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Posts Tagged ‘A month of re-reading’

great gatsby

Since finishing my re-read of The Great Gatsby I have been conscious of two nagging questions 1) How could I have forgotten how brilliant a novel it is? and 2) how on earth do I even begin to review what many people consider one of the greatest American novels of all time?

The Great Gatsby is a great American novel about the great American dream, with all its disillusions and disappointments. It is also a novel about the 1920’s society, that jazz age of bright young things and their endless parties, which was a world that Fitzgerald himself had experienced.

The narrator of the novel is Nick Carraway – a poor young bondsman a Yale graduate and war veteran – he has rented a small house on Long island right next to a huge mansion. The owner of the mansion is the mysterious Jay Gatsby, an enigma, a party giver who stands at a distance from the heady amoral society that he has collected around him. Gatsby appears to be a self-made man, the epitome of the American dream. Those who come to party at his house wonder about their host – who is Jay Gatsby? – is it true he once killed a man?

“In his blue gardens men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars.”

Nick’s cousin Daisy Buchanan a beautiful, fragile flapper is shallow and self-absorbed, married to the bullish Tom. Tom Buchanan is a violent white supremacist with a mistress who he proudly introduces to Nick. At the Buchanan’s house Nick meets Jordan Baker, a friend of Daisy’s and an amateur golfer with whom Nick begins a relationship. It’s Jordan who first tells Nick about Gatsby, and later that summer Nick receives an invitation to one of the glittering parties that lights up the bay.
Unknown to Tom Buchanan, Daisy once had a brief romance with Gatsby. Gatsby has been drawn to Long Island in his obsessive pursuit of Daisy who he loves terribly and hopelessly. Gatsby gazes at the green light at the end of the Buchanan’s dock across the bay from his own mansion – desperately longing to re-kindle their romance.

“And as I sat there brooding on the old, unknown world, I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn, and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.”

Meanwhile In the valley of ashes lives George and Muriel Wilson – George is a mechanic and garage owner, he works on Tom Buchanan’s car, Muriel is Tom’s mistress, she despises her husband, but is treated horribly by Tom. Nick is drawn into the story of Daisy and Gatsby orchestrating a reunion between the pair, feelings are reignited after the initial strained meeting. For anyone who has not read the book I’ll say no more, but of course the stage is set for tragedy and disillusion.

“His heart beat faster and faster as Daisy’s white face came up to his own. He knew that when he kissed this girl, and forever wed his unutterable visions to her perishable breath, his mind would never romp again like the mind of God. So he waited, listening for a moment longer to the tuning fork that had been struck upon a star. Then he kissed her. At his lips’ touch she blossomed like a flower and the incarnation was complete.”

The Great Gatsby is quite simply a glorious piece of writing, generally considered to be Fitzgerald’s best work. It seems as if some of Fitzgerald’s earlier work suffers by comparison to Gatsby.
Just consider the last line of the novel:

“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

How absolutely perfect.

Re-reading Gatsby has really whetted my appetite for more Fitzgerald, and I am reminded that I have never read his first novel – which I think generally, suffers in reviews from being unfairly compared to Gatsby – or his short stories, which I do have on my kindle. I was upset to discover I no longer own a copy of Tender is the Night – which I remember being mesmerised by and originally preferring to Gatsby – what happens to the books we think we own, but have disappeared?

Reading this wonderful novel has almost inevitably led me to the purchase of another book – which was absolutely crying out to me having finished Gatsby –  but then I haven’t been buying that many books just lately – ok so that’s a lie.

F Scott Fitzgerald

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barchestertowers

Barchester Towers is the first of my re-reads for July, as I explained recently I most likely only be doing three re-reads this time due to Brookner in July and some review books that I need to get around to.

Barchester Towers is the second of the famous Barchester Chronicles. It is I think a favourite with many Trollope fans – as it reacquaints the reader with Mr Harding and his daughter Eleanor who we first met in The Warden, and proceeds to introduce a whole host of memorable characters.

The first chronicle of Barset; ‘The Warden’, mainly concerned the wardenship of the old Hiram hospital, and the romance of Eleanor and John Bold. Now at the beginning of Barchester Towers the Wardenship of the hospital is still vacant and pretty young Eleanor is a widow with a young baby. Archdeacon Grantly – Mr Harding’s son in law and the son of the Bishop of Barchester dares to dream of stepping into his father’s shoes when the old man dies, however a change in government sees Dr Proudie appointed bishop. Dr Proudie brings to Barchester a formidable entourage in his wife Mrs Proudie and his chaplain the socially ambitious and conniving Mr Slope.

