The Honjin Murders by Seishi Yokomizo

Originally published in 1946 The Honjin Murders is a locked-room murder mystery. Throughout the course of the novel, the author pays homage to Golden Age detective novels, by alluding directly to authors such as Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie and their works and by being quite self-aware when it comes to the conventions that characterise this genre. Sadly, despite my being a fan of detective novels and classic whodunits, The Honjin Murders failed to catch my interest nor I was impressed by its intertextuality. The narrative doesn’t really subvert any of the tropes it mentions, in fact, it seemed to me that it follows too closely in the steps of those classic detective novels. The way the whole murder is related to us also distanced me somewhat. The narrative is very heavy on the telling, with the same events being recapitulated one time too many. The narrator, I’ve forgotten what, if any, role he plays in the case, begins by mentioning this very ‘interesting’ case and relates the day of the murders and the subsequent investigation in an almost matter-of-fact manner. He’s somehow able to recount conversations and interactions that he had no way of witnessing and keeps foreshadowing what is to come in a way that didn’t add any intrigue or suspense to the story. The characters were one-note, dull even.

The murder takes place in the village of Okamura during the winter of 1937. The oldest son of the Ichiyanagi, a family of repute, is set to marry a teacher. Many of his family members aren’t keen on his marrying ‘down’, but he refuses to budge. The wedding takes place and on that very same night, the newlywed couple is found dead in a locked room. The evidence seems to point to a stranger who was sighted in the village earlier in the day. A relative of the bride reaches out to Kosuke Kindaichi, a sort-of-kid detective who, much like Poirot and his ‘little grey cells’, uses ‘logic’ to figure out the culprit and their motives.
I figured out the murderer pretty early on in the narrative which definitely decreased my engagement in the murder investigation.
Predictable and kind of dry (maybe this is due to my having read a translation) The Honjin Murders may appeal to those who haven’t read a lot of detective novels or perhaps those who aren’t seeking anything particularly riveting or complex.

my rating: ★★☆☆☆

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The Setting Sun by Osamu Dazai

In The Setting Sun Osamu Dazai captures a nation in transition. Set during the early postwar years Japan this novella is centred on an aristocratic family fallen on hard times. Kazuko, our narrator, and her fragile mother who are forced to move to the countryside and give up their family home. Gentile Kazuko has no options left but work in the fields. She slowly begins to fear that this menial labour will make her spiritually and physically ‘coarse’. Kazuko laments what she perceives as a decline in moral standards, which she attributes to the rapid industrialisation and Westernisation of her country.
Kazuko’s brother return to Japan causes further distress. Naoji is now addicted to opiodis and his presence in the household upsets Kazuko. His cynicism and cruelty do little to assuage their mother.
As the narrative progresses we are introduced to Mr. Uehara, a writer and an acquaintance of Naoji.
While I was interested in Dazai’s mediations on class, nobility, and the right to die, as well as his navigating the dichotomy between tradition and modernity, I was ultimately underwhelmed by The Setting Sun. Perhaps this is because Kazuko and Naoji’s voices at times were almost interchangeable, or maybe I was never convinced by the character of Kazuko (especially when it came to the man she loves). At times Dazai seemed more interested in rendering the aesthetics of existentialism than of truly delving beneath his character’s surface.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars
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The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James — book review

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“A large fortune means freedom, and I’m afraid of that. It’s such a fine thing, and one should make such a good use of it. If one shouldn’t one would be ashamed. And one must keep thinking; it’s a constant effort. I’m not sure it’s not a greater happiness to be powerless.”

The Portrait of a Lady focuses on a young American woman, Isabel Archer, who comes into a large inheritance. Even before Isabel becomes financially independent she was unwilling to fulfil the responsibilities and obligations her gender thrusts on her. To restrict herself to the role of wife would not only be oppressive but it could hinder her journey of self-discovery. It is because Isabel craves to experience the world—free of wifely and motherly constraints and duties—that she declines some rather promising marriage proposals.
Ralph Touchett, Isabel’s newly acquainted not-quite-American cousin, perceives in Isabel a latent potential for greatness. Believing that his cousin is meant to “rise above the ground”, Ralph decides to provide Isabel with the means to do so: a lot of money. It just so happens that Ralph’s father, Mr. Touchett, possess a vast fortune. Ralph convinces his sick father to bestow on Isabel a large part of his estate. During their conversation Mr. Touchett asks his son the following question:
“Tell me this first. Doesn’t it occur to you that a young lady with sixty thousand pounds may fall a victim to the fortune-hunters?”
As with Chekhov’s Gun, the fact that ‘fortune-hunters’ are mentioned pretty much insures their appearance. The story that follows sees Isabel predictably falling into the path of two wannabe Machiavellian American expats.
Set against a European backdrop, the narrative contrasts the values and customs of the New World against the ones of the Old. This juxtaposition of New vs. Old, America vs. England, English-speaking countries vs. the rest of Europe, serves as a backdrop to the exploration of themes such as personal freedom, duty, ambition, wealth, art, self-sacrifice, and morality.

