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Monthly Archives: April 2011

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This is the season of long, slow, sunny days off work and so, to match the dreamy pace of life, I’ve been reading a long, slow book. As I’m still immersed in this book and am nowhere near finishing it yet, I thought that in the meantime I’d do this questionnaire which I’ve seen around, all lists of four things.

Four jobs I have had in my life
– editorial assistant
– admin assistant
– teaching English
– working in a pub

Four authors I could read over and over again
I haven’t been much of a re-reader lately but I’ve read almost everything these authors have written.
– Haruki Murakami
– Richard Yates
– Jean Rhys
– F. Scott Fitzgerald

Four places I have lived
– Cheshire
– Oxford
– London
– Cambridge

Four books I would recommend
There are so many I could recommend but here’s my selection.
– What I Loved by Siri Hustvedt
(a beautiful book, full of ideas, about love, relationships and art. Actually I wouldn’t mind reading this one again…)
– The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald
(a very atmospheric and original book about the life of a Romantic poet and philosopher)
– Wise Children by Angela Carter
(the magical and joyful story of a theatrical family, one half classical Shakespearean, the other half from the music halls)
– Morvern Callar by Alan Warner
(a book with a unique and special main character, a girl from a remote part of Scotland whose boyfriend dies leaving an unpublished novel…)

Four places I have been
Obviously I’ve chosen some of the most exciting and loveliest places to list here.
– Paris
– Venice
– Barcelona
– Vienna

Four of my favourite foods
– yoghurt with honey
– raspberries and cream
– coffee
– any Japanese, Indian or Thai food!

Four places I would rather be right now
– anywhere by the sea
– New York (I’ve never been but I feel sure I would like it…)
– Italy
– France

Four things that are very special in my life
– long walks
– singing in a choir
– my various favourite bands
– reading!

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I hesitated about whether to pick up this book – I was inclined to read something that would cheer me up so that my mood matched the sunny weather, and I thought this novel might be ‘depressing’. However, I also thought it looked interesting and as soon as I started it, I became completely absorbed. A book that describes my feelings in beautiful writing, so that I feel understood and less alone, can never be depressing. Equally, a book that describes a life very different from my own, however difficult and sad, so that I become utterly involved with that person and completely forget my own worries, does not bring my mood down but leaves me feeling I have experienced something worthwhile.

The Post-Office Girl is set in Austria in the 1920s, where life seems to have been very harsh for people afflicted by post-war poverty and unemployment. The novel was written during the 1930s when the author was living abroad in exile from the Nazis and was only published after his death. It is about a young woman, Christine, who works in the village post office. She has experienced great hardship during the war, constantly worrying about money and working hard all day long to support her sick mother. One of the themes of the book seemed to be the waste of youth, both as experienced by individuals and for a whole generation whose lives were ruined by the First World War, and the way in which, even once the war-time suffering was apparently over, the people and the country found it difficult to recover.  This generation seem to feel that they were born at the wrong time, and even those just a little younger have more chance in life than they do themselves:

…these post-war seventeen- and eighteen-year-olds aren’t waiting quietly and patiently, waiting for someone to want them and take them. They’re demanding pleasure as their right, demanding it as impetuously as though it’s not just their own young lives they’re living but the lives of the hundred thousand dead and buried too… Surrounded by this coarse and lustful postwar generation she feels ancient, tired, useless, and overwhelmed, unwilling and unable to compete. No more struggling, no more striving, that’s the main thing! Breathe calmly, daydream quietly, do your work, water the flowers in the window, ask not, want not. No more asking for anything, nothing new, nothing exciting. The war stole her decade of youth. She has no courage, no strength left even for happiness.