“It is not my intention to breathe a word against the character of Mrs Proudie, but still I cannot think that with all her virtues she adds much to her husband’s happiness. The truth is that in matters domestic she rules supreme over her titular lord, and rules with a rod of iron. Nor is this all. Things domestic Dr Proudie might have abandoned to her, if not voluntarily, yet willingly. But Mrs Proudie is not satisfied with such home dominion, and stretches her power over all his movements, and will not even abstain from things spiritual. In fact, the bishop is hen-pecked……..”

As Trollope characters go – old Mr Harding must surely be a favourite – I do love him, but in the Proudies and the odious Mr Slope he created such hilariously dreadful and memorable characters, that over 150 years later readers still love to hate them. In this social comedy the questions are: who will be warden? Who will be dean? Who will marry Eleanor? The Proudies and Slope quickly set themselves against the Grantly/Harding faction, and while Mrs Proudie and Mr Slope each separately contrive to influence the bishop to their way of thinking, Dr Grantly and Mr Harding determine to have as little to do with the slimy little bishop’s chaplain as is possible. Dr Grantly is therefore particularly disgusted to find Eleanor, his sister in law, to be less inclined to believe in Mr Slope as the enemy as the rest of her family.
As an attractive young widow with £1200 a year – albeit with the encumbrance of a child, Eleanor is sure to attract admirers. Naturally Mr Slope is very quick to appreciate Eleanor Bold’s charms – and sets about using the question of the hospital wardenship – and Mr Harding’s potential re-appointment – to his advantage.
Then enter the Stanhope family, back from Italy. One daughter Madeline is an abused wife, who has left her husband. Disabled by an accident which she simply won’t allow to detract from her beauty she contrives to be carried everywhere – whereupon she arranges herself to best advantage on a sofa. Madeline’s sister Charlotte is keen to help her brother Bertie to win the hand of Eleanor Bold, and befriends Eleanor with this is mind. Bertie, up to eyes in debt, then becomes suitor number two. Madeline meanwhile – despite still a married woman – also catches the eye of Mr Slope. Mr Arabin a forty year old bachelor clergyman, not very experienced in the ways of women and romance, and a friend of Dr Grantley’s, meets Eleanor while she is staying with her sister and brother in law. Only when Mr Arabin hears Eleanor’s name linked with that of Mr Slope – does Mr Arabin begin to see her in a new light.
Trollope’s interest lay very much in exposing the ironies and hypocrisies that he saw in the Church. The ambitions and pride of men who profess to be working for God, juxtaposed with those humble, good men who only ever do good. Mr Slope, obviously one of the former, Mr Harding and Mr Arabin the latter. Alongside the conniving machinations and rivalry though, there is a little romance, and a great deal of humour.

On the down side – oh my how Trollope loved to spin things out – some sections do need a darn good edit, not a man to use ten words where two hundred would do just as well. That aside, I do like Anthony Trollope very much, his stories are great entertainment, his characters very much real people.

trollope

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July has been my month of re-reading, and what a joy it has been. Reading books I knew I had loved, and in some cases forgotten was a very real pleasure. On the whole my opinion of the books remained the same, athough I don’t think I appreciated Elizabeth Bowen properly when I first read her – so that was a chance to reaquaint mysef with a book I knew I should have liked more, and this time I certainly did.

So in July I read 12 books 11 were re-reads one The Gipsey’s Baby was a new read – I  only  read one non fiction. Here they are.

67 The Trumpet Major (1880) Thomas Hardy (F)
68 Cold Comfort Farm (1932) Stella Gibbons (F)
69 Angel (1957) Elizabeth Taylor (F)
70 Northanger Abbey (1817) Jane Austen (F)
71 My Antonia (1918) Willa Cather (F)
72 Dead Man’s Folly (1957) Agatha Christie (F)
73 A Passage to India (1924) E M Forster (F)
74 Villette (1854) Charlotte Bronte (F)
75 Invitation to the Waltz (1932) Rosamond Lehmann (F)
76 The Gypsy’s baby (1946) Rosamond Lehmann (F)
77 Secret Histories (2004) Emma Larkin (NF)
78 The Death of the Heart (1938) Elizabeth Bowen (F)

My special mentions this month – goodness it is hard to choose but I think I’ll go for:

