Literary Corner Cafe

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Book Review - Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh "...memory, that winged host."

Brideshead Revisited is set primarily in England, between WWI and WWII, and is told in a frame, narrated only by Ryder, a narrator who seems sincere and reliable, and most of the time, sympathetic, not only to the reader, but to the plight of the characters around him.

The story proper opens in Oxford in 1921-1923, where Charles Ryder is a young student. Disregarding the advice of his very proper older cousin, Jasper, Ryder has taken ground-floor rooms in the university town. Jasper has warned Ryder that ground-floor rooms provide little peace and solitude and instead, open their inhabitants to a plethora of unwanted intruders. And so it is with Ryder. One night, hearing a group of partygoers making their way home, Ryder sees the face of Sebastian Flyte at his window, and his life is changed forever.

Brideshead Revisited isn't E.M. Forster's Maurice. The friendship that develops between Ryder and Sebastian isn't romantic in nature, though its bonds are, perhaps stronger and its endurance longer, than most romantic relationships could ever hope to be. Ryder, a lonely young man, whose mother died when he was still a child, has only his rather dotty father at home, and though far from poor, the elder Ryder is a penny pincher who seems to glory in a life of doom and gloom. We can't blame Charles when he becomes somewhat overly entranced with the Flyte family and with Sebastian.

And, truth be told, there are few of us who wouldn't be attracted to Sebastian - at least initially. He's brilliant, sensitive, and, it would seem, in every situation, charming. He's also, as we soon learn, more than a little flawed. If Ryder doesn't immediately see Sebastian's shortcomings, Jasper does, and he's quick to point them out to his younger cousin.

While Sebastian's family, the Flytes, of whom the head is the Marquis of Marchmain, probably wouldn't appear the slightest bit odd to us - today - they are quite a rarity in 1923 England. To begin with, they're Catholic - at least Lady Marchmain and the four children are - though all five espouse varying degrees of what constitutes "keeping the faith."

Sebastian's father, Lord Marchmain, who isn't a Catholic - at least for most of the book, doesn't give a whit about keeping the faith, or keeping familial solidarity, either. While Lady Marchmain and the children remain ensconced at Brideshead, Lord Marchmain, for reasons never made entirely clear, although we know they have, in part, something to do with religion, has long ago fled England for Italy, where he lives in a decaying palazzo with his surprisingly likable and sympathetic Italian mistress.

Lord Marchmain, however, isn't the only family member to break with tradition. There's Sebastian's older brother, Lord Brideshead, who seems far more intent on collecting matchboxes than finding a suitable wife and ensuring the propagation of the Flytes. There's Lady Julia Flyte, a woman who goes her own way, and when first encountered by Ryder, is thoroughly preoccupied with her engagement to the non-Catholic Rex Mottram, a rather coarse and vulgar Canadian who is not at all suited to her...or to the Marchmain family. Then, there's Lady Cordelia, the youngest. Outwardly, she seems to definitely be "her mother's daughter," a devout young woman who is expected to become a nun. Presiding over Brideshead is the tragic figure of Lady Marchmain, a woman whose devotion to her faith and sensitivity have rendered her totally unable to cope with the problems given her by her children.

While the first half of Brideshead Revisited is rather gay in tone - we see Ryder and Sebastian enjoying idyllic picnics of strawberries and champagne, setting off on summertime drives through the leafy English countryside, and, like many university students, indulging in one round of parties after another, all in the company of Sebastian's ever-present teddy bear, Aloysius - the second half of the book, which takes place in 1938, becomes something else entirely and takes on a decidedly darker, more tragic tone.

To my dismay, the most interesting figure in this family tableau, Lord Sebastian, has all but disappeared, having become an inveterate alcoholic and taken up residence in a Spanish monastery in North Africa. He turns out to be his father's son after all, as both indulge their propensity to flee that which they do not care to ignore or change. I found Sebastian the most interesting character in the book, by far, and I desperately wanted to know more about him, but sadly, that was not to be, for Brideshead Revisited is Charles Ryder's story and his alone.

Ryder, during the second half of the book, is not so preoccupied with Sebastian as he is with Julia, whom he meets by chance on board ship while both are still married - to others. Marriage, however, doesn't stop them from indulging in their love for each other or from discarding their respective spouses and returning to Brideshead. But Brideshead revisited isn't at all the Brideshead that Ryder once knew. With Lady Marchmain long dead, Lord Marchmain, now ill and feeble, makes the decision to return to his ancestral home to die in his Renaissance bed, a decision that will have far-reaching effects on Julia, and by extension, on Ryder.