“She lost herself in a maze of visions; the fine things to be done by a rich, independent, generous girl who took a large human view of occasions and obligations were sublime in the mass. Her fortune therefore became to her mind a part of her better self; it gave her importance, gave her even, to her own imagination, a certain ideal beauty. What it did for her in the imagination of others is another affair.”

The first ‘volume’ of this novel introduces us to the various players of the story. The narrative, which occasionally slips into a first-person point of view, presents Isabel Archer as its central figure, often affectionately referring to her as “our heroine”. This switch between perspectives and seeming self-awareness, brought to mind Middlemarch. Contrary to popular belief, James’ writing is far from stale. While it would not be wholly inaccurate to describe his prose as being the antithesis of concise, the fact that he seems to lose himself in long-winded observations and digressions does not mean a lack of clarity on his part. In fact, his narrative has a really nice flow to it. His refined use of the English language gives his prose an almost polished quality.
While James’ narrative is not as effervescent as the one of Edith Wharton in
The Age of Innocence (which also happens to have an Archer as its protagonist), he is nevertheless able to inject his portrayal of this upper society with a subtly oppressive, and very Whartonesque atmosphere.
Money and class do not necessarily provide his characters with happiness or love…if anything they seem to make them all the more miserable. In spite of her attempts to carve her own path Isabel is still a woman, one whose financial independence does not result in actual personal freedom.
I really enjoyed the character dynamics that were explored in this novel’s first volume. The characters were nuanced and compelling and it was interesting to hear their views on America, England, and Europe. Given their contrasting beliefs, they are all eager to influence Isabel one way or another. Isabel’s resolve, admiringly enough, does not waver. Even if she unsure what she is ambitious for, she remains firm in her desire not to marry, opting instead to travel and to gain some life experiences.

The second volume of this novel was tepid at best. Our heroine is pushed to the sidelines, with the narrative focusing instead on Gilbert Osmond, his “attractive yet so virginal” daughter Pansy, and her self-pitying suitor, Edward Rosier. These three characters were annoying and uninteresting. Gilbert was presented as some sort of clever manipulator but he struck me as a half-unfinished caricature of the fastidious and cold husband (Casaubon’s less convincing descendant).
Isabel’s sudden character change was almost jarring, especially if we consider until that point James had taken his sweet time exploring her sense of self and her various ideas. Worst still, Ralph and Isabel suddenly became martyrs of sorts. Isabel in particular spends the remaining narrative doing Mea culpa…which struck me as quite out of character.
Gilbert and Madame Merle are presented as this morally-devious duo, the typical fox and cat who try—and often succeed in—tricking our hapless and helpless protagonist. Which…fair enough. I have been known to enjoy villainous duos (such as Count Fosco and Sir Percival Glyde in
The Woman in White)…Gilbert and Madame Merle however seemed to lack purpose. Their characters do not seem to be as important or as profound as they are made to be. Later on other characters (who have no reason to defend them or forgive Gilbert and Madame Merle) make it seem as if these two have their own valid feelings, of tortured variety, so it would be unfair for us to judge or dislike them or their actions.
I was so irritated by the story’s direction and by Isabel’s character regression that I was unable to enjoy the remainder of this novel.
My interest was sparked only when the characters discussed their cultural differences. As an Italian I always find it vaguely amusing to read of the weirdly incongruent way Italy is portrayed by non-Italians during the 19th century. James’ clearly appreciated Italy’s history and its landscapes, but throughout his narrative a distaste for Italy’s ‘present’ state (Italians are regarded as lazy and somewhat primitive). I also appreciated the way in which James’ depiction of masculinity and femininity challenges and questions established norms (such as the qualities that the ‘ideal’ man and woman should posses). However cynic, his depictions of love and marriage could be deeply perceptive.

“The real offence, as she ultimately perceived, was her having a mind of her own at all. Her mind was to be his—attached to his own like a small garden-plot to a deer-park. He would rake the soil gently and water the flowers; he would weed the beds and gather an occasional nosegay. It would be a pretty piece of property for a proprietor already far-reaching.”

