Monthly Archives: August 2006

More Elizabeth Taylor

I finished Elizabeth Taylor’s The Sleeping Beauty recently, the second Taylor novel I’ve read in a few months. I like reading multiple books by the same author like this — I did this also with Muriel Spark recently — but I don’t do it much. Too many other books by new authors I haven’t read before are out there enticing me to try them. But spending a little more time with an author than just one book yields so many insights into the way that author works. To put it in boring English teacher terms, you can do some comparing and contrasting and draw some deeper conclusions.

I’m seeing about Taylor that she writes about middle-aged women very well; both books I’ve read have women of that age at their center. The Sleeping Beauty has a younger woman as a love interest — the sleeping beauty herself, but at least as interesting is Isabella, a widow with a grown son, who hopes to be the love interest and is disappointed. In a Summer Season tells about a woman who has married a significantly younger man and how this enlivens and disrupts her rather sedate life. Taylor writes about middle-class sexual repression and expression extremely well. The Sleeping Beauty isn’t set in a town called Seething for nothing. Isabella and her friend Evalie spend a significant amount of time and money on beauty treatments trying to make themselves look younger and more sexually attractive, all the while interfering when they can in the love lives of others. The class issue arises most clearly when Isabella insults her son’s girlfriend, who is a nanny, and therefore unacceptable for her educated, talented son. Another character, Rose, does what she can to keep her sister Emily locked up in the prison of her home, keeping her from wandering out into the larger world where she might meet a man who will take her away.

And yet the surface of Taylor’s novels is serene and quiet. Both books took a while to get some momentum, and, although events do happen in them, they don’t happen often and they aren’t described dramatically. These are books that you should read slowly, because if you rush through them, you might miss the subtle dynamics of a conversation, which is where the story lies. Taylor excels at writing scenes charged with emotion, but with emotion that is usually kept hidden, below the surface. She is at her best in The Sleeping Beauty describing a particularly excruciating tea with Isabella, her son, his girlfriend, and two other guests, an event that goes so horribly wrong I’m left cringing at the brutality of it, even though no actual violence occurs. Middle-class decorum is forever at odds with jealousy, fear, and fury. And hypocrisy — Isabel and Evalie condemn gambling one moment and the next moment are whispering to each other about what horse to bet on. They both project self-satisfaction and self-righteousness, but their actions are, arguably, the cruelest in the novel.

I like the way Taylor shows the dark side of lives that seem so sedate and ordinary. Behind any normal-looking comfortable small-town or country home can lurk suffering and longing and regret. And most of all — interesting stories.

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The Island of Dr. Moreau

I’m not sure if I’m supposed to be posting on this today or tomorrow, but I figure that if it’s supposed to be tomorrow, you all can come back and read this then. I’m also not going to do this book justice, since I read it in a rather distracted state of mind. I felt as I was reading that I should re-read in order to fully appreciate it, but I didn’t have the time.

At any rate, I enjoyed the novel very much. This is my first experience of Wells, and I’m tempted to read the two other novels in my edition, The Time Machine and War of the Worlds. I’m curious what people make of the frame narrative – is there something complicated going on here, or is it simply by way of explaining and setting up the narrative to follow? Wells participates in an old tradition of frame narratives, whether it’s the frame story of escaping the plague in Boccaccio’s The Decameron or the multiple frame narratives that encircle the creature’s narrative in Frankenstein, or the explanation Defoe gives at the beginning of Robinson Crusoe that the narrative is a true one that Defoe had stumbled upon and decided to publish. Wells’s use is certainly not as complicated as Mary Shelley’s was, but the frame does give the reader a sense of the mysteriousness to come in the main narrative, and it tells us the interesting fact that Prendick “subsequently … alleged that his mind was a blank from the moment he escaped from the Lady Vain.” Did he find that his attempts to explain what he saw on the island were so impossible that he gave it up and simply said his mind was blank to avoid explanations entirely?

I’m reminded of Hawthorne’s story “Young Goodman Brown” where Brown journeys into the woods, discovers the horrors that (supposedly) exist in the human heart, and returns home a changed man, unable to live at peace with his family again. And also Gulliver, who after his travels becomes a bitter, cynical man. In both of these books, and in Wells’s novel too, one of the central questions is about what it means to be human: are humans like the houyhnhnms or the yahoos, or neither? The ending of the novel is moving; Prendick lives in fear and horror of his fellow humans and isolates himself from people, devoting his time to scientific studies. He writes:

They say that terror is a disease, and anyhow, I can witness that, for several years now, a restless fear has dwelt in my mind, such a restless fear as a half-tamed lion cub may feel. My trouble took the strangest form. I could not persuade myself that the men and women I met were not also another, still passably human, Beast People, animals half-wrought into the outward image of human souls, and that they would presently begin to revert, to show first this bestial mark and then that.

