Stoner, a novel by John Williams

I was prepared to be disappointed by this book. It received good reviews when it was first published almost fifty years ago, but then disappeared from view and went out of print. Williams won prizes for his other novels, but they also passed out of print. Then it was rediscovered, recommended by word of mouth, was reprinted, almost one could say re-published, by Vintage Classics, and taken up by Waterstones as their book of the year. Waterstones’ Book of the Year, it is said, has been nominated by the managers of Waterstones’ shops. It all sounds very fishy.

The opening words tell us that Stoner is a failure, that he never achieved anything, that his colleagues did not regard him with any respect. It is almost a challenge: now I dare you to read this book.

But right from the very first page I found myself enjoying it. The writing is beautiful, restrained, and there are some memorable phrases that illuminate an event, a character, a scene. Stoner feels that the dead raised themselves to live before him, and the past and the dead flowed into the present among the alive. He thinks of lovers, Tristan and Iseult the fair, Paolo and Francesca; and then Helen and bright Paris, their faces bitter with consequence. Their faces bitter with consequence. A whole terrible story encapsulated in five words.

And the description of the grinding poverty and the hard life of his parents on a farm , just able to scrape an existence, not really a life, from the barren soil, is perfect in its own terrible way.

Stoner is the story of a man who comes from that background, and who finds himself at a college, the University of Missouri, sent there by his father, to learn agriculture. The college is enlightened: everyone must do a course in English, and Stoner is seduced, leaving his science studies for English, fascinated by one of his teachers, Archer Sloane. He meets a young woman, Edith, brought up to be decorative, and to look to her menfolk for protection. Stoner seeks her, and marries her, and then realises what a disastrous mistake he has made. She is neurotic, spiteful, and manipulative. She refuses any form of sexual relationship, which is hard for a man brought up on a farm, and learning from an early age the needs that men have, that need they share with the farm animals. Then she decides that she wants a child, and they embark on a grotesque, lustful, behaviour, until she becomes pregnant, when she reverts to the way she behaved before. After the birth of Grace, their child, his wife completely ignores her child, who is then brought up by Stoner until, one day, she turns the tables, and takes over Grace’s life. Stoner has a remarkable understanding of Edith, his wife, and knows that at least part of the blame for the situation in which they find themselves is his.

In such circumstances, a man can do many different things. He can leave his wife. Stoner doesn’t want to do this. Grace is too important to him. A man can fight back, give his wife hell. Stoner can’t do that: he understands that he is in part to blame. A man can embark on an affair. This is what Stoner does. It’s surprising that it took him so long.

At the beginning of Stoner’s affair with Katherine, a young colleague, he realises that they had believed that the life of the mind and the life of the senses were separate, and inimical, but learned that the one could intensify the other. Ovid begins The Art of Love with the life of the senses, but soon comes to tell that a lover and his mistress need the life of the mind as well. It is a fortunate man who finds that his mistress opens his mind to how their love-making enhances his understanding to something that had been closed to him before. You would expect a teacher like Stoner to know about this. Odd that he never refers to Ovid. Every young man embarking on an affair should be obliged to read what Ovid wrote. It won’t happen, of course.

This is where the politics of an academic community come into play. His adversaries use their relationship to attack, not Stoner, but Katherine.

And the separation from Katherine is handled beautifully. They see that what they do – their teaching, their explorations of the literature of the past – would be imperilled if they stayed together, and that they couldn’t give that up. Not a conventional romantic ending, but a path that many men and women have taken. And it’s what he learned from Archer Sloane. The parallel is there: Sloane sees that the 1914-18 war destroyed something of value – for what? The demands of middle class morality destroyed something of value that Stoner and Katherine had.

His daughter’s pregnancy, her marriage, the subsequent death of her husband on a Pacific atoll in the Second World War, passes almost without comment. This is the one part of the story that doesn’t ring true to me. A father has to let his children go, but how could he not wish to reach out to her? She had to get away, but he didn’t have to let her go completely.

And at the beginning of Chapter 16 he goes through, himself, the feelings that Archer Sloane did about the First World War, the regrets for the waste, the loss of so much promise. And he comes to terms with what Grace has become. This is something a father has to learn, and Williams describes it well.

Williams has the capacity to write something that moves the reader. Stoner reads Katherine’s book. Old men are often thought to be beyond passion, but it isn’t true. He cannot think of himself as old. He thinks, look, I am alive.