1 The Trumpet Major – I love Hardy and every word was a joy for me – I loved the lighter feel of this one.

2 Northanger Abbey – What a joy Austen is – I now want to re-read them all.

3 Secret Histories – I love this non fiction book about George Orwell and Burma

4 The Death of the Heart – the second Elizabeth Bowen I have read this year – and I am now intending to read many more.

   

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This is a novel I know I read a very long time ago. No doubt though, it was when I was too young to appreciate Elizabeth Bowen’s writing. She is something of an acquired taste I suppose; I know some people consider her to be difficult.
Elizabeth Bowen is absolutely brilliant at completely capturing the world that she is writing about. Emotionally cold upper class people in a large, virtually empty London house. Laced with secrets and adolescent awkwardness, the bitterness of teenage betrayal, The Death of the Heart is an exquisitely written novel. When I look back over this novel, I think of fur coats and London fog, tea by the fire, the sudden ringing of telephones and the desolate sound of heels on an empty hall floor.

“On a footbridge between an island and the mainland a man and woman stood talking, leaning on the rail. In the intense cold which made everyone hurry, they had chosen to make this long summerlike pause.  Their oblivious stillness made them look like lovers – actually, their elbows were some inches apart; they were rivited not to each other but to what she said. Their thick coats made their figures sexless and stiff as chessmen; they were well-to-do, inside bulwarks of fur and cloth their bodies generated a steady warmth; they could only see the cold – or, if they felt it they only felt it at their extremities.”

Having recently lost her mother, Portia is just sixteen when she comes to stay with her much older half-brother Thomas and his wife the distant cold Anna. Anna takes a dislike to her; Thomas though is embarrassed by Portia, who was the result of an affair between his father and Portia’s mother. Neither Thomas or Anna have any idea how to deal with Portia, she is in a sense left to her own devices, and develops a much better relationship with the maid than with either of them. Eddie, a younger friend of Anna’s is selfish, shallow and often cruel. He enjoys toying with the innocent Portia, caring nothing for the consequences he allows Portia to fall in love with him, she hangs on his every word, believes in everything he says absolutely. Portia has not learnt the art of reticence – and wears her heart on her sleeve, she is ripe for heartbreak at the hands of the cool and emotionally stunted people that surround her.

“Darling, I don’t want you; I’ve got no place for you; I only want what you give. I don’t want the whole of anyone…. What you want is the whole of me-isn’t it, isn’t it?-and the whole of me isn’t there for anybody. In that full sense you want me I don’t exist.”

Shortly after her arrival, Portia’s brother and sister in law – go abroad – there is no suggestion that Portia will go with them. Instead she is sent to the seaside, to stay with Mrs Heccomb Anna’s former governess. Mrs Heccomb’s step children Daphne and Dickie draw Portia into their social set – and Portia invites Eddie to stay. The weekend that Eddie spends with Portia and the Heccomb’s is an uncomfortable one, and Bowen shows the vulnerable awkwardness of Portia as she struggles to make sense of Eddie’s actions and motivations, brilliantly. Upon her return to London, Portia begins to sense the betrayals of those she loves.
Elizabeth Bowen’s writing is just sublime, her characters that drive the novel are marvellous creations, and their voices ring out in cold clear upper class accents. Each sentence is constructed just perfectly.

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I first read this book just over 5 years ago – I had to check back to be sure of when it was. I loved it – but rather rashly gave away my copy thinking I could get another copy easily. Well it proved rather harder to get a cheap copy (I balked at the some of the high prices on the internet). So when Kaggsy from Librarything recently offered me a second hand copy she had found I was delighted. It even arrived in time to fit into my month of re-reading.
Many years ago I read George Orwell’s Animal Farm, Nineteen Eighty Four (which rather terrified me as it was before the real 1984 and I was scared it might come true) The Clergyman’s Daughter and Keeping the Aspidistra Flying. I enjoyed them all – but until I came across this book in 2007 I sort of forgot all about dear old George. This book instantly fascinated me I particularly remembered..