At the heart of the novel, I think, is the conversation between Prendick and Dr. Moreau where Moreau explains the nature of his experiments. This dialogue is all about the relationship of human beings and animals – a topic that has fascinated writers since the time of Gilgamesh, another work that tries to define humanity by considering how people differ from the gods on the one hand and the beasts on the other. The question in Wells’s novel centers around pain – what it means to be able to feel pain and how we should respond to our own pain and that of others. Moreau says:

For it is just this question of pain that parts us. So long as visible or audible pain turns you sick, so long as your own pains drive you, so long as pain underlies your propositions about sin, so long, I tell you, you are an animal, thinking a little less obscurely what an animal feels … A mind truly opened to what science has to teach must see that [pain] is a little thing.

Pain is an aspect of animal experience, not human, according to Moreau; as humans separate themselves from the animal world, pain will carry less and less significance. That he brushes aside Prendick’s objections to his cruelty shows that he has lost something essential to his humanity and has become much less than an animal, which would never behave as cruelly as he has. By working so horribly on animal bodies and denying the significance of the pain they experience, Moreau shows his abhorrence of bodies in general – he desires to leave the body and all its weaknesses behind. But in denying the body, he perverts human nature into something it’s not – the body is as central to human experience as the mind.

Moreau cannot succeed in turning animals into humans to his satisfaction because he misunderstands what it means to be human and animal both. He says of his animal/human creations that:

Least satisfactory of all is something that I cannot touch – somewhere – I cannot determine where – in the seat of the emotions. Cravings, instincts, desires that harm humanity, a strange hidden reservoir to burst suddenly and inundate the whole being of the creature with anger, hate, or fear.

He wants to drive what he sees as the beast out of the human, and yet what he considers “beast” – the body that feels pain and experiences instincts and cravings – is inseparable from the human. Prendick separates himself morally from Moreau when he recognizes the humanity of one of Moreau’s creations:

It may seem a strange contradiction in me – I cannot explain the fact –, but now, seeing the creature there in a perfectly animal attitude, with the light gleaming in its eyes, and its imperfectly human face distorted with terror, I realized again the fact of its humanity.

This is a redeeming moment for Prendick, who, rather than allowing this creature to enter Moreau’s torture chamber once again, shoots it. This is an act of mercy.

Okay – there is so much more going on in this novel, but I’ll leave it up to my fellow Slaves to point those things out.

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Colette and her mother

I’m not that far into Judith Thurman’s biography of Colette, maybe 60 pages out of 500, but she’s married already — the early years rush by in the biography, largely because there’s a lot that’s unknown about her early life. The chronology of how she met and got to know her first husband is unclear, for example (she married fairly young, at 20). I’m finding her an elusive figure as I read about her; the time is long enough ago (she was born in 1873), the place and customs different enough, and, most of all, the family dynamics and Colette’s own personality odd enough, that I find myself more mystified than ever about who she is. I feel as though I can often worm my way into someone’s life imaginatively — no matter how far apart we might be in time and place and personality — but not so with Colette, at least not yet. So far, she seems to be an elusive figure for the biographer as well, not least because Colette was known for exaggerating and embellishing and sometimes outright lying about her history. None of this lessens my interest in her; in fact, quite the opposite. I find myself wanting to know more and more about this mysterious figure.

Some of the most interesting parts of the biograhy are about Colette’s relationship with her mother, which, as some bloggers have pointed out to me and Thurman describes in some detail, was extremely complicated. In many ways, it seems, Colette’s mother, Sido, taught her much that was valuable, including a questioning attitude toward traditional morality and the patriarchy. Thurman writes,

If [Colette] never became a professional housewife, it was, in part, Sido’s doing. Her ambitions for her daughter did not include drudgery … the flash of defiance Colette saw in Sido’s garden face became the light she wrote by. It had shown her, very young, that a woman’s domestic burdens are incompatible with her creative freedom. And with Sido’s encouragement she rejected those aspects of her mother’s experience that Sido let her feel were demeaning, confining or sacrificial — including motherhood itself.

Isn’t that a great legacy? And yet, as I understand it, Colette was, at least at times, neglectful of her daughter. Motherhood can be confining, yes, but what to do when you’ve got a daughter who needs you? To learn from your mother that motherhood can be demeaning, confining, and sacrificial is bound to be a difficult, ambiguous lesson, one that could affect generations to come.

And here’s another part of Sido’s legacy: the jealousy and domination of Colette and her siblings. Here is Thurman again, on the wedding night Colette spent in her parents’ house:

In the small house where [Sido’s] daughter was losing her virginity, at least officially, the mother had not undressed for bed; had spent the whole night awake, evidently tormented and unhappy. She was unable to bear the thought of Colette’s “going off with a strange man,” or her initiation into an adult sexual life, and Colette was nearly unable to bear her mother’s sadness.