Christine’s life suddenly changes when her rich American aunt and uncle invite her to accompany them on holiday to Switzerland. Immediately she is overwhelmed by a life of excess and pleasure, dresses in beautiful new clothes bought by her aunt, mingles with the wealthy guests at the hotel, and spends her time in a whirl of dancing and parties. The book really creates a sense of the elation Christine feels in her new life of luxury, evoking the kind of intense longing for wealth and happiness that only someone who lives in exile and deprivation can feel. The main focus is on how Christine is transformed by her new surroundings. Her appearance is altered within hours by the ‘makeover’ her aunt gives her (‘not even in a dream has she ever dared to imagine herself so lovely, so young, so smart’), the way people respond to her is different, she is popular and admired, men pursue her, and her personality becomes carefree, vivacious and even a little naive. It was rather difficult for me to believe that Christine could change so much within little more than a week and could forget her everyday life and sick mother so completely. But if this part of the book isn’t quite realistic (to me), it is gripping as a kind of fairy tale and an exploration of how people are affected by their surroundings, their social status and their wealth or poverty. I think everyone must know the feeling of being a slightly different person when you are removed from your usual routine or spend time with a new group of people, and are even given a glimpse of the kind of person you could be if your life took another course. This novel takes this idea to an extreme, focusing mainly on the effects of social class and wealth. Christine herself feels a sense of unease at how her identity has been disrupted, thinking ‘is there suddenly something in me that was always there and yet not there, something that just couldn’t get out?’ and when questioning her sense of self, ‘confidence turns into insecurity again’.

This part of the book and Christine’s relationships with the other hotel guests is completely absorbing (as is the whole novel), but then this wonderful but fragile new life comes crashing down and Christine is sent home to her lonely old life, sleeping in a damp attic and working at mindless tasks in the post office. She then meets Ferdinand, who was a prisoner of war in Siberia, and has also had his youth and plans for a career as an architect taken away from him by the war. I won’t give the plot away because part of the pleasure of this book is how you can get caught up in the characters’ stories, entranced by their adventures as if they were real people. But I will say a bit about Christine’s relationship with Ferdinand because it was quite moving, being based on an instant understanding and connection between them, and the way their experiences and reactions paralleled each other. It is clear that Christine can only feel love for someone who feels the same sense of anger and disappointment in life that she does. Like Christine, Ferdinand almost has two selves, the ‘before and after’ superimposed over one another:

But behind that face there seemed to be a second face, just as there was a second voice behind his angry one, a second face that appeared when he smiled, when the wrinkles lengthened and the aggression in his eyes softened to a glow. Then something boyishly docile came out, and it was almost a child’s face, trustful and sensitive. That was how her brother-in-law had known him, she remembered. That was how he must have been then.

I found it interesting that Christine seemed to feel a stronger desire for the men she met while living in luxury in Switzerland, even though she had fairly shallow relationships with them; she was somehow enabled to feel desire by the hedonistic, flirtatious atmosphere at the hotel and her own new feeling of liberation and excitement. She has much deeper feelings for Ferdinand but they are both too worn down to feel much passion, and their poverty often leaves them without a place they can be alone together. They recognise an ally in each other, having each found a sympathetic listener, someone who really understands what the other is feeling, and their relationship is formed by long conversations. Ferdinand has the same feeling of anger that the impersonal force of the government has taken part of his life from him: ‘We came into the world at a bad time. No doctor’s going to fix that, those six years of youth ripped out of me, and who’s going to reimburse me?’ Their relationship is hopeless but also has some beauty, as it’s essentially two people against the rest of the world and what could be more romantic than that? I would definitely recommend this book  – it is a completely addictive read and written with great intensity.

Again and again she returns to those Alps sprung overnight from her sleep, an incredible sight to someone leaving her narrow world for the first time. These immense granite mountains must have been here for thousands of years; they’ll probably still be here millions and millions of years from now, every one of them immovably where it’s always been, and if not for the accident of this journey, she herself would have died, rotted away and turned to dust with no inkling of their glory… Indifferent and without desires before, now she’s beginning to realise what she’s been missing.

 

I have just had a lovely weekend away in the Welsh countryside. Saturday was spent at a birthday garden party complete with high tea, while on Sunday I ate yet more delicious food and went for a walk in the sun, watching lambs leaping in the fields and birds of prey soaring through the skies!

I didn’t go too far from home in my reading though, as the book I took with me was set in a place I know very well. All Souls by Javier Marias is about a Spanish academic who spends two years as a visiting academic in Oxford, and has an affair with another tutor, Clare, who is married with a son. I am always drawn to books set in universities, but this one was a little different from the typical campus novel. It was certainly quite funny and contained its fair share of the scandalous relationships and eccentric tutors that are usually found in the university novel, but there are several things that set it apart.