It’s easy to blame Stoner for imperilling Katherine’s career, but to do so is to look to a paternalistic relationship that surely most feminists would reject. Stoner does try to stay away from her, but weakens when he hears that she has been ill. He goes to her, still unsure of what to do. He tells her he is sorry to hear that she has been ill.

‘I’m not ill,’ she says ‘I haven’t seen you for two weeks.’

‘Shut up,’ she said softly, fiercely. ‘ Oh my dear, shut up and come over here.’ She shares the responsibility for the development of their relationship, which is how it should be.

And talking to Edith near the end, a new tranquillity has come between them. They had forgiven themselves for the harm that they had done each other. That also rings true.

The description of the approach to death, at the end of the book, is, to my mind, a wonderful piece of writing. None of us dwell on this inevitable end, we avoid thinking of it. And those who have understood, who have gone through the dying, are not in a position to write about it. They’re dead. And one of the most touching episodes in the novel is when Edith asks ‘How shall I manage without him.’

I was reading this book when the Literary Review published (July 2014), a piece by Patricia Duncker (a novelist and Professor of Contemporary Literature at the University of Manchester) about what happens to books that find their audiences long after they are written (her words). She discusses Emily Dickinson, who has become a cult figure for the gay community, or at least the literary members of that community, Irène Némirovski’s Suite Francaise, Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, and Stoner. Duncker writes perceptively about why Stoner didn’t achieve lasting success when it was first published, and asks if its present success owes something to the contemporary backlash against feminism. She concludes “I enjoyed the book but despised the sexual politics”. Stoner is a novel that appears to divide men and women. Men may say, “I was unhappy with much of the sexual politics (there but for the grace of God …), but I loved the novel as a depiction of the harm that men and women can do to each other. Some women may think that nothing can excuse Stoner’s behaviour, and that it is therefore a bad book. We have to move on from that if there is to be any hope of men and women understanding each other’s needs.

Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson

This book is one of the best books I’ve read recently. The concept is not new: the idea of the second chance has come in many forms in novels. The Faustian pact with the Devil is one of the earliest, and the idea of parallel universes in which a different choice, the flap of a moth’s wings, altered how events developed is frequently explored. The fascination with the ‘what if?’ What if the Germans won the second World War (they very nearly did at one point)? What if Khrushchev hadn’t blinked when Kennedy told him to get his missiles off Cuba? What if the English army had not been exhausted by marching all those miles to Hastings after defeating Harald Hardrada at Stamford Bridge, and had routed the Normans? We would be speaking a completely different language. What if Dutch William had said No, when invited to take the English Crown? The English would have had a French Revolution. Perhaps, perhaps.

The central character, Ursula, dies, many times, and in many different circumstances, and returns to work out an alternative destiny, she kills, or doesn’t kill Hitler, having somehow come to join his circle. She works as a warden in London during the blitz. The character doesn’t have to die and come back, of course, although that makes it more dramatic. All the time we are choosing which path we follow. Robert Frost’s poem, The Road Not Taken puts it well: “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, /and sorry I could not travel both/ And be one traveller, long I stood/ And looked down one as far as I could/ To where it bent in the undergrowth; /Then took the other, as just as fair, /And having perhaps a better claim, / because it was grassy and wanted wear.”

But what is so clever about this book is what you can look for in it. It uses some quite straightforward accounts of episodes to explore how character and personality are affected by what happens. Our genes influence who we are, but experience is important as well. How similar is the Ursula of one episode to the Ursula of another? Interesting character development is the mark of a good novel, and you can look at the characters and ask how they have developed. Does Ursula’s personality change? I’m not sure. I can imagine it doing so, but is that me doing my thing as the active reader? Sylvie, Ursula’s mother, is one of the most interesting characters, and her opinions and behaviour change as the novel unfolds and she ages. This isn’t a linear novel: some scenes are throwbacks to earlier times, and there are some difficulties in remembering that this is, for example, a 1920s version of whoever. But it is worth the effort. And Ursula? How consistent are her later thoughts and actions with her earlier ones? Sometimes they are, but sometimes they aren’t: there has been a divergence. The moth’s wings have flapped, but this is how Ursula could have changed.

