The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

“‘How do you feel?’ ‘All right.’ But I didn’t. I felt terrible.”

I feel incredibly conflicted over Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. On the one hand, I found it to be an ingenious and striking read, one that immortalizes in exacting detail a young woman’s slow descent into psychosis and offers a piercing commentary on 1950s American society, specifically its oppressive gender norms. On the other hand, I could not look past how racist it was.

Set in 1953 The Bell Jar is narrated by Esther Greenwood, a misanthropic 19-year-old from the suburbs of Boston who wins a summer internship working for a New York fashion magazine. For the most part, Esther’s voice is a winning combination of acerbic and witty. She often entertains morbid thoughts, she offers scathing assessments of those around, and, as the days go by, she seems to be steadily sinking into torpor. Although Esther tries to make the most of New York, she quickly becomes disenchanted by its supposedly glamorous scene. She is at once repulsed and appreciative of the girls who are interning with her. While Esther is drawn to Doreen, who is one of the livelier of the girls, and Betsy, a pious goody-two-shoes, she ultimately feels very much apart from them, and often seems to view them and the rest of New York through a glass darkly. What follows is Esther’s unsettling descent into depression. As her contempt towards others and life in general grows, she begins to engage in self-destructive behaviour and acts in increasingly irrational ways. Later on, Esther attempts to write a novel but her deteriorating mental health becomes a concern to her mother who forces her to see a psychiatrist who goes on to prescribe her electroconvulsive therapy. This ‘treatment’ goes awry and Esther worsens. Eventually, Esther is committed to a hospital where she is reunited with an old acquaintance. While the novel does end on a hopeful note, it is by no means an easy ride. It is brutal and unsparing. Throughout the course of this novel, Plath captures with razor-sharp precision the mind of an alienated young woman. She articulates Esther’s ugliest thoughts and fears. As Esther tries and fails to navigate adulthood in New York she becomes more and more withdrawn. She’s apathetic, pessimistic, and derisive of others. Her experiences fail to match her expectations and Esther struggles to make sense of who she is, who she wants to be, and who she ought to be. She’s suffocated by the limitations of her gender and seems to reject the visions of womanhood, of marriage, and of motherhood that American society presents her with: “when you were married and had children it was like being brainwashed, and afterwards you went about numb as a slave in some private, totalitarian state.”

Not only does Plath render the stultifying atmosphere of the city and of the circles Esther moves in, but she conveys the lethal ennui experienced by her protagonist. In New York Esther struggles to traverse from adolescence to adulthood. Her alienation from others, her self-estrangement, and her disconnection from her contemporary society pave the way to her eventual breakdown. When others attempt to ‘help’ and/or ‘cure’ Esther they cause more harm than good. They either treat her in an inhumane way or dismiss the severity of her condition.
Esther is certainly not a likeable heroine. She’s a mean snob who often views other people as grotesque and beneath her. But, as I read on, I came to pity her. In spite of her solipsisms and general nastiness, Esther is clearly suffering. Esther’s mother seems to care more about appearances than her daughter’s wellbeing. The men around seem unable to truly see her. Her former sweetheart doesn’t really know her, while the men she meets in New York seem all too eager to use her. As Esther’s desperation grows her view of the world becomes steadily more distorted, her imagination even more ghoulish.
I appreciated how effective Plath’s style is in rendering Esther’s mental state. At times a scene or one of Esther’s thoughts are depicted in such vivid detail as to be overwhelming. But, the story also plays around with linear storytelling, presenting us with fragmented conversations or scenes that we are able to understand only as we read on. At times her prose acquires a sticky quality that fits perfectly with the story’s initial summer backdrop.
So what could possibly cause me to give this novel 3 stars instead of say 4 or 5? Well, while I recognise that this is a seminal feminist work, I could not look past how racist Esther, Plath’s ‘alter ego’, was. While I can usually look past classics’ books using dated/non-pc language, Esther’s racist remarks/attitudes did not strike me as merely being symptomatic of ‘the times’. It’s total ‘okay’ if our college-educated and intellectual protagonist, who is critical of the accepted social norms of her time when it comes to gender-based inequalities, uses racial slurs. Sure. She’s white and it’s the 1950s. But then we have these instances where Esther is not feeling good and mistakes her reflection as belonging to somebody else, specifically someone who is Asian: “I noticed a big, smudgy-eyed Chinese woman staring idiotically into my face. It was only me, of course. I was appalled to see how wrinkled and used-up I looked.” and “The face in the mirror looked like a sick Indian.”.
When a girl says she’s meeting up with a Peruvian guy Esther says the following: “They’re squat,” I said. “They’re ugly as Aztecs.”….And then we have that scene at the hospital involving a Black orderly. After establishing that he is indeed Black she keeps referring to him as “the negro” rather than say “the orderly” or “the man”. This orderly say things like “Mah, mah!” or “Oh Miz, oh Miz […] You shouldn’t of done that, you shouldn’t, you reely shouldn’t.”. Before this (as far as i can recall of course) Plath did not lay much (or any really) emphasis on her characters’ accents. Yet, all of a sudden she just has to establish the specific way in which this man talks. And of course, because he’s an orderly and Black the way he talks has to be ridiculed. Anyway, Esther believes that the orderly is toying with her and the other patients so she “drew my foot back and gave him a sharp, hard kick on the calf of the leg”. Great stuff.
Plath’s description of non-American characters also left a sour taste in my mouth: “She was six feet tall, with huge, slanted, green eyes and thick red lips and a vacant, Slavic expression.” and “A large, bosomy Slavic lady”. Wtf is that even supposed to mean? How fucking lazy is this type of description? Why are all ‘Slavic-looking’ women large?

