which characters show a basic lack of disregard for each other: it gave the book a general antagonistic, unpleasant tone. (I would not reread it again.)

But, but, but -- beyond characterisation I found the thematic development, the writing style and the reworking of the myth in the contemporary setting fairly excellent (despite the objections earlier comments implied). Garner is not the sort of author to lay all of his cards on the table. Plot points are revealed in indirectly, relationships are established in silent scenes, such as when Gwyn and Alison, near the beginning of the book, met each other in the hall, exchanged silent looks until she joined Clive and Roger, while Gwyn stalked into the kitchen to lower his head and grip the counter.

Garner also doesn't bother with what he judges as unnecessary description. I'm used to a more expansive writing style where movements and setting is told in some detail. In one scene Huw told Gwyn to descend from a tree in order to search for something underground -- in the very next line we read Gwyn's response after looking for it. Not one is used to describe the climb. Garner only describes rooms when entered and only goes into detail if it's helps to establish a certain mood or develop a point. Scenes that one would not have been surprised if they were included, like Gwyn writing and leaving Alison notes (or even a line or two about him thinking of it), are relayed second hand. Even the dialogue often had this abbreviated quality in which I felt gaps of information were missing even though the characters were on top of everything.

It's an appreciable change from the sort of books where the the effect is reversed and reader is the one with close to omniscient knowledge and the characters are the ones struggling, or both reader and character are armed with comparable knowledge of the conflict. Perhaps the most singular feature that built this experience was the notable absence of the author in the novel. It's one of the most limited third-person narratives I've ever read. Garner strictly keeps himself to minute descriptions of scene and action and let's the characters move the story along. No hand-holding here. In a sense it's a very generous kind of writing and is perfectly suited to show just how divergent reader reactions can be to the same book.

Final verdict? I appreciate The Owl Service but I don't like it. It's a demanding read and has the sort of flaws that cry out for engagement rather than in despair. For such a little thing it manages to contain a lot of meat to pick over and is, in that sense, not unlike Mercé Rodoreda's stories. Thanks so much, Ann, for recommending this read.

Cross-posted at The Books of My Numberless Dreams

Alan Garner's The Owl Service

By Dorothy W.

First of all, thanks to Ann for choosing Alan Garner’s young adult novel The Owl Service for the Slaves of Golconda selection; I always want to read new types of books, and this qualifies, as I generally don’t read much young adult fiction. Perhaps I should read more. So thank you Ann!

I feel ambivalently about this book, though. What it comes down to is that while there was much in the novel that made me think, I didn’t enjoy the experience of reading it as much as I thought I would. I’m happy to have plenty to analyze as I read along, but I really wanted to get lost in the story, especially as it’s a young adult novel, and I never found myself fully absorbed in it. I felt distanced the whole time.

The novel tells the story of three young people who are vacationing in Wales; Alison and Roger are half-siblings and Gwyn is the son of the housekeeper. They discover a set of plates in their attic with a mysterious pattern on them, a pattern that when Alison traces it, creates owls. The pattern afterwards disappears, though, and so do the owls Alison has made. Soon the threesome notices a whole series of odd events, including strange scratching noises, objects unexpectedly moving, and walls crumbling apart. Gradually, with the help of Gwyn’s knowledge of Welsh folklore and information from the odd figure Huw Halfbacon, they figure out they are witnessing the resurgence of an old legend about a woman created from flowers who betrays her husband for the sake of a lover.

I began reading the book with no knowledge of this legend, and had to piece it together as I read; I think I might have felt less confused and have enjoyed the reading more if I’d been familiar with it to begin with. It took a long time for the pieces to come together. Rather than enjoying this process of figuring everything out — which is partly what reading is all about, of course — I felt there was information I should have had but didn’t.

The dialogue also felt odd to me, and perhaps this is simply a cultural matter, but the characters talked as though they were older; I had trouble believing they were teenagers. I had to re-read many passages of dialogue because the language and, even more so, the rhythms of their speech felt strange.

But I was fascinated by the class issues the novel portrays, and the way these issues touch on language. Gwyn’s mother chastises him for speaking Welsh because she wants him to leave his rural roots behind:

“You know I won’t have you speaking Welsh. I’ve not struggled all these years in Aber to have you talk like a labourer. I could have stayed in the valley if I’d wanted that.”

But Gwyn is drawn to the people and the culture of the Welsh countryside, intrigued by Huw Halfbacon and his mysterious pronouncements. He’s also self-conscious about his accent, however, and worried about whether his mother will allow him to continue his education, and whether that accent will hamper his progress. In one of the novel’s most painful scenes, he wants to borrow Alison’s gramophone to listen to records teaching elocution lessons. He is mortified when Roger finds out about this and mocks him for it.

As the son of the housekeeper, Gwyn is constantly reminded of his outsider status, and often cruelly so; Roger teases and belittles him, and when Gwyn begins spending more time with Alison than the others think proper, they make it clear they do not approve and that they will do whatever they need to to make sure he stays away. Gwyn is a hugely sympathetic character; it’s impossible not to feel for him as he struggles with his attraction to Alison, his worries about his mother, and his curiosity about all the mysteries that surround him, including that of the identity of his father.

So, again, I’m glad I read this, even though I had mixed feelings about it — I do enjoy reading books that make me think, even if a lot of what I’m thinking about is why I’m not loving them.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

The Owl Service

When I was asked to make suggestions for the current Slaves of Golconda choice I was hesitant about offering a selection of Young Adult novels, not because I think there is any paucity of excellent material available but because I know that I can’t expect everyone to share my enthusiasm for the field. Reading round people’s blogs over the past few weeks, I’m aware that the book that was eventually chosen has not found favour everywhere, but nevertheless, I am going to stick my neck out and say that I think Alan Garner’s novel, 'The Owl Service', is one of the great books of its time and still stands up today as a work in which not a word is wasted and not an idea explored that isn’t fully and precisely worked through.

Garner is not a prolific writer, indeed there have been only a handful of books in the forty years since 'The Owl Service' was published. His central concerns, however, never alter: a passion for the cultural memory held by the land and the communities that have lived in a particular place through the ages; a vision of the landscape itself as a living being actively involved in the shaping of those communities’ lives; and the importance of language and the cadences that belong to a particular area and the peoples who have worked the land there for generation after generation.

