Sunday, March 15, 2020

Reading group: Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk

At last, a book everyone present loved (apart, maybe, from John, for the reason I'll reveal below).

Suggested by Doug, it's the first-person narration of Janina Duszejko, a woman of a 'certain age' with a wonderfully unique take on the world. An ex bridge builder turned schoolteacher, she recounts the events when a series of deaths of men, all but the first clearly murders, occurs in the tiny settlement on a windswept Polish plateau where she lives. All of the men who die were hunters, and Duszejko (she hates her first name) is convinced that they have been killed by animals in revenge. Obsessed also with astrology, she calculates that the fates of these men were written in the stars. She sets out to try and convince everyone else including the local police.

Her letters to the police are hilarious - at one point she lists various instances of medieval cases of animals (such as rats) having been indicted for upsetting human affairs. Needless to say, she is dismissed by the police as a nutty old lady, as she well understands:
I could almost hear [the police Commandant's] thoughts - to his mind I was definitely a 'little old lady'   ... 'a silly old bag', 'crazy old crone', or madwoman'.

John's objection was to the long sections devoted to astrology, which he found offputting. Duszejko does in fact, hilariously, say that she knows they would be boring to anyone not interested in astrology, and most of us took that as a cue to skim them, and we didn't mind. The chapters are prefaced with quotes from William Blake, another original and anti-establishment thinker, whose poetry Duszejko and her former pupil Dizzy are translating.

While some people in our group did think Duszejko could be characterised as mad - in a likeable way: Ann called the book 'gloriously bonkers' - so many of her insights and observations are utterly sane: '... the human psyche evolved in order to defend us against seeing the truth'. And it seems to me that the denouement of this novel - as clever as any in the crime genre the book in fact upends - can be considered as showing that she is anything but mad. It would be hard to go into why here without giving the game away. Suffice it to say that we thought the book great - as well as the English translation by Antonia Lloyd-Jones: the English translation of several different attempts by Duszejko and Dizzy to translate a Blake poem into Polish was a tour de force.

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here  

Saturday, March 14, 2020

Reading group: The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker

Jenny said it again during our discussion of this book, shortlisted for the Women's Prize: how awful people could think it, that our group so readily trashes praised and revered books. In fact, this book did have one defender in the group, Clare, who had suggested it, and some of the rest of us were less negative than others.

It's basically a retelling of Homer's Iliad, an account of the latter days of the Battle of Troy chiefly from a female viewpoint. Narrator Briseis is a lesser-known queen, captured by the Greeks in their sacking of the city of Lyrnessus, and taken to live in the Greek camp outside Troy as a slave and concubine to the Greek warrior Achilles. In a scenario not unsimilar to that at the heart of the Trojan war, (the Greek attempt to recapture the beautiful Helen, wife of King Menelaus), Briseis becomes a pawn in the tussle between warriors, in this case between the two Greeks Achilles and King Agamemnon, a conflict that affects the course of the battle.

Some of the younger members of the group appreciated and found innovative the authorial stratagem of countering the male-oriented history with a female perspective, though others of us found it a familiar, indeed now somewhat old-fashioned, feminist fictive mode, and Ann pointed out that it wasn't as if it hadn't been done already in Greek literature itself, in Euripedes' play The Trojan Women. And some of us felt that here it was not at all well executed.

Not everyone was familiar with Greek literature, and it was those of us who were who objected most. For Ann and me fundamentally problematic were the tone and linguistic register, which I characterised as bourgeois British housewife, and which to us entirely belied the ethos of the world, and world-view, of ancient Greece. There is a coyness to the language and mentality that is entirely divorced from the powerfully tragic and elemental emotions of the fallen and captured royal women of Euripedes' play, which though imagined by a man seem to me more psychologically authentic. Someone countered that Barker was showing how the women were forced to adjust to life in the Greek camp, and found it perfectly conceivable that they would, but I have to say that the scenes in which the captured women gather made me think of nothing more than seventies meetings of the UK British Housewives' Register (though the younger members of our group didn't know what that was). Witness the following exchange concerning the women's realisation that one of them is suffering physical abuse by her captor:
...the folds of cloth fell open to reveal black fingermarks round her throat. She knew we'd seen. For a long time, nobody spoke.
'Trouble in Paradise?' Uza asked, addressing herself, apparently, to vacant air.
Ritsa shook her head, but it was too late.
Such polite delicacy and coy reluctance do not seem to me at all authentic in the situation in which these women have found themselves, having watched their brothers and sons butchered, and having been taken as slaves, basically raped, some of them sodomised.
Similarly with the following in the same scene:
'I'm amazed [Chryseis is] not pregnant.'
'He prefers the back door,' Ritsa said.
She'd know. Ritsa had a jar of goose fat mixed with crushed roots and herbs that the common women round the campfires relied on if they'd had a particularly rough night. She was too discreet to reveal that Chryseis had been to see her, but the implication was obvious.
As Doug said, why was there a need to use that coy phrase 'the back door'? Why not use the word 'sodomy', which is after all, famously, an Ancient Greek word.