It’s not just Ursula, of course, all of the characters in a novel, as in a life, choose different paths, but it’s been hard enough to follow Ursula’s death and resurrection, without having to follow similar events for everyone else as well. But that would be a fascinating challenge for a writer. Thinks!

 

A Blog Hop

Many thanks to R J Gould for inviting me to take part in this Blog Hop. He is a writer of contemporary humorous romantic fiction and his post from last week is here. I’ve invited Thure Etzold and Les Brookes to contribute to this Blog Hop.

 What am I working on?

About a year ago I returned to a novel that I had put aside for a time, the story of a boy, Jack, born in a back-to-back slum in a midlands industrial town in the early 1800s. He’s not above some minor criminality, but he also finds work that earns some money, fetching meat from the market for the street traders, and by a stroke of luck gets a place at a charity school. This is the key to his next opportunity, because a few years after he has left school he encounters his former teacher, Sarah, who has lost her post at the school, and is now working as a dressmaker. Jack and Sarah set up in business together, and the novel explores the ups and downs of Jack’s career, and his emotional life. You can read the first chapter on this blog (click here). I’m preparing this novel, to be called Hard Lessons, for publication. I’ve just embarked on another novel, also set in the early 1800s, but this time in Portugal during the Peninsular War. James has been sent away by his father, the local landowner, who has warned him not to pay attentions to the village girls, and, when warnings proved insufficient, has purchased a commission for him in the county infantry regiment, commanded by his brother, James’ uncle. The regiment is sent to Portugal, James is wounded in one of the early battles, is taken in by two Portuguese women who nurse him, but he dies, and is buried in the graveyard by the tiny village church. The novel, working title Any Man’s Death, explores the consequences for others, such as his father, who almost immediately regrets what he has done, for his mother and for one of the village girls, Mary who gives birth to James’ child, and for other characters, even characters who never knew James. The first chapter of the novel, entitled Any Man’s Death, can also be read on this blog (click here). The title is taken from John Donne’s poem which begins ‘No man is an island’, and ends ‘never send to ask for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee,’ and contains the working title in the lines ‘Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.’ It’s been done before, many times, not least by a much greater writer than I will ever be, Ernest Hemingway, in ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’.

How does my work differ from others of its genre?

This question made me ask myself what the genre is. Although both novels are set in a historical period, and touch on actual historical events (such as the agitation before the great Reform Act of 1832, the way in which, before the Married Women’s Property Act, a woman’s property became her husband’s on marriage) I don’t think of them as historical novels, but rather as novels of relationships, and how relationships between men and women were shaped by the circumstances of the times. These novels discuss the same kind of relationships as my two earlier novels, ‘Gifts from Unfaithful Women and ‘How Does a Man Know’ (in preparation for publication – read the draft first chapter on this blog (click here), which are set in the present day. How does it differ from others of its genre? I’ll let you know when I’ve found out.

Why do I write what I do?

Why does anyone? For fun, because I enjoy writing. Because I want to explore relationships, how they form, and how they fail. How trivial events can bring about great shifts. Some authors do write for the market, and good luck to them. I’m not judging them. Of course I would like people to read my novels, but I want them to read the novels that I want to write. I belong to a reading group and there are only two of us who are also writers. The members who are not writers can’t understand that writers are not concerned with what the readers want, that it’s a case of ‘here it is, this is what I’ve written, and I hope you’ll like it.’

How does my writing process work?

I find that I always start off with the idea of some scene, some event, and develop the story from there, and I never know where the story will go. For example, I went to a dinner party given by some friends, at which there were a man and a woman (neither known to me) who, it became clear, had been invited there to meet each other (my hostess is an inveterate matchmaker). They seemed to be getting on very well, and I wondered afterwards what happened to them. Did they or didn’t they? This scene became ‘Gifts from Unfaithful Women’. When I start writing I have no idea how a story will end, until I am beginning to think that I really ought to wrap the story up, usually when I’ve written 80,000 to 100,000 words, many of which will be discarded in the re-write. At that point I probably have several possible endings, and I turn them over in my mind until one works its way to the top. Then I do a complete re-write, and find that I have to change a substantial part of the earlier chapters. Not very efficient, but it’s how I write. I also have many false starts. I may have an opening scene that I like, and I go on writing, but somehow it doesn’t work out; I can’t find a successful continuation.