When I came to this scene, I thought of Isak Dinesen’s image for the ordeal of separation — the Bible story of Jacob wrestling with the Angel. “I will not let thee go,” says Jacob to the Angel, “until thou blesseth me.” Sido gave her daughter many inestimable gifts, but never the blessing of letting go.

We shall see, as I read on, what Colette makes of this complicated legacy.

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My century

The good news about my century ride: it rained only about half of the time! Or maybe it was 2/3. I was chilly, but not dangerously cold! I had only one awkward run-in with an annoying guy! My neck and shoulders are killing me, but I can still move!

Actually, for all the rain and the temperatures in the 60s (60s make very nice riding weather — when it’s dry), the ride felt okay. It was only in the last 10 miles or so that I started to get impatient to get back to the car, and I know from experience that the last 10 miles of whatever length of ride I’m doing is the time I get impatient to finish up. I rode pretty slowly for me, averaging 14.5 miles an hour, although I think part of the reason for that is my reluctance to take the downhills fast when it’s pouring rain and the road is slippery. I learned all too recently what it’s like to scrape the pavement. That and I struggle to climb hills, needing stronger quad muscles. And since most of this course was either uphill or downhill, I wasn’t going all that fast ever. Do you know how badly rain can hurt when it hits your face when you’re going downhill at 30 mph? Pretty badly, I’ve found.

I rode most of the way on my own, and while having another rider along with me can make the time go faster, I like being able to keep my own pace. Riding 100 miles is stressful enough, but to try to keep up with another rider or to ride slower than I’d like and thus be out on the course longer, just adds to the stress. And until the very end, I’m not bored in the least; I’m happy to look around me, to think whatever I want, or, more often, to think nothing at all. I get into a meditative state when riding, where the most that’s in my head is a song. I think this is one of the things that keeps me riding so much — it lets me escape my brain for a while.

According to my heart rate monitor/bike computer, I burned 3,331 calories on the ride yesterday. Just think of all the eating that allows me to do! Okay, it’s because I believe that cycling equals more opportunities to eat that I’m not skinny. That, and genetics.

The encounter with the annoying guy: I’m riding along and two guys pass me (we ended up passing each other over and over again throughout the day), and one of them turns to me and says, “How old are you?” I get annoyed and say, “Hey! How old are you?” He takes a while to answer, appearing to think that he’s justified in asking me but not required to answer the question himself. He expresses amazement that I’m out doing the ride and I seem so young. This makes no sense to me. I figure since I’m out alone, I’m better off not being completely hostile, so once he tells me his age, I tell him mine, and things pretty much end there. I just make a point of not riding near him again.

The next century is three weeks from today. I’d like to do it, but I’ve already decided that if rain is in the forecast, I’m not.

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Plot and character

In the comments to yesterday’s post, Danielle asked a great question (as she so often does) about plot-driven vs. character-driven novels. I realize, now that I think about those terms, that the distinction is quite fuzzy. When I say “plot-driven,” I tend to think of action stories, and the book that comes immediately to mind is The Da Vinci Code. And when I say “character-driven,” I’m talking about books that go into a character’s mind or multiple characters’ minds in depth and focus on portraying a person or people in a complex way. I think, for example, of Proust. But this shows my biases, of course, because my example of a plot-driven novel is generally not considered great literature (okay, that’s an understatement), and Proust is. Danielle also names Dumas as an example of a writer focused on plot, someone who’s made the canon of western literature, sort of, but he also has a reputation as a super-fast writer who’s fun but not so serious.

I think Danielle is right to question the distinction between these two types of novels because although the distinction may wind up being useful, it has a lot of problems. Plot and character always go together, of course, or you don’t have a novel. Even if we’re talking about Clarissa, which much be the ultimate character-driven novel, it has plot, even if it consists of only three events. In 1,500 pages. In Search of Lost Time (or Remembrance of Things Past, if you prefer) has plot, even if it doesn’t follow any traditional story line (or does it? I don’t know yet). Still, I’m reading along right now in Swann’s Way and I want to know what happens to Swann and Odette. And plot-driven novels have characters, or there would be no plot to begin with, and if they are good novels, they’ll have interesting characters.

But there are lots of novels that don’t immediately strike me as one or the other. I just finished The Island of Dr. Moreau, which on first thought seems to me to be plot-driven, but then I start to think that the narrator in that novel is awfully interesting, and maybe it’s his responses to the plot that are at the heart of the novel? I suppose many, many novels work well because of the way they connect plot and character — the way that the plot comes out of the characters themselves, and then the characters remain interesting because of the ways they react to the plot. They don’t necessarily emphasize one over the other; rather, they integrate the two. And many, many novels emphasize one or the other to a degree, but not so much that a reader could clearly say this one is plot-driven and that one character-driven. Ultimately, I see the terms as useful for making very rough and quick distinctions, sort of like the way we use genre designations that work to a certain extent but when you look at them closely they begin to break down. This novel is “chick-lit,” that one is “speculative fiction,” this one is a “historical novel,” that one a “romance,” this is “plot-driven,” that is “character-driven.” The terms are a good starting place but not a good ending one.