Brideshead Revisited often seems to be a polarizing book. There are those who say it's Waugh's finest and those who say it's by far, his worst. Although I was disappointed not to learn more about Sebastian, for me, this book, because of its scope and structure, is quite definitely Waugh's masterpiece, though I'm certainly not blind to its shortcomings. The irony contained in the author's earlier books is still to be found, as is his extensive use of detail. This book, however, is more spacious, more sweeping, though it lacks the wit and abrasive quality of Waugh's earlier works.

Waugh's writing is, sometimes, at its best, and sometimes, not quite up to par. The worst of it is contained in the sections during which Ryder is describing his love for Julia: sunset I took formal possession of her as her lover.... On the rough water...I was made free of her narrow loins.

Well, that's really not very good, but then I didn't expect it to be. The love between Ryder and Julia isn't nearly as believable as the friendship between Ryder and Sebastian. Perhaps Waugh, a convert to Catholicism, let his own feelings get in the way of his writing. Perhaps, as I strongly suspect, he never wanted us to believe in Ryder's and Julia's love in the first place. We do know Waugh intended the theme of the second half of the book to be focused on Julia's spiritual redemption. He's told us so. The trouble is, I personally found Julia to be a very annoying character. Had she simply disappeared from the book soon after her initial appearance, I would have been happy.

Whatever your feelings about Brideshead Revisited, the book certainly can't be dismissed, or even judged against, Waugh's corrosive satires of the Mayfair set. Whether you love it or hate it or feel something in between, Brideshead Revisited is definitely one of "the" defining books of England between the wars. It's a very intimate glimpse of a way of life that was rapidly passing away as a new one was being born. It's a story of physical decay and spiritual rebirth. As Ryder, himself says, while watching his troops being billeted at Brideshead:

It could not have been lit but for the builders and the tragedians, and there I found it this morning, burning anew among the old stones.

In middle age, Charles Ryder himself, a major player in the tragedy of the Flyte family, is burning anew, though not in the way he expected, among the ancient stones of Brideshead.


Recommended: Yes. It will either be your "favorite Waugh" or your least favorite. Let me know which!

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Book Review - The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry "I do remember terrible dark things..."

In The Secret Scripture, Irish novelist, poet, and playwright, Sebastian Barry gives us an intimate look at two persons: Roseanne McNulty and Dr. William Grene. It’s a fascinating look and one I don’t think most readers will soon forget.

Roseanne Clear McNulty has been a patient in the Roscommon Regional Mental Hospital in western Ireland for the last sixty years. A native of Sligo, Ireland, Roseanne believes she could be one hundred years old, though no records indicating her true age can be found, and her admittance records to Roscommon have been destroyed. Now, Roscommon, an old, crumbling, Victorian institution, is going to be destroyed, and its chief psychiatrist, Dr. William Grene must decide which of his patients is well enough to live life in the “real” world, and which should be transferred to the new mental institution that is being readied.

With little to look forward to, Roseanne begins to set down her life story, writing by hand on scrap paper. She desires to leave a history of her life, though she says she is but a “remnant woman,” a thing left over, with no one outside Roscommon who even knows her name.

Roseanne’s haunting reminiscence is seemingly for her eyes only, or for some reader of the future. She writes in secret, and every time she hears someone approaching, she hides the pages of her manuscript under a loose floorboard near her bed.

Since Dr. Grene’s assessment of Roseanne has been made more difficult by the loss of her admittance records, he, too, begins to write – not a memoir, but rather a diary, which he calls his “Commonplace Book.” Through Roseanne’s testimony of herself, and through Dr. Grene’s Commonplace Book, we come to know both of these fascinating and supremely human characters intimately.

Roseanne’s testimony makes up, by far, the bulk of the book, and it’s skillfully and masterfully woven with the writings of Dr. Grene so the effect is of a seamless whole. Although I felt I would have liked it a bit more had Barry made the tone of Dr. Grene’s writing a little more distinct from Roseanne’s, despite the similarity, Roseanne’s is still the more lyrical, the more haunting, the more graceful of the two. She takes us back to her childhood in Sligo, and as she details her life there, her sadness, her grief, and above all, her love for her father, Joseph Clear, a man who cherished the sermons of John Donne and Sir Thomas Browne’s “Religio Medici,” we come to see that Joe Clear was most certainly the love of Roseanne McNulty’s life. Her feelings are so beautifully detailed they are almost palpable. I would have liked to have known more about Joe Clear. His sufferings are so great, he reminded me of Thomas Hardy’s Jude Fawley or Job, himself, yet he is, at all times, totally believable.