My Cambridge background

I live in Cambridge, England, where I’m a member of Cambridge Writers, a group that exists to provide support and helpful criticism for local writers. I’ve had wonderful support from other members. We meet regularly to hear work in progress, and I always come away having benefitted from comments by other members.

I’ve also had a great deal of encouragement from Jane Rusbridge, who first encouraged me to take writing seriously, and whose novels, The Devil’s Music, and Rook I greatly admire.

Thure Etzold’s website is here, where there is an account of why he wrote his novel ‘Life as it could be’, and the novel he is currently working on, Symbiosis.

Les Brookes’ website is here, where there is an account of his novel Such Fine Boys, and his book Gay Male Fiction.

Mansfield Park: screen versions of Jane Austen’s novel

Mansfield Park

Three versions of Mansfield Park are available on DVD: a BBC version (1983) directed by David Giles, with Sylvestra le Touzel as Fanny Price, another BBC version (1999) directed by Patricia Rozema, with Frances O’Connor as Fanny, and an ITV version (2007) directed by Ian B MacDonald with Billie Piper as Fanny. If you are someone who cannot accept much of a departure from Jane Austen’s novel, then probably the 1983 version is the only one you will be at all happy with, as the other two versions take very substantial liberties with the story. Neither Frances O’Connor or Billie Piper are anything like the shy, diffident Fanny Price of the novel, while Sylvestra le Touzel’s portrayal is much closer. The drawback of the Giles/Sylvestra le Touzel version is that the acting of most of the actors is nothing like as good as that of the two other version, and in places is wooden. Judged purely as a film, the Patricia Rozema/Frances O’Connor version is a delight, and has a stellar cast, with Harold Pinter as an excellent portrayal of Sir Thomas Bertram, Lindsay Duncan is very convincing as both the impoverished Mrs Price and the affluent Lady Bertram (they are sisters, said to look very alike).

Issues about the slave trade feature much more significantly in the Rozema (1999) version than they do in the novel (the Bertrams wealth is derived from their West Indies plantations, which depend on slavery), and in another interesting variation Maria Bertram and Henry Crawford are discovered in bed together by Fanny Price, something that occurs ‘off-stage’ in the novel, although brought forward in the film to a time when Maria is engaged to her future husband, not after marriage as in the novel.

Billie Piper acts her part like, well, Billie Piper, the gutsy, charming extrovert, and therefore an interesting casting decision for Fanny Price. Her acting should not, however, be criticised. Given the slant on the novel that this version produces, Billie plays her part well and consistently, and is frequently very moving, particularly when she thinks that Edmund Bertram is going to marry Mary Crawford, and when she is banished to the poverty of her parent’s house at Portsmouth by Sir Thomas as a consequence of her rejection of marriage to Henry Crawford.

Mansfield Park is one of the more ‘difficult’ of Jane Austen’s novels, and it is frequently pointed out that one of the main problems is that the charming but selfish Crawfords became too interesting, and this leaves the character development of several of the other people in the novel unsatisfactory.

All three of these versions can be enjoyed, in different ways. The most faithful, though the least satisfactory as a film, is the Giles/Sylvestra le Touzel, while purely as a film the Rozema/Frances O’Connor version is outstanding.

‘Life After Life’ by Kate Atkinson

This book is one of the best books I’ve read recently. The concept is not new: the idea of the second chance has come in many forms in novels. The Faustian pact with the Devil is one of the earliest, and the idea of parallel universes in which a different choice, the flap of a moth’s wings, altered how events developed, has been illuminating. The fascination with the ‘what if?’ What if the Germans won the second World War (they very nearly did at one point)? What if Khrushchev hadn’t blinked when Kennedy told him to get his missiles off Cuba? What if the English army had not been exhausted by marching all those miles to Hastings after defeating Harald Hardrada at Stamford Bridge, and had routed the Normans? We would be speaking a completely different language. What if Dutch William had said No, when invited to take the English Crown? The English would have had a French Revolution. Perhaps, perhaps.

Ursula has many mishaps from her birth onwards. She dies, and begins again. Sometimes her life is short-lived, sometimes she achieves a lot, during a longer resurrection. The longest sequences are during the Second World War, where she plays various roles at night as support during the bombing, while carrying on a daytime job in Whitehall. These scenes have been researched well, and are convincing, although I am told that some of the detail is inaccurate. That doesn’t seem to me to affect the insight into what it must have been like.  My father was in a reserved occupation during that war, his firm made timers for bombs, but he also was a member of the Air Raid Precautions team at night. He never talked to my mother or to us, his children, about what it was like, but one day I overheard him talking to a neighbour  about the previous night, and, child though I was, I realised that what I had thought of as an adventure was not so at all. One day we got up to find the sky in the east bright red. It wasn’t the sun rising, it was Coventry burning. That was the only time I saw my father cry.