In 'The Owl Service' these general concerns find a specific voice in the centuries old and still continuing conflict between the disparate peoples of the British Isles, those of Celtic origin and those with Anglo-Saxon or Norman forebears. At the moment this is showing itself most strongly in debate about Scottish devolution, at the time the book was written the area of contention was the infiltration of the Welsh valleys by incoming English, buying up properties for holiday homes and destroying the countryside by damning the rivers to build reservoirs that would supply Midlands’ cities with water.

The novel is built around a legend that forms part of Welsh literary heritage collected as the 'Mabinogian'. In this legend the wizard, Gwydion, makes a woman, Blodeuwedd, out of the flowers of the oak, the broom and the meadowsweet and she is given in marriage to a local lord, Lleu Llaw Gyffes. However, Blodeuwedd falls in love with another man, Gronw Pebyr, and together they conspire to kill Lleu Llaw Gyffes. While the plot is successful Lleu Llaw Gyffes returns and not only kills Grinw Pebyr but also turns Blodeuwedd into an owl forced to hunt by night because rejected for her perfidy by all the other birds. One version of the legend can be found here.

Garner’s conceit, totally in accord with his belief in the power of the land to hold the tribal memory of the people who inhabit it, is that the anger unleashed by the actions of the the three protagonists still permeates the valley in which the events took place and that within each generation three young people will be forced to re-enact the tragedy until Blodeuwedd is able to find the peace of returning to her flower form instead of having to hunt as the owl. In this generation that means Gwyn, the descendant of Gwydion/Lleu Llaw, Gyffes, Alison, a teenager who has just inherited a house in the valley and her stepbrother, Roger. Try as they might to avoid the force of nature that they find themselves being controlled by they are brought to the point where Alison has to chose and Roger and Gwyn have to help her. I find Garner’s resolution of the story very interesting indeed, but more of that later.

There are so many things that I think exceptional about this book that I hardly know where to start. From the very earliest pages you can’t help but be aware of the land and the weather as a living being, exerting pressure on the actions of the humans caught up in its domain. After Roger’s encounter with the replaying of the first death, Garner tells us that '[t]he mountains hung over him, ready to fill the valley.' And it isn’t long before the landscape and the weather begin to work together to echo the growing tension.

'There were no clouds, and the sky was drained white towards the sun. The air throbbed, flashed like blue lightning, sometimes dark, sometimes pale, and the pulse of the throbbing grew, and now the shades followed one another so quickly that Gwyn could see no more than a trembling which became a play of light on the sheen of a wing, but when he looked about him he felt that the trees and the rocks had never held such depth, and the line of the mountain made his heart shake.'

As the story comes to its climax, so the combined forces of the weather and the mountainous countryside collude to keep the main players enclosed in the valley until the final moment when Alison must make her choice. For something else that Garner is concerned with here is the need for us to take responsibility for our actions and the last three generations have shied away from facing up to the choice, trying to channel the destructive force elsewhere. '[W]e gave this power a thinking mind. We must bear that mind, leash it, yet set it free, through us, in us, so that no one else may suffer.'

The valley has acted as a reservoir for that power, the actions of the previous generations having damned it and held the destructive force in. The metaphor for the destruction of those Welsh valleys used for English purposes is strong and the ancient animosity between the two peoples manifest in the relationships amongst the novels main characters. This is most often played out through the language, the easiest and most common source of mockery. Garner picks up and emphasises the patterns of the two tongues and yet at the same time he shows the dilemma of the Welsh, who in order to find a place in the world of work and education at that time, needed to speak English and preferably in a way that didn’t belie their origins. They needed to turn traitor to the very thing that held them fast and strong, their roots, their land, their language.

There are so many other things that I could discuss here: Garner’s interest in class; the issue of the role of women; the exploitation of a people’s heritage through the tourist market; the question of observer perspective - do you see owls or flowers? But this is becoming a very long post and so I’ll save those for the discussion. The one thing I do want to pick up on, however, is the ending, because I think it is significant and to some extent disheartening. Ultimately, it is not Gwyn who helps Alison to see flowers rather than owls, but Roger. Gwyn’s anger is so strong that he simply cannot overcome his own hurt, the hurt of generations, and reach out to help someone else. Forty years ago that may have been a reflection of the anger in the Valleys against the incomers, anger that lead to such acts as fire-bombing people out of their houses. Today, it brings to mind the development in Nationalism in all parts of the British Isles. While there is not the same transparent anger in the very air, there is a growing feeling that the various nations that make up Greater Britain, with their very different cultural memories, are going eventually to have to go their separate ways. I find that tragic, that we cannot share flowers but must once again be hunting as owls.

This post can also be found at:

which is where I am now blogging.

Monday, October 22, 2007

'The Owl Service' It Is

Thanks so much for your comments. 'The Owl Service' it is. I think it's a wonderfully atmospheric book, so I do hope you all enjoy it. It should also be easy to get hold of. If I understand the rules aright, discussion begins on November 30th. I hope to see you all then.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Which Shall It Be?

Hello, I'm a very new member of the Slaves and so feel very privileged to be asked to take part in the choosing of the next book. I've spent the last far too many years of my life working with books for children, teens and young adults and as I think the best of these are often underrated I thought I would suggest five that are at the top end of the age range as possible reads for discussion starting November 30th. One of the big practical problems with this area of literature is that stuff goes out of print very quickly, but as far as I can see all of my suggestions are still available on both sides of the Atlantic. I don't know if there are any Slaves elsewhere, but if so, then I think The Book Depository will send abroad free.

So, to the books, in alphabetical order by author.

'Bloodtide' by Melvin Burgess.

Burgess is never less than controversial. The book that preceded this one, 'Junk' won the Carnegie Award, but also had librarians and teachers all over the country screaming blue murder about books that encouraged children to experiment with drugs, sex and goodness knows what else. 'Bloodtide' is set in a future riven by war and genetic experimentation. The great cities of the world are ruled over by family groups that echo the Mafia of earlier days. Outside of the cities the land is populated by those who have come off worse in the genetic experiments. In London one family tries to bind others to them by means of a political marriage. The results are disastrous. Burgess uses motifs from the Norse myths to encourage the reader to explore the dangers of current political and scientific practice.

"Postcards From No Man's Land' by Aidan Chambers.

Chambers is a fascinating man. Starting out as an Anglican Monk, he came out of the church to devote himself to teaching and encouraging reading. This novel, which won the Carnegie, is the fifth in a sequence intended to explore teenage life in the late twentieth/early twenty-first centuries. You don't need to have read the others, however. The only link is his concern for the issues that young men and women face in current society. "Postcards' tells two stories, that of a seventeen year old English boy visiting Holland at the time of the celebration of the anniversary of Arnhem and that of his grandfather fighting in that same battle fifty years earlier. At the same time it also uses the setting of Amsterdam to explore issues to do with drugs, sexuality and euthanasia.