One was a tendency towards philosophical digressions on subjects such as identity, memory and the ritual significance of emptying a rubbish bin. Some of these I found funny (the rubbish bin episode, for example), others rather off-putting and tedious, although this could be down to my own state of exhaustion while reading, rather the book itself. I found some of the abstract and reflective sections quite heavy-going, until the plot acquired some more momentum and I became interested again. I wasn’t particularly drawn to the character of Clare, as she seemed rather vague and distant, and didn’t come alive to me somehow. Perhaps this reflected the slightly apathetic nature of their affair, which seemed partly a way for the main character to fill his time and amuse himself while in Oxford, where he admits, he has ‘minimal duties, a fact that often made me feel I was playing a purely decorative role there’. I was more interested in his friendships with other academics, and his experiences living in Oxford, which is described as ‘a city preserved in syrup’.

Another way the book was quite unusual was the surrealist aspect to it. For example, one subplot of the book was the narrator’s ‘morbid’ interest in collecting rare books, which is a distraction from the emptiness of his life and his inability to see Clare as much as he wants to. This leads to him becoming obsessed with two neglected writers with bizarre life histories and being stalked around second-hand bookshops by a strange antiquarian bookseller. I quite liked this part of the book. It was definitely more entertaining than the narrator’s half-hearted relationship with Clare!

Part of the interest of the book for me was the setting, since the author is very precise about location throughout the novel, and I enjoyed imagining the incidents against backdrops I know well, and being able to work out exactly where the main character’s house was! Although All Souls was published in 1989, Oxford is clearly a place that doesn’t change that much (I realised this while watching the TV series of Brideshead Revisited recently), and most of the places, including some of the bookshops mentioned, are still in existence.

However, another way the book differs from the usual Oxford novel or film is its absence of nostalgia or romanticism. As well as the university, it describes the other lives of Oxford, including the homeless people with whom the narrator becomes obsessed in his wanderings around the city. The book doesn’t just talk about the centre of Oxford, but also mentions the towns and villages surrounding it, and reveals an obsession with Didcot Station (a very dreary, deserted place), where the narrator briefly meets a young girl, an encounter that seems to haunt him for a while. I also liked the description of the narrator’s trip to a sleazy nightclub and the groups of people who go there. Of course, All Souls does concentrate mainly on the university, since all the main characters are academics, but it doesn’t romanticise this either; in fact the narrator’s main feeling towards the place is one of unease. It is seen as a place where nothing changes, where people don’t have enough to occupy them and their academic work is merely a distraction from their real preoccupation with relationships. It is also described, disturbingly, as a place where people exist outside time and reality… This book definitely didn’t have much of the Brideshead spirit about it, or if it did, only the negative flipside.

This wasn’t one of my favourite university novels, since it lacked a certain passion and excitement, but it was pretty entertaining and unusual. I’m still not really sure what to make of it, but I liked how it made me see a place I know well in a different way.

 

Over the past few months, I’ve become a true Richard Yates addict and read all of his books (apart from Revolutionary Road and A Good School, which I’d read several years ago). I can definitely say that he has become one of my favourite authors ever. My favourites of his works are The Easter Parade and a book of short stories called Eleven Kinds of Loneliness, but none of his books are anything less than brilliant, and if you read one and enjoy it, you will probably have to devour them all, like I did.

A Special Providence is the last Yates book I read, and the plot is a little different from the others, in that it is set in wartime and a large proportion of the book is about the experiences of a young solider, Bobby. The other part of the novel is the story of Bobby’s mother, Alice, back when Bobby was a child, describing their unstable and disaster-prone life together mainly from Alice’s point of view.

The prologue sets up the complicated relationship between the mother and son by describing a fraught meeting between them when Bobby is on leave from the army, before he is sent overseas. Because Bobby is an only child and has grown up without any contact with his father, he and his mother are very close. To anyone who’s read many Yates novels, it is very noticeable that all the mothers have similar characters, and Alice seems to fit straight away into the usual mould: self-dramatising, unable to stop talking about herself, prone to hysteria. The typical Yates-style mother has artistic ambitions and longs for a more glamorous life, spent with other artistic and ‘interesting’ people she considers worthy of her. This usually leads to endless attempts at social climbing, as well as vast extravagance and money problems. Anyway, it is immediately clear that Alice is of this type, and that Bobby feels a massive resentment towards her and is very critical of her delusions about herself. Nevertheless, it’s not that simple, because they both depend on each other, and there is part of Bobby that genuinely admires how his mother has battled through life and how during her very ordinary childhood, she ‘somehow developed a passion for art, and for elegance, and for the great distant world of New York’. Even though their meeting is not a success, he reflects that:

…it couldn’t be denied that he’d come to New York of his own free will, and even with a certain heartfelt eagerness. He had come for sanctuary in the very comfort of her “lies” – her groundless optimism, her insistent belief that a special providence would always shine on brave Alice Prentice and her Bobby, her conviction, held against all possible odds, that both of them were somehow unique and important and could never die.