The point may be to avoid abstract language and thus make the situation more concrete and vivid for a modern readership, but it seems to me that if you use language so specifically associated with modern society, and thus drenched in its ethos and connotations, then you are not in fact conjuring the character of the original. ('Oooh, sorry I spoke!' says someone; Yeah, you and me both, thinks someone else, and the whole book is scattered with the construction would'vecould've etc.) Updating something in order to allow a modern audience to relate to it is one thing, but there's no point if in doing so you simply destroy the whole ethos of the original. Someone pointed out that it wasn't even the present day that was always referenced in the updating - for instance, there is a reference to a 'half-crown' - and John said the book reminded him of fifties and sixties films like Cleopatra, overlaid as they were with mid-twentieth-century fashions and obsessions.

Ann also pointed out another way in which the book fails to represent the Greek world view. For the Ancient Greeks the gods were ever-present, meddling full-time in human affairs, and appear as full-blown characters in Greek literature, but there is little sense of them here apart from the emergence from the sea (towards the end) of Achilles' sea-nymph mother with supernatural armour to help him in battle, which sits oddly within the entirely human-occupied rest of the book.

Jenny said she had enjoyed the book but felt that it wasn't well written, and it was generally agreed that another major fault was its mode of telling rather than showing, as in the following passage:
...though I sympathised, almost involuntarily, with [the Greek] men having their wounds stitched up or clawing at their bandages in the intolerable heat, I still hated and despised them all.
It's an ambivalence we have to take on trust; we are given no emotive description to create any somatic sense of it for the reader. It is this that made the book for me very lacking in vividness or ability to engage emotionally.

Doug said that since the idea seems to be to redress the balance, replacing the traditional male viewpoint with that of a woman, he couldn't see the point of sections devoted to Achilles' viewpoint that begin to appear some way into the book. While Briseis's sections are a first-person narrative told in the past tense, these are third person and present tense. No one could see the point of these shifts, except perhaps that it gives the author the chance to portray the male experience of being in the thick of battle, which Ann pointed out is an almost word-for-word imitation of Homer. But, people asked, what is the point of that? I noted that Briseis's narrative voice isn't actually clear. Sometimes it seems to be an interior monologue taking place long after the events described, but at other times it adopts the mode of a dramatic monologue addressed to an unidentified listener unfamiliar with the world and situation she is describing - though as Briseis's tale comes to an end, the battle over, she appears to have been telling her story to someone present there and then, as she embarks with the Greeks for their homeland.

People also pointed out some factual errors: Mark had been struck by a mistake in the portrayal of the weaving that occupies the women: you don't 'spin' on a loom, you weave; and Ann, an expert in such matters, pointed out that the author has Helen stitching the scenes of tapestries by hand (again, tapestries aren't embroidered they're woven), and she didn't think that several of the looms of the size needed would fit into the one tent into which Barker places them. People also wondered how the camp, which lasted for years outside the walls of Troy, could possibly have been supplied with sustenance on land that Barker describes as laid waste by the battle. Where, since the book seemed ostensibly to be about the daily life overlooked in the male histories, were the ships and caravans bringing goods from elsewhere? And where on earth did they get all the fatted bulls they sacrificed? And, asked Jenny, since the whole point of the book seemed to be the quality of life in the camp for the women, and since the whole point of their existence there was to be sex slaves, where were the births that must have inevitably resulted, and would surely have radically coloured the quality of that life?

Basically, we were all left wondering at the rave reviews and accolades that this book has received.

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here  

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

Reading group: Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay.

Halfway through our discussion of this book, Jenny commented with a shamed grin: 'Isn't it awful how in this group we take famous and respected novels and tear them to bits?' We approached Picnic at Hanging Rock with the knowledge that it is considered one of the great books of Australian literature, but by the time we came to the meeting, we were all pretty much wondering how it could have achieved such status.

In fact, it is important from a thematic point view. Published in the late sixties and set in the year 1900, it concerns the unresolved disappearance of three senior boarders from Mrs Appleyard's College for Young Ladies, along with one of their teachers, while on a picnic trip to the mysterious Hanging Rock, the distinctive geological formation in central Victoria. The school, and the neighbourhood in which it is situated, with its English-suburban-type gardens, are the seat of a colonial mentality that has no understanding of the wild land outside its own boundaries, a land believed by its indigenous people to be alive with spirits of its own. Under the influence of the hot day and the surroundings, the schoolgirls on the trip unbutton the civilised trappings of their gloves, and four of them wander too far from the designated picnic site and onto the rock. As the three elder girls climb, seeming to be overcome by some dream-like state, the youngest, Edith, the 'school dunce', becomes frightened and runs back, seeing in the near distance as she does so their teacher stumbling upwards through the bracken minus her skirt and in her pantaloons. By nightfall none of the others has returned to the picnic site and searches of the rock have failed to find them. Over the next days, further attempts, including a search by an indigenous tracker, fail in the same way. While the school party had been picnicking, another group had been picnicking nearby, Colonel and Mrs Fitzhubert and their nephew from England, Michael, along with their coachman. As the four girls walked towards the rock they passed this group, the coachman wolf-whistling, and Michael falling instantly in love with one of the three senior boarders, Miranda. Consequently, after all the official searches have failed, Michael makes a lone trip to search the rock for Miranda, only to be found unconscious with a broken ankle and mysterious scratches, though not before having laid a trail that leads his rescuers to the slumped, unconscious and bloody body of another of the missing girls, Irma. Later the narration will tell us that Irma is no longer wearing her corset, a fact overlooked by the Fitzhubert's housekeeper who puts her to bed to recover in their house. Afterwards, neither Michael nor Irma will have any memory of what happened to them, and the other two girls and the teacher will never be found, which will lead to the ruin of the school.