'After The First Death' by Robert Cormier.

Cormier's death two or three years ago was a massive loss for quality children's literature and this is one of his books that I find still speaks to my students nearly thirty years after it was first published. A bus full of children is held hostage by terrorists just outside a small American town. The children's lives are threatened if the terrorists don't get what they want. The situation is explored from three points of view, that of one of the terrorists, of Kate, the bus-driver and of Ben, the son of a General, who is forced to act as a go-between. Too many modern day echoes to ever be a comfortable read.

'The Owl Service' by Alan Garner

'The Owl Service' is even older. It won the Carnegie Award in 1967 and yet it also still has things to say to a modern audience. Set in the Welsh valleys it uses a tale from Welsh Myth as the basis for an exploration into class and cultural differences that remain the same whatever generation they appear in. Three teenagers, Alison, Roger and Gwyn find themselves forced to relive the sequence of events that take place in the myth and in the course of the action discover truths about their backgrounds and heritage that are uncomfortable and ultimately, dangerous.

'Just In Case' by Meg Rosoff.

This year's winner of the Carnegie. I have to say that I wasn't one of those who went wild over Rosoff's first novel, 'How I Live Now', but I loved 'Just In Case'. David Case is a teenager who feels that fate really has it in for him. Nothing unusual there then. But David decides to try and trick fate by changing his name and his personna. He becomes Justin Case, changes his image, his way of living and challenges fate to do its worst. It can be very funny but also very bittersweet. There are times when you really want to shake David/Justin out of his self-obsessiveness but you know it wouldn't do any good whatsoever.

So, there you are; my five suggestions.

If you leave your comments and votes then I will count them all up and post again next week to let you know what the selection is. I hope there is something here that you can enjoy.

Friday, October 12, 2007

What's Up Next?

With thanks to the bloggers who wrote so eloquently on the Makine - it was a good call from the Slaves and provoked some wonderful readings.

Just to let you know that the next book for discussion will be picked by Ann from Patternings. Look out for a shortlist early next week.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

The Woman Who Waited

51k5gwwbcgl_aa240_ I said yesterday that I'd managed to get my timings all wrong over the last few days and one of the consequences is that I've only just completed the current Slaves of Golconda book, Andrei Makine's The Woman Who Waited. This is the first book by Makine that I've read and I was lured into a sense of false security by the slimness of the volume. I thought I was going to be able to read it over an evening, not allowing for the fact the the sheer beauty of the writing and the depth of intensity in the emotions raised would have me reading passages over and over again simply to enjoy the sound of the music contained in them or to ponder the layers of meaning they evoked.

The book tells of the narrator's sojourn in a small Russian village and his encounter there with Vera, a woman twenty years older than him. Like so many of the village woman the man to whom Vera is committed has not returned after World War II, but in Vera's case there has been no definite news of what happened to him; she has become 'the woman who waited'.

Initially, the narrator is scathing in his assessment of the life that Vera leads, teaching children not her own and tending the needs of those women now too old to look after their more physically strenuous wants. He stereotypes her as a woman that life has passed by and seems to see her as someone who has given up on those activities that for him typify living, activities centred, for the most part, round one's own personal desires and satisfaction. However, gradually the reader, if not necessarily narrator himself, comes to see that it is Vera who has the deep and complex understanding of what being alive is all about while the narrator is stunted by his own selfish and self-centred perspective. If he can't change his awareness of what is important in life he is the one who will live, and eventually die, unfulfilled. Embedded in the narrative is a description of a mirror that has cracked.

Its upper portion reflects the forest treetops and the sky. The face of anyone looking into it is thrust up towards the clouds. The lower part reflects the rutted road, the feet of people walking past and, if you glance sideways, the line of the lake, now blue, now dark.

The mirror, for me, became the controlling image that guided my reading. Vera's life might be said to have cracked and the narrator is clearly seeing what remains as the rutted road, but there is the other view, the view that thrusts you up towards the clouds. For whatever Vera's life might lack it is full of love and of commitment. And it is commitment to others that the narrator cannot embrace. Indeed, the moment he thinks that someone might have a call on him he is panic stricken and can think only of escaping. For a moment the narrative shifts into present tense, a tense that isolates in the immediate and admits of no connection with what has gone before or what might yet be to come. Vera lives and loves in a community that needs her while he is left alone.

The blurb on the jacket tells me that Makine has a list of publications about which I knew nothing, including Le Testament Francais, which won the Prix Goncourt and the Prix Medicis. This has to be my next purchase, I think, because I certainly want to read more by this remarkable author.

Cross posted at

Monday, October 01, 2007

The Woman Who Waited

In this remote corner of the Russian North, I had expected to discover a microcosm of the Soviet age, a caricature of that simultaneously messianic and stagnant time. But time was completely absent from these villages, which seemed as if they were living on after the disappearance of the regime, after the collapse of the empire. What I was passing through was, in effect, a kind of premonition of the future. All trace of history had been eradicated. What remained were the gilded slivers of the willow leaves on the dark surface of the lake, the first snows that generally came at night, the silence of the White Sea, looming beyond the forests. What remained was this woman in a long military greatcoat, following the shoreline, stopping at the mailbox where the roads met. What remained was the essence of things.

In the mid-seventies, after his girlfriend begins sleeping with other dissidents at parties and his friend leaves Leningrad for a new life outside the Iron Curtain, the narrator of The Woman Who Waited escapes to the Archangel provinces. Intending to write an anti-Soviet satire on the side while getting paid to research the folkways of the region, he instead finds himself writing about Vera, a woman old enough to be his mother yet beautiful enough, mysterious enough, to engage him totally.

Vera is an icon in the village--she tends to the elderly and dying, she buries the dead, she teaches what youth there are, she commands the respect of the most lecherous among them because she is waiting, waiting for her Boris who left when she was 16 to fight the German invasion, and who, after 30 years, has yet to return, yet to be declared definitively dead. Although younger than most women in Mirnoe, hers was a shared plight--most of the men never returned, leaving their widows and mothers to live and then die alone.

Acknowledging that he'd be better off researching folkways in a library, that there is nothing in the village to be satirical about, the narrator postpones his departure while he spies upon Vera and integrates himself into her daily life. As he learns more about her and her reasons for waiting, for returning to the village after eight years in Leningrad in the sixties pursuing a doctorate in linguistics, the narrator continually adjusts his earlier attempts to "size up" this woman whose life he'd previously regarded as "woefully simple."

