THE WAVES by Virginia Woolf (First published by The Hogarth Press, 1931)
In her 1928 essay Women & Fiction, Virginia Woolf wrote that she hoped a time would come when novels would “cease to become a dumping ground for personal emotions” and in her diaries at around the same time she expressed the desire to be rid of “the appalling narrative business of the realists : getting us from lunch to dinner”.
These quotes show how Woolf had at this point become totally bored by the relatively conventional structure of popular fiction. She believed that the linear plotlines of contemporary novels were irreversibly flawed in that they bore little or no relation to how we actually conduct our daily lives.
Embracing the Modernist cause, she developed more of an interest in the darker psychology traits of her characters which led to her becoming less and less concerned with describing their actions, interactions and appearance.
This was evident in her masterpieces Mrs Dalloway (1925) and To The Lighthouse (1927) but The Waves represents her most fully realised attempt to deconstruct the novel. It has no recognisable story and the voices of six characters in search of a plot morph into each other in such a way that it’s hard to tell them apart. Continue reading
GIRL IN TRANSLATION by Jean Kwok (Riverhead Books, 2010)
As a compelling, at times shocking, account of a young immigrant’s life in America this book has many merits. As a convincing work of narrative fiction it leaves a lot to be desired.
The episodic nature of the novel is problematic in that the story has a disjointed quality. As the author jumps from one event to the next, the reader is left with more questions than answers.
In the opening chapter we learn that the mother of the first person narrator, Kimberley Chang, had suffered from tuberculosis in China but her state of health is something which is barely mentioned therafter.
Later on, at the age of 18, when it is clear that Kimberley (Kim) needs to obtain U.S. citizenship, she applies and studies hard for naturalization but we are never told how the actual test went. The cumulative effect of these gaps is disorientating and infuriating. Continue reading
The fifth in a series of 13 book reviews from my pre-blogging years.
STEPPENWOLF by Hermann Hesse (1927)
The Steppenwolf of the title is Henry Holler, a tired intellectual living a solitary life in an attic flat in a cosy bourgeois home. He is 50 years old and weary of life to the point of contemplating suicide. The nephew of his landlady observes that “the root of his pessimism was not world contempt but self contempt”.
Holler thinks of himself as a kind of Jekyll & Hyde figure with the wolf in him representing the pleasures of the flesh. Despite his book learning he finds no enjoyment in the spiritual life and finds himself “outside all social circles, beloved by none”.
In this desperate state he meets Hermine who is a member of a Magic Theatre advertised as being ‘For Madmen Only’. She teaches Holler to laugh, dance and enjoy sex without guilt.
Above all, she despises his patronizing attitude to those he regards as uneducated: “You learned people and artists have, no doubt, all sorts of superior things in your heads, but you’re human beings like the rest of us, and we too have our dreams and fancies”.
Through Pablo, who plays in the theatre company’s band, Holler learns that music is not something to be felt with the heart not something to analyse or philosophise over.
The moral of Hesse’s novel can be summed up by the criticism of what he calls the “never-ceasing machinery” of everyday life which can prevent people from being “the critics of their own lives and from recognizing the stupidity and shallowness, the hopeless tragedy and waste of the lives they lead”.
What he advocates as an alternative is to “learn what is to be taken seriously and laugh at the rest”.
I second that emotion.
The fourth in a series of 13 book reviews from my pre-blogging years.
LOLITA by Vladimir Nabokov (1955)
Lolita continues to draw its share of critics because it deals with a sexual relationship between a middle-aged man and a 12-year-old ‘nymphet’ without taking then easy option of moralising or sensationalising the story.
The novel examines the desires of the lonely and slightly pathetic Humbert Humbert but pointedly refuses to present him as a pervert or a monster.
Nabokov’s neutral tone is what exasperates and antagonizes those looking for any excuse to label the novel as depraved and obscene.
The Russian born author also writes so brilliantly that the story is vivid, believable and disturbing. He doesn’t need to write lurid sex scenes to convey the true nature of the man’s fatal attraction to the young girl. Continue reading