While Esther uses unflattering terms to describe white Americans, describing someone’s neck as “spam-coloured”, these descriptions, which poking fun at their physical appearance, are ultimately humorous. The ones referring to Black or Asian characters, not so much. Esther’s repugnance is even more pronounced in the instances I mentioned above, and the language she uses is often dehumanising or at least seems to suggest that she does view them as inferior to white people. Every few chapters I would come across a racist remark/line that simply prevented me from becoming invested in Esther’s story. That this is a highly autobiographical novel makes me feel all the more uneasy at Esther’s racism.
While this is certainly an important novel and one of the first books to depict in such uncompromising terms a young woman’s descent into depression, its white American brand of feminism is dated at best.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin


That I choose to re-read this confirms that I do indeed have masochistic tendencies.

“I did not want him to know me. I did not want anyone to know me.”

In a striking prose, James Baldwin unfurls a disquieting tale of cowardice and self-deception. In many ways, Giovanni’s Room reads as a confession of sorts, even if our narrator does like to deny his own culpability.
This short novel is set in 1950s Paris when David, an American ex-pat, is idling away his time, drinking and partying with people he generally looks down upon, in an effort not to keep at bay thoughts about his past or future. The girl he is sort of seeing is away in Spain so an unsupervised and penniless David begins to frequent an acquaintance of his, Jaques, an older gay man who he finds somewhat repulsive but is happy to exploit. One day the two find themselves in a local haunt bar where they meet Giovanni, the new barman. While David seems initially unwilling to act on his impulses, he becomes involved with Giovanni and the two begin living together in Giovanni’s grubby apartment. Within these walls, David feels oppressed and constricted by an identity he is unwilling and or unable to accept. The American vision of masculinity and normalcy his father and his upbringing have inculcated in David an uncompromising notion of manhood. While he clearly desires Giovanni he cannot articulate his feelings towards him, as to do so would be to embark on a path of no return. When Hella, his sort-of girlfriend, returns to Paris, David is desperate to leave behind Giovanni and the kind of lifestyle he associates with Jaques and his circle, even if it means denying himself the person he actually desires.

While the narrative does deal with love, it is not a love story. This novel is as romantic as say Madame Bovary (that is to say, not at all). More often than not David seems to resent Giovanni and is repulsed when glimpsing his vulnerabilities. Most of the characters inhabiting this story are either unlikable or straight-up grotesque. In a way, this novel reminded me of Death In Venice. We have a main character who seems to perceive his surroundings as being sinister, alienating. David’s vitriol towards those who frequent Guillaume’s bar certainly points to his internalised homo/biphobia. In order to conform to his heteronormative society, David finds himself turning away from someone in need. Or that’s how David justifies his own cowardice. It will be up to readers to decide just how culpable he is. While I did not not sympathize with David, I did despise him. Similarly, I disliked Jaques, Guillaume, and almost everybody else really. Giovanni is, unsurprisingly, the one I felt for the most, which is saying something given his less than poor taste remarks on women (after claiming that he respects them he says that wives do need knocking about now and again, and implies that women are inferior to men). Yet, it is because Baldwin captures Giovanni’s anguish and desperation in such excruciating detail that I was unable to write him off as a misogynist asshole.

