Tuesday, July 09, 2024

Reading group: Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

Spoiler warning (for those who don't yet know the plot of this very famous book).

One day I caught a snippet of a Radio 4 programme in which Daphne du Maurier was being discussed, and the general thread of the discussion was that, although her books, in particular Rebecca, are thought of as romantic novels, they are in fact much more interesting and complex. I had read Rebecca as a teenager (and, though I have no real memory of it, I think I must have seen at least one of the many film adaptations), and I had indeed remembered it as a somewhat literary romance. So my interest was piqued, and when I mentioned it to the reading group theirs was too, and we decided to read it again.

The plot is of course well known: a young ingenue, unnamed in the narrative, marries the handsome but troubled and somewhat taciturn Max de Winter, the owner of Manderley, a Cornish ancestral home, whose previous wife was drowned while sailing in the bay next to which the house stands. Entering the house as its new mistress, she is a fish out of water, unable to command the servants, and easy prey for the housekeeper Mrs Danvers who is obsessively, if not pathologically, loyal to the memory of her beautiful previous mistress, Rebecca. That was as much as I had remembered. As for the outcome, all I remembered was that somehow all is well in the end, the evil influence of Mrs Danvers and the troubling ghost of Rebecca finally vanquished.

What I had somehow forgotten - or rather, overlooked, as on this second reading it started to come back to me, though vaguely enough to keep me reading to find out what happens - was that it will turn out in the course of events that Maxim, as our protagonist calls him, in fact shot Rebecca before sailing her body out in her boat and scuttling it. This is a startling thing to have forgotten, and I was interested to try and understand why I did.

The first thing I said in the meeting was that this time around I had found it a very strange book, with ambiguities and inconsistencies, and there were strong murmurs of agreement. The most obvious thing I had noted was that the book is pretty derivative in its basic tropes: the relationship between the protagonist and Maxim echoes that of Jane Eyre and Rochester, and both books conclude with a fire that destroys the ancestral home, started in the case of Jane Eyre by the first wife incarcerated in the attic, and in Rebecca by, it is suspected, the previous wife's proxy Mrs Danvers. In both books, there is a reversal in the central relationship, the female ingenue becoming the stronger and the carer of a physically or psychologically damaged man. There are also echoes of Henry James' Turn of the Screw in the sense of menace and haunting surrounding the housekeeper and the dead Rebecca, and of course of the Bluebeard story. What is distinctive about the book is its darkness - a darkness I had not remembered, and which certainly makes the book anything but a romance - and, as Ann pointed out, a kind of hysterical note that runs right through it.

I was also surprised to find the book quite morally dubious (and a bit shocked at my not having found it so before), and others in the group strongly agreed. Right from the start on this reading I found Maxim quite preposterous in his entitlement and sexism (in a way that I, as a teenager growing up in a culture where sexism was less questioned, presumably didn't), and his relationship with the protagonist ridiculous. (Everyone agreed, and I have to say that when John read the book I had to watch him laughing his way through it.) 'I'm asking you to marry me, you little fool,' Maxim says to the protagonist, and after indicating that she understands nothing about him (as she will eventually find out), goes on: 'You haven't answered my question. Are you going to marry me?' Ann couldn't see what he could see in her: she has nothing about her, her lack of a name seeming to underline the fact. People suggested that she was for him an antidote to the glamorous Rebecca, whom he will much later tell the protagonist was a secretly callous serial adulterer, in contrast to her public profile as a perfect wife. Someone in the group, Mark or John, cynically pointed out that when he proposes to the protagonist, suggesting she immediately leave her role as a companion and factotum to a wealthy American woman, he says, 'Your duties [to me] will be almost exactly the same'. The thing I found most deeply shocking was that when Maxim is forced (by events following a shipwreck in the bay) to confess to the protagonist that he shot Rebecca and sank her boat, her only reactions are terror that the truth will be uncovered and sheer relief that it turns out that he hadn't loved Rebecca:

[I] sat there on the carpet, unmoved and detached, thinking and caring for one thing only, repeating a phrase over and over again, 'He did not love Rebecca, he did not love Rebecca...' My heart, for all its anxiety and doubt, was light and free. I knew then that I was no longer afraid of Rebecca... Now that I knew her to be evil and vicious and rotten I did not hate her any more.

She will go on to be Maxim's willing accomplice in covering up the killing.

Later, Jack Favell, an old lover of Rebecca's who is onto the truth, tries to blackmail Maxim by threatening to expose him, and Maxim calls in the local magistrate, a colonel and dinner-party companion. The colonel is inclined to doubt Favell, who, though he has acknowledged good looks, the protagonist sees with revulsion in these moments as 'animal'-like ('I noticed how his neck bulged over the back of his collar and how low his ears were set on his head.') (She sees anyone standing in the way of her own comfort with contemptuous revulsion: Mrs Danvers' face is like a skull). On this reading the scenario struck me (as it does Favell) as nothing less than a bunch of prejudiced toffs closing ranks to subvert the law. And when it is discovered that in fact, just prior to her death, Rebecca had been diagnosed with terminal cancer (a fact she had told no one), Maxim decides that Rebecca wanted him to kill her, which of course gets him nicely off the moral hook. I guess as a teenager I swallowed this hook, line and sinker. As long as you are gunning for Maxim and the protagonist (and as a teenager I was), it diminishes the moral weight of the killing, which must be why it sank away in my consciousness.