Eventually the narrator and Vera sleep together. His joy at having bedded such a woman turns to dread and fear almost immediately: She'll depend on him! He'll never get rid of her! He prepares to leave the village without telling Vera good-bye. . . but Vera is at her boat same as any morning and she drops the narrator and his suitcase on the far side of the lake to make it easier for him to catch the train. She is calm and composed, defying all the narrator's expectations. While he has earlier stated he'd rather "deal with a verbal construct than a living person" once her mystery "has been tamed," her secret "has been decoded," the narrator is clearly leaving before he's reached that point. Anything he tells us about Vera ultimately tells us more about him than it does her.

Andrei Makine writes clean, spare prose. The gorgeous descriptions of the forests surrounding the abandoned villages and the lake's nocturnal beauty were enough to make me realize that given the chance I'd've chosen to live there instead of back in Leningrad among the hypocrisy and artificiality of the times.

Something I'd like to pay closer attention to on a reread: the narrator frequently mentions the artificiality of those he associates with. They play to the gallery, acting out caricatures; they force gaity; they act out and are upstaged; they "jot down a few fibs about the gnomes in their forests." I don't recall that Vera is ever presented as behaving inauthentically until the night she and the narrator sleep together, when play-acting suddenly comes to the fore.

Many thanks to Litlove for recommending this book. Crossposted at pages turned.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

The Woman Who Waited

Cross posted at A Work in Progress.

I'm a little late coming to the The Slaves of Golconda's discussion of Andrei Makine's The Woman Who Waited. I'm not entirely sure I can add anything new to the posts already found on the group blog, but I'll go ahead and add my thoughts anyway. I might give away a few spoilers, so if you plan on reading this novel, please beware.

The Woman Who Waited almost seems to be less about Vera, the woman who indeed has been waiting, than about the unnamed narrator who looks back on his experiences as a young man when he encountered this lovely woman. The narrator tells us his story from the space of many years later and at least as much distance, since he was able to flee to the West from Russia. As a young man of 26, however, he left Leningrad to travel north in order to record folk music and traditions of smaller villages. He was a young, hip intellectual, and my first impression wasn't particularly positive.

The village of Mirnoe where he takes up residence is populated with elderly women. They are women who lost their husbands and sons in the Second World War, and all that is left for them now is to wait for death. Amongst these women he encounters a much younger, and beautiful woman who is also waiting. When Vera was 16 in 1945 her lover went off to war never to return. She vowed to wait for him, and wait she did--30 years later she is still waiting. What initially irritated me about the narrator were his many assumptions about Vera. I don't know how much of any author's writing is autobiographical, but I had this feeling all through the book that in some way the narrator mirrored in some small way Makine's own life experiences. The narrator would write his ideas about Vera down in a notebook. He had seen her quite literally in all her nakedness, but we come to know later that he may have seen her body, but he didn't see inside her soul. As the story unfolded we see just how few of his assumptions about Vera were true. As a matter of fact, the more he learns about her, the more three dimensional she becomes.

It seems the greatest wish the narrator has is to quite literally possess Vera. She is this lovely woman, made to love and be loved, yet here she is with these old women, in her cavalry greatcoat, closed off to the world. The narrator begins his story:

"She is a woman so intensely destined for happiness (if only purely physical happiness, mere bodily well-being), and yet she has chosen, almost casually, it seems, solitude, loyalty to an absent one, a refusal to

Always be careful of what you wish for. When Vera finally accedes to his desires, a series of events causes the narrator to fear that he's now going to be strapped with her. The first flush of conquest fades quickly as he realizes the repercussions of his actions and all he can think of is leaving. His return to Leningrad, which he had put off for so long, is now foremost in his mind. In the end it is Vera herself who sees him off, and to his surprise she is not the clinging, weeping woman he expected her to be, but "...she is utterly brimming with a fresh, vibrant youthfulness that is in the process of being born...".

Makine's prose is gorgeous. This is just the sort of book, slender though it may be, that I feel like the first read is for content solely. I can give you a description of what occurred in the novel (and sorry, as that actually feels patchy at best), but I feel like I need to read it again to unravel all its secrets and truly enjoy the imagery, and this novel is chock full of beautiful imagery. Makine was born in the Soviet Union, but he defected to France in 1987. He writes in French. I'll be digging out his previous novels from my bookshelves, which have sat unread for far too long. Many thanks to Litlove for selecting this book!

The Woman Who Waited

Thank you, Litlove, for recommending this book to us! Andrei Makine’s The Woman Who Waited was the Slaves of Golconda group read this time around; it’s a short novel about a woman, Vera, waiting in a small Russian village for her lover to return from the war. She’s been waiting for 30 years. Actually, what the novel is really about is the unnamed narrator’s attempts to tell Vera’s life story. The Woman Who Waited is the story of how he tries to understand who she is and why she has waited so long, instead of leaving the decaying town and forging a life elsewhere. She’s a mystery the narrative dances around.

The narrator has come to Vera’s town, Mirnoe, on a research project; he is supposed to write reports on “local habits and customs.” His instructions are to “go and jot down a few fibs about the gnomes in their forests” and on the side he will gather material for an “anti-Soviet satire.” And so, befitting this project, he comes to the town with a detached and ironic attitude, ready to observe and pass judgment on the simple villagers clinging to their old ways.

When he arrives in Mirnoe, however, he quickly finds that the reality of the place will not let him keep his distance or maintain his ironic pose. In one episode, the narrator and Vera travel to a nearby village to persuade its last inhabitant to leave her home and move to Mirnoe. The narrator finds himself shaken by what he sees:

I went over to them, offered my help. I saw they both had slightly reddened eyes. I reflected on my ironic reaction just now when reading that sentence about Stalin ordering the defence of Leningrad. Such had been the sarcastic tone prevalent in our dissident intellectual circle. A humour that provided real mental comfort, for it placed us above the fray. Now, observing these two women who had just shed a few tears as they reached their decision, I sensed that our irony was in collision with something that went beyond it.

He sees the real human suffering that lies behind historical events, events he had only understood before in their broad sweep.