David’s story seems permeated by physical and moral squalor. Even emotions like desire and love acquire an unpleasant quality, as they are often twinned with their counterparts (repugnance, hatred). The atmosphere of Paris itself once again recalls that of Venice in Mann’s novel, and even George Orwell’s memoir, Down and Out in Paris and London. Its beauty is spoilt by the ugliness of its people and by the squalidness of places such as Giovanni’s apartment.
To call this story depressing or bleak seems an understatement. Yet, Baldwin’s superb prose manages to belie David’s internal abjection.

Now, as much as I am blown away by this novel, I do have to address Giovanni’s often hilarious ‘Italianess’. Dio mio. This is the kind of Italian character that I often see in fiction by English authors. He is the classic passionate Mediterranean who sometimes speaks of himself in the third person, makes remarks about beating women because that’s how Italian men are (a few months ago i worked with someone who claimed, to my face, that all italian men are sexist, and that italy is as ‘bad’ as india…to say that her statement was problematic on multiple fronts would be an understatement), and when reminiscing about his village he says that he wanted to stay there forever and “eat much spaghetti and drink much wine” (it’s a me, giovanni!). Still, despite these cartoonish aspects of his character, I did find myself buying into him.

This is a terrific piece of fiction, one that is guaranteed to make you anxious, sad, and uneasy (possibly even queasy). Yet, Baldwin’s fantastic prose and his tremendous psychological insight are bound to enthral.

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Sula by Toni Morrison

They were solitary little girls whose loneliness was so profound it intoxicated them and sent them stumbling into Technicolored visions that always included a presence, a someone, who, quite like the dreamer, shared the delight of the dream.

Toni Morrison’s Sula revolves around the eponymous and fraught character of Sula Peace. Within the novel, Morrison interrogates themes of race, gender and class in the Black neighborhood known as the Bottom, in the fictional town of Medallion. The narrative’s discourse on good and evil, expressed in the Bottom’s demonization of Sula, and its subversion of binary thinking, will force readers to re-evaluate presumptions that arise from labelling people and places as being either good or evil.

The name of the neighborhood at the heart of Sula is an oxymoron since the Bottom is located ‘in the hills above the valley town of Medallion’ (a white farmer tricked his former slave by giving this land and claiming it was ‘fertile bottomland’). The story then introduces Shadrack, who after fighting in WWI returns to the Bottom with PTSD. He creates the ‘National Suicide Day’ and spends his days insulting people on the streets, refusing and or unable to fit in with the people of the Bottom. The narrative then takes us to the 1920s where we are introduced to Nel Wright and Sula Peace, the novel’s central characters.
While Nel is raised to be obedient and polite, Sula is brought up in her grandmother’s hectic boarding house, ‘a house with women who thought all men available’. Nel and Sula become fast friends, an inseparable unit. After one of their stunts goes terribly wrong cracks begin to appear in their relationship but it is Nel’s marriage and Sula leaving for college that ultimately drives the two apart.
Ten years later Sula returns to her hometown, ‘accompanied by a plague of robins’. Because of this bizarre phenomenon, Sula’s arrival is seen as inauspicious by the people of the Bottom. That their mistrust is aggravated by Sula’s physical appearance—which is made striking because of a birthmark over her eye—and her behaviour—her clear disregard of social norms—seals her fate in the eyes of her community.
They demonize Sula, seeing her as an outsider, the ‘other’. Not only do old rumours about Sula resurface, but that she puts her elderly grandmother in a nursing house, sleeps with married men, and is said to have slept with white men, further antagonizes the people of the Bottom against her. Nel seems the only one happy to be reunited with Sula but their friendship is destroyed after one betrays the other.
Sula becomes the scapegoat for Bottom whose inhabitants are convinced that ‘Sula’s evil changed them in accountable yet mysterious ways. Once the source of their personal misfortune was identified, they had leave to protect and love one another’. They are empowered by Sula’s refusal to behave in accordance with their social norms, banding ‘together against the devil in their midst’. Yet they refuse to ‘destroy’ Sula, since however ‘ungodly’ she may be, to drive her out of town or to ‘mob kill’ would be to them both ‘unnatural’ and ‘undignified’. In creating the ‘evil one’ – Sula – they are creating the ‘good one’ – themselves.