Yet all of us in the group, even John, while agreeing about these things, found the book a compelling read, exerting a deep emotive pull.

The story is narrated by the protagonist herself some time after the final events of the novel, when the narrator and Maxim have 'come through' their 'crisis', and when she herself, she tells us, is now at last 'bold' and 'confident', with Maxim emotionally dependent on her. Since our discussion I have read feminist critical commentary pointing out that, as the narrator, the protagonist presents things as she wishes us to see them, and that the fact that she avoids revealing her name - something our reading group did find puzzling - means that she is in hiding from the reader: she is not intended as a reliable narrator. In the group discussion I mentioned the inconsistencies I had found in the book. After I had got to the end, I went back and re-read that first section with its later perspective. The narrator refers twice there to 'our Manderley' and to 'our drive', implying a past and lasting attachment to it, which surprised me, as during the whole of the retrospective narrative the protagonist never feels at home or at ease at Manderley. She also refers to her memories of 'the mists of autumn and the smell of the flood tide' at Manderely, yet in the retrospective narrative she is at Manderley only in the summer months: she arrives with the flowering of the rhododendrons (the menacing scarlet rhododendrons she associated with Rebecca) and in August Manderley is in flames and she and Max never return. Are these slips intended by du Maurier as signals that we are in the hands of an unreliable narrator? They are, though, hard to catch, and the inconsistency can only be detected by reading back after finishing the book. They felt to me, and the group, more like authorial errors. There is a greater inconsistency around the character of Rebecca. We learn that she ran the house beautifully, ensconced in the mornings in her beautifully curated morning room from where she would send back to Mrs Danvers the menu for the day, and was a famed hostess, holding memorable dinners and parties - all implying a hands-on approach that would require Rebecca's constant presence in the household. Yet when Maxim reveals the truth about her, it turns out that she has spent much time in a flat she keeps in London, and Jack Favell even refers to her having 'lived' with him for some of the time. And isn't it odd that she was able to keep so secret a life of such debauchery, with so many lovers? So is the narrator lying, painting a picture of Rebecca that suits her own ends? Rebecca was 'evil and vicious and rotten' she says, and the 'discovery' is her own liberation. 

It is known that du Maurier intended the novel as a study of jealousy (and wasn't happy with its reputation as a romance). It has been suggested therefore by feminist critics that the narrator's portrait of her own former self as a nervous and naive ingenue is a smoke-screen. In fact, states one critic, when she meets Maxim in Monte Carlo, she practises a fairly hard-headed deceit as she makes her clandestine meetings with him. In the light of this theory the narrator's explicit insistence about her former timidity does read suspiciously as over-insistence, but I can't say that I noticed this as I read, or that I detected any other authorial irony or distance between narrator and author that would make one read those early scenes in that way, and I think no one in our group did. As a nervous teenager myself reading the book I totally identified with the protagonist in those scenes, and it still seems to me a searingly truthful portrait of the kind of excruciating timidity that would indeed force one into deceit rather than self-assertion. Indeed, Doug said how truthful he found the portrayal of her nervousness and inadequacy when she arrives at a house full of servants. It is true that it is hard to see what the protagonist saw in Maxim, other than a safety net away from her lonely, boring life, and the fact that since childhood she had been in love with the idea of the famous Manderley - and of course there are Maxim's good looks. But her attitude to marrying him seems less that of a scheming or self-directed character than the result of superficiality (falling in love with his good looks) and the inevitable weakness of a woman trapped in a class-bound sexist society. Ann said that even as a teenager she had despised the protagonist as a wimp, and I don't think she felt that the older narrator was deliberately misrepresenting her former self. One thing the protagonist does all the time in the retrospective narrative is create scenarios in her head - about what other people might be saying to each other or doing, or might in the future - and goes over scenes again already narrated. This does indicate that she is a dreamer and a story-weaver, but none of us got the idea from it that she is actually a liar, one who would deliberately misrepresent, and most people were simply a little irritated by these musings, feeling they held up the action.

There is one early scene that does bear out du Maurier's stated intention, though I have seen this only in retrospect. Up to now we have seen the protagonist as a tentative girl, and afterwards, when she gets to Manderley her abiding state of mind will appear to be fear, fear of Rebecca's influence and the malign presence of Mrs Danvers. But waiting in her hotel room while Maxim goes to tell her employer that she is to leave to marry him, she opens a poetry book he has lent her, and finds on the title page the inscription 'Max from Rebecca.' She cuts out the page and tears it into fragments and then sets fire to them. This is at a time when she knows nothing of Rebecca, and long before she encounters Mrs Danvers and the house in which Danvers keeps Rebecca's memory alive. In other words, the protagonist's 'fear' of Rebecca arises from within herself rather than as a reaction to an external malign force, and is indeed the manifestation of jealousy - unfounded jealousy. However, at the time of our discussion our group found the scene puzzling, as the action seemed so uncharacteristic of the person portrayed both before and after the scene. And when, after Maxim's confession, the other side of her is finally revealed, it comes as a surprise, or even as inconsistency, rather than feeling inevitable. 'I knew I didn't hate her any more,' she says when she learns that, after all, Maxim didn't love Rebecca. So the shrinking violet has been capable of hatred (not just fear) all along, but in the moment of reading this, that 'hatred' felt more like an overstatement because of the way she had previously been presented, without any hint of authorial irony.