But it is the narrator’s changing feelings toward Vera that really shake him out of his detachment (some spoilers ahead). He cannot understand what motivates her to continue waiting; he cannot pierce the mystery that he sees whenever he observes her. And much of the novel is exactly that — the narrator watching Vera, following her every move, trying to figure out what she is doing, where she is going, what she is feeling and thinking. The novel’s opening portrays his attempts to understand her and the way that language fails him; we first get a sentence of description in quotation marks, as though it’s from a journal or an essay, followed by this:

This is the sentence I wrote down at that crucial moment when we believe we have another person’s measure (this woman, Vera’s). Up to that point all is curiosity, guesswork, a hankering after confessions. Hunger for the other person, the lure of their hidden depths. But once their secret has been decoded, along come these words, often pretentious and dogmatic, dissecting, pinpointing, categorizing … The other one’s mystery has been tamed.

The statement and commentary that comprise the novel’s first page show the limits of language one encounters when trying to understand another human being. The novel is a kind of unraveling, moving from this certainty toward uncertainty and surprise. The narrator never does really understand Vera, and he tries in many ways, spending time with her, talking with her, stalking her, finally becoming her lover. She always eludes him, and ultimately she proves herself to be much more sophisticated, rational, and in control than he could ever be. She may seem foolish and pathetic for having spent her life waiting for a lover who will never return, and yet she has found peace and beauty and a kind of contentment.

The novel’s writing is beautiful, spare and suggestive; it captures the landscape of northern Russia with its forests, lakes, and snow. It makes me long to be there. I must admit that this is one of those books that I’m liking more and more as I write about it; at first my reaction was admiring but a little dispassionate. The more I think about it, though, the more I appreciate what a wonderful creation Vera is and what a powerful evocation Makine has given us of one person’s fumbling attempts to grapple with the mystery of another life.

Luminous Prose

The Woman Who Waited, by Andrei Makine

Life, the narrator tells us, is a constant mixture of genres. He is writing an anti-Soviet satire while simultaneously recording legends and myths of village life, and this novel is an autobiographical product of it all. From the first page of this book, we were reminded of the fiction of Milan Kundera, whose novels are less about characters and events than they are about the author writing the novel about those characters and events. The Woman Who Waited purports to be about a woman who's been waiting thirty years for the man she loves to return from the war; it is more about the narrator who writes about her.

Vera waits for the man she loves because she is convinced he will return; otherwise, love will mean nothing more than the satisfaction of a carnal instinct. She sits at the end of a bench in her house where she can look out the window across the fields to the crossroads where she could see anyone approaching. She waits for the man she loves, and she watches for him too, and at times a dark figure appears and then disappears again. She waits for him and sees him in her mind the way Heathcliff did Cathy.

Here is what Makine does best, writing what the narrator calls "luminous moments rescued from time," something very similar to Proust's privileged moment:
A very thin layer of ice had formed at the bottom of the well. (I had just caught up with Vera, who was drawing water.) As the ice broke, it sounded like a harpsichord. We looked at one another. We were each about to remark on the beauty of this tinkling sound, then thought better of it. The resonance of the harpsichord had faded into the radiance of the air, it blended with the wistfully repeated notes of an oriole, with the scent of a wood fire coming from the nearby izba. The beauty of that moment was quite simply becoming our life.
The narrator and Vera are drawn to one another by the sharing of these accumulated moments. She finally gives herself to him, and their encounter ends abruptly at the sound of a door or window. She rushes to the window to watch outside for the man she loves, perhaps fearful that she has waited for thirty years and now, when she finally allows herself the embrace of another, the man she loves returns to find she has stopped waiting for him.

First the narrator feels pride at being able to seduce this woman so intent on waiting for another. Then he feels shame. Finally, he fears that he will now be the center of Vera's life, that she will cling to him, and that he will owe it to her. And then she shows him the way out of town. He has not taken the place of the man she loves, and he has not released her from waiting. Instead, Vera has learned that the emotion between them was an illusion of love, and that the ghostly figure she sees outside, the dream she waits for, is the reality of love. The narrator has renewed her ability to wait once more, forever more, for the man she loves.

There is great emphasis in this novel on time. In the village of Mirnoe, the narrator discovers a floating, suspended time. There is a collective forgetting of the past. Vera, however, remembers the past exclusively--it is the present and the future that she forgets. And each evening the narrator prepares to leave the village, but each morning he stays, as if replaying the same day over and over. He finds time is completely absent from the village, history has been eradicated, and all that remains is the essence of things.

The only thing more historically founded than Soviet life is Christianity. The ten days that shook the world, the rise of the proletariat, the dissolution of the state all happen, or were meant to happen, in historical time. Vera lives, physically and emotionally, in a place beyond time. And even though thirty years pass while she waits, the essence of life remains. The Woman Who Waited is the narrator's satire, ridiculing the historical failure that is Soviet life.

This was our first experience reading Makine, and it was enjoyable. To the comparisons with Kundera and Proust, we can add Nabokov and Kadare. Indeed, there seems to be an impressive strain running through eastern European fiction of illuminating a privileged moment, of uncovering the essence of life that most American fiction lacks. We would certainly recommend The Woman Who Waited. It doesn't matter if you already know the plot, the enjoyment comes in sharing the experience of the luminous moments.

...cross-posted at Necessary Acts of Devotion.

What is She Waiting For?

Emerson is postponed until tomorrow due to the Slaves of Golconda discussion of Andreï Makine's novel The Woman Who Waited beginning today.

There is not much of a plot to this book, character is the thing here. But there has to be some kind of plot for character development and it is this: near the end of World War II, nineteen-year-old Boris Koptek of the small Russian village of Mirnoe is sent off to a war that is winding down. He promises sixteen-year-old Vera that he will marry her when he returns. He doesn't return. He is reported killed in action but Vera does not believe it. She believes that Koptek is still alive and will return for her like he promised. The novel begins thirty years after their parting. Vera is living in Mirnoe, teaching in a one-room schoolhouse several miles away. She has also taken it upon herself to care for the old women of Mirnoe and the surrounding hamlets and villages as they and their way of life die out.

Onto the scene arrives a twenty-six-year-old cynical researcher from Leningrad who has come to record the old stories and rituals before there is no one left to tell them or perform them. But Vera captures his imagination. The novel is told from the point of view of the narrator and as time passes he puts forth various theories as to who Vera is and why she is waiting.

Because Vera does not talk about why she is waiting, everyone is free to make up their own reasons and the reasons they come up with say more about themselves than they do about Vera. The narrator tries to explain Vera by determining that waiting was not her choice, she was simply caught in an era. He blames the villagers. He blames Vera, assumes she is uneducated but eventually finds out that Vera went to university and is all but dissertation on a Ph.D in linguistics. She chose not to finish because life in Leningrad felt artificial in spite of how exciting it all was. This it seems to me is the crux of the situation.