Having now read one of James’ novels, I’m not at all surprised that his work has gained him a reputation for wordiness and digression. Yet, his logorrhoea aside, I’m puzzled by the dislike his work seem to entice, especially in other writers (Mark Twain, Jonathan Franzen, Virginia Woolf, Arnold Bennett, Jorge Luis Borges…you can read some of their comments here:
Writers on Henry James).
One of my favourite ‘harsh’ comments was made by Lawrence Durrell: “Would you rather read Henry James or be crushed to death by a great weight?”. Although many of these writers/readers make rather exaggeratedly disparaging observation about James and his writing, some of them hit the nail on the head. Oscar Wilde, for instance, wrote that: “Mr. Henry James writes fiction as if it were a painful duty, and wastes upon mean motives and imperceptible ‘points of view’ his neat literary style, his felicitous phrases, his swift and caustic satire.”
I, for one, was not annoyed or deterred by Henry James’ prolixity. However, as noted by Wilde, I do think that James occasionally overworked certain passages and that his story/characters never seem to reach their full potential. And while I am not entirely sure why Vladimir Nabokov called Henry James a “pale porpoise” (alliteration?), I do agree with him when he says that James’ writing has “charm . . . but that’s about all”.

Why did I read a book that was authored by someone who has gained such an unappealing reputation? Curiously enough, part of me wanted to ‘read for myself’ whether James’ style was as frustrating as some made it out to be. What finally convinced me however was that his name kept popping up in the introductions to Edith Wharton’s novels. Having now read a novel by James’ I find myself wondering why his name needs to feature in so many reviews and articles discussing Wharton’s works…yes, he could certainly write well, and they do explore similar themes, but his work is far less insightful, engaging, and memorable than Wharton’s.
Sadly the clarity and nuances demonstrated by James’ narrative in the first half of The Portrait of a Lady are then obscured by a predictable storyline. With the exception of busybody Henrietta Stackpole (easily my favourite character), the characters become shadows of their former selves (I could not see why Isabel fell for Gilbert) and I no longer felt invested in their stories.
Given that this novel is considered one of James’ best, I’m unsure whether to try reading more of his work…perhaps I will give his novella The Turn of the Screw a try.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3.25 stars

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The Custom of the Country by Edith Wharton — book review

Untitled drawing.jpgStep aside, Becky Sharp. Move over, Scarlett O’Hara…make way for Undine Spragg, the most unscrupulous anti-heroine I have ever encountered.

“[S]he could not conceive that any one could tire of her of whom she had not first tired.”

Wharton once again focuses her narrative on a young woman’s unrelenting attempts at social climbing. While Wharton does inject her depiction of Undine Spragg’s ‘trials’ with a dose of satire she nevertheless is able to carry out an incisive commentary regarding New York’s ‘high society’. Through her piercing insights into privilege Wharton is able to render a detailed and engaging examination of the intricate customs that prevailed among America’s ‘elite’ society, exemplifying the discordance between their values and their behaviour. Wharton emphasises their sense of entitlement and their idleness. While they often believe themselves to possess the most impeccable manners, readers know just how cut-throat they truly are.
Armed with gossip or ready to form conniving schemes, most of them will hesitate at nothing in order to augment their wealth and reputation (ideally ruining someone’s life in the process). Marriages are business manoeuvres and one makes friends on the basis of whether they might be later on be put to good use (‘networking’ is everything for these people).
By bringing together these different themes and subjects—marriage, divorce, class, wealth—Wharton is able to present her readers with a nuanced and in-depth examination of New York’s upper crust.

As a character in the novel observes, Undine Spragg is the “monstrously perfect result of the system: the completest proof of its triumph”. Undine, who was raised by two loving parents who spoiled her from a young age, possesses a solipsistic worldview and her values are exceedingly materialistic.
Undine is an appalling protagonist. She is Lily Bart’s monstrous little sister. We first ‘meet’ Undine when she still seems to be a simple, if pampered, ‘country’ girl. Soon however we begin to see that in spite of her simplicity (she definitely lacks Miss Bart’s charisma and acumen) Undine Spragg is entirely egocentric and lacks both self-awareness and empathy.

“It never occurred to her that other people’s lives went on when they were out of her range of vision.”