This is not to say that Dr. Grene’s sections aren’t arresting. They are. As he searches for the truth about Roseanne, we not only experience his private tragedies along with him, we come to see this gentle and compassionate doctor is also tortured by doubt and riddled with undeserved guilt. And, though her testimony is quite fascinating, the more Dr. Grene learns about Roseanne, the more we begin to doubt her reliability as a narrator.

As Barry weaves Roseanne’s testimony with the words of Dr. Grene’s Commonplace Book, we move from Sligo between the wars to the present and back again. The more Dr. Grene learns about Roseanne, the more questions are raised – in his mind and in the mind of the reader. Were all Roseanne’s tragedies based in reality? Or were some the product of her own imagination? Who should Dr. Grene believe, Roseanne or the Catholic priest, Father Gaunt, whose account of Roseanne’s history differs considerably from her own? Perhaps both are truthful and both are not. Memory, after all, is subjective and filtered through personal experience, and Roseanne, herself, admits that “no one has the monopoly on truth.”

The Secret Scripture is written (but never overwritten) in sensitive, beautiful, lyrical prose, and gorgeous imagery, a testament to Barry’s power as a poet. Although Roseanne and Dr. Grene certainly take center stage, the book is populated by an entire cast of ghostly, though beautifully drawn minor characters – Roseanne’s enigmatic father, her beautiful, emotionally fragile mother, the chilling Father Gaunt, the crusty John Kane, an orderly at Roscommon. Even Eneas McNulty, the protagonist of Barry’s earlier book, The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty makes an appearance that will impact the lives of both Roseanne and Dr. Grene forever. Ireland, itself, and its tragic history are present in every page of this elegiac novel, and we come to learn more about the power the Catholic Church wielded over the country’s residents, and how inhumanely the Protestant population, which included Roseanne, was treated.

As gorgeous and haunting as The Secret Scripture is, and as human and unforgettable as are Roseanne and Dr. Grene, some readers are bound to be put off by a melodramatic plot twist that comes very near the end of the book. Although I would have preferred Barry not to have included this twist, I found the book so wonderfully written that it really didn’t bother me that much. Other readers, however, will find that it nullifies all that has gone before. Personally, I trust Barry’s storytelling skills and believe there’s a reason why he decided to include this rather soap operaish and guessable twist.

In the end, I found the means most definitely justified the end, and though I would have rather Barry not included the ending twist, the journey, for me, the gorgeous, heartbreaking, lyrically beautiful journey, was worth the destination. I will not soon forget either Roseanne McNulty or Dr. William Grene, and I will certainly treasure this book and read more of Sebastian Barry.


Recommended: Definitely.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Book Review - The Haunting of L. by Howard Norman “…writing, writing as if to beat the Devil.”

It is March 1927, and twenty-nine-year-old Peter Duvett, a photographic darkroom assistant attempting to flee his demons, travels from Halifax, Nova Scotia to Churchill, Manitoba, a community of about 1,500 situated on Hudson Bay.

Duvett just happens to arrive in Churchill on his new employer’s wedding day. Vienna Linn, a rather macabre and sinister man who photographs newly baptized Eskimo for the local Jesuit missionaries, is marrying the attractive, red-haired Kala Murie. Kala, though not a photographer herself, has a definite interest in photography. She’s a devoted follower of Georgiana Houghton, a nineteenth century spiritualist and author of The Unclad Spirit, a book Kala’s made her bible. The book details the subject on which Kala occasionally lectures – spirit photography – in which an “uninvited guest,” not present when the photo was taken (he or she being already deceased), appears after the photo is developed.

I don’t want to give too much away, but there are several surprises on the Linn/Murie wedding night that create an interesting, though not wholly believable dynamic among the three main characters.

The book quickly takes on a wonderfully noirish tone as we learn of Radin Heur, a wealthy and eccentric London collector who, in the past, had paid Linn to photograph tragic and gruesome accidents. The fact that Linn probably wouldn’t have been anywhere near the scene of the accident is solved in a way that’s caused both Linn and Murie to flee from Heur – at least temporarily.

A lot of things – melodramatic things – happen in The Haunting of L. – adultery, murder, attempted murder, suicide – and the book is wonderfully atmospheric, capturing perfectly the cold, the snow, and the desolate isolation of northern Manitoba. You’d think, with all the above, it’d most certainly be a page-turner if ever there was one. And yet, the book drags. Surprisingly, it just plods along until reading it becomes more a chore than a delight.