In retrospect all of this can be read as the undoing of the fabric of colonial civilisation by the forces of Australian nature. We didn't however find that this message was very strongly realised in the book, and it didn't particularly impress itself on us as we read. There are indeed detailed depictions of the teeming life of the landscape: 'unheard rustlings and twitterings, scufflings, scratchings, the light brush of unseen wings', and the point is made early on:

Insulated from natural contacts with earth, air and sunlight, by corsets pressing on the solar plexus, by voluminous petticoats, cotton stockings and kid boots, the drowsy well-fed girls lounging in the shade were no more part of their environment than figures in a photograph album, arbitrarily posed against a backcloth of cork rocks and cardboard trees.
However, the prose style is somewhat workaday, failing to conjure for us readers any tangible sense of the mystery and force of the landscape, and leading one to read the book as a realist mystery. John said he spent a lot of energy trying to work out whodunnit, and some of us agreed: there do indeed seem to be clues that push the reader in this direction. Did the fact that Irma was wearing no corset mean she'd been raped? Was it Albert the coachman, who is pulled up by Michael for his crude behaviour in whistling at the girls? It's also made clear later that Albert is sexually attracted to Irma. (And what about the missing teacher's state of undress, as witnessed by Edith?) Was the headmistress Mrs Appleyard responsible for doing away with them, since it's quite clear she's a dodgy character, and she seems implicated in the later death of another pupil, Sara, whom she hates for her stubbornness and tendency to challenge? While most of these suspicions are dissipated by subsequent events, they serve to distract attention away from any notion of a force greater than mere human agents at work. And the death of Sara is indeed treated in a realist-crime-novel manner, with planted clues - which however people in our group failed to pick up, presumably because of poor pacing in the narration. I never understood the reference to a note which Mrs Appleyard looks for on Sara's dressing table after her death, and looking back I failed to find a previous reference to it. No one in the group could enlighten me, as it seemed they had missed it altogether. Furthermore, in spite of this realist-crime treatment, it is never clear exactly what part Mrs Appleyard did play in Sarah's death. 

I said that I actually found the writing quite clumsy (which again militated against the possibility of an atmosphere of mystery). There are sentences that don't even make sense, such as this description of the rock before the girls start to climb: 'The immediate impact of its soaring peaks induced a silence so impregnated with its powerful presence that even Edith was struck dumb.' A lack of clarity at the start when the schoolgirls are introduced to us (either through poor pacing or lack of vividness or both) - and elsewhere - meant that I failed to register or remember who was who and had to keep looking back to find out, and at the long list of characters with which the book is prefaced. Others said it had been the same for them, and Clare said that the need for a Dramatis Personae was comment enough in itself. The bulk of the book concerns the breakdown of everything at the school after the girls go missing, and although the narration states that this is the 'spreading pattern' of the incident playing itself out in the lives of all of the characters, it did seem 
to us artificially manipulated. I suppose one can theorise that the psychological effect on the headmistress of the impending financial ruin of the school leads her into irrational behaviour, which leads in turn to her cruel treatment of Sara, and to other teachers leaving. However, because of the flat telling, it doesn't feel like an inevitable propulsion, and the subsequent immediate death of one of the departed teachers in a fire is surely coincidental. The section in which the rescued Irma falls unrequitedly in love with Michael (who is still holding a torch for the lost Miranda) seems (on the contrary) inconsequential (flatly told as it is).

A major fault for me was the fact that the novel affects the mode of omniscience, ie all-knowingness, entering the viewpoints of different characters at different times, and sometimes telling us facts that none of the characters know (such as that of Irma's missing corset), yet the narration withholds information about those characters and, of course, about the wider situation. Having been party to some of Mrs Appleyard's private and unspoken anguish about her school, we are suddenly told: 'Whether the events just related [an incident in the school gym] were eventually made known to Mrs Appleyard can only be surmised'.  For me such inconsistencies make for an uncertain narrative voice, and the end result is to make the mysteries seem tricksy and manipulative of the reader. 

Everyone in the group was dissatisfied by the seemingly manipulated mysteries and the lack of narratorial resolution. John suggested that part of the problem may have been that author Lindsay, who was interested in the occult, had in fact written a further, final chapter in which it was revealed that the three girls and their teacher had been overtaken by the spirit of the rock and had gone through a mysterious entrance into another world, their abandoned corsets hanging magically in the air before dropping from the cliff and disappearing. Her publisher, it seemed, persuaded her to cut that final chapter, and thus perhaps pushed the novel into the unfulfilled realism through which our group read it.

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here