Sula is by no means an easy read. The story is punctuated by poverty, addiction, shame, jealousy, hatred. Characters kill their loved ones or seem unmoved by tragic and horrific events. Yet, Morrison herself never condemns Sula or the inhabitants of the Bottom. She forces her readers to question whether Sula is the way she is because of ‘nature’ or ‘nurture’, and even then she reminds us that although Sula’s actions cause others’ pain, she is not an evil person.
Morrison demonstrates how distorting and transforming someone into a devil or a monster is dangerous: the author, unlike her characters, passes no judgements on Sula’s ‘transgressions’, and makes readers aware of the way in which the people of the Bottom enjoy and profit from condemning Sula as ‘evil’. By contrasting the characters of Sula and Nel, Morrison is also able to question the validity of labels such as ‘evil’ and ‘good’ since the two friends are often described as being one and the same, able to find ‘in each other’s eyes the intimacy they were looking for’, yet Nel is seen as ‘good’ and Sula as ‘bad’. The bond between Sula and Nel remains at the fore of the narrative, and I loved how deep it ran.

Sula makes for a bleak, brutal even, read. Morrison is unflinching in her depictions of racism, violence, abuse, and illness. Her prose is simply terrific as she slips with ease between different point of views, never elevating any one’s character perspective. In spite of its brevity Sula packs a punch. It will upset you, anger you, and possibly depress you….but it is a stunning piece of fiction, one that I find myself often thinking about.

my rating: ★★★★☆

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Quicksand by Nella Larsen

“As the days multiplied, her need of something, something vaguely familiar, but which she could not put a name to and hold for definite examination, became almost intolerable.”

Similarly to Passing, Quicksand is a study of ambivalence. But whereas Passing centered on the complex dynamic—which ranges from enmity to a kinship of sorts—between two light-skinned Black women in 1920s New York, Quicksand follows the experiences of one woman, Helga Crane, whose restlessness sees her moving from Chicago to Harlems before venturing out to Copenhagen. Helga, daughter to a white Danish mother and an African-American father, has always felt like an outsider. By the time the narrative begins, Helga’s mother is long dead and her father is MIA. Helga’s white relations refuse or are unwilling to acknowledge her existence. Her lack of ‘people’ leads her to feel a degree of alienation, even resentment, towards the Black community.

“She could neither conform, nor be happy in her unconformity.”

At the beginning of Quicksand Helga is a schoolteacher in Naxos but feels increasingly dissatisfied by her environment. She makes the impulsive decision to break things off with her beau, who also teaches at her school, and quit her job in pursuit of a more fulfilling life and perhaps a place in which she could ‘belong’ (“No family. That was the crux of the whole matter. […] If you couldn’t prove your ancestry and connections, you were tolerated, but you didn’t ‘belong’.”) Although in Harlem she makes new acquaintances and friends, Helga’s loneliness and restlessness do not dissipate. She decides to once again leave her life behind by traveling to Copenhagen to live with an Aunt.
This is more of a slow-burner than Passing. Helga is a very inward-looking character, and her narrative is light on dialogue or action. Her reflections on her identity, race, America, her unshakable unhappiness will definitely resonate with contemporary readers. Yet, Helga herself remains in many ways a bit of a cipher. This is undoubtedly intentional, as the narrative underlines other characters’ impression of her (that she is elusive, frigid, standoffish). The story perhaps would have benefited from less telling and more showing (there were quite a few scenes that are summarized in a rather speedy fashion and I wish we had gotten to read witness them ‘first hand’).
Still, I love the way Nella Larsen writes. Her writing is phenomenal, her prose ranging from being elegantly perceptive (a la Edith Wharton) to searingly direct (a la Toni Morrison). The longing and ennui experienced by Helga also brought to mind the titular heroine in Madame Bovary (even in the desire they both feel towards material goods).
It is saddening that Larsen published only these two novels. Quicksand is a fascinating character study, one that manages to capture the time and places in which Helga lives. The narrative is at once opaque, never quite revealing Helga’s true feelings, and startlingly lucid, especially when it comes to conveying Helga’s self-divide.