This novel recounts these events in an undramatic way that neverthless brings home the importance of the alternative path. The most elusive are the sequences where Ursula, a surprising member of Hitler’s entourage, does, or doesn’t, shoot Der Führer.

A character doesn’t have to die and come back, of course, although that makes it more dramatic. All the time we are choosing which path we follow. Robert Frost’s poem, The Road Not Taken puts it well:

“Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
and sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveller, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps a better claim,
because it was grassy and wanted wear.”

But what is so clever about this book is what you can look for in it. It uses some quite straightforward accounts of episodes to explore how character and personality are affected by what happens. Our genes influence who we are, but experience is important as well. How similar is the Ursula of one episode to the Ursula of another? Interesting character development is the mark of a good novel, and you can look at the characters and ask how they have developed. Does Ursula’s personality change? I’m not sure. I can imagine it doing so, but is that me doing my thing as the active reader? Sylvie, Ursula’s mother, is one of the most interesting characters, and her opinions and behaviour change as the novel unfolds and she ages. This isn’t a linear novel: some scenes are throwbacks to earlier times, and there are some difficulties in deciding if this is a 1920s version of whoever. But it is worth the effort. And Ursula? How consistent are her later thoughts and actions with her earlier ones? Sometimes they are, but sometimes they aren’t: there has been a divergence. The moth’s wings have flapped, but this is how Ursula could have changed.
It’s not just Ursula, of course, all of the characters in a novel, as in a life, choose different paths, but it’s been hard enough to follow Ursula’s death and resurrection, without having to follow similar events for everyone else as well. But that would be a fascinating challenge for a writer. Thinks!

