Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

This week I read Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf. I have read this before, in college. After enjoying Woolf’s writing in To The Lighthouse I figured I’d give Dalloway another shot. (If you click the link and read the first paragraph, you will note how I avoided Woolf because I originally did not like Mrs. Dalloway. Or you can rest secure in the knowledge of this without clicking the link since I just told you.)

The following authors listed Mrs. Dalloway in their top ten lists: Robb Forman Dew, Karen Joy Fowler, Denise Gess, Michael Griffith, Elizabeth Hay, Thomas Kenneally, Lydia Millet, Vendela Vida and Susan Vreeland.

The writing in Mrs. Dalloway is beautiful, much like To The Lighthouse. I loved how Woolf captured how we often live both in the moment, but in past moments at the same time. I find myself suddenly barraged sometimes by a random image of something that happened 20 years before and it’s so vivid. I’m not there, like in a flashback sense, but the memory has a texture to it that is more than just the random stories that we tell other people about our pasts. Those told memories seem pallid in comparison to the flash memories I am speaking of.

She even shows someone who is making one of those flash memories, just a bit character who wanders through the park in the beginning.

“Both seemed queer, Maisie Johnson thought. Everything seemed very queer. In London for the first time, come to take up a post at her uncle’s in Leadenhall Street, and now walking through Regent’s Park in the morning, this couple on the chairs gave her quite a turn; the young woman seeming foreign, the man looking queer; so that should she be very old she would still remember and make it jangle again among her memories how she had walked through Regent’s Park on a fine summer’s morning fifty years ago. For she was only nineteen and had got her way at last, to come to London; and now how queer it was, this couple she asked the way of, and the girl started and jerked her hand, and the man-he seemed awfully odd; quarrelling perhaps; parting for ever, perhaps; something was up, she knew; and now all these people (for she returned to the Broad Walk), the stone basins, the prim flowers, the old men and women, invalids most of them in Bath chairs-all seemed after Edinburgh, so queer.”

And you can tell, that 50 years from now, whether Maisie Johnson is in London or Edinburgh or India, she would have a flash of the couple every time she thought of when she first came to London.

The theme of Mrs. Dalloway is a day in the life of Mrs. Dalloway who is planning a party for that evening, or rather most plans have been made, she is preparing for the party. The book traverses her inner monologue, and others random monologues as they either pass Mrs. Dalloway, come into contact with her, or come into contact with someone that she came into contact with.

One of the characters is a returned soldier (the book takes place in approximately 1924) from the first World War. From today’s perspective, it is obvious that he is suffering from PTSD, which back then was called “shell shock” and not always necessarily even believed in. Woolf describes his madness beautifully and even captures the attitude(s) of some of the doctors of the day. Which, sadly, in some cases hasn’t changed much in the last century.

“The word “time” split its husk; poured its riches over him; and from his lips fell like shells, like shavings from a plane, without his making them, hard, white, imperishable words, and flew to attach themselves to their places in an ode to Time; an immortal ode to Time. He sang. Evans answered from behind the tree. The dead were in Thessaly, Evans sang, among the orchids. There they waited till the War was over, and now the dead, now Evans himself–
‘For God’s sake don’t come!’ Septimus cried out. For he could not look upon the dead.”

The above is from Septimus Smith, the ex soldier suffering. The following is from Rezia, his Italian wife whom he married at the end of the war and brought back to London with him.

“He had grown stranger and stranger. He said people were talking behind the bedroom walls. Mrs. Filmer thought it odd. He saw things too-he had seen an old woman’s head in the middle of a fern. Yet he could be happy when he chose. They went to Hampton Court on top of a bus, and they were perfectly happy. All the little red and yellow flowers were out on the grass, like floating lamps he said, and talked and chattered and laughed, making up stories. Suddenly he said, “Now we will kill ourselves,” when they were standing by the river, and he looked at it with a look which she had seen in his eyes when a train went by, or an omnibus-a look as if something fascinated him; and she felt he was going from her and she caught him by the arm. But going home he was perfectly quiet-perfectly reasonable. He would argue with her about killing themselves; and explain how wicked people were; how he could see them making up lies as they passed in the street. He knew all their thoughts, he said, he knew everything. He knew the meaning of the world, he said.”