As noted by the narrative and the various characters, Undine’s conceitedness, as well as her perpetual sense of boredom, may be the likely result of her upbringing. Her parents’ leniency definitely played its role in making Undine feel as if she should only be concerned with her own happiness, and to be truly happy she has to marry well.
Undine believes that as long as can enjoy an extravagant lifestyle and be favoured within certain circles, she won’t be bored. As much as I loathed Undine—for her selfishness, her lack of creativity, and for her frivolous tastes—I was always aware that she did grow up in a society that values appearances.
Undine was never made to feel as if she needed to cultivate any real interest. Her main concern are her own beauty and reputation, the two means through which she will be able to find a satisfactory match.
It shouldn’t be surprising then that Undine becomes a woman who is thoroughly disinterested in the lives of others. She sees no reason why she should be preoccupied with her husband’s ‘menial’ work. She is unable to see why she should be held accountable for other people’s misery.
There was something oddly compelling about Undine’s determination not to allow her desires to be comprised by anyone or anything. She is more than willing to have affairs, lie, drive her husband(s) and family into debt, and blackmail and manipulate others.
While the narrative definitely accentuates Undine’s cherubic appearance (from her creamy complexion to her beautiful golden locks) readers are made aware of what lies beneath her rosy surface: Undine’s vision of happiness is rather limited. She lacks imagination, so much so that she often merely tries to emulate the women around her.

“Her entrances were always triumphs; but they had no sequel.”

And while I certainly thought her to be a horrible person (her behaviour is reprehensible) there was a part of me that found her egocentrism and cruelty to be strangely compelling. Whether she is merely a product of environment or innately selfish, her total self-absorption was transfixing.
Wharton portrays a scathing picture of her society: were “the average American looks down on his wife”, were women’s sense of self is dictated by a cult of aspiration, were marriages are entirely transactional, and were young individuals are trapped by old traditions and customs.
In spite of Undine’s many romances, there is little if any love to be found within the pages of The Custom of the Country. And maybe that’s for the best given that Undine is no heroine.
While I certainly didn’t find this novel to be as moving as Wharton’s
The Age of Innocence, and Undine’s misadventures lack the poignancy of Lily’s ones in The House of Mirth, I would still recommend this. Wharton’s percipient prose, her sophisticated use of satire, vividly renders the customs and values of New York’s high class.

My rating: ★★★★✰ 4 stars

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The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton — book review

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“The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning; but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth.”

As many readers have already pointed out, there is little mirth to be found in The House of Mirth (and I thought that The Age of Innocence and Summer had despairing endings…what a misguided fool).
As with the majority of her works, Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth is chiefly concerned with depicting the conflict between social and individual fulfilment, and it focuses on the experiences of American’s upper social class during the turn of the last century.
Wharton demonstrates incredible social nuance in her almost anthropological-like study of New York’s elite society. Her commentary regarding the prevailing behaviours found within this group of people is insightful, satirical, and witty. Her portrayal of this privileged class emphasises its pettiness, giving us the impression that beneath their refined appearances and manners lies hatred, envy, and hypocrisy. Wharton throws light upon the discordance between their behaviour and their values. They are little more than jealous gossips, ready to temporarily forget their strict sense of propriety if it means to tarnish someone else’s reputation. It’s very much an every person for themselves type of world (or as I like to call it, a shark eat shark kind of world). Someone’s ruin or misfortune might not result directly to your advantage but it’s guaranteed to entertain (and possibly detract attention from your own ongoings).
This group of selfish and wealthy individuals make for a rather unhealthy environment. Yet, socialite Lily Bart, strives to belong to it. While this is a story that follow’s a woman’s unsuccessful attempts at social climbing to define it simply as such doesn’t do it justice. Throughout the course of the narrative Wharton constructs and deconstructs Lily’s character, making her into much more than a social climber. Lily’s story provides a keenly observed social commentary, and Wharton does so without employing a heavily didactic or moralistic tone.
Throughout the course of her novel Wharton interrogates themes of gender and class. The narrative’s discourse of personal vs. social identity is epitomised by its main character, Lily Bart, and by her eventual downward path (view spoiler). Alongside her satire of New York’s high society, with its oppressive customs and its pretence at niceties, Wharton criticises binary thinking. Unlike her characters, Wharton does not pass judgement on Lily’s transgressions, rather she makes her protagonist’s changing circumstances make her aware of the way in which her values have brought about her own ruin. Although Lily is not painted as the story’s victim, the narrative informs readers of the limited options available to women in Lily’s position.9780140187298.jpg