Andrés Neuman, Traveller of the Century

Traveller of the Century is set in post-Napoleonic Germany, after 1815, at one of the great turning points in European history, and in a country at the centre of Europe, struggling to come to terms with new ideas conflicting with tradition and custom. It opens with a man, Hans, travelling by coach towards Wandernberg, a town of shifting boundaries and situation, “sit. approx. between the ancient states of Saxony and Prussia”. It is winter, Hans is cold, and he breaks his journey at Wandernberg, at an inn. The innkeeper is Herr Zeit, whose name (Mr Time) underlines one of the themes of the novel. It is some time before we learn the name of the inn, and we never learn Hans’ surname. He is addressed as Herr Hans by most of the characters, placing him in an intermediate position between the servants and the aristocrats whom he meets. Much of the novel is taken up with the conversation at a salon at which Sophie, daughter of a minor aristocrat, presides.
It’s a novel that can be read in several ways. But the main interest is that the characters are discussing poetry, philosophy, literature, the rule of law, economic systems, and so on. You get drawn into thinking about these issues. Sometimes you’ve read the book or poem referred to, or know something about the topic, and feel a glow of cultural satisfaction, but sometimes you’ve never heard of it. Sometimes you go away and look it up. The novel is rich in its depiction of relationships, and you have to think about what X meant when he said what he did to Y.
It is a long novel (584 pages), packed with metaphor, metonymy and allegory, and indeed almost any figure of speech known to man (and, no doubt, many that I don’t know of, and therefore didn’t pick up). Readers and reviewers have suggested that it would have been improved by the removal or curtailment of certain parts. But everyone suggests different parts to be excised. Some would curtail the discussion at the salon, some would excise the organ grinder, a fount of folk wisdom who lives in a cave and whose dog has its own dialogue, and for some the murder of a series of young women and the comic policemen who investigate is extraneous. You can take away from this novel what you like. But Neuman is setting out the beliefs and concerns of the people he depicts. It is 1820, or thereabouts. There are resonances with the present day, but they are incidental. Europe is what she is today because of her history, and you are bound to see the past in the present.
At the time of the novel the Napoleonic Code, a liberal code based on the rights envisaged by the French Revolution, and which had been applied in countries under French rule, was being set aside. The German states reverted to their previous codes, a much less liberal legal system, after 1815. Young men like Hans regretted this loss, even though they had become disillusioned with Napoleon. There’s one scene which sets out one of the themes of the book. Hans is talking about the years 1811 to 1814 when he was at university, at Jena. “The question I kept asking myself then, and which I still ask myself, was – how the devil did we go from the French Revolution to the dictatorship of Metternich.”… “Or, more generally, how the devil had Europe gone from the Declaration des droits de l’homme et du citoyen to the Holy Alliance.” Well, we know now. We’ve seen it many times since. To every revolution there is an equal and opposite counter-revolution. Well it isn’t quite like that. Each revolution leaves behind some traces of itself.
Andrés Neuman is a writer, poet, and translator, born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, who was taken to Granada, in Spain, where he now lives, when he was very young. He’s a philologist with a degree in Spanish Philology from the University of Granada, where he also taught. Could only a philologist could have written this novel? Hans is a translator and a philologist. ‘Philology,’ Sophie said, bewildered. ‘Didn’t you say philosophy?’ ‘No, no, philology … and he goes on and on. Poor Sophie. Interesting that Professor Mietter, another habitué of the salon, and Hans’ verbal sparring partner, is a Doctor of Philology. Small world. (Philology is the study of language in written sources; it is a combination of literary criticism, history of words, and linguistics.)
The novel was translated by Nick Caistor and Lorenza Garcia. Caistor is a British journalist and translator who has twice been awarded the Valle-Inclán prize for Spanish translation. Garcia is also a writer and professional translator. The fact that they are experienced, professional translators is particularly important, given the complexity of the structure and the writing. For example the dialogue is written without the use of speech marks so that speech is embedded in the narrative, and with the selective use of parentheticals to mark off different speakers. Caistor and Garcia said, in an interview, that they understood that Neuman’s intention was to mingle voices, rather than write linear. And although it’s not the common practice among English-speaking writers, it is closer to the way a group of people talk. Just you listen to a discussion: two people talking at the same time, interrupting each other, and interweaving comment and riposte. If you wrote it down, it would be just like this book, and it is how beginners at writing novels often write, before they learn ‘better’ at some creative writing class.
Hans embarks on a love affair with Sophie, who is betrothed to one of the more important local aristocrats, Rudi Wilderhaus. In an interview Caistor and Garcia say that they discussed certain aspects of the novel with the author, and Neuman insisted that the love-making scenes should not be prettified in any way, as he wanted to underline the difference between his approach and the traditional romantic nineteenth-century novelistic tradition. The descriptions of love-making are explicit and graphic. However, if a novel has two characters who are beginning a relationship, it’s dishonest not to deal, to some extent, with the nature of that relationship. This is where Fifty Shades of Grey, and James Bond or Dan Brown novels are dishonest. Of course, it’s a matter of judgement, both by the writer and reader, where the bar should be set. I think Neuman got it right, and I think DH Lawrence would have agreed, perhaps envious that he couldn’t be quite as explicit as Neuman.
Caistor said that something he particularly liked was the insistence in the novel on the way that European culture was interconnected, and that comes across very strongly. So we’re into intertextuality: the notion that a novel reflects and references other novels. Mere allusion is not enough. Hans refers to Goethe’s novel, Elective Affinities, which deals with the unsettling effect of the arrival of a young woman on a long-married couple. Adultery is implied, rather than explicitly described. Later novels, such as Anna Karenina, Madame Bovary and Effie Briest, those great 19th century depictions of adultery, explore the ambiguities of married womens’ experiences. We know both Fontane, who wrote Effic Briest, and Flaubert, knew Elective Affinities, and it seems likely that Neuman had read Madame Bovary, at least. Hans and Sophie are not, technically, committing adultery, but what they do is much the same. There is an interesting frisson between Hans and Elsa, Sophie’s servant, an intelligent although uneducated woman, full of regret that she cannot read the love letters that she carries between Hans and Sophie.
The epigraph page starts with a quotation from Wilhelm Müller’s poem, Der Leiermann, the organ grinder. In Germany and Austria the profession of organ grinder was at times reserved by law for ex-soldiers, always old men, and often seen to symbolize Death. Der Leiermann was the last poem of Der Winterreise, the winter journey, and set to music by Franz Schubert. The song is very different to the rest of the song cycle, desperately sad, and written at the end of his life by Schubert when he knew his health was failing. Hans arrives in winter at Wandernburg, his own winter journey, but things look up. Spring arrives. He meets Sophie, and all is well for a time. So it is for Anna Karenina, she meets Vronsky. Madame Bovary escapes from the boredom of her father’s farm. Effi Briest, a very young girl, is married off to an aristocrat and gains her own establishment. Sophie likewise is to marry an aristocrat. But then it all goes wrong for these women. Vronsky is not what he seemed, the doctor disappointed Madame Bovary. Effi Briest is neglected by her Prussian lord, and Sophie finds how much more satisfactory Hans is than Rudi as a lover. Philip Larkin told us that sexual intercourse began in 1963. He meant if began in writing, in novels and in poems, fostered by the acquittal of the publisher of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, but it had been discovered many times before. It is there in all of these novels.
One thing that connects Anna Karenina, Madame Bovary, Effie Briest, Goethe’s Elective Affinities and Traveller of the Century is the sense that all of these women have that they must achieve something before death calls, and their dissatisfaction with the life they have. There are differences and similarities in how they get there. Or fail to get there. The level of self-destruction they achieve varies, and it’s interesting to see why. Sophie has said how sad she was that she could not go to university at Halle to study and there’s a very telling scene in which Sophie speaks of her mother., and she says “From what I have been told she was rather pretty, and, like all women from here, domestically minded, fond of saving on clothes and staying at home.”… “When I was a child and I asked people about her, they would say “Your mother was a great beauty!” so I ended up assuming no one considered her particularly intelligent”. What a terrible thing for a clever woman to have to say about her mother.
But perhaps Sophie doesn’t destroy herself. At the end of the novel Hans and Sophie have parted, everything left up in the air, nothing resolved, and Hans has gone away in a coach. Later that day Sophie is waiting for a coach? Where is she going?