Alice is certainly not the utterly terrible mother figure that so often appears in Richard Yates’ books; she has a few more sympathetic character traits, such as her determination and her commitment to her artwork. I did find myself feeling sympathy for her at times and feeling hope in her occasional moments of success, while knowing (because obviously this is a Richard Yates novel!) that they couldn’t last very long and there would be disappointment round the corner. I very much enjoyed the parts of the book dealing with Bobby’s childhood. I was drawn in by Alice’s relationship with her boyfriend, and her disastrous move, encouraged by an artistic and ‘interesting’ couple she meets, to a decadent country estate like something by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Like most Richard Yates books, summarising the plot doesn’t show what is fascinating about his books: the characters, their relationships and conflicts, and his observations of their inner lives and interactions with eachother.

Bobby begins life in the army as an awkward, nervous eighteen-year-old and enters battle confused about what he is meant to be doing and desperate for acceptance, social status and the chance to act heroically. He is sent to France and Germany, and spends most of his time trying to survive battles set among the deserted houses of occupied villages. I felt as if, even in these dangerous situations, this novel was very much about self-consciousness, and the way in which people imagine they are perceived by others. The behaviour of Bobby and some of the other soldiers is influenced by war movies and their ideals of how a heroic soldier should behave. As Bobby grows up though, he starts to hate this fraudulence. Alice also shows this kind of self-consciousness; for example, when she goes on a romantic date at a sidewalk cafe, ‘she kept hoping someone she knew would walk past and see them there: she even hoped for strangers to notice them and to wonder, enviously, who they were’. One thing I really like about Richard Yates’ novels is how his characters are always projecting themselves into the future, imagining themselves behaving well in front of someone they wish to impress or delivering a perfectly withering speech to someone who has made them angry, which I always find quite funny and believable! I think his novels are concerned with daydreamers and people who want their lives to have some kind of beauty or elegance. Things never work out exactly as they hope, and in the moments when people realise they have been fantasising or deluding themselves, they feel embarrassed and ashamed. I think the contrast between ideal and reality is part of what drives his novels.

(Just as a warning, this paragraph contains a slight plot reveal…) The idea of providence becomes quite ironic in the midst of a chaotic battle in which any soldier can die, by chance or because of someone else’s pointless mistake. I found it very sad when one character died, both because he was a very likeable character and because his death could have been avoided in several different ways. I really felt Bobby’s guilt over his death and his desire to atone in some way. Somewhat connected to the influence of chance and luck in the book, there is the epigraph from W.H. Auden: ‘We are lived by powers we pretend to understand’. I can see how this relates to the story of soldiers taking part in a war that’s beyond their control, but it also reminds me of other Yates characters, especially Emily from The Easter Parade and her words near the end of the novel, ‘I’m almost fifty years old and I’ve never understood anything in my whole life’. In another way, unrelated to Richard Yates’ books, I actually find the Auden quotation quite inspiring. Although I can see how it is expressing something disturbing, I find it so interesting the way there are many mysteries in life that are impossible to analyse away, and that we often don’t know why we behave or feel a certain way until long afterwards, if ever. I think this sense of mystery in life is something I am constantly drawn to in books and films.

There is a biography of Richard Yates, A Tragic Honesty by Blake Bailey, which I now really want to read. It’s a shame there are no more Yates novels out there for me to feed my addiction with, but I know I will always remember and return to his books.

 

I was first introduced to Haruki Murakami when I was about 19 and a friend recommended Norwegian Wood to me. Since then, over the years, I’ve avidly read my way through nearly all Murakami’s books that have been translated into English, and am looking forward to reading his latest novel, 1Q84, which is apparently coming out in this country later this year.