“Life became for her only a hateful place where one lived in intimacy with people one would not have chosen had one been given choice. It was, too, an excruciating agony.”

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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Carol by patricia highsmith

“My Angel,” Carol said. “Flung out of space.”

Fans of the film adaptation of Carol may find the novel to be not quite as polished or romantic. I, for one, find the novel’s elusiveness and opaqueness to be entrancing. Unlike other books by Highsmith Carol is not a thriller or a crime novel, however, it has plenty of moments of unease (dare I say even of ugliness?) that brought to mind The Talented Mr. Ripley. Therese is a somewhat disaffected young woman who wants to become a theatre set designer but in the meanwhile she works in the toy section of a department store in New York. She observes the world and people around her with a mixture of apathy and ambivalence, the only feelings she experiences seem negative (her repulsion towards her coworkers, her disinterest towards her beau, her dread at the idea of being stuck at the department store ).

“Had all her life been nothing but a dream, and was this real? It was the terror of this hopelessness that made her want to shed the dress and flee before it was too late, before the chains fell around her and locked.”

Estranged from her mother Therese longs for her boyfriend’s family more than the man himself. And then she sees Carol: “Their eyes met at the same instant, Therese glancing up from a box she was opening, and the woman just turning her head so she looked directly at Therese. She was tall and fair, her long figure graceful in the loose fur coat that she held open with a hand on her waist. Her eyes were gray, colorless, yet dominant as light or fire, and caught by them, Therese could not look away.”
Therese’s infatuation is immediate, and the two women—in spite of their age gap, their differences in background and circumstances—begin to spend more and more time together. Highsmith’s captures the intensity of first love, as Therese’s thoughts become increasingly preoccupied by Carol. There is a lot of longing in this novel and Highsmith expresses it beautifully, rendering the nuances of Therese’s uncertainty, jealousy, and yearning. Therese’s naïveté and Carol’s rocky marriage create friction between the two women, but the attraction and affection they feel for each other is palpable. Even if Carol remains a bit of a cypher, I too like Therese found myself drawn to her.
Some may find Therese’s narration to be too dry or cold, but I have always felt the most for characters such as her. I appreciated how Therese reflects upon the smallest of things, and there are times where she entertains rather cruel or disquieting. Nevertheless, I found her to be a sympathetic and interesting character, and I certainly admired her determination to follow her own heart.
The languid pace and alluring language make this into an unforgettable slow burner. I love the dreamlike quality of the narrative, the chemistry between Therese and Carol, the nostalgic atmosphere, the realistic rhythms of the dialogue, the winter setting…I don’t know what more to say other than this novel just does it for me.

my rating: ★★★★½

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Life Among the Savages by Shirley Jackson — book review

9780143128045.jpegLife Among the Savages is a collection of comic essays by Shirley Jackson originally published in women’s magazines. Rather than a memoir Life Among the Savages reads as a series of episodes focusing on Jackson’s chaotic family life: children squabbling, disagreements with other parents, daily chores, and family dinners. Jackson renders the cacophony of her family, tinging everyday activities or conversations with a does of absurdity. Her children’s back and forth are as entertaining as they are bewildering:

“That shirt’s no good,” Laurie said.
“It is so,” Jannie said.
“It is not,” Laurie said.
“It is so,” Jannie said.
“It is not,” Laurie said.
“Children,” I called, my voice a little louder than it usually is at only nine in the morning. “Please stop squabbling and get dressed.”
“Laurie started it,” Jannie called back.
“Jannie started it,” Laurie called.”