The thing that interests me most is the question of bias I started out with. Am I showing my bias toward character-driven fiction when I name examples of plot-driven novels that people tend not to take seriously, such as The Da Vinci Code? What are some great plot-driven novels? Or would you rather not use the label at all? Do the terms have any usefulness?

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Comfort reading

I realized that I wrote something not quite true in yesterday’s post: I wrote that losing myself in a plot is what I need in stressful times when I’m not reading well. But the truth is, I don’t do particularly well with plot-driven novels. What I should have said is something more like “I need to lose myself in interesting characters or a well-drawn atmosphere or in careful emotional analysis.” Because those are the things I enjoy most; I tend to get impatient with intricately plotted novels. Most often what draws me to a book are people and relationships. I am stereotypically female in this sense, aren’t I? No fast-paced action — give me a relationship story! I feel the same way about movies; I’ll watch action movies, but I can get bored in the middle of them and sometimes fall asleep. But give me an interesting character, and even if that nothing happens to that character, I’ll be happy. There are exceptions — I loved the Phillip Pullman trilogy, His Dark Materials, which has a lot of plot, but it also has a lot of ideas, which is another thing that draws me to a novel. I liked Neal Stephenson’s novel Quicksilver, which has lots of plot and ideas, but I wasn’t so enchanted that I felt the need to pick up the next book in the trilogy. I got a little frustrated trying to keep the details straight in that book. Perhaps it’s my bad memory; I do better analyzing relationships and character than keeping plot details straight in my head.

I liked your suggestions for comfort reading from yesterday’s post very much; I would have picked up Anne of Green Gables immediately if I’d had a copy at home. I made the silly mistake of leaving them with my parents years ago, thinking they were children’s books that I’d outgrown. Oh, no. And I very nearly picked up a mystery novel. We have a ton of Dorothy Sayers books around. I’ve read a couple and liked them. And Jane Austen is the perfect comfort read for me; familiar but never dull. I was tempted to look around to see if we have any Louisa May Alcott, which would have worked very well. But I was scanning the shelves yesterday and came across an Elizabeth Taylor novel I haven’t read, The Sleeping Beauty, and it struck me as just the thing. I’ve read Taylor recently, In a Summer Season, and so I knew what to expect, and that I’d like it. And it’s perfect — set on the seashore and evoking a mysterious atmosphere, with complex characters whose lives seem quiet and serene but as the novel goes along the deeper levels of unhappiness reveal themselves. I like the slow movement of Taylor’s novels, the careful attention to tone and mood and gesture. This sort of thing is much more absorbing to me than something fast-paced. Looking around online I see that Taylor has at least a dozen novels. I’ll have to collect some more to have on hand for the next time I’ll need something comforting.

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Reading and stress

In one sense my reading’s going fine lately — I just finished H.G. Wells’s The Island of Dr. Moreau for the Slaves of Golconda, and I liked it very much; I’m a little ways into the biography of Colette and find her a fascinating subject; I’m nearing the end of Swann’s Way and am eager to find out what happens to Swann and Odette; I’m liking Jane Kenyon’s poems; and Frances Burney continues to write funny scenes in her journals and letters — but in another sense, it’s not. I’m not a very good reader in stressful times. I have trouble sitting still; I can’t concentrate and my mind wanders; I find myself not absorbing very much; I read a page and realize I have no idea what I just read. I need to keep reading during these times — because, really, what else would I DO with my time? — but it doesn’t absorb me in quite the same way.

I should probably pick up something light to get me through, something that I won’t care too much about if I don’t read very carefully. I’m not a frequent “light” reader though. I say that realizing it might sound like bragging, like I’m all great literature all the time, but I don’t mean it to; I tend to be a slow, serious reader, not given to picking something up for the pleasure of losing myself for a while in a plot and tearing through it to the end. And this is a problem in times like this, when losing myself in a plot is exactly what I need, and I’m at a bit of a loss. I’ll have to look around the house; surely we have something that would suit.

I find that in stressful times taking a bike ride is a better option than sitting down with a book. It’s easier for me to lose myself in the physical activity of the ride — to get rid of my worried, obsessive thoughts about whatever it is that’s stressing me out while working hard climbing one of the local hills (or, more likely, climbing a dozen of the local hills) — than to lose myself in a book. But I’ll still be hunting around for the perfect book to pick up after my ride is over. We’ll see what I find.

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