Give me books, fruit, french wine and fine weather and a little music out of doors. --John Keats

Saturday, September 27, 2014

"The Deptford Trilogy" by Robertson Davies

I'd never heard of this book until Sam mentioned it to me. Someone had once asked him if The Amnesiac was influenced by The Deptford Trilogy, but the title (and its author) was unfamiliar to him, so the answer was no. However, I can see how the two works are similar. They're both written in a sort of memoir-like style, each dancing back and forth in time rather than being laid out chronologically, each slowly revealing clues to a mystery. Not only that, but both can apparently be categorized as "slipstream fiction," which is a new term to me, and a great discovery--it's nice to finally be able to place Sam's books in a genre that is slightly more descriptive than "fiction". 

Each of the three parts of The Deptford Trilogy describes the lives of the same small handful of characters, but a different one becomes the main focus each time. The first and third books are actually narrated by the same character, though in the third book he is relating someone else's story. There are distinct voices between the first and second books, as there should be, but I didn't find that the voices of the narrator of the first and third books matched up. In the first book he sounds slightly pompous and fussy, while in the third he seems more content and quietly confident. I suppose it's forgivable as he is older and perhaps more mellow by the time the third book rolls around, but I couldn't help but view it as a flaw anyway. A minor flaw, though, despite which I was able to immensely enjoy reading.

Fifth Business

Swinging from childhood to present, encompassing secrets and mysteries and sainthood, Fifth Business tells the story of boyhood friends and the butterfly-effect-like consequences of one errant snowball. The narrator, Dunstable "Dunny" Ramsay, is "neither hero nor heroine, confidante nor villain," but he is linked to all of those and is an essential element of the story in his own way.

The Manticore

The grown son of the former snowball-thrower travels to Switzerland for Jungian therapy, through which we revisit much of what was revealed in Fifth Business, but from another perspective, Something his therapist said caught my attention: "Between thirty-five and forty-five everybody has to turn a corner in his life, or smash into a brick wall." Is this true? This sounds like a glorified description of midlife crisis, which I generally regard more as an excuse than a reality, belied by the fact that my life certainly turned a corner (an understatement, I think) at thirty-seven. 

World of Wonders

The indirect victim of the snowball, Paul Dempster, was swept away by a traveling carnival when he was a child. We learned this in the first two parts of the trilogy, but World of Wonders is where we hear the way he was transformed from Nobody into Magnus Eisengrim, magician extraordinaire. My favorite quote is from the final page: "Where there's a will, there are always two ways."

Did anyone else totally picture Edward Norton playing Eisengrim the entire way through this trilogy? The Illusionist is entirely to blame, I'm sure. 

Sunday, September 14, 2014


THIS is my last catch-up post! I could find no common category for the last lonely books on my Have Read, Must Blog list, so what links them is that they have no ties to one another. Hence, my orphans:

HHhH by Laurent Binet. This book was originally written in French, but I (of course) read my husband's brilliant English translation. It tells the true story of the 1942 assassination attempt on Reinhard Heydrich, high-ranking Nazi official, by two soldiers (Jan Kubiš and Jozef Gabčík) who parachuted in to Prague for their mission. Did their mission succeed or not? If your history is as spotty as mine, do yourself a favor and don't look up their story before reading this book--not knowing the outcome added to the reading experience for me. As did the thing that makes this book unique when compared to other historical fiction: the author does not remain hidden, nor does he even attempt to convince his readers to pay no attention to the man behind the curtain. The story of Kubiš and Gabčík is shot through with the author's own experiences in researching and writing their story. (Meta-non-fiction?) I really don't like war books but this one was worth reading.

Bluebird, or The Invention of Happiness by Sheila Kohler. My memory of this book is (not surprisingly) not vivid; I suppose it didn't make much of an impression on me, whether positive or negative. It's the story of Lucy Dillon, French aristocrat, escaping the French Revolution by sailing across the Atlantic with her young family to start a new life on a dairy farm in upstate New York. I seem to remember the sea journey being fraught with trials and tribulations, and the new life being a bit bleak and barren, but through it all Lucy was strong and unwavering. I could be completely wrong, though.

Silk by Alessandro Baricco. I know for a fact that I read this novella more than three years ago. I can still remember, however, the simple and poetic form of its writing, and the way it disguised strong undercurrents of passion. At times it almost seems like a fable or a fairy tale. It's the story of a Frenchman in the late 19th century who travels to Japan in search of silkworm eggs and becomes enslaved by all-consuming love along the way (but it's not so gag-inducing as that makes it sound).

Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck. This novella is worthy of much more than the tiny blurb I'm about to give it, which may be why I avoided writing about it earlier--could I do it justice? I'd read it years before but, true to form, hardly remembered it. It's the story of a pair of itinerant workers, George and Lennie, during the Great Depression. Lennie is mentally deficient and dependent on George, and George is protective of Lennie. It's a powerful story, very short, and a satisfying read (or re-read).