Right at the end of the book, asleep in the car as she and Maxim  drive back from the interview with the doctor which has confirmed that Rebecca was terminally ill (rather than pregnant by Jack Favell, taking the steam out of his blackmail threat and finally releasing them), the protagonist dreams this:

I was writing letters in the morning room [which Rebecca apparently did every day]. I was sending out invitations. I wrote them all myself with a thick black pen. But when I looked down to see what I had written it was not my small square handwriting at all, it was long and slanting, with curious pointed strokes [ie Rebecca's]... I got up and went to the looking-glass. A face stared back at me that was not my own. It was very pale, very lovely, framed in a cloud of dark hair. The eyes narrowed and smiled. The lips parted. The face in the glass stared back at me and laughed. And I saw then that she was sitting on a chair before the dressing-table in her bedroom, and Maxim was brushing her hair. He held her hair in his hands, and as he brushed it he wound it slowly into a thick rope. It twisted like a snake, and he took hold of it with both hands and smiled at Rebecca and put it round his neck.

During our meeting, Ann brought up the popular idea that Rebecca and the protagonist represent two sides of du Maurier herself.  Like Rebecca, du Maurier was a free spirit who sailed boats and rode horses and seduced several men (and as a girl wished she had been a boy), and like the protagonist she was ill at ease as a wife (of a Commanding Officer) and unable to run their household. The passage above is loaded with an ambiguity that supports this theory. 'Rebecca had not won. She had lost,'  the protagonist has said, on learning that Max did not love Rebecca after all. Yet the image in the mirror laughs with narrowed eyes, as if laughing in triumph at the protagonist. Has she won after all? The protagonist's reaction on waking seems to indicate so: she panics, saying that they must at once flee to Switzerland, as if feeling the need still to flee from Rebecca. Yet the image in the mirror, and the handwriting, are a replacement of the protagonist's own. Has the protagonist become Rebecca? Is there a merging of the two? Is this the way in which Rebecca has won? After all, the protagonist has come to be able to command the household - she has found she can even speak coldly and peremptorily to Mrs Danvers. She is capable, in becoming Maxim's accomplice, of even worse deceit: 'I would lie, and perjure, and swear. I would blaspheme and pray.' By the time she and Maxim have exiled themselves to Europe, Maxim will be as much in her control as he has said he was in Rebecca's - '...he will look lost and puzzled suddenly' - which seems symbolised in the rope of hair around his neck.

There is huge ambiguity too in the first section describing their after-life in Europe. They have come through their crisis, the narrator tells us, they are at peace now, 'I ride no more tormented, and both of us are free.' But there are constant qualifiers: '[we are] not unscathed, of course'; 'of course we have our moments of depression', 'we are sometimes bored - well, boredom is a pleasing antidote to fear.' And they seem truly exiled: they feel the need to avoid the hotels where people they know will be staying, and they appear to be living a difficult life, moving from one small hotel to another. 'Granted that our little hotel is dull, and the food indifferent, and that day after day dawns very much the same, yet we would not have it otherwise.' She talks of freedom yet she can only dream of the English landscape she longs for, and must not speak of it in case she upsets Maxim. She is, in other words, repressed. 

'Odd, that resentment of servants, and their obvious impatience,' she says in this first section, thinking back to how it was at Manderley. When I first read this sentence this time, it struck me as outrageous (and alienating), and it was one of the things John laughed at (how could you not understand the resentment of servants?). But it did seem an odd statement itself, unfounded and without context. Only once I had read the whole book and gone back to look at that beginning, did I understand that this is an indication of the protagonist's change, an outrageous one, yes, since she herself has been a servant, to the American woman she was working for when she met Maxim. Yet it still didn't feel quite right, because the change in her during the story never felt quite convincing to me, due to a lack of authorial irony or distance in the earlier presentation. It is as if in the presentation of the earlier scenes the author herself is identifying with the protagonist, which in turn leads the reader to identify too with her and her Cinderella rags-to-riches situation. This I think is perhaps why the book has been taken as a romance rather than the darker project du Maurier intended (and which it is). My overall feeling, I said to the group, was that the book was indeed very much an expression, through those two characters, of the author's own psyche, written primarily intuitively (rather than with entire objective control) - and that it is from this that comes that compelling (and even, as Ann said, hysterical) emotive pulse - and everyone pretty much agreed.

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

Thursday, July 04, 2024

Reading group: Marzahn, Mon Amour by Katja Oskamp

Clare suggested this translation by Jo Heinrich of a short, episodic and autobiographical German novel set in the east Berlin suburb of Marzahn, a large prefabricated high-rise housing estate of the former GDR. Narrated by a woman who took up chiropody when her writing career was failing, it is chiefly an observation of her mainly elderly clients and her co-workers, and a re-telling of their various stories, and amounts to a tribute to the place and its community.