Lily Bart is one of the many tragic heroines who is ruined by her own materialism and romanticism. These fictional women are often frivolous (Rosamond Vincy), selfish (Emma Bovary), inclined to transgress social norms (Sula Peace), mostly concerned with their own economic elevation (Becky Sharp), and often branded as evil or regarded unsympathetically. Yet, Lily’s character subverts notions of good and bad, as Wharton does not seem to equate her protagonist’s self-interest with vice. While other characters within this novel are quick to label and condemn Lily, we read of her various internal struggles (whom she wants to be vs. who others want her to be) and of her many ill-fated attempts at love and happiness.
Lily very much plays a role in many of her relationships, making herself into what others want her to be. Above all she is an actress, a performer. Yet, her self-fashioning aggravates the disconnect between who she is and who she pretends to be (and often results in problematic situations in which others expect her to do or act in a way that goes against her wishes).
Lily’s solipsistic nature did not make her into an unlikable character. Even when she seems to exhibit the same hypocrisy as those she criticises, I still found her to be a beguiling individual. While her debts are certainly a consequence of her own materialistic desires, if not opulent impulses, we come to understand the significance that appearances (such as one’s dresses) play in one’s fortune and reputation. Lily can charm those in her circle as long as she continues to live a certain lifestyle, she has to keep up with their expensive tastes and habits.
Lily often falls prey to ennui, a boredom that is tied to a sense of sublime potential, one that makes her feel superior to her environment. Lily is frequently unsatisfied by those paths that are open to her: to Lily, marrying a dull man would inevitably result in a life of ‘mediocrity’ and, more important still, in a restriction of her freedom.
So Lily remains adamant in her certainty that she been cast into the wrong role (or life), believing instead that she deserves to live as freely as she pleases, possibly married a man who is both sophisticated and wealthy, and more importantly surrounded by riches. While she certainly longs to and works toward belonging to this upper crust, she finds them to be both petty and shallow, and is often repulsed by their bad tastes, appearance, and behaviour.
This sense of self-importance allows her to manipulate those around her. Lily is a schemer, prone to self-pitying, and not very emphatic. Yet it is her very cleverness and charm that make into a formidable figure.
The novel mostly focuses on Lily’s attempts to find wealth (whether this is through a husband or fortune, she initially doesn’t seem to mind), and the way in which her plans often backfire. As her reputation is shredded beyond all repair, Lily slowly begins to reconsider herself, her values, and her past actions. Her character’s development is realised through extensive acts of introspection, and Wharton’s narration lends itself beautifully to Lily’s self-analysing.

What more can I say write? This story is populated by gamblers and gossips, who are eager to use and walk over Lily (and I hated them, how I hated them), but there are those who show compassion and love towards her. And yes, I am a sucker for a doomed romance (not sure if that makes me a romantic or a bit of masochist).
In spite of its satirical tone, this novel tells tragic story. (view spoiler)

My rating: ★★★★✰ 4.5 stars

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The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton — book review

“I mean: how shall I explain? I—it’s always so. Each time you happen to me all over again.”

A few months ago I read Edith Wharton’s novella, Summer. Although I thought its obliqueness to be rather fascinating, I was frustrated by its relatively short length, and thought that the characters would have benefitted from having some more depth. The Age of Innocence, by comparison, is a much more detailed story, one that focused on a cast of interesting characters, who regardless of their likability, struck me as incredibly realistic. Through their words, mannerism, and motivations, Wharton makes her characters into fully formed individuals.

Newland Archer is one of the novel’s central figures. Archer is a gentleman lawyer who will soon announce his favourable marriage to the young May Welland. All is seemingly well until May’s cousin returns to America to escape from an inauspicious marriage to a Polish Count. Rumours and gossip abound, and to begin with Archer is merely vexed by the attention that his social circle seems to paying to her. Yet, he soon becomes intrigued by the way in which Countess Ellen Olenska seems either oblivious or uncaring of the rules of civility that dictated New York during the 1870s.

For the majority of the narrative Newland Archer and Countess Ellen Olenska exhibit great restraint over their attraction and romantic feelings for one another. Their relationship is one that is punctuated by periods of tenderness, broodiness, fascination, and abnegation. There are stretches of time in which they hardly see one another, and yet they remain quietly devoted to the other.
Archer, through the tumultuous passion he harbours towards Countess Olenska, seeks to escape, if not transcend, from the artificiality and limitations he perceives within his society. Countess Olenska becomes his objet petit a, that is an unattainable object of desire, who he desperately longs for perhaps because he knows that a future with her would be impossible. It is the very act of longing for her that allows him to envision a future free of all that he finds wanting in May Welland his actual fiancee.