He is being treated originally by a Dr. Holmes.

“Dr. Holmes came again. Large, fresh coloured, handsome, flicking his boots, looking in the glass, he brushed it all aside-headaches, sleeplessness, fears, dreams-nerve symptoms and nothing more, he said. If Dr. Holmes found himself even half a pound below eleven stone six, he asked his wife for another plate of porridge at breakfast. (Rezia would learn to cook porridge.) But he continued, health is largely a matter in our own control. Throw yourself into outside interests; take up some hobby. He o9pened Shakespeare-Antony and Cleopatra; pushed Shakespeare aside. Some hobby, said Dr. Holmes, for did he not owe his own excellent health (and he worked as hard as any man in London) to the fact that he could always switch off from his patients on to old furniture? And what a very pretty comb, if he might say so, Mrs. Warren Smith was wearing!”

Even the way Woolf structured the novel fit what she was doing, switching between people’s internal monologues. There are absolutely no chapters in the book. It is all one stream from beginning to end. The external time is linear as well. She doesn’t take us from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. then back to 10 a.m. But, the internal time can be anywhere from 30 years ago to current time, to a hour previous.

But. I just couldn’t find myself actually caring about any of the characters. None of them, absolutely none, were happy. All of them seemed discontent and unhappy with where life had taken them, where they themselves fit into society. And while I definitely don’t mind depressed characters, angry characters, psychotic characters, it just seemed like a completely negatively slanted one way to look at people in this world. Virginia Woolf eventually committed suicide, and by the time she wrote Mrs. Dalloway had already suffered from mental illness, hence probably why she wrote so well about Mr. Smith. So, I can see why the book is the way it is. I also evaluated if it was a historical thing that kept me from caring about these characters, and again, I love historical novels, and historical memoirs. I have read a lot of books that cover Britain from 1850 or so to 1950 or so, and mostly loved them.

I just couldn’t connect. I could adore the way Woolf wrote it, could adore some of the techniques she used and the poetry she infused into the prose, but I just…couldn’t get into it.

So, most of the time, I completely change my opinion on a book when I read one, don’t like it and years later re-read it. This time, I didn’t. Except I think I enjoyed the beauty of it more and could appreciate it.

The Famished Road by Ben Okri

Imagine that spirit world children are sometimes born to mortal parents in order to experience the combined pain and joy that is physical life. Imagine that some of these spirit children form a pact to immediately die whenever forced to be born so they can be together again as soon as possible. Imagine one spirit child, Azaro, who breaks that pact when he sees the heartbreak on his intended mother’s face, deciding he will be born into the ghettos of late twentieth century Nigeria in an attempt to make her happy.

This is The Famished Road by Ben Okri.

(For those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 8th for David Anthony Durham)

Azaro does not find this an easy decision to have made. Life is extremely hard in the form of poverty, corruption, and warring political parties, as well as other hardships:

I learnt that Dad had gone out early to look for a job. Mum was exhausted from the search, the feast, all the walking, the worrying and the cooking. That morning she brought out her little table of provisions to the housefront. She sat on a stool, with me beside her, and dispiritedly crooned out her wares. The dust blew into our eyes. The sun was merciless on our flesh. We didn’t sell a single item.

In the afternoon, the people that Dad had borrowed from to buy drinks came to collect their money. They threatened to seize Mum’s goods. They hung around till evening. Mum begged them to wait for Dad to get back, but they wouldn’t listen. What annoyed Mum the most was the fact that the creditors were people from our compound, who were at the feast, who had gotten drunk on our wine and had thrown up on our window-sill. The loudest amongst them was actually responsible for breaking the back of the chair and destroying two glasses. Another of our creditors, as we learned later, was Madame Koto. She was the only one who did not come to drag for her money. But the others hung around Mum’s stall and spoiled her prospects of business.