 Introducing the book, Clare commented on its light touch and atmosphere. The narrator is wryly tender and gently humorous in her attitude to her clients (and their feet), there is light and beauty in her descriptions of a neighbourhood traditionally associated with grimness, and there is nothing of the overt political criticism typical of fiction about the former GDR. Indeed, she counters those traditional associations explicitly: 


It’s hard to shift preconceptions about the prefab housing estates in eastern Berlin. They say Marzahn is a concrete wasteland, but in reality it is exceptionally green. There are wide streets, ample parking spaces, good pavements and dropped kerbs at crossings. If you’ve got wheels, you can get around just fine.

Many people think Marzahn is teeming with former GDR bigwigs and SED party officials. It’s not true; I’d stake my life on it, especially as I work here. I look after the feet of former bricklayers, butchers and nurses. There’s also a woman who worked in electronics, one who bred cattle and another who was a petrol pump attendant.


Mark however quickly pointed out that the book is indeed political, in a way that is subtle and nuanced. While most of the narrator’s clients now live seemingly aspirationally Western-bourgeois lives, preoccupied with their feet, their holidays, hairdressers, and pampered dogs, the past keeps rising to the surface. Although the historical and political tensions potentially underlying the incident are not mentioned, a Russian woman throws herself from the tower block next to the salon. And ‘There is one dyed-in-the-wool party functionary who visits me regularly,’ ‘a walking cliché’ with an imperious manner, who expects subservience and gives her orders, though the narrative makes fun of his pretensions and sees his pathetic humanity:


The six-foot-three pensioner creeps off, checked flat cap on his bald head, back bent. Oh, Everard, you old child of the workers and peasants. All your life you’ve mistaken your position for your personality. Give my regards to the cardiac rehab group.


The narrator tells: ‘One preconception does hold true: the platenbau tower blocks aren’t soundproofed’. She goes on to recount the recent adventure of her ‘high-spirited’ client Frau Blumeier, a woman in her mid-sixties disabled by polio when she was a small child, who has rekindled a relationship with a boy from her youth:


While they were having sex, the bed collapsed… The next day, the man who lived in the apartment under hers got into the lift with a stupid grin on his face and said, ‘You have a blast at yours at night, don’t you?’


The narrator leaves hanging unsaid the fact that this amusing incident is the result of former SED measures to facilitate political spying on the part of the population (allowing people to hear each other through thin walls).


However the political message is not partisan. Perhaps more strongly, if mostly in passing, it is made clear that many of the characters have suffered from reunification and westernisation, having lost the benefits and even the lifestyle endowed on them by the former Socialist state. Frau Blumeier lost her job, as ‘the company she worked for went into liquidation. She was told she wouldn’t stand much of a chance in the West with her disability.’ Another also lost her job through liquidation of the handbag company she worked for, and her husband’s furniture-making business suffered and finally died: ‘The easterners paid. But the westerners didn’t… And then of course the easterners followed suit.’  Eighty-year-old Gerlinde Bonkat, who fled East Prussia as a seven-year-old refugee and worked hard in Germany all her life, found herself redeployed to west Berlin: 


The bouquet of flowers that greeted every new colleague back in the old East seemed not to exist here… The ignorance and arrogance of her colleagues from the West made her hackles rise.


At which she gave up. ‘There was an exhaustion that went way beyond her feet.’


Yet what the chiropodist narrator sees as she tends the feet of these characters is their irrepressible spirit, and a picture emerges of the indomitable humanity of ordinary people in the face of any political regime. We all loved the book for this. 


My only caveat was that I felt there was something missing. Although it is clear that the narrator’s change of career is prompted by a personal (mid-life) crisis, and that by the end of the book her personal circumstances have changed, we hear nothing in the meantime of her personal life and the ways in which those circumstances changed. I had however read something implying that when the book was originally published in German, it was published as a collection of short stories, and if I had read it as such I believe I would not have had this problem; it is only taking it as a novel that makes me want to know the narrator’s personal trajectory. John then said that he felt a lengthy section involving a works outing taken by the narrator and her two salon colleagues seemed a little out of place in the general schema of the book, and he wondered now if it had been added for the sake of length in order to publish the book as a novel. (It’s a publishing article of faith that novels sell better than books of short stories, and many a collection of linked stories has been dressed up in this way.) This however did not detract from our overall opinion of the book, which, as far as we could tell from a translation was beautifully written and brilliantly translated.

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

Friday, April 12, 2024

Reading group: The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead

Only four of us to discuss this book suggested by Doug (who couldn't be present), and all four of us found it a worthwhile, if not gripping read.

It begins with a Prologue relating the uncovering by university archeology students of a secret cemetery in the grounds of a Florida former boys' reformatory school, in which are buried the bodies of clearly mutilated boys. Not that the cemetery was secret to the boys once attending the school, nor the fact that behind the school's public profile as a place of education and rehabilitation, it was in fact a hell of cruelty, abuse and racism. The Prologue ends with a former back 'student', or more appropriately inmate, who 'goes by the name of Elwood Curtis', deciding to return from New York for the public inquiry.