Vera could leave. And Vera did leave for a number of years but chose to return. Her life in Mirnoe is straightforward, simple. Her life is real, without pretensions, no one to impress, she is simply and always herself which gives a depth and meaning to her life that she did not find in Leningrad. Throughout the novel we are able to contrast Vera's life with that of the narrator's. His life in Leningrad is filled with casual and meaningless sex. He attends dissident meetings at the Wigwam where they elevate themselves as intellectuals and write political poetry of questionable merit. When a perceived intellectual from the West visits, they all try to impress him and jockey for recognition.

The narrator's arrival in Mirnoe is, he admits, an escape:
I had come to escape from people who found our times too slow. But what I was really fleeing was myself, since I differed very little from them.
As he tries to figure out Vera, he digs through the artificiality of himself to what is real. At one point he even tries to use literature as a means to understand Vera's life,
But this unbelievable wait of thirty years (I was a mere twenty-six myself) struck me as too monstrous, too unarguable, to give rise to any moral debate. And, above all, much too improbable to feature in a book. A period of waiting far too long, too grievously real, for any work of fiction.
And eventually the narrator realizes the smug cynicism and irony from which he operates only serves to protect him from the real and cut him off from a life of meaning:
Such had been the sarcastic tone prevalent in our dissident circle. A humor that provided real mental comfort, for it placed us above the fray. Now, observing these two women who had just shed a few tears as they reached their decision, I sensed that our irony was in collision with something that went beyond it. "Rustic sentimentality," would have been our sneering comment at the Wigwam. "Les mis&#233rables, Soviet style..." Such mockery would have been wide of the mark, I now knew. What was essential was these women's hands loading the totality of a human being's material existence onto the little cart.
But in spite of all the narrator learns, after he ever so briefly becomes real, he shrinks back, afraid. He decides to depart, to leave Vera with whom he has fallen in love to return to his safe and artificial life in Leningrad. Leaving is not as easy as he thought:
One could stop, melt into this time where there are no hours. I look back: a faint hint of smoke hovers above the chimney of the house I have just left. Poignant gratitude, fear of not being able to tear oneself away from this beauty.
He is afraid too of seeing Vera, of the scene she might make over his leaving. Of course he runs smack into her and is once again startled by her matter-of-fact and unruffled calm.

It is a sad story but it isn't Vera and her waiting that makes it sad, it is the narrator. We only know slightly more about Vera at the end than we do when we start the book. The narrator makes a journey both physically and emotionally. I found myself wishing he would stay in Mirnoe and when he doesn't, when he decides to give up a life of meaning and depth to return to the protection of irony, I was sad. I hope that he will be a different person because of his experience. The novel is written from an unidentified present about the past and the narrator's present is as ambiguous to the reader as Vera's life was to him in the past. And I am still wondering, did he learn something?

I loved the book. Makine has a gorgeous prose style and the tone is soft and understated. Though it appears I have said a lot about the book, there is much I have left out so in case you haven't read it, nothing is ruined for you. And I would recommend that you read it. I had never heard of Makine before now. This will definitely not be the last of his books I read.

Cross-posted at So Many Books

Makine: The Art of Waiting

I don’t know that I’ve ever thought about a blog post as much as I’ve had occasion to think about this one. For a long time it’s been a distant speck on the horizon, the post I would write when I was well enough to do so; and then all of last week I was testing my desire to write against my capacity to do so. But what repeatedly quickened my pulse and compelled me towards the keyboard was the subject matter of this novel by Andrei Makine. Waiting to get well when you have ME is a dreary, dull affair; your heart pumps less blood than the average person’s, your digestion fails to derive the benefit it should from food, and you have exhausted your reserves of adrenalin, a surprisingly vital element in so many processes. It’s like trying to drive a car with a leaky battery, insufficient fuel and no oil, and all that can be done is wait until the body slowly restores some form of equilibrium. As stimulation without adrenalin is simply painful, you have to live in a tomb-like atmosphere, meditation and light sleep rather than books or television or conversation. I think of it as a life beyond death. But if only I had read Makine’s novel earlier! I might have been able to make something more dignified, more stately, more meaningful of my endless waiting, for in this novel waiting becomes an existential art form, possessed of an exquisite and enigmatic kind of beauty. I suspect, however, that an English village is not the ideal setting for proper literary waiting, and that one needs the icy wastes of a Russian hamlet abandoned by history and freezing itself slowly into winter to really embrace suspended animation.

I’m not entirely sure I was supposed to, but I fell in love with the pure, chilly landscape of rural Russia and the representation of life pared down to its fundamental simplicity. Makine creates the most gorgeous images to evoke this static, frozen world; the ice breaking on the lake with the sound of a harpsichord as a rowing boat is pushed out into it, ‘the fragile lace of early morning hoar-frost on the rim of a well, the fall of an apple from a bare branch in a silence so limpid you could hear the rustle of the grass beneath the fallen fruit.’ Such vivid perception is the advantage of a life in which there is nothing to do beyond the simple tasks of survival, nothing to cloud the senses, which are free to soak up the glory of an otherwise desolate scene. But into this serene emptiness a very specific kind of waiting is inserted, and it is this which fascinates the narrator and provides the heart of the tale. Mirnoe is a Russian hamlet full of abandoned women, whose men all fell in the Second World War. Whilst most are old and awaiting only death, the still beautiful Vera has been waiting for the past 30 years for the return of her soldier lover. Our narrator, a callow youth in his twenties, (although he writes from the perspective of an older man recalling this episode) is obsessed by Vera’s unreasonable fidelity and longs to crack her as if she were a particularly complicated code.

So if all novels focus their elements around a central issue, in this novel the problem to be solved is that of desire. It’s a profoundly sensual narrative, written from the perspective of a young man entranced by sexuality but a stranger still to love, and the beauty of the descriptions often arises from the odd juxtaposition of their deathly stillness and his vibrant sensuality. Desire, by rights, should bring things to life; desire is what compels us into headlong flights and passionate graspings and overwhelming needs. How can Vera possibly live her desire for her soldier as if it were a trance, a state of zen? How can she have allowed her lost love to dominate her lost life? How can she possess a ‘body capable of giving itself, of taking pleasure, directly, naturally’ and not use it? Whilst on the one hand these speculations award Vera an iconic status in the narrator’s mind, it is not long before he is determined to break her self-elected celibacy by imposing his own youthful and desiring body upon her.