Jackson very much focuses on the lightest aspects of her life, painting herself as a busy mother of three, and focusing her attention to her children’s antics as opposed to herself. It was lovely to read the way in which she could be amused by their nonsense or misdeeds (Jannie’s imaginary daughters were a joy to read of). There were also plenty of elements that brought to mind her fictional work or in some way made me wonder whether they somehow influenced her writing: the broken step, the creepy taxi driver, the nosy locals, Laurie’s ‘schoolmate’ Charles (whose name enters the family lexicon, “With the third week of kindergarten Charles was an institution in our family; Jannie was being a Charles when she cried all afternoon; Laurie did a Charles when he filled his wagon full of mud and pulled it through the kitchen; even my husband, when he caught his elbow in the telephone cord and pulled telephone, ashtray, and a bowl of flowers off the table, said, after the first minute, “Looks like Charles.”). I was delighted by the way in which Jackson would write about her house.

Life Among the Savages will definitely appeal to those who enjoy Jackson’s particular brand of humour.

My rating: ★★★★✰ 3.5 stars

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Old School by Tobias Wolff — book review

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“A true piece of writing is a dangerous thing. It can change your life.”

Old School presents its readers with a concise exploration of the complexities of writing and interpretation. Tobias Wolff exerts exquisite control over his prose, evoking through his sparse yet vivid language the rarefied world in which his unmanned narrator moves in. Wolff brings to life the youth of the days past and their strive for artistic recognition, capturing the various undercurrents that are at play in their exclusive school.

“[T]he almost physical attraction to privilege, the resolve to be near it at any cost: sycophancy, lies, self-suppression, the masking of ambitions and desires, the slow cowardly burn of resentment toward those for whose favor you have falsified yourself. ”

What seems at first to be an idyllic environment reveals itself as a place for competitiveness since, as our narrator himself points out, “if the school had a snobbery it would confess to, this was its pride in being a literary place”. Most students, our protagonist included, guard their writing efforts with suspicion, and are wary of criticism. The winner of the literary contest held by their school is awarded with a one-on-one meeting with famous writers (Robert Frost, Ayn Rand, and Hemingway all make an appearance in Old School).

“I never thought about making connections. My aspirations were mystical. I wanted to receive the laying on of hands that had written living stories and poems, hands that had touched the hands of other writers. I wanted to be anointed.”

The protagonist of this novel has mythologised this ‘audience’, attributing to this meeting a sense of sublimity and viewing the writers he admires through the eyes of a disciple. Yet, his grappling with his ‘voice’ and is often influenced by the writing of those he reveres. His desire to win the competition leads to fraying relationships with his roommate, friends, and to a certain extent his relatives.

“For years now I had hidden my family in calculated silences and vague hints and dodges, suggesting another family in its place. The untruth of my position had given me an obscure, chronic sense of embarrassment, yet since I hadn’t outright lied I could still blind myself to its cause. Unacknowledged shame enters the world as anger; I naturally turned mine against the snobbery of others.”

Additionally our narrator is struggling with self-knowledge. Having taken pains to project a certain image of himself, his own class-consciousness alienates him from other students. Soon, his blindsided determination to win tests his already strained relationships and sees him rejecting truth in favour of self-deception.
The narrator’s undoing is not easy to read. Yet, his narration retains this ambivalent quality that I found quite enthralling.
In some ways Old School does for a 60s prep school what Teddy Wayne’s Apartment does for a 90s creative writing course. Both of these books are deceptively slender, and pack a real emotional punch. Both of narrators are ambition driven and their path to self-discovery is treacherous.
If you are interested in a novel with plenty of insights on writing and authorial intent or for a story that chronicles a boy’s troubling self-discovery, look no further.

Some of my favourite quotes

“It had become a fashion at school to draw lines between certain writers, as if to like one meant you couldn’t like the other. ”

“Now they sounded different to me. The very heedlessness of their voices defined the distance that had opened up between us. That easy brimming gaiety already seemed impossibly remote, no longer the true life I would wake to each morning, but a paling dream.”

“Loyalty is a matter of dates, virtue itself is often a matter of seconds.”

My rating: ★★★★✰ 3.5 stars (rounded up to 4)
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The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald — book review

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“It is invariably saddening to look through new eyes at things upon which you have expended your own powers of adjustment.”