“George Orwell’ I repeated ‘The author of nineteen eighty four’ The old man’s eyes suddenly lit up. He looked at me with a brilliant flash of recognition, slapped his forehead gleefully, and said ‘You mean the Prophet’

  In the 1920’s George Orwell (still living under his real name of Eric Blair) lived in Burma for five years working as a police officer for the imperial police force. In her book Secret Histories Emma Larkin explores the impact of this time upon his work. She asks whether there was something about his experiences in Burma that allowed him to foretell the brutal dictatorship which exists today – but was still almost forty years in the future when Orwell lived in Burma. There are those who Emma Larkin tells us – don’t believe that Orwell just wrote one book about Burma, but that he wrote a trilogy, Burmese days, Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-four. I only read Burmese days this year – it has been in the back of my mind to do so ever since I first read this fascinating book. My re-reading of Secret Histories was enhanced by having read it so recently. In 1950 as George Orwell lay dying of TB – having had his typewriter confiscated – he was working on a novella – also set in Burma. So whether or not Animal Farm and Nineteen Eight-Four were really about Burma or not is probably not clear – and it is something Orwellian scholars can debate I am sure, but it would seem that George Orwell was affected by his time there. His novel Burmese days – published a few years after his sudden return from Burma was a savage and stinging critique of the racist colonialism that he would have been a part of. This was after all the time of Kipling’s Raj.

By the old Moulmein Pagoda, lookin’ eastward to the sea,
There’s a Burma girl a-settin’, and I know she thinks o’ me;
For the wind is in the palm-trees, and the temple-bells they say:
“Come you back, you British soldier; come you back to Mandalay!”
Come you back to Mandalay,
Where the old Flotilla lay:
Can’t you ‘ear their paddles chunkin’ from Rangoon to Mandalay?
On the road to Mandalay,
Where the flyin’-fishes play,
An’ the dawn comes up like thunder outer China ‘crost the Bay! ( R Kipling)

It is interesting to note that the name Mandalay is one of the few not changed by the regime – they changed the name of Burma to that of Myanmar – just like in nineteen Eight-four – trying to wipe out the past and re-write history.

Secret Histories – is part literary criticism, part travelogue – I found Emma Larkin to be great company. She was a lone woman traveller in a part of the world wary and suspicious at best of foreign visitors – yet she shows no fear. She is careful to protect the identities of the people she meets. These people are wonderful, chatty and book loving. People  who are only too aware of the truths that are hidden from them – they have their own ways of deciphering what is really going on by looking for what is missing from the government’s newspaper. Larkin’s affection for Burma and its people is obvious, combining this the way she has with a close examination of Orwell’s work is fascinating and utterly compelling.

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 Upon first reading Invitation to the Waltz I thought it was a lively charming novel, which it is. This re-read of it however, has given me the chance to appreciate just how very good it is. First published in 1932, but set around 1920 Invitation to the Waltz is the story of a dance, seventeen year old Olivia’s first ever, which she will attend with her beautiful older sister Kate. On the surface there isn’t much to the story at all. Olivia wakes to her seventeenth birthday, is given some marvellous scarlet fabric to have a dress made for the coming ball, a ten shilling note, a diary and an ugly ornament from her sweet little brother. Then there are the days leading up to the dance, the dress which must be made and the anticipated arrival of Reggie who will accompany them to the dance, and provide a possibly much-needed partner for Olivia. Olivia and Kate’s family comprises a socially aware mother an elderly father, odd Uncle Oswald, and their endearing  7-year-old brother James. Olivia is a wonderful character – brought up to be polite, she is terrified of hurting people’s feeling, she is so overly conscious of herself as we so often are at that age – that her trials and agonies could belong to almost any young girl – even today.

“I want to do something absolutely different, or perhaps nothing at all: just stay where I am, in my home, and absorb each hour, each day, and be alone; and read and think; and walk about the garden in the night; and wait, wait…”

Then comes the evening of the party and the awful, exciting anticipation, of a longed for event. The flame coloured fabric that Olivia is given for her birthday has been made into a dress by local seamstress Miss Robinson, another wonderful creation from Rosamond Lehmann, as we are allowed a poignant glimpse of this sad woman’s life, her disappointments and inadequacies. The dress surprisingly not tried on in its finished form until the evening itself is inevitably a disappointment. The evening of the dance takes up three-quarters of the book with the people Olivia and Kate meet – especially Olivia, the conversations they have, and the feelings they awake in her. Olivia meets some interesting characters at the dance – a young blind man, a rather miserable poet as well as the son of the household Rollo Spencer.

“I’ve had a lot really, one way and another. What was it that, at last, had made almost a richness? Curious fragments odd and ends of looks, speeches…Nothing for myself really. Rollo leaving me to go to Nicola. Rollo and his father smiling at one another. Peter crying, saying “are you my friend?” Kate looking so happy…Waltzing with Timmy. Marigold flying downstairs to him. Yes, I can say I’ve enjoyed myself.”