The narrative now switches to 1962, when Elwood, a conscientious and studious boy being brought up by his grandmother, receives for Christmas a record album of speeches by Martin Luther King, which deeply affects him and colours his view of the world as he matures. We follow his maturing as he works in the local newsagents' (persuading the newsagent to stock anti-racist journals), studies hard (encouraged in his both his education and his idealism by his activist teacher) and dares to attend a protest. Until one day, on the way to attend the college in which he has enrolled for night-school, through no fault of his own he is picked up by the police and ends up in Nickel.

We then follow the horrors of life at Nickel through Elwood's perspective, a nightmare for all, but especially for the black boys who are segregated from the white boys in the school and treated even more harshly. Our member Ann said that a most remarkable thing about the book is the way in which Whitehead manages to lay completely bare the horror in an almost matter-of-fact way, never once being melodramatic or vying for the emotion strings of the reader - which keeps you reading, never needing to turn away from the horror, yet which somehow in the end makes it all the more horrifying. (It's also horrifying to read in the Author's Acknowledgements that the book is inspired by the story of a real Florida school.)

Whether or not the idealistic Elwood and the more cynical Turner, a fellow inmate who befriends him, will escape Nickel becomes a major plot point, and I think it would be wrong of me, for those who haven't read the book, to reveal what happens, and to discuss in specific detail what we made of it, since the outcome turns on a major (and quite stunning) revelation, knowing which would I think adversely affect how you read the whole book. Mark said he thought it was amazingly cleverly done. Ann and I both said that we had had inklings of it now and then throughout the book, but I simply wondered at those moments if these were narrative mistakes. My initial reaction when I came to the revelation was that it had been tricksy, though Ann and Mark argued for it convincingly on thematic grounds. I also commented that there was little psychological exploration of the fallout of this revelation for characters, but Ann and Mark felt that psychological exploration wasn't the purpose of this book, its purpose being more that of journalistic exposure. I always argue that the main political strength of novels is psychological and emotional, but I had to agree that this novel was compelling. However, John, who strongly agrees with me on this point about novels and psychology, said that he'd found it less compelling than did the rest of us, which may be because the material was very familiar to him from his work as an child psychologist, so that the exposure project didn't work so well on him. Mark did agree that the twist/revelation did actually smack of airport-type novels, but he thought that that was in fact another political strength, Ann corroborating this by saying that she felt far more people would read this novel than would read the more obviously literary Toni Morrison (books of whom we have discussed here, and here where we discuss Morrison's own view that novel readers need to be 'moved' rather than simply 'touched'). And the Nickel Boys is indeed beautifully written, in tough, clean prose.

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

Wednesday, February 28, 2024

Reading group: A Room with a View by E M Forster

Ann suggested this 1908 novel in which Lucy Honeychurch, travelling in Italy with her cousin and chaperone Charlotte Bartlett, struggles to accommodate Edwardian expectations of her as a young woman, but, due to an unsettling encounter in Florence, after her return home and an unsatisfactory engagement learns to thwart those expectations, to finally acknowledge her own feelings and think for herself. 

Ann said that, having had little time to read this month, she had that day listened to an audio version of the book, and - to her surprise, I think - had found that she hadn't enjoyed it - in fact she seemed to think it was pretty awful. She acknowledged the comic episodes, and did enjoy those, but didn't at all like what she called the philosophical and purple passages. Mark - who instantly said he had loved the book - said with surprise, and to the agreement of others, that he hadn't noticed those, and Doug said he had skimmed them, passages in which the author comments on human nature in general, though often wryly and always in relation to the action and characters. We mused briefly then on the different experiences that listening to a book and reading it present - the possibility of skipping or skimming when you read a book for yourself, and the different emphases and indeed tone that an audiobook reader and producer can impose on a text. Ann's experience had made her dissatisfied with the book more generally: she felt she didn't know what it was, or what it was about. Was it a comedy or not? Was it a comedy of social manners, was it about class, or was it meant as a love story? I said that I thought it was all of those things, though chiefly, as I have indicated above, it was about the awakening of Lucy's consciousness, taking place in the context of class at a time of social change and challenges to the conventional role of women.

At the beginning of the book Lucy and Charlotte are newly arrived at the Pension Bertolini in Florence, and encounter the other exclusively English residents. At the dinner table the snobbery of the middle-class guests is directed at a father and son, the Emersons, who have no such pretensions and hold with none of their conventions: they are clearly 'lower class', and are suspected of being 'socialists'. Lucy has complained of her room not having the promised view, and the Emersons offer to change rooms with Lucy and Charlotte - a hugely indelicate intrusion in the middle-class codes of the day:

The better class of tourists was shocked at this, and sympathised with the newcomers. Miss Bartlett, in reply, opened her mouth as little as possible, and said:

'Thank you very much indeed: that is out of the question.'

'Why?' said the old man, with both fists on the table.

He insists heatedly, and:

Miss Bartlett, though skilled in the delicacies of conversation, was powerless in the presence of brutality. It was impossible to snub anyone so gross... she looked around as if to say, 'Are you all like this?'. And two little old ladies [...] looked back, clearly indicating, 'We are not; we are genteel.'