And now my blog is up-to-date! I no longer have a Have Read, Must Blog list! Unfortunately there is a distinct possibility that I've completely forgotten about some books . . . just last week I realized that two of my (relatively) recent reads had not made it on to my HRMB list. Both were re-reads for me, one being Tess of the d'Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy, and the other Lady Chatterley's Lover (which Sam has blogged about). Both of those books are special to me. I first read them during college (though for my own enjoyment rather than as assigned reading), and I remember why I chose each one. Tess first caught my eye at Blockbuster Video (!!)--the synopsis interested me, and when I saw it had originated as a classic novel, I wanted to start there. And LCL was on the reading list for my senior English class in high school, but my teacher wouldn't let me read it because he knew my mom would not approve! So, less than a year later and glorying in my new independence, I got to see what all the fuss was about. And I enjoyed re-reading both books, not least because I'd first read them during what were (for me) my formative years.

Any other forgotten books are destined to remain forgotten, but it feels great to be caught up on my blog again!

Saturday, September 6, 2014

"Lady Chatterley's Lover" by D.H. Lawrence

This is a strange novel. It is famous, of course, for the controversy and censorship surrounding its publication (it was first printed in 1928 but not freely available in England until 1960), for its themes of class and adultery, and for the use of certain four-letter words. But reading it purely as a novel, it strikes me, more than anything, as bizarre.

Actually, it makes me think of the Sex Pistols: a band inextricably linked with the whirlwind of controversy that blew around them. Listen to their music now, though, and it just sounds odd, for the most part: there are inspired moments, and John Lydon’s sneer is distinctive, but many of the songs are clichéd, old-fashioned, poorly played and produced, almost boring. You’re left wondering what all the fuss was about. But the fuss, of course, was not about the music per se, but about the band’s impact on their times.

Lady Chatterley’s Lover is a similar case in point: there are lines, paragraphs, scenes that are striking and well-written, but others that just seem contrived or ludicrous or dull or plain embarrassing, and throughout the story, the author’s voice intrudes, not only as an omniscient narrator thundering from the clouds but as a sort of ventriloquist, making his characters think and spout what are clearly his own opinions, not even trying to conceal the movements of his mouth. The overall effect is just a weird hodge-podge of good and bad, brilliant and banal.

This is the first D.H. Lawrence novel I’ve read, although I did also read a collection of short stories (The Woman Who Rode Away and Other Stories) and a collection of his letters. I remember particularly enjoying the latter, as the non-narrative form gave him free rein to joke and declaim and hypothesize about life and the world without any need to invent characters or fit it all into a story. I found myself liking and admiring him as a person and even a writer (and I also felt some affinity, as we both grew up in what he calls, in Lady Chatterley, ‘the smoky Midlands’ – or, more specifically, Nottinghamshire), and I agreed (and still agree) with many of the points he makes in this novel about the dehumanizing effects of industrialization, the need for tenderness, the balance between mind and body, and so on. I just didn’t enjoy being lectured to, somewhat haphazardly (or so it seemed), as I was reading a novel – particularly as I was genuinely interested in the story.

So… the story. Upper-class woman meets lower-class man and falls in love, in a nutshell. However, the contrast between Lady Chatterley and her lover was less obvious and striking than I expected: she is not aristocratic, but upper-middle-class (back when such distinctions actually meant something) and she was brought up with fairly liberal views about sex too, while Mellors, the gamekeeper – although with a working-class background – is an educated man who has been an officer in the British Army in India. I was also surprised that everything was made so easy: Lady Chatterley’s husband is wounded in the war and consequently impotent; he even gives his wife permission to go off and have sex with another man so she can bear a child, and she has a casual affair before meeting Mellors anyway. So, in many ways, the tension and conflict and drama that you expect from the basic set-up are not there. As a novel of adultery, it seemed less satisfying and persuasive than, say, Anna Karenina or Madame Bovary. It was almost as if Lawrence found the theme too simple and melodramatic, so he felt the need to undercut it, blur the black and white to grey, as well as using it as a sort of platform from which to air his opinions.

As for the sex… well, there were a couple of erotic passages. There were also some very repetitive and purple ones, some amusingly clumsy and realistic ones, and others that were kind of embarrassing. And I suppose that in itself is an achievement: for an author to make a (pretty open-minded) reader squirm almost a hundred years later merely by writing about genitalia and orgasms. 

But I think what embarrassed me most – far more than any graphic detail – was Mellors’ use of Derbyshire vernacular. Mellors is capable of speaking ‘normally’, yet for some reason (a reason that baffles most of the characters in the novel) he occasionally reverts to ‘broad Derby’. And it is in this voice that he makes most of the obscene pronouncements that made Lady Chatterley’s Lover so infamous. Some of those passages are almost unreadably bad, though not ‘bad’ in the moral sense that led to the book being outlawed for thirty years – just bad in the sense of being excruciatingly awful.

Anyway, I’m glad I finally read it, but even gladder that I’ve finally finished it and can now move on to something else.