The dance held for the effervescent Marigold Spencer – is both an excitement and an agony for Kate and Olivia. They just daughters of a middle-class businessman, while aristocratic Marigold and Rollo Spencer are from an altogether different world. A world of glamour, house parties, trips to London, fast cars and hunting. As they leave childhood behind them, they will inevitably become more separate from the glorious beings from the big house who they were once more equal to, as children. Rosamond Lehmann portrays the differences of class, and social position brilliantly in this novel. From the sad thirty-year-old dressmaker, aware she was too good to marry a bricklayer, left on the shelf and reduced to a life of tedium and ill-health. To the sweep’s bedraggled little children, to the selfish, vain young things who arrive for the party, she has a brilliantly observing eye.

I first read this novel about two and a half years ago and loved it – though after reading the sequel The Weather in the streets – I decided I prefered that one. Although of the two I think I still do like The Weather in the Streets best, I was glad of a chance to re-visit this one and see where it all began for Olivia. In re-reading Invitation to the Waltz I noted the finer points that I had forgotten, the class consciousness and the wonderful characterisations. Throughout the novel Rollo Spencer the glorious son of the Spencer family flits tantalisingly in the background – only finally appearing fully  in the last thirty pages or so. One of the things Rosamond Lehmann does so well is to leave the reader with the feeling that this glorious young man was present throughout. Leaving things as she does – there just had to be a sequel didn’t there? For anyone who hasn’t  read it yet – The Weather in the Streets is also really wonderful.

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One of the things that has been most interesting about re-reading – is how much my memory has let me down. I suppose that there is a limit to what one can retain of the books read over a twenty-year period. One thing has largely remained constant however – and that is my affection for the books that I chose to re-read this month. I can’t remember when it was I first read Villette – but it was a long time ago – I would guess at around twenty-five years ago. I can remember loving it – and I remembered the setting of the school very well, and Charlotte Bronte’s description of M.Paul Emanuel’s appearance I had also remembered. The rest however remained to be re-discovered as I remembered little of the plot – a mere sense of the ending – and virtually nothing of other important characters.

For me – Villette is a much harder novel than say Jane Eyre – which I have read three times or Shirley, which I have read twice. It is a complex novel of unrequited love – and what it is to be alone in the world. Like Jane Eyre and The Professor it is considered to be a deeply autobiographical work. Many reviews I have seen seem to suggest that Lucy Snowe is a less likeable character than Jane is – I found her perfectly likeable – she is quite real, sometimes outspoken (putting forward those views perhaps that Charlotte herself felt unable to).

“No mockery in this world ever sounds to me so hollow as that of being told to cultivate happiness. What does such advice mean? Happiness is not a potato, to be planted in mould, and tilled with manure. Happiness is a glory shining far down upon us out of Heaven. She is a divine dew which the soul, on certain of its summer mornings, feels dropping upon it from the amaranth bloom and golden fruitage of Paradise.”

Lucy is a secretive narrator – she holds things back from the reader – tantalisingly – a good plot device quite suited to this gothic tale.

Lucy Snowe is an orphan who as a child often visited her godmother Mrs Bretton and her son Graham – into their lives during one visit –comes Polly, a precocious six year old doll like child who becomes attached to the 16 year old Graham. Lucy Snowe loses touch with these friends and has to make her way in the world alone. Having worked as a companion for a short time, Lucy leaves England and ends up in Villette (Brussels) where seeking shelter in a girls school – she finds both home and employment. Needless to say Mrs Bretton, Graham and the now grown up Polly come back into her life unexpectedly. Lucy works hard, but her slightly nervous and depressive personality lead her to all kinds of imaginings about the tale of the ghost of a nun, which is said to haunt the school. She is employed by the school’s proprietor, Madame Beck a cruel snooping women who watches Lucy closely. Her relative is a professor of literature – M. Paul Emanuel, with whom Lucy develops a sparky sparring relationship.

I had remembered only part of the ending, and forgotten just how ambiguous it is – which is frustrating in one way – but does allow the reader to put their own spin on it – which is what I did and had remembered I think. I had also forgotten that Villette is a deceptive tome – rather longer than I had remembered. Also it’s a slow read if like me, you don’t read French – and so have to flick to the notes for translations of bits of French speech – (immediately losing my place back on the relevant page,) I had remembered being annoyed by that the last time too. Villette though is worth the hard work it requires – and it certainly shows what an amazing writer Charlotte Bronte was. That, that quiet shy young woman, from that draughty old parsonage in Haworth should have been able to produce such a novel it wonderful to me.

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