[Spoilers ahead, if you don’t want to know what happens.] One of my favourite moments in the narrative is when the narrator and Vera head deep into the forest to rescue an elderly woman, Katarina, who is living in complete isolation. When they finally find her, she is living in the strangest house, or izba, for within the ruins of a larger dwelling she has created a miniature izba, a kind of doll’s house. This image is symbolic, I think, of the narrator’s relationship to Vera’s desire (as he fantasizes it). The narrator wants to insert himself into Vera’s desire like the tiny house as it huddles within the larger framework. He wants to put himself within her desire to see what it feels like, but before he achieves this goal, he imagines that it will not disrupt the overarching desire for the lost soldier. However, once he and Vera have slept together, the rapid, panicky oscillations of his desire are almost comic, and wonderfully offset by Vera’s continued enigmatic calm. His conqueror’s triumph is swiftly replaced by fear that he will now bear the whole burden of her imagined longings, and his excuses to remain in Mirnoe are instantly replaced with a very ungentlemanly imperative to run away. But Vera not only has the last laugh, she also retains her beautifully serene integrity. When she meets him on the morning of his departure, it is not to make a scene but to row him across the lake to help him on his way. Our narrator finds himself on the other side of their affair and none the wiser; it seems that Vera’s desire was far easier to satisfy than he had imagined, and far more complex and enigmatic than he had ever guessed.

Ah what a wonderfully French book this was! It may seem ultimately a light concoction, whipped up out of gorgeous prose, and about nothing more weighty than whether an older woman will take a younger man as a lover. But Makine has a good European eye for the vagaries of desire, which is always the place where we reveal ourselves in all our intransigence, where we will be endlessly surprised and wrong-footed, and where the most intimate knowledge of a stranger turns out to be both tenderly precious and entirely useless. Desire is where we will find a kind of bedrock of the self, but it will always be opaque and mysterious, and it will lead us into transactions with others that are rewarding and perplexing in equal measure. And we can wait as long as we like for answers to the questions it poses without ever finding them. Maybe waiting itself is what tames desire, but the lovely Vera suggests by the end of this novel, that this both is and is not true.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

And The Winner Is....

The next book up for discussion on September 31st will be Andrei Makine's The Woman who Waited.

After a very close run battle with Colette's The Pure and Impure, Makine proved the most popular. He was born in Siberia in 1957 but has lived in France since seeking asylum there in1987. His first novel was published in 1990 and he has written 10 altogether, winning the prestigious Prix Goncourt in 1995. The Woman who Waited has been described by critics as 'luminous, enthralling' and 'deeply felt and often very moving.' Let's hope we like it as much, eh? People who wish to buy this could always try The Book Depository, which I believe has free shipping to the States.

Happy reading, fellow Slaves!

Monday, August 06, 2007

What's next

Thank you all for participating in the last round of discussions whether it was here or at your own blog. I appreciated the attempts to share your views even though the book wasn't to your liking.

Perhaps the next selection will fare better? Eloquent litlove from Tales of the Reading Room has consented to pick the next book for discussion. I'm sure that it will prove to be excellent. We will reconvene at September *30th. See you then and enjoy the rest of your summer!

*Ouch. It seems as though I've forgotten the rhyme from my primary school days.

Friday, August 03, 2007

"The sun is sinking fast"

Is Sleepless Nights by Elizabeth Hardwick an experimental novel? If it is, as Dorothy described it, it's the first I've unabashedly enjoyed after a shaky start. It is fragmentary but not in the sense that any section or chapter is disposable. It's a collection of connected portraitures that, by their different colours and brush strokes one can create an idea of the writer. The fragmentary style, the focus on romantic relationships, many ending with betrayal and divorce, reminded me of The Good Soldier; but it's more like Caroline Greenwood's Great Granny Webster in its short length and focused depiction on memorable characters. Two different kind of sensibilities.

The woman in the novel is going through her memories, sifting through old letters in an effort to reconstruct her past. I don't know if the reading experience was intentionally meant to mimic the difficulty of the task but I found the first few pages disorienting. There was nothing for my mind to glom onto and up until her Kentucky memories, found it an easy book to set aside for another day. After that I found the descriptions of her characters compelling enough that I rushed to the end. Some of her descriptions were marvellous: unique in their diction yet they captured recognisable qualities. One of my favourites is a description of Ida in part nine, the most memorable chapter for me because she recalled the cleaning women, Ida and Josette, with such sincere warmth and affection.

Large head, large teeth, large carpet slippers, and the large arms that have been wringing, pulling, lifting for a lifetime. All of the large parts of the body hurt in some way, even if all are strong....Twice a week she goes touring about town...and she makes her laundry deliveries. Groans and loud, hoarse laughter as she hauls first herself and then the laundry baskets out of the sinking back seat. Not much over thirty years old then, but no hint of youth except for the curls which have been formed by pins clamped next to her ears. Reddish curls, large, round, reddish face, and a voice large and reddish.

Its vibrancy was emphasized by the very different Josette, a contrast Hardwick employed often to clarify the distinctive characteristics of the people, places or objects she remembered.

Josette raced around Boston like a migrant bird. Sometimes Irish maids, fresh-faced even into old age from birth in a countryside somewhere, were taken aback by her industrial grayness, that discoloring gene of the mills and the shoe factories.

Josette's compassionate and accepting nature cannot obscure her physical bleakness that hints at biological weaknesses. She has cancer, a mastectomy on both of her breasts. Death is a constant, with its different facets presented as Hardwick presented different sides to love. From Kentucky, the "cemetery of home" that "waits to be desecrated", to the wildly self-destructive force of Billie Holiday, Manhattan's embalmed rich with their hoarded treasures, and the living "hearse of love" that is an elderly parent unexpectedly foisted on to an offspring. There are the early deaths of the writer's friend J.; Billie Holiday; an old (perhaps her first) lover; a young prostitute from her home town in Kentucky; to the more "natural" deaths of her husband's parents, one before and during their one year stay in Amsterdam, and Josette and her husband Michael. If they are not dead, they are nearly there, like Ms Cramer. Alex, a friend and transient lover, is one of the few characters left in their prime, but Hardwick counters this by connecting his then bachelor life to a gloomy future as shown in two elderly men in Vermont who unwillingly returned to the bachelor life: a wife of one had left him for another, and the second was a widow.