It is the very forbidden nature of his feelings for Countess Olenska that seems to inflame his passion for her. He assigns to her the role of ‘beloved other’, regarding their ‘affair’ as an inescapable outcome of their ‘true love’.
Alienated by the majority of her relatives, regarded as ‘other’, Countess Olenska is lonely and unhappy. I admired both her strengths and her weaknesses, and found her to be on of the few characters to actually have dignity. Even in America, in other continent from the Count, she seems unable to escape from the shadow of their unhappy marriage. In Archer she finds an ally of sorts, yet, her experiences prevent her from falling into old patterns.
Archer, on the other hand, attempts to escape from the strictures imposed on him by his family, acquaintances, and New York’spolitesociety, by engaging in an illicit affair which if made public would likely ruin his reputation and career. In his feelings for Countess Olenska, Archer experiences a romantic love untethered by concepts of duty and tradition; while his engagement with May is dictated by notions of propriety and decorum, Archer believes that his relationship with Countess Olenska is unaffected by the social constraints and rituals that otherwise mar his existence.
Archer’s interactions with Countess Olenska provide him with a taste of freedom: while his conversations with the naive and sheltered May are interspersed with platitudes and empty phrases, Archer’s exchanges with Countess Olenska—even when consisting of a couple of words—seem to carry depths of meaning. Her language, as well as her very glances and expressions, are loaded with ‘real’ emotions, emotions which Archer believes to be absent in May. His fiancee’s personality seems to him a blank slate, one that he ought to fill.

In spite of his dishonesty readers will find it difficult to condemn or judge Archer. Tired of the formulaic dynamics of his world, burdened by ennui and disenchantment, Archer feels truly awake and alive when he is in the proximity of Countess Olenska. He grows jealous of men such as Julius Beaufort and often makes unfavourable comparison between Countess and May.
The difficulties Archer and the Countess experience are often a result of their own preoccupation with one another. They always perceive something or someone to be in the way of a possible future together (May, Count Olenski, the Mingotts, the scandal itself).
As the narrative progresses we begin to see that Archer’s impression of the falsehoods within his society and of other people’s character may not be as clear-cut as he thinks. For example, Archer believes that May’s ‘ingenuousness almost amounted to a gift of divination’. Her later actions however suggests that her ‘intuitions’ may be more deliberate than accidental.
The novel examines the way in which desire and happiness are obstructed and influenced by social conventions and notions of duty (what Archer wants for himself vs. what society wants for Archer). Yet, Wharton doesn’t suggest that a union between Archer and Countess Olenska would have a harmonious outcome.
It is the very fact that their romance is ‘doomed’, weighed down by denial, guilt, and regret, that makes it all the more ‘sublime’, it is the pain that accompanies their unfulfilled love makes it all the more vivid.
While Archer’s relationship to May seems to consist of perfunctory speeches (ones which, much to Archer’s displeasure, echo those between May’s own parents), his interactions with Countess Olenska are often ‘clandestine’, which is why they leave such a lasting impression on him. If urgency and secrecy no longer enveloped their meetings, would Archer feel the same passion for the Countess?
In one of the very first pages we are told that Archer was “at heart a dilettante, and thinking over a pleasure to come often gave him a subtler satisfaction than its realisation”. Paradoxically, Archer draws more pleasure from the act of yearning, for something or someone, than from having or experiencing that which he yearns for. In other words, the idea of a future union with the Countess seems to Archer better than an actual union with her. This deferral of his own satisfaction brings about a painful sort of happiness—what could be described as jouissance, that is a ‘backhanded enjoyment’—as it it the very act of longing for the Countess that enables him to entertain the idea that a true and meaningful union can be possible. However, later on in the narrative, Archer seems to want to break free from this self-sabotaging (that is of finding fulfilment in the perpetuation of his non-fulfilment).
The narrative, and the characters themselves, seems to have a certain foreknowledge regarding the outcome of this affair. Still, even if we know what their romance will lead to, we still feel invested in their relationship and it is up to the reader to decided whether Archer and the Countess are victims of their time and circumstances or whether they are the ones responsible for their own misfortune.

Wharton’s rendition of 1870s New York is a strikingly nostalgic one. Yet, in spite of the wistful tone the narrative has towards this Gilded Age, Archer’s story critiques the way in which the customs of his time perpetuated this ideal of a ‘pure’ bride, one whose innocence was, if not performed, carefully fabricated by those around her.

“Untrained human nature was not frank and innocent; it was full of the twists and defences of an instinctive guile. And he felt himself oppressed by this creation of factitious purity, so cunningly manufactured by a conspiracy of mothers and aunts and grandmothers and long-dead ancestresses, because it was supposed to be what he wanted, what he had a right to, in order that he might exercise his lordly pleasure in smashing it like an image made of snow.”

Wharton’s commentary on class and gender emphasised the way in which individuals were restricted by the time’s social norms. The story also presents us with a compelling interplay of duty and desire, of hope and dissatisfaction, and of passion and indifference. The contrast between American and European values seems to be embodied by the two women in Archer’s life: May (as the American ideal) and Countess Olenska (as the worldly, if not ‘exotic’, European).