I had read this book many years ago at university and loved it. I said now, though, that this time around I had found these episodes much funnier than I did then. As the daughter of an engineer who at the time would probably have been termed lower middle class, I had had similar snobberies directed at me by more upper-class acquaintances, and I felt uncomfortable reading it and less able to appreciate the humour. We discussed the changing impact that books can have at different times. Ann said she appreciated how challenging this book must have been at the time of its publication, but felt that since the things it was pushing at - class snobbery, the subordination of women - have since been largely addressed (if not solved), its impact was inevitably much less now. Everyone present except John and me had seen the film, and I got the impression from what they said that the film, presumably because of this, very much pushes the love story element. With reference to Ann's comment about purple passages,  I did have to say that on this reading I found one or two moments in the narration sentimental: describing the English village in which Lucy lives, the author comments on the 'tinkle' of church bells, which seemed utterly inaccurate - church bells don't 'tinkle' - so that however wry he is being about the tweeness of the environs, he ends up sound twee himself. Doug, who was nodding, said he didn't even think that there was any irony in the passage. It was interesting to me to note that none of this ever struck me when I read the book all those years ago, and it seemed like a mark of how the tenor of life has changed.

There was some talk about the characters. Ann said that none of the characters were likeable, not even Lucy, to, I think, general agreement - although I don't feel it's necessary to like characters to be interested in them, and unlikeable characters are of course a staple of satire. John commented, to more agreement, that the Emerson son George, the main love interest, is a mere cypher: we hardly get to know him at all. I said, to strong agreement from Clare, that the clergyman Mr Beebe had seemed the most sympathetic character, as he seems to see through Lucy and to have her interests at heart, especially in not wanting her to marry the dreadful Cecil who is compared by the author to a stiff medieval knight (Lucy's escape from him, along with her growing proto-feminist consciousness, is described as leaving the medieval world behind). But that when the elder Mr Emerson opens Lucy's eyes to her own truth, and she makes the choice of George, Mr Beebe is displeased. It turns out that he would rather Lucy didn't marry at all than follow her heart, which seems in the context mean-spirited. Some people in the group thought that Beebe was closest to the author, E M Forster, who was homosexual - necessarily closeted in that time - and that this explained it. However, it seems that the author is very much on the side of Lucy and George's union at the end: Mr Emerson, he says, had shown Lucy 'the holiness of direct desire' (which, as someone said, could be the author's veiled plea for homosexual love). The most obviously unlikeable character is the chaperone Charlotte, who is so restrictive with Lucy, so determined to make her conform to social expectations - and so falsely set-deprecating - and who quickly whisks her away from George when the spark first kindles between them. Some thought it seemed odd that right at the end it turns out that she had the chance to stop Lucy talking to Mr Emerson and changing her mind, yet didn't do so. Clare pointed out that this was in fact a significant change: Charlotte too had been repressing her true impulses in the need to conform to Edwardian society, and she too had rebelled, or been persuaded, in the end.

John particularly liked the ironic chapter headings - as did I - but he was perhaps the most dubious about the book beside Ann, unsure about the way that the tone becomes less comic as the book progresses and it concentrates more on Lucy's awakening - which perhaps links with Ann's feeling of not being able to work out what kind of book it was. This didn't trouble the rest of us, however, and I think most were pleased to have read it. 

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

Sunday, February 04, 2024

Reading group: Assembly by Natasha Brown

Mark suggested this book enthusiastically, having previously read it and loved it, a debut that has been shortlisted for several prestigious political prizes.

A short book written in a spare, consciously fragmented style, it is the thoughts and experience of a young black woman, a high-flying financier, as she prepares to travel to a celebration at the home of the parents of her upper-class white boyfriend. It begins with a kind of prologue of short sections depicting the ways in which she has been subtly and not-so-subtly objectified and abused by the chiefly male colleagues who feel she has no right to her success, and which she has had to accept and even internalise in order to survive and advance in her career:

...when that mouth opened up and coughed its vitriol at her ... she understood the source of its anger... She waited for the buzz of her phone to excuse her and - in the meantime - quietly, politely, she understood him.

It was nothing. She thought this now, as she thought it each morning. She buttoned up her shirt and thought it ... She thought it as she pulled her hair back into a neat bun, smoothed down her stiff, grey pencil skirt.

Thus she assembles both her appearance and her psychology to fit into the world in which she is moving. 

The third person in which this section is told serves the function of formulating her objectification - 'There was no we. There was he the subject and her the object'. After this section the narrative switches to the first person, 'I', as the narrator unpicks her situation and examines the ways in which she has been forced to assemble a persona in order to fit into a racist society, indeed to objectify herself, 'the person she has constructed'. The shift in narrative voice thus enacts the protagonist's psychological shift as she moves on from her adopted persona, comes to reject it and to want to disassemble it. The catalyst for this is her recent diagnosis of breast cancer, treatment for which she has rejected, weary of conforming and moulding herself to expectations.