By now, the plot of Norwegian Wood was a little hazy in my mind but as soon as I started watching the film, it came back to me, even stray lines of dialogue or little details you’d think would have been completely forgotten. The film is about a university student, Toru Watanabe, who falls in love with a girl, Naoko. He has known her since childhood and they are bound together by a tragic event in both their pasts. Naoko has been so traumatised by this event that she is suffering from severe depression and goes to stay in a strange, dream-like mental hospital, isolated deep in the countryside. The effects of grief on Toru are very different; he copes well with life on the surface but retreats into himself and his books, maintaining a distance between himself and university life, which seems to mean nothing to him. The story is set in 1967, and there are student protests and unrest all around Toru, but the film shows him walking among the rioters, untouched by their emotion and absorbed in the circumstances of his own life. He is befriended by a more sophisticated fellow student, Nagasawa, who has had sex with many women, and begins to take Toru with him on nights out to find girls to sleep with. In this way, Toru can still have sex, even though all his feelings are attached to Naoko, who he can’t sleep with; she is too fragile and vulnerable and sex is painful for her. Toru’s life is divided between Nagasawa’s world of casual sex and his visits to Naoko in the institution.

But then everything changes when a girl called Midori sits down at his table in the cafeteria one day. Midori is a complete contrast to Naoko; she’s outgoing, talkative, confident, witty, flirtatious. She has no problem talking about sex and telling Toru her sexual fantasies about him. Most of all, she has a strong desire for life. While Naoko is trapped in a world of mourning and self-destructiveness, from which she can’t seem to break free, no matter how much she tries, Midori never allows her problems to destroy her overwhelming wish to move forward in life and be loved. I think the film shows the way in which people react differently to loss. Midori admits that, although her mother has died and her father has moved away, she does not feel grief or abandonment. Toru asks her if that means she wasn’t loved enough by her parents and Midori replies, ‘I was always hungry for love. Just once, I wanted to know what it was like to get my fill of it – to be fed so much love I couldn’t take any more.’ When her father dies, she is sad, but then after she’s finished crying, she asks Toru if he will take her to a porn film. Her reaction to death is an ever stronger desire for life (which in the film seems mostly to mean sex) whereas Naoko seems to want to follow the dead into the grave.

Midori is a great character and one thing the film lacks is the time the book takes to develop the relationship between her and Toru. The book is full of very entertaining conversations between the two of them. When the film does occasionally use some of the book’s dialogue, it introduces some humour to the tragic story. Like Midori’s description of her ideal of perfect love:

‘Like, say I tell you I want to eat strawberry shortbread. And you stop everything you’re doing and run out and buy it for me. And you come back out of breath and get down on your knees and hold this strawberry shortbread out to me.  And I say I don’t want it any more and throw it out of the window. That’s what I’m looking for.’

‘I’m not sure that has anything to do with love,’ I said with some amazement.

The book enables the reader to care more about these characters and to see why they are drawn together. It is also difficult to translate the narrative voice of Toru to the screen. In the book, he’s funny, thoughtful, deadpan, calm. In the film, he is sympathetic but doesn’t come across so much as a strong character, missing the witty observations he makes in the book. The film strips the story down to its sad essentials, but the book gives the reader so much more. However, I did like the film. It is visually very beautiful and I would like to see it again for that reason alone. There is a lot of silence in the film, leaving space to think and to look. When there is a musical score, it occasionally seems intrusive, as if it’s deliberately drawing attention to itself, as the discordant violins well up during a dramatic or emotional scene. I wondered whether this was a reference to older traditions of film, as it seemed quite melodramatic, but I don’t know enough about cinema to be sure… Some scenes definitely seemed archaic and mythical to me, taking place against a vast landscape of snowy fields or a bleak scene of cliffs above a violent sea.

Suicide was always present in this film, inexplicable and mysterious but also symbolic. It seemed as if the characters who committed suicide were unable to cope with life, and in particular with change. The story is set at a time of social change and sexual liberation. Some of the characters are affected so deeply by loss or infidelity that they can never really recover. I did feel sympathetic to these more absolutist and inflexible characters. I wondered if this was somehow connected to the time in which the story was set, as the 1960s seemed (from my very vague knowledge…) to focus only on youth and the future, on breaking away from outdated ways. I think that another side of social revolutions can be throwing away what doesn’t fit in to the new world, and not wasting much sympathy on those who don’t belong, who were born too early or remain tied to the old traditions. It made me think about how forgetting can be an act of callousness but also of self-preservation and renewal. The characters who survive realise they ‘have to go on living’ (a phrase repeated a couple of times during the film) and don’t allow themselves to be consumed by what’s happened in the past. I felt as if the story shows that suicide is often linked to a moment of transition in life, for example if a person is not strong enough to make the leap from adolescence to adulthood. Those who survive the transition are changed and move on to the next stage in their lives. Part of what’s needed to do this is to forget the dead they’ve left behind, or at least not allow them to dominate the present.