While there are countless of literary works featuring alienated heroes and ill-fated lovers, The Age of Innocence can offer its readers with a particularly piercing narrative that is written in Wharton’s carefully elaborated prose. Her elegant writing style perfectly lends itself to the ironic and serious tones of her story. The very words Wharton chooses seem to possess a contemplative quality that capture with painful clarity Archer’s feelings for the Countess.
This was an incredibly poignant novel that I will definitely be revisiting again (my heart has to recover first).

My rating: ★★★★✰ 4 stars

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A Room with a View by E.M. Forster — book review

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A Room with a View evokes a gentle Edwardian idyll: we follow the story’s characters through their paced long walks, their wanderings through Italy (in Florence there is the lovely view of the River Arno, Basilica of Santa Croce, Piazza della Signoria, and later on in Fiesole’s high fields Lucy, our main character, will undergo a life changing experience), and observe them in their English ‘habitat’.
Forster’s lulling prose hums with a quiet sort of energy. His descriptions of Italy and of Lucy’s family home—Windy Corner—located in Surrey are incredibly expressive. As an Italian I was amused by the way in which my country, its culture and its people, are viewed as ‘other‘ by English tourists such as Lucy’s disapproving older cousin and chaperone, Miss Charlotte Bartlett. Italy seems to them less civil than their beloved Britain…yet they are unable to deny the power of its history.
Through Miss Bartlett and the other guests of the Pension Bertolini, Forster epitomizes the english tourist: they all seem disdainful of other English tourist yet they are themselves unable to connect with the various landscapes they visit. In spite of their reservations Lucy and George feel a strange pull to one another, and Forster describes their growing feelings with a restraint reminiscent of the society they lived in. A lot remains unsaid, and the reader has to read between the lines in order to glimpse Lucy’s affection for George.
The seemingly mild story provides us with plenty of amusing portraits. Yet, Forster’s satire never comes across as harsh or exaggerated. He seem to be gently poking fun at certain personalities without making his characters into clichés or reducing them to satirical caricatures.
An enjoyable tale that combines a forbidden attraction with an exploration of freedom, art, and travel, as well as a humorous take of English society during the Edwardian period, A Room with a View makes for the perfect escapist read.

My rating: ★★★★✰ 4 stars (rounded up to 4)

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Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen — book review

It isn’t surprising that Pride and Prejudice has become such a classic, one that inspired thousands of adaptations and re-tellings. Many of the story’s components have become conventions…and to dismiss this novel as a ‘girl’s book’ is not only incredibly superficial but it negates Jane Austen’s clever social commentary.
While many of its characters are satirical personifications of certain types of people (the solipsistic and frivolous mother, the disinterested father, the silly sister(s), the intellectual one, and so on) it does so in a compelling way that makes them all the more vivid in the reader’s mind. Austen’s witty narrative might not appeal to all readers but it is undeniable that her story presents us with sharp-witted portraits.
In spite of her ‘prejudices’ Liz was an admirable heroine whose loyalty to her family, and in particular to her sister Jane, made her all the more likeable. Her ‘romance’ with Darcy is but one of the many strands of this rich story that deals with class and gender. What happens between the characters is conveyed in a subtle manner, through carefully selected words…yet the narrative is always buzzing with a vibrant energy.
An entertaining read that definitely lived up to its fame.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3.5 stars (rounded up to 4)

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THE REMAINS OF THE DAY: BOOK REVIEW

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The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro

 ★★★★★ 5 of 5 stars

“Indeed — why should I not admit it? — in that moment, my heart was breaking.”

…and now I am sad.
This hit me harder than expected.

I find it impossible hard to believe that this book was written by Kazuo Ishiguro and not Mr. Stevens. The thing is, by the end, I believed in Mr. Stevens’ existence…
Okay, it might sound odd but that’s just how good this novel is. It made me nostalgic for something I have never known. I was overwhelmed by sadness and regret on behalf of Mr. Stevens. 71raA6p02aL.jpg
Regardless of its author, it is a beautifully written story. The narrative takes us back to certain pivotal moments of Mr. Stevens’ time at Darlington Hall. Through these glimpses we gain a vivid impression of Mr. Stevens. The other characters are just as nuanced and believable as the narrator himself. As Mr. Stevens’ looks back on his years of service, I became acquainted with him. He keeps back quite a lot, especially when it comes to his innermost feelings, and that made him all the more realistic.
This is a poignant and heart-rendering character study that was perfect for a melancholic soul like mine.
I listened to the audiobook narrated by Dominic West (Mr. Stevens) who did an outstanding job.