Everyone in our group really admired the first part of this book - the spare, fragmented style acutely encapsulating the tortured psychology of the protagonist, and the searing and true depiction of the micro aggression with which she daily struggles. It's hard to pick out quotes to illustrate the depiction of the resentment of her colleagues - who are well aware of the unacceptability of racism yet believe her promotion is due only to the company's policy of 'diversity' - as it's so suitably subtley done.

Most people in our group were however less enamoured of the latter part of the novel in which she arrives at her boyfriend's family's country estate. Doug said he didn't believe for a moment in the relationship between the protagonist and her entitled, somewhat oblivious boyfriend, and I had to agree that I didn't find it entirely psychologically convincing. Someone suggested that this was because the upper-class characters of the boyfriend and his parents were stereotypes. Ann said there have been so many novels about the snobbery of the upper classes, set in such stately houses, that this didn't feel at all original, indeed it felt second-hand. Mark pointed out that it had not been done before from the viewpoint of a black protagonist, and Ann had to agree. Nevertheless, there was a feeling that there was something artificial about the depiction that left us unconvinced.

My view in retrospect is that the problem lies in the language of the book, which I did say in the meeting had rather troubled me. Towards the end of the book there is a section in which the narrator counterpoints English dictionary definitions of the words black and white, exposing the negative connotations of the first, and the positive connotations of the latter. She then asks: 'How can I use such language to examine the society it reinforces?' Which had prompted me to acknowledge that increasingly, as I read, I had felt a little uncomfortable with the language the narrator herself uses: at times it is highly abstract and Latinate, which indeed failed to convey to me her situation on an experiential level. While I found the beginning of the book so emotionally affecting, as it progressed the language became increasingly formal and distanced me from her experience, indeed objectified it. In the meeting, Clare strongly disagreed that there was any distancing of the narrator's experience, feeling, like many reviewers, that the fragmented form of the novel conveyed it beautifully. However, there was general agreement when I said that overall this is quite a cool, objective and distanced book, in spite of its fragmented mode and searing subject matter. 

The beginning vividly conveys the attitudes of the male workplace colleagues via (remembered) direct speech:

No, but, originally. Like your parents, where they're from. Africa, right?

I mean it's - well, you know. Of course you do, you understand. You can understand it in a way the English don't.

Yet when the narrator later tells us that her mother gives her reports on the phone about old friends in their community, and that this bothers her, we do not share her experience any of these conversations, she merely sums them up briefly, as I have here, and then muses on her own reaction in this formal language:

I decided my complaint was primarily formal, the set-up and punchline she employed; making me remember knowing, invoking memories of a person, of a life, and then revealing the death.

When she comes to introduce into the narrative her friend and colleague Julie, her boyfriend, and her boyfriend's parents, she simply tells us about them, summing them up in that formal language - with little or no direct action or dialogue to illustrate or prove, or indeed make us experience what she tells us about them. Of her boyfriend's parents, she says:

It was a purity of lineage, of history: shared cultural mores and sensibilities. The preservation of a way of life, a class, the necessary higher echelon of society.

It could be argued that this formality of language is an aspect of the protagonist's need to assimilate, and of her colonisation by patriarchal culture, but it does seem therefore a mistake that as her disassembling progresses, the formality of the language should increase, and it seems to me now that it is this that made the later sections of the book less emotionally convincing for us than the early part. 

Towards the end especially there are polemical sections outlining the black history that led to this moment (conveyed indeed in essay-like formal language), and everyone in the group felt that these marred it. Mark (the book's biggest champion) said he felt that it was perhaps the mark of a debut author who didn't trust the reader to grasp the subtext and message of her narrative, and others agreed.

I said that I also felt a bit troubled by the narrator's rejection of treatment for cancer. It seemed to me less of a rebellion, or 'Transendence', as the last section of the book is titled, than a capitulation. I couldn't help agreeing with the reviewer I read who asked 'Why not drop out rather than drop dead?' She questioned the implication that the only way to be is to be a high financier (otherwise you may as well drop dead). This chimes somewhat with what John said to me outside of the meeting, which is that he wondered how far a criticism of racism a book can be when the protagonist is so highly successful and rich, and when the crucial social problem is that society militates against such a trajectory for black people, though he felt uncomfortable wondering it. I said, but isn't the point that, however outwardly comfortable a black person may seem to be, however much they have managed to overcome the obstacles, they still suffer from racism (even a more insidious and thus poisonous racism), they still live their life seared by discomfort. This is a main point, made explicitly in the book: that it's just not possible to assimilate, however hard the protagonist has tried, and the conclusion of course is, why, in the final analysis, should she? Nevertheless, while I can see that, as Clare said, the protagonist's succumbing to death is an aesthetic choice that makes the point, I felt strongly disappointed by the suggestion that, psychologically, there was no other way. 

However, in spite of our quibbles, everyone felt this was an impressive debut, and all had read it in a sitting.

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

Tuesday, January 02, 2024

Reading group: O Caledonia by Elspeth Barker

When John suggested this, Elspeth Barker's only novel, the members of our group who glanced at the beginning imagined it was going to be something of a grim read - typical Scottish Gothic, as Doug put it. In fact, the novel is a subversion of that genre, and is full of black humour and anything but a grim read. Everyone enjoyed it very much, and most of us were unable to put it down, and read it in a sitting.