It is not strange for someone who has lived a long life, as it seems the the writer in the story has, and Hardwick herself was 60 when the book was published. Love and death are elemental parts of life's existence. What's interesting is how unobtrusively it is inserted, how pragmatically it is often noted. For all its frequency on the first read it is does not produce an overbearing, dramatic, or depressing effect, at least it didn't for me. One simply nods and takes it in, perhaps too taken with the persons when alive to notice the inevitable undercurrent too much.

Love is depicted depressingly enough, or at least portrayed in all its very modern condition. Or perhaps the better word is sexual relations? The Elizabeth of the novel mentions a time in her youth when she had sex "merely to have it" but never recalls a time when it was pleasurable; suggestive because she was married for an unspecified number of years. Persons of various sexual persuasions have relationships that are doomed from the start because of the personalities involved. Divorce is the rule of the day with the novel's Elizabeth no exception. Women are left to soothe themselves with art or to seek reassurance from similar victims that life post-divorce is OK:

Two women recently divorced came up to me with inquisitorial and serious frowns. Are you lonely? they asked.

Not always.

That's marvelous, the first one said, smiling. The second said, gravely: Terrific.

The earliest mentions of sex in the book is the predatory bribes of a "very nice-looking old man" to young girls, shame-tainted episodes in a house in a seedy side of town with an older gentleman when she was 18, and the lurid end of a young prostitutes life from STDs. And she makes brief allusions to drunken encounters with drunk frat boys.

Again it's odd how the details look very glum so baldly laid out, but attain a natural, flexible life in the story in which one merely accepts it as part of the story and is not disturbed or unduly bothered by it. But Hardwick acknowledges the intentional tone behind the recounts of such moments: "Sentences in which I have tried for a certain light tone -- many of those have to do with events, upheavals, destructions that caused me to weep like a child."

In the end I can only be pleased at a writer who places in an autobiographical novel everyone but herself at the forefront. For a New York novel it misses all the stereotypes. It encompasses persons who are truly from all levels of society -- in which "starving artists" are certainly not the most destitute -- with those of the working class meriting more vibrant descriptions that almost anyone else. There are deadly swipes at the "frozen intellectuals", depictions free from clumsy inclusions of a plucky, white middle-class hero. On the first read through I retained a vague pleasure. On the second I leave with a finer view into the unending facets of the people one meets in ordinary life, provided in superior form by an inveterate observer. Connections between chapters were easier to catch and a discernible if not cohesive design emerged. It's a book that requires rereading, I think. (Only for those who enjoyed it the first time through of course. I'm no proponent of torture.)

Cross-posted at The Books of My Numberless Dreams.

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Tales from the Life of an Observer

I read Elizabeth Hardwick’s novel Sleepless Nights (New York Review Books Classics) for the Slaves of Golconda this month. If I had to give the book a subtitle, it would be "Tales from the Life of an Observer." This book is probably the novel least like a novel that I have ever read. There’s not a real way to summarize the plot, because it doesn’t really have a plot. Instead it is a novel of fragments, snatches of memory from a woman’s life. The narrator seems to be Elizabeth Hardwick, and not Elizabeth Hardwick. It is an autobiographical novel, but Hardwick is cagy even about categorizing it thus. And she reminds us in the first paragraph of the book that memory is not to be trusted. She writes from the perspective of an old woman looking back on her life, and calls this story “work of transformed and even distorted memory”. And then she says, “If only one knew what to remember or pretend to remember.”

The back jacket copy of the book calls the book a “scrapbook of memories, reflections, portraits, letters, wishes, and dreams”, and I like this description. It is this, and it is a portrait of a woman as seen out of the corner of the eye. The narrator doesn’t really tell us about her life, she tells us about the lives of the people around her, and we have to read between the lines to figure out who she is. So it seems that we are the ones assembling a scrapbook or collage, sifting through the details that seem to make up this woman’s life. It is an odd experience, reading this way, but I don’t think it’s unpleasant, just different for me. I’m used to a more straightforward narrative, and though it can be frustrating, it is also sometimes like reading poetry.

And as I got to know the narrator, I found that she is, like many writers, an obsessive observer. She is distracted from her own life by watching others, and finds meaning in her own life by watching others. She observes these peripheral characters in her life--people like a young prostitute in her Kentucky town, her homosexual roommate in New York, a guilty, sad woman with a mentally ill son, a neighbor who was an opera singer but becomes a bag lady, even Billie Holliday—she watches them and comments on their pain (mostly their pain, as this is not a book about happy people), and we can tell that she is compelled to do so, and defines herself by doing so.

Hardwick’s minimalist descriptions often pack a real punch. What seems at first to be a mere list of words could eventually bring tears to my eyes.

Here’s a description of life in New York for those of a certain class:

How pleasant the rooms were, how comforting the distresses of New Yorkers, their insomnias filled with words, their patient exegesis of surprising terrors. Divorce, abandonment, the unacceptable and the unattainable, ennui filled with action, sad, tumultuous middle-age years shaken by crashings, uprootings, coups, desperate renewals. Weaknesses discovered, hidden forces unmasked, predictions, what will last and what is doomed, what will start and what will end. Work and love; the idle imagining the pleasure of the working ones. Those who work and their quizzical frowns which ask: When will something new come to me? After all I am a sort of success.
She goes on to say: “There was talk about poverty. Poverty is very big this year, someone said.”

But then she goes on to describe poverty on the streets of New York, a very personal description of the bag ladies, who seem somehow emblematic of all women, to Hardwick:
A woman’s city, New York. The bag ladies sit in their rags, hugging their load of rubbish so closely it forms a part of their own bodies. Head, wrapped in an old piece of flannel, peers out from the rubbish of a spotted melon. Pitiful, swollen sores drip red next to the bag of tomatoes. One lady holds an empty perfume bottle with a knuckle on top of it indistinguishable from her finger. They and their rubbish a parasitic growth heavy with suffering; the broken glass screams, the broken veins weep; the toes ache along with the ache of the slashed boot. Have mercy on them, someone.
Hardwick's descriptions are always raw, always thought-provoking. As Geoffrey O'Brien says in the introduction to the novel, "The experiences that are evoked, described, brought to life, are at the same time shown to be words, tokens, emblems." I felt that the words, tokens, emblems were beautiful, but sometimes hard to decode.

This is a novel about a woman’s thoughts and observations, and through those thoughts and observations, we get glimpses of her life, but it’s a picture we have to put together ourselves. I found this plotlessness at times frustrating and at times mind-expanding. Sometimes her observations would send my thoughts off on surprising tangents. And the writing was often poetic and beautiful, so I enjoyed reading it, though I didn’t feel it always held together as a narrative.