His abandoned spirit friends make it no easier, doing everything they can to get him back. Whether by thugs inflicting an ordinary beating or spirits walking the land trying to sneak him away, Azaro is constantly beset, wandering constantly between the physical world, the spirit world, and various levels of crossroads in between:

The valley was essentially populated with strange beings. Instead of faces they had masks that became more beautiful the longer you looked at them. Maybe their masks were their faces. They had houses all along the sides of the valley. They also had their palaces and centres of culture below, under the earth. Their acropolis, along with their fabulous cemeteries, were in the air. In the valley they were all hard at work.

‘What are they doing?’ I asked.

Dad crouched low, his face close to mine. He touched me, and I shivered.

‘They are building a road.’

‘Why?’

Dad held my hands. I felt cold and began to tremble. He breathed in my face and the wind almost knocked my head away and I kept being flung up into the spaces and the spirit finally had to hold me down by my hair.

‘They have been building that road for two thousand years.’

*****

‘Why is it so beautiful?’

‘Because each new generation begins with nothing and with everything. They know all the earlier mistakes. They may not know that they know, but they do. They know the early plans, the original intentions, the earliest dreams. Each generation has to reconnect the origins for themselves. They tend to become a little wiser, but don’t go very far. It is possible that they now travel slower, and will make bigger, better mistakes. That his how they are as a people. They have an infinity of hope and an eternity of struggles. Nothing can destroy them except themselves and they will never finish the road that is their soul and they do not know it.’

I like how The Famished Road wanders back and forth between the real and magical worlds. Sometimes one, sometimes the other, and often differing amounts of the two mixed. Both often present danger for Azaro, but the majesty of the spirit world contrasts interestingly against the hardness of earthly life. At the same time, the earthly life has things that the spirit world doesn’t. Somewhere in all of that is the ignorant and well-intentioned confusion in which we find ourselves and try to make our lives.

At the end? At the end The Famished Road is beautiful book. ‘Nuff said.

Hedda Gabler by Henrik Ibsen

Short note: Birthday planning for children, especially when it’s your own child(ren) is stressful. /end whine.

Short note: Terry Pratchett died today. Earlier in the year, I had the pleasure to read his book Long Earth and the sequel to it. They were amazing. I also count Good Omens Bad Omens in my favorites column. My heart is sad at the loss of Sir Pratchett. If you have never read a Pratchett book, please make an entry of one of his books on your to be read list. Personally, I recommend Good Omens, Bad Omens, even though it is a co-authored book.

Today, I’m talking about Hedda Gabler. It’s a play by Henrik Ibsen. Most likely, you’ve heard of A Doll House by Henrik Ibsen. Most people have. If you’re a long time reader of this blog, you probably remember it from here, and if you’re a newer reader, check out what Dave has to say about A Doll House. Hedda Gabler, I’ve heard mentioned, but it’s not as known as A Doll House.

Pearl Cleage and Vendela Vida list it in their top tens.

Background: I have a degree in secondary education with speech, drama and English. So, in the course of my college career I worked on plays. I was only -in- one of them, but did a lot of backstage work through some others. This play really excited my “drama” side.

It’s a story of a young woman (Hedda, if you couldn’t guess) who has just returned from her 4 or 5 month long honeymoon that was also a dig around in old manuscripts and be scholarly and ramble on about medieval artifacts trip for her husband. They’ve moved into a house that her husband is sure to mention to both his aunt and the family friend who is a judge that Hedda absolutely had always, always wanted to live in. Hedda, from the very beginning is a little nasty, making her husband’s aunt feel like she thought her hat was the maid’s, and other acts like that. They talk quite a bit about how much “plumper” she got while they were gone and Aunt Julie keeps hinting at pregnancy. Later in the play, Hedda herself hints at it and tells her husband to get the news from his aunt. She also remarks that she wants nothing to do with having children (in veiled comments during a discussion with the judge).