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby has its entertaining moments. The narrative seems intent on evoking a certain atmosphere. The people populating this novel meet up over drinks or dinner, where they divert themselves in idle gossip and caustically discuss current state of affairs. In spite of their facetious pretences they eagerly attend Gatsby’s opulent parties, indulging in the various decadences offered by their host, all the while talking maliciously behind his back. Fitzgerald paints an unforgiving portrait of the upper crust; they are hollow, duplicitous, and self-absorbed. In spite of Gatsby’s various attempts it is made quite clear that the ‘old’ money will never accept the new money.
The narrator of the novel is unremarkable and rather unforgettable. This may be because Fitzgerald wanted to show the drama that is at the heart of this novel from an outsider’s point of view. Yet, Nick only witnesses a fraction Gatsby and because of this I never had a clear sense of Gatsby himself. Nick doesn’t seem to like him or hate him. The other characters seem caricatures of sorts and their actions never struck me as particularly believable (which is a shame since I did find Fitzgerald’s dialogues to ring true to life).
While I appreciate the mood Fitzgerald was trying to create, and I was amused by his flair for bombastic descriptions, I wasn’t particular interested in his characters and their various disagreements. Most of all…I was disappointed by Gatsby. The novel may be named after him but he never seems to come into focus, so that he remained a blurry impression of a character.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3 stars

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The Touchstone by Edith Wharton — review

Having read a few works by Edith Wharton, I’ve become familiar with her beautifully articulated style. Still, I was nonetheless impressed by just how accomplished The Touchstone is considering that it is Wharton’s first published novella.
The story revolves around Stephen Glennard, a New York lawyer, who doesn’t have enough money to marry his sweetheart, Alexa Trent. It just so happens that Glennard comes across an advertisement seeking information relating to a figure from his past, the famous and recently deceased novelist Margaret Aubyn. Because Margaret was once in love with Glennard, and the two kept a correspondence, he’s accumulated hundreds of her letters. Although Glennard is fully aware that to sell these private letters would be to betrayal to Margaret, he worries that Alexa won’t wait for him much longer. After editing his name out of the letters and with the help of an acquaintance of his, who happens to be a rich collector, Glennard sells them. The money from the publisher, and from Glennard’s own subsequent investments, enables him to marry Alexa.
This being a work by Wharton however we know that marriage does not equal happiness. Guilt, shame, and endless waves of remorse mar Glennard’s days. Unable to reconcile himself with his actions, knowing that his wife, and the rest of his social circle, would condemn him for the sale, Glennard finds uneasy solace in his memory of Margaret.
Through her elegantly precise prose Wharton renders all the nuances of Glennard’s disillusionment—with himself, his wife, his marriage—as well as evincing his inner turmoil. Wharton complements this character study with a piercing social commentary (focusing on the customs and niceties of the so called ‘polite’ society’). I particularly appreciated the narrative’s engagement with notions of privacy. Why should an author’s private life be made ‘public’? Can one retain a degree of privacy or autonomy over one’s life if they are considered ‘public’ figures? Glennard’s story seems a cautionary tale. He infringes Margaret’s privacy, exposing her personal letters—which were written for the audience of one—to the world. When he comes across people, mostly women, discussing Margaret’s letters, he’s sickened, as much by them as by himself.
Wharton is a master of the trade and The Touchstone is as sophisticated as her later and more celebrated works. In spite of its historical setting The Touchstone is also a strikingly relevant novella (a public figure’s right to privacy vs. the public’s interest) one that explores the ethical and moral repercussions of Glennard’s violation of Margaret privacy and trust.

My rating: ★★★★✰ 4 stars

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The Sundial by Shirley Jackson — book review

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“I mean, why should I figure I’m so special, the world is going to end while I’m around?”

In The Sundial, perhaps Shirley Jackson’s most comical novel, twelve rather disagreeable individuals are cooped together in a mansion waiting for the end of the world.

“The house would be guarded during the night of destruction and at its end they would emerge safe and pure. They were charged with the future of humanity; when they came forth from the house it would be into a world clean and silent, their inheritance.”