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Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

To say that I was expecting more would be an understatement.
Perhaps, the kinship I initially felt with this novel was caused by my sharing the first name of its title character. I wanted a story that delivered an array of conflicting feelings in its portrayal of illicit liaisons. Sadly, Anna Karenina only delivered a great headache.
I will not blame the translation, for I approached various ones, and they all seem to faithfully convey Tolstoy’s deliberately repetitive style, or as Vladimir Nabokov would say, they capture the ‘robust awkwardness’ that pervades Tolstoy’s writing. The style itself was not one of biggest issues: yes, I did find it to be self-congratulatory, but, at times, it carried across a pleasing rhythm that lightened the overall tone of the novel. In later sections, the narrative mode is reminiscent of Joyce’s ‘stream of consciousness‘. Tolstoy seems to be trying different styles, using various techniques, to complete this labyrinthine novel. He is much too aware of his own skills, and I felt his dictatorial attempts throughout the novel. The realism imparted by the story is sabotaged by many inane coincidences and Tolstoy’s own moral agenda.

Levin becomes Tolstoy’s mouthpiece: the writer’s own views and beliefs are performed by this character. This in itself was not enough to make him unlikable, however, the important issues Levin raises and the interesting self-questioning loose their importance in light of the superficiality of his love: his passion for Kitty is preposterous. Despite the length of the novel, Tolstoy does not waste any words in regards of an actual reason for Levin to have fallen for Kitty – and vice-versa – making us assume that it was nothing more than an irrational and instantaneous attraction. The ludicrous ‘chalk’ scene had me laughing out loud: their sudden ‘telepathic’ conversation is much more unbelievable than the telepathic ‘bond’ between Jane and Mr. Rochester. Also, why should we root for someone whose ‘strong moral compass’ is underlined by hypocrisy? His admiration for the country life loses any credibility after he dismisses his own fantasy of marrying a ‘peasant woman’.
Anna…oh Anna. I had such high hopes for her. I sought out a nuanced complex character conflicted by her desires and her duties. What I got was a predictably self-absorbed and hysterical ‘fallen woman’ whose own obtuse behaviour is downright senseless: I kept asking, why, why was she acting in the way that she did, but I never got any answers. We are shown her irrational and ’emotional’ behaviour but we are not given a true insight of what goes on in her mind…(having finished the novel I would say that nothing is going on in there). Her affair with Vronsky is as unconvincing as the relationship between Levin and Kitty. He is barely more controlled than a dog in heat is, so he pursues Anna and she simply…likes it?

More importantly, is that Anna does not offer any redeeming qualities. She manipulates and uses those around her especially through her body language. Take for example how she shamelessly influences poor Dolly into forgiving Stiva: she gives her reassuring hand squeezes and pretends to identify with her difficult situation. Anna is all too aware of her own magnetism which Tolstoy attributes onto her looks rather than her personality. Her (view spoiler) should be viewed as redemptive but to me it simply professed the author’s zealousness: (view spoiler)
Anna’s brother, who predominately features in the opening chapter, is so irredeemably selfish it is almost entertaining: he does not feel guilty over his own affair but he is remorseful of not having predicted his wife’s reaction. His wife, Dolly, is forgettable and easily manipulated. Her sister, Kitty, lacks is a poorly rendered character.
Discussions about gender heavily feature in this novel but most of the time, this topic is considered by men and even when there are female characters present they either remain silent or only offer acquiescent comments. Levin’s rebuttal of a ‘capitalism’ suffers under Tolstoy’s stressing of the subject.
The story is filled by numerous dull passages that serve little purpose, characters who should be unique or at least, realistically flawed individuals, end being little more than caricatures, and, finally, the novel’s own sense of importance is countered by the laughable coincidences and aimless discussions, making Anna Karenina a drudge to read. Tolstoy…dear Tolstoy…your ideologies should not have featured so strongly in your own book: subtlety is key.
The only part I enjoyed was the first few chapters: there Tolstoy’s style is endearing rather than annoying and the characters haven’t shown their poor characterisation.
The improbable coincidences that occur in the story were not the sole cause of my animosity towards this novel: I love far-fetched and unlikely storylines – often prominent in sensational fiction – but I cannot abide presumptuousness. Tolstoy – time and again – pushes the reader into sharing his own views, and I was not willing to do that. How could I take his intentions seriously when he employs the most ludicrous course of action to deliver his ‘message’?

Side note: Tolstoy compares women to food and creates parallels between his female characters and animals…top marks…really.

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

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