It begins with the description of the stairs of a gaunt Scottish castle, on which, it will be revealed by the end of the first page, lies the body of Janet, a sixteen-year-old girl 'oddly attired' in her mother's black lace evening dress. The first chapter goes on to tell that she was mourned by none, even her parents, apart from her pet jackdaw who 'searched for her unceasingly' in the woods and glen, eventually killing himself by flying into a wall.

After the first chapter the novel switches immediately to an account of Janet's life, beginning with her birth during the Second World War. The tone becomes immediately wry, the rhythm of the prose lively, and the whole effect satirical as the author paints a picture of a girl growing up with distanced aristocratic parents and disappointing them with her lack of femininity and a passionate character expressed in a love of poetry and identification with the wildness of nature. There are moments that made us laugh out loud. Here are two ancient sisters at the village hall party, one of whom has been at the first sitting of the party tea, the other of whom has yet to eat:

Very old Miss Pettigrew came trembling up, leaning on her stick. 'Here you are then, Annie,' she said to her sister. Her jaw dropped loose, her mouth hung limp and open; in went her black-veined claw, out came a set of pinkly glistening false teeth. Her sister grabbed them; with no ado she popped them into her own mouth. She paused for a moment, sucking noisily. 'Macaroons!' she cried, 'Och, that's braw!'

The novel is full of this combination of grotesquery and hilarity, though, as Ann and Clare said, as Janet grows, the mood grows darker. Janet is indeed treated cruelly, by her distant, preoccupied mother (who only really likes babies, and keeps having them - children who turn out to be much prettier and more amenable), and by the boys of the boarding school her father establishes in his inherited castle. The feisty Janet is quite capable of taking revenge on the son of visitors after he tries to trap her and exposes himself to her, by pushing him into the poisonous giant hogweed in the unkempt garden at which he has sneered. But once she is forced to accept her own burgeoning sexuality and has to experience the horrors of boarding school, her feelings become more complex and difficult to deal with, and the mood becomes bleak. (Anne and Clare noted that there is no mention of menstruation which one would expect to be central to this crisis of identity for Janet. This book was first published in 1991. While some feminist authors had then been tackling such matters head-on for some time, they were still considered by many a subject unfit or too delicate for literature.)

Finally it will be revealed how Janet died on those stairs (which I won't give away here). The book is however no whodunnit, more of a whydunnit, though none of the four of us present were convinced by that ending. My main, and John's, doubt about the book was that there is no real story arc or thematic development propelling it - it's really basically a simple, linear account of a childhood - extraordinary and curious to most readers in its setting and milieu (the gothic castle and the eccentric aristocratic ways of the family), though in fact fairly typical of that social milieu, with the same point, Janet's role as a sore thumb in her family, illustrated repeatedly if entertainingly. We did in fact get a little frustrated, even wearied, by this, and it was the brilliant prose and sensibility that kept us reading. Ann made an interesting point. She said that when she was at boarding school herself she and her schoolfriends read scores of books beginning with this kind of setup, an ugly duckling made unhappy in a family. Jane Eyre, she pointed out, is a literary version of the same thing. (She imagined that this was what influenced O Caledonia, although in fact it is known to be strongly autobiographical.) However, in these books this setup was always the prelude to a story of escape from the situation and the transformation of the ugly duckling into a beautiful, successful swan (in fact Elspeth Barker herself did escape to London to become a successful journalist and member of the literary set). Here, however, no such transformation takes place, and this is what makes the book a subversion of the tradition, and its radicalism was why, no doubt, it was originally published by a feminist press. However, the fact that Janet remains in that establishing (and establishment) situation (which leads to her death), while making an interesting political point, did give the book for us a certain stasis, fortunately compensated for by the dynamic prose and the compelling insight into Janet and the family dynamics.

John did say afterwards that, in spite of the book's publication by a radical press, he felt uncomfortable with what seem some politically incorrect notes: the child Janet's attitude to the maimed soldiers living nearby (before the family move to the isolation of the castle) is one of horror. I said, Isn't it actually more complicated than that, more Janet's reaction to the horror of maiming (rather than just to the men themselves), which goes along with her empathy towards the animals that most people ill treat or kill? Also, it is Janet who befriends the grieving and mentally unstable aunt, Lila, who lives with them in the castle, while Janet's mother cruelly packs her off, committing her finally to a 'lunatic asylum', where Janet visits her during her Christmas holiday from boarding school. But John felt that the grotesque descriptions of the other patients in the mental hospital were lacking in empathy. And I didn't really have much argument against the fact that the hunchback gardener at the castle turns out to be evil, in true disablist tradition.

We discussed other, more minor points. Some people felt that, though most of the novel takes Janet's viewpoint via the close third person, there was the odd strange change of viewpoint that seemed to have no useful purpose, such as to that of Janet's mother in a somewhat prolonged and seemingly levered-in section about a Teasmaid that causes tension between the parents. 

Overall, though, everyone very much enjoyed this book in spite of our early lack of expectation.

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