The story is told from the point of view of Duvett, and this, I think, is part of the problem. Peter Duvett is so passive, so complacent, so totally without imagination or curiosity that it’s next to impossible to care about him. Linn and Murie don’t fare any better as far as character development is concerned. Both are shallow and underdeveloped, and I found Murie, in particular, despicable, though it’s Linn I should have despised.

The Haunting of L. is the third book in Howard Norman’s Canadian trilogy, the other two being the magnificent The Bird Artist and The Museum Guard. The Haunting of L. is written in the same elegant, pared-down prose that’s found in the first two, and Norman provides much food for thought, but, as with its characters, he never gets around to developing any of it and his book certainly suffers. This is a story that “could have, should have, would have” been so very much, but, though beautifully written, just isn’t.

I could have forgiven Norman this shallowness had it not been for the ending. All through the reading of this mysterious, creepy novel, I had no idea how it would end, but I certainly didn’t expect the come-out-of-the-blue, pat ending provided by Norman. Despite the flat characterization, Norman managed to create an original story and a plot that continually twists and turns. He got the three principals in so much trouble one would think there was no way they could dig themselves out. And apparently, there wasn’t. The ending is far too easy, too implausible, and it left a decidedly bitter taste in my mouth.

Sadly, I can’t recommend The Haunting of L. despite its lovely writing. However, I can enthusiastically recommend the first two books in the trilogy, mentioned above. These books still contain the lovely, evocative writing found in The Haunting of L., but they don’t suffer from flat characterization and a tacked on ending.

By all means, read Howard Norman. Just skip this particular book.


Recommended: No, but do read Norman's other books. They are terrific.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Updated Book Review - Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri - I'm Underwhelmed

When Jhumpa Lahiri's Pulitzer Prize winning volume of short stories, The Interpreter of Maladies was published, I didn't read it. For one thing, I'd just read Vikram Seth's A Suitable Boy (and it's huge) and Rohinton Mistry's Family Matters, and while I absolutely loved both books, I was suffering from a surfeit of Indian fiction, at least at that time. But more than that, I gave The Interpreter of Maladies a pass because of all the hype. I've been let down by hype in the past. More than once. Surely the book couldn't be that good, I told myself. Surely Lahiri's prose wasn't that sparkling and fresh.

When Unaccustomed Earth, Lahiri's third book of longer short stories was released, I'd "sort of" decided to give it a pass as well. I have plenty to read, and didn't really need anything new. However, I was shopping the other day and there was the book, lying on a table right in front of me. I couldn't resist. But please keep in mind, I approached the book with a mind to dislike it.

At first, I was astounded by the beauty and grace in Lahiri's stories. No, the plots aren't much to speak of. Nothing earth shattering really happens. These are just normal people living normal lives. Yes, they're Bengali-Americans, but so what? Lahiri writes about the universality of the human experience, not about experiences that are unique to Bengalis or Bengali-Americans.

I was impressed with Lahiri's spare and unadorned prose, with her understatement. But as time went on, my good feelings about this book were replaced by some not-so-good. For one, the surfeit of elementary grammar mistakes, such as using "one another" instead of "each other" when speaking of only two people. This would be okay in a memo or an email, but not coming from a Pulitzer Prize winning author. An Amazon reviewer has already pointed out the numerous grammar mistakes, so I won't do so here, but please know, they are they and in spades.

Another thing I came to dislike about the book was the flatness of the storytelling, the lack of vivid details. I'm not talking about cheap "hooks" or action scenes that are found in less-than-great detective stories or thrillers, neither of which I really like, but sensuous details - the sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and feelings of things - description that makes use of the five senses. It just wasn't there and I found Lahiri's prose pleasant, but flat. It didn't come to life vividly like Alice Munro's always does, or William Trevor's. Pulitzer or not, I don't think Lahiri has mastered her craft.

Personally, I can't understand criticism of Lahiri because she writes about Bengali-Americans. Doesn't Alice Munro write about Canadians? Doesn't William Trevor write about the Irish? Didn't Chekhov write about Russians and Eudora Welty about people of the American South? No, I wouldn't be able to read Lahiri every day. But neither would I be able to read Alice Munro or Chekhov every day. That part doesn't bother me nearly as much as the flat prose and the grammatical errors, neither of which should be tolerated in a Pulitzer winner.

If you're new to Lahiri's writing, Unaccustomed Earth probably isn't a good place to start. Although at first impressed, after letting the stories "settle" for a while, I came away from the book feeling very let down, very underwhelmed. No, the stories aren't bad, but they're not stellar, either, and definitely not up to the caliber of Alice Munro or William Trevor. Certainly not Chekhov. When it comes to the masters, Lahiri can't even come close.


Recommended: Only to her fans.