Hedda is a fascinating character. You think she is one thing, then she does something that completely realigns your opinion of her. You find out what things led her to be living in the flimsy house of cards that she constructed for herself. She wanted, wants, control in her life. But, everything seems to conspire against that. The actions that she takes, they all lead to less control in her life. She’s a very flawed main character, which at that time in literature and drama, a married woman that refused to cheat on her husband would not be flawed. Flawed female characters were “fallen women”. Hedda is a flawed, unhappy, mean character who just happens to believe in not being unfaithful in her marriage. Which, might increase her trapped feeling that you feel more and more as the play progresses.

This is a play I would absolutely love to see acted on the stage, and not just read it. But, even reading it was a great experience. Some plays don’t work that great until you have actors bringing it to life. Hedda Gabler had a life on the page, with just stage directions and characters’ lines. To see it brought to life on the stage, would be an amazing thing, in my opinion.

I hope everyone has a fantastic weekend! Please think of me on Saturday as I stand and supervise at least 10 excited children ranging from 4 to 8 years of age, bouncing around and then eating cupcakes.

The Killer Inside Me by Jim Thompson

If I had to describe The Killer Inside Me by Jim Thompson, I’d say to reimagine American Psycho through a lens created by combining the works of Raymond Chandler with To Kill a Mockingbird. I know that probably sounds a little weird, but despite what I can describe you might have to read The Killer Inside Me yourself to see what I’m talking about.

(For those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 2nd for Walter Kirn)

Lou Ford is a deputy sherriff in a small but growing town in Texas. He’s likeable, almost simple perhaps:

“Well, I tell you,” I drawled. “I tell you the way I look at it, a man doesn’t get any more out of life than what he puts into it.”

“Umm,” he said, fidgeting. “I guess you’re right, Lou.”

“I was thinking the other day, Max; and all of a sudden I had the doggonedest thought. It came to me out of a clear sky—the boy is father to the man. Just like that. The boy is father to the man.”

Unfortunately, that’s just the surface. Inside dwells what the calls “the sickness.” He’s an uncontrollable killer, a fiend:

“No, baby”—my lips drew back from my teeth. “I’m not going to hurt you. I wouldn’t’ think of hurting you. I’m just going to beat the ass plumb off you.”

I said it, and I meant it and I damned near did.

I jerked the jersey up over her face and tied the end in a knot. I threw her down on the bed, yanked off her sleeping shorts and tied her feet together with them.

I took off my belt and raised it over my head….

I don’t know how long it was before I stopped, before I came to my senses. All I know is that my arm ached like hell and her rear end was one big bruise, and I was scared crazy—as scared as a man can get and go on living.

He’s killed before, driven by impulses he cannot control, but that was in his youth. He was protected, but watched. Controlled. Unfortunately, that control is now gone with the deaths of his father and adopted brother and Lou meets a whore who makes the sickness again rise. He decides she has to die. People start sniffing after Lou Ford’s trail and he decides they have to die as well. Coldly calculating, he proceeds about his business.

The Killer Inside Me is a dark book. Not so much in the crimes Lou Ford commits, because though the murders are terrible I’ve certainly read worse and more graphic. The darkness for me is more in how reasonable he seems, how much Thompson gets you to like him at the same time you hate him. You find yourself rooting for Lou at the same time you want him stopped. You can’t reconcile it, and that’s the real mastery as I saw it in The Killer Inside Me. It’s certainly an impressive writing achievement…just a frightening one.

Dune by Frank Herbert

So.  I am embarrassed to admit that I cannot tell you who listed Dune in their top ten.  I looked it up last night, but then was unable to post.  I can now post but don’t have the book where I’m at.  So, mysteriously enough, I can tell you that it was just one person who listed Dune in their top ten and that I think their last name started with a “M”.  That second thing might be wrong though.

Prior to this, whenever I heard about Dune or saw the book around, I always had vague images of deserts and huge worms and weird 70s looking men and