When Aunt Fanny, a rather ditsy spinster whose passive aggressive martyr act brought to mind E. M. Forster’s Miss Bartlett, is threatened out of her family home by her megalomaniac sister-in-law, she is quite rightfully distressed. Lucky for Aunt Fanny, on that very same day she happens to hear the disembodied voice of her deceased father. He warns Aunt Fanny of an impending apocalypse, and tells her not to leave the Halloran estate: “Tell them in the house that they will be saved. Do not let them leave the house.”
When Aunt Fanny reports her father’s warning, her brother’s wife, Orianna, although not entirely convinced, decides that if there is to be a new world, she wants in. More people join their ranks, some by chance, such as Orianna’s friend and her two daughters, while others, such as a random stranger, are more or less coerced into remaining.
Aunt Fanny is perhaps the only character who actively tries to prepare for ‘life’ after doomsday: she buys a Boy Scout handbook and other books that have “practical information on primitive living”, as well as stocking up the house with food and other essentials (her bulk-buying puts to shame today’s panic buyers). In the meantime the solipsistic and conniving Orianna ensures her authority, punishing those who dare to defy her and her rules.

The Sundial offers its readers some brilliantly absurd scenes. For instance, when Aunt Fanny picks up a stranger in the village and decides to name him “Captain Scarabombardon”, or when the residents of Halloran house come into contact with the True Believers. The dialogues in this novel demonstrate Jackson’s wicked sense of humour, as she’s unafraid of ridiculing her own characters.
Make no mistake though, this darkly comedic novel has its disturbing moments, and a sense of unease pervades much of the narrative.

In some ways this novel is decidedly Jackson-esque. First of all, we have the setting:

“The character of the house is perhaps of interest. It stood upon a small rise in ground, and all the land it surveyed belonged to the Halloran family. The Halloran land was distinguished from the rest of the world by a stone wall, which went completely around the estate, so that all inside the wall was Halloran, all outside was not.”

This is yet another novel by Jackson explores the double function of houses: the Halloran mansion is both a fortress—a place of safety—and a prison.
We also have tensions between an aristocratic family and the ‘small minded’ villagers (who are often described as belonging to an inferior species), toxic and possibly murderous relatives, creepy young girls (who are far more perceptive than others think), and mind-wandering wheelchair bound old men.

Jackson’s writing is as clever as always. Not a word is out of place. From her scintillating descriptions (“a lady of indeterminate shape, but vigorous presence,”) to the careful yet impactful way in which she arranges her phrases. And of course, her dialogues are a pure delight to read:

“Humanity, as an experiment, has failed.”
“Well, I’m sure I did the best I could,” Maryjane said.
“Do you understand that this world will be destroyed? Soon?”
“I just couldn’t care less,” Maryjane said.

This being a novel by Jackson, most of the characters hate other people and the rest of the world. Aunt Fanny’s ‘prophecy’ gives them the possibility of entertaining a future in which they are different. Yet, they are so occupied with their future as to completely ignore the people around them, so that meaningful heart-to-hearts inevitably fail.

“But there aren’t any good people,” Gloria said helplessly. “No one is anything but tired and ugly and mean.”

The ambiguous nature of Jackson’s story and her characters may not appeal to those who dislike when things happen off-stage. Personally, I love that Jackson doesn’t always provide answers to the mysteries within her stories.
I would definitely recommend this to fans of Jackson, or to those are interested in a satirical ‘pre-doomsday’ story populated by an Addams type of family.

Some of my favourite quotes:

“Now, she thought; I may go mad, but at least I look like a lady.”

“You, sir,” the man said, addressing Essex. “Do you atone?”
“Daily,” said Essex.
“Sin?”
“When I can,” said Essex manfully.”

“I will not have space ships landing on my lawn. Those people are perfectly capable of sending their saucers just anywhere, with no respect for private property.”

“Can you cook?”
“Admirably.”
“You would have to cook poorly, to meet my ideal. I want the kind of dismal future only possible in this world. ”

“I personally deplore this evidence of frayed nerves; we do not have much longer to wait, after all, and perhaps if we cannot contain ourselves we had better remain decently apart.”

“If my lunacy takes the form of desiring to wear a crown, will you deny me? May I not look foolish in tolerant peace? ”

“There’s no denying, for instance, that my clever Julia is a fool and my lovely Arabella is a—”
“Flirt,” Mrs. Halloran said.
“Well, I was going to say tart, but it’s your house, after all.”

“We must try to think of ourselves,” Mrs. Halloran went on, “as absolutely isolated. We are on a tiny island in a raging sea; we are a point of safety in a world of ruin.”

My rating: ★★★★✰ 4 stars

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