There were some things that bothered me about the story, in particular the ending, that I can’t remember feeling at all disturbed by when I was 19. I’ll try to talk about these plot developments in vague terms, but it might be difficult not to drop a few obvious hints as to what happens… The two main female characters, Naoko and Midori, seemed to represent different feminine ideals, one old-fashioned and passive, one modern and self-determining, one linked to death and the other to life, one looking back into the past and the other forward into the changed world of the 1960s. They also seemed to symbolise two different paths Toru’s life could take. What happens at the end of the film therefore seems necessary in relation to the plot and Toru’s destiny, but also cruel. It seems as Naoko’s fate was simply a way for Toru to continue with his life and break out of the unhealthy stasis he’d been trapped in, and I found it difficult to forget Naoko amid the hopefulness of the ending. I suppose that’s the problem when characters are symbolic as well as easy to relate to and sympathise with; you have to detach yourself a little from their fate. In fact, the very ending of the book is more ambiguous. However, I did like the very last lines of the film, which seemed to capture perfectly its mingled atmosphere of melancholy and optimism.

 

This book definitely has one of the strangest plots I have encountered. I’d read Carson McCullers’ novel The Heart is a Lonely Hunter a few months ago and thought it was wonderful, so when I saw this on the library shelf, I snapped it up immediately! The Ballad of the Sad Cafe is actually a novella, published along with several of the author’s short stories.

The Ballad of the Sad Cafe is quite similar in some ways to the earlier novel, for example in its magical and gothic setting in the American Deep South, and its preoccupation with characters who have something unusual about them, are damaged or set apart from the people around them in some way. The story concerns Miss Amelia, a tough, independent woman who owns a successful business and has a lot of power within the town in which she lives. One day, a hunchback turns up on her doorstep and claims to be related to her. To everyone’s surprise, Miss Amelia takes the weirdly childlike Cousin Lymon to live with her, seeming to develop a strange love for him, and together they set up a cafe that becomes the central point of the town’s social life. It soon emerges that Miss Amelia used to be married, but it only lasted for ten days. I found the story of her disastrous marriage an interesting part of the book. Her husband, Marvin Macy, was a dangerous and violent man who went round fighting, drug-dealing and seducing the young girls of the town, but seemed somehow transformed by his love for the awkward and not exactly beautiful Miss Amelia. However, the marriage soon broke down and when he turns up again in the town, years later, he threatens the happiness of Miss Amelia and Cousin Lymon.

The book felt rather like a fairy-tale to me, partly because of the way the narrator talks directly to the reader. I don’t usually like books that have an intrusive narrator but I quite liked the wistful narration here. The story was presented as something that had happened long ago, I suppose like a folk ballad is. One thing that struck me about both of the Carson McCullers books I’d read was the focus on a late-night cafe that draws together a community of loners, ‘bachelors, unfortunate people and consumptives’. They are like brightly lit dreams in which people can find a temporary escape from the night.

There, for a few hours at least, the deep bitter knowing that you are not worth much in this world could be laid low.

Another aspect of her writing that is very distinctive is the way in which she writes about love – it’s rarely a typical romantic relationship, but instead a love that exists outside of the usual model, maybe between two friends or the love felt by a young girl. It’s something thwarted before it can even begin, or its intensity is unrecognised or unappreciated by those outside  it.

Of the short stories included in the book, I especially liked Wunderkind, a sad story about a teenage girl at a music lesson. Frances, a child prodigy pianist, has over the course of a few months lost her talent, and although she can still play technically well, she can no longer play musically or emotionally. A character in the story comments that her playing is ‘cold’, without feeling, but the story suggests that it is in fact adolescence, with its increase in feeling, that has somehow ruined her playing, or at least prevented her from expressing herself. I thought this story described the feelings of adolescence very well, in addition to the sadness (at any age) of having feelings but lacking the talent with which to express them.

I think Carson McCullers’ writing deserves to be remembered and read more widely and I would definitely recommend it.