 

Alison Moore: The Lighthouse

When I’m deciding if I’m going to read a book I’m obsessively, nerdishly, careful; making sure it’s really the book for me. I read the reviews; I look at the excerpt that Amazon display. Third person. That’s reassuring, and the excerpt seems well written.
The Booker Prize long list blurb really does sound interesting: “The story he keeps coming back to, the person and the event affecting all other, is his mother and her abandonment of him as a boy, which left him with a void to fill, a substitute to find.” My sort of book.
And just as important for me, there’s a quote from Margaret Drabble: “Melancholy and haunting. The sense of loneliness and discomfort and rejection is compelling, the low key prose carefully handled. It’s a serious novel with a distinctive and unsettling atmosphere.”
So, what was the problem? Well, the author couldn’t keep up the quality of the voice that was in the Amazon extract (part of the opening chapter, in the rest of the book,. That, I think was the main problem. But just as unsatisfactory is that the story is pure story. All plot, no character. Futh does this, he does that and other characters do this, do that. Emotional life is almost hidden. Inferring emotional life, not displaying it too crudely, that’s fine. But a reader does need something to work on. Margaret Drabble is right; it makes for a curiously unsettling atmosphere. John Mullan, in his book ‘What matters in Jane Austen’, writes that “the obligation of a serious author is to offer us insights into the paradoxes of human behaviour”. That is what Jane Austen does: Emma blunders about her own feelings, about Harriet Smith, about almost everyone, but Jane Austen shows us what these other characters are feeling. Emma is a novel about blunders. That would have been an alternative title for Emma. Futh blunders, but we have no insights into his character. We are told the origins of his problems: desertion by his mother. But we are told, but we don’t really understand how it has formed his emotional life,
One of the Amazon reviewers compared The Lighthouse unfavourably to Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel The Remains of the Day, another travel tale of a frustrated middle-aged man, who has lied to himself at nearly every turn of his life. The reviewer wrote that in that novel we do get the sense of what that character wants, who he is, what he is travelling toward. Alison Moore never shows us Futh. You can pity him, but he doesn’t tell you his heart. And there’s the rather crass metaphor of Futh losing his way, which doesn’t really get worked out. He misses the gap in the hedge.
It’s clear, from the reviews that some readers enjoyed this very much. Every newspaper review said nice things about this book. I didn’t enjoy it, and I was left with a worrying feeling that there’s something wrong with me. I did finish it, and I was very grateful that it was so short. If I was writing a review for Amazon, how many stars would I give it? Whatever I did would be, I suspect, a judgment on myself, not on this book.