 

I actually read this novel last year, but wanted to write about it here because it was the best book I’d read for a long time. The main character, independent and self-contained yet passive, along with all the small details of her life in New York, moved me and lingered in my mind afterwards.

Set in the 1950s, it is about a young Irish girl, Eilis, who lives with her widowed mother and glamorous older sister, Rose. Although they will miss Eilis greatly, Rose and her mother, with the help of the priest Father Flood, create a plan for her to move to New York so that she can have a better life with more opportunities. So Eilis somewhat reluctantly leaves her small town and close family, and sets out alone on the long journey to Brooklyn.

The first part of the book describes her new life: working in a department store, living in a lodging house run by an Irish landlady, and taking book-keeping classes in the evenings. In the lodging house, there are four other Irish women: two young girls, Patty and Diana, who are (in Eilis’ word) ‘man-mad’ and always dressing up and going out on the town. The other two, known as Miss McAdam and Miss Heffernan, are slightly older, prim and disapproving of the younger girls’ antics. The relationships with the other boarders and her landlady are important but Eilis doesn’t completely fit into either group and this begins the characterisation of her as a fairly solitary person, who maintains her individuality and own opinions, despite being outwardly quiet and polite. Although she is painfully homesick at first, she is also shown as being receptive to all the fascinating new experiences that New York offers her:

For each day, she thought, she needed a whole other day to contemplate what had happened and store it away, get it out of her system so that it did not keep her awake at night or fill her dreams with flashes of what had actually happened and other flashes that had nothing to do with anything familiar, but were full of rushes of colour or crowds of people, everything frenzied and fast.

A very important part of Eilis’ new life is the community of Irish people living in New York, brought together by church-organised events such as dances, which can bring the hope of romance, and the special Christmas dinner arranged for people who would otherwise be alone. Eilis helps out by serving food at this event and I loved this scene. At the end of the dinner, an older man sings to her in front of all the guests:

He pronounced each word carefully and slowly, building up a wildness, a ferocity, in the way he treated the melody. It was only when he came to the chorus, however, that she understood the words – Ma bhionn tu liom, a stoirin mo chroi – and he glanced at her proudly, almost possessively, as he sang these lines. All the people in the hall watched him silently. There were five or six verses; he sang the words out with pure innocence and charm so that at times, when he closed his eyes, leaning his large frame against the wall, he did not seem like an old man at all; the strength and confidence of his performance had taken over. And then each time he came to the chorus he looked at her, letting the melody become sweeter by slowing down the pace, putting his head down then, managing to suggest even more that he had not merely learned the song but that he meant it. Eilis knew how sorry this man was going to be, and how sorry she would be, when the song had ended, when the last chorus had to be sung and the singer would have to bow to the crowd and go back to his place and give way to another singer as Eilis too went back and sat in her chair.

After some time of loneliness, Eilis meets a man and starts a relationship with him. I enjoyed reading about this, the way the relationship developed, the differences between the two characters, the way that Eilis fell quite passively into the affair (she was chosen, rather than choosing) but then love grew between them. Eilis is then called back to Ireland suddenly and forced to compare her old and new lives. I think the book shows how it is possible to adapt and create a life wherever one is, but that often it is only chance that has led us to one place, one job, one marriage.  It made clear to me how powerless Eilis in particular was, as a young girl, but equally how there were things in her life that she did possess and love: her room, her books, the walk to work through the streets of Brooklyn in the morning.

I think, finally, the style of this book was what made me love it. It is written in a very understated way, leaving room for the reader’s own interpretations. There’s a kind of blankness to the writing sometimes, which gives it a very particular atmosphere, and seems appropriate to a quiet, solitary character such as Eilis. It almost has a sense of mystery to it, although not in the conventional sense, and I was sometimes left wondering what was going on under the surface. After all, Eilis doesn’t have much opportunity to express or dwell on her feelings, and all her energy is used adapting to her new life. Even at the start of the novel, in Ireland, there was a sense of restraint, of the need to be quiet and keep secrets. Eilis resolves not to tell her mother and Rose of her reluctance to leave for Brooklyn:

She would make them believe, if she could, that she was looking forward to America and leaving home for the first time. She promised herself that not for one moment would she give them the smallest hint of how she felt, and she would keep it from herself if she had to until she was away from them.

There was, she thought, enough sadness in the house, maybe even more than she realised. She would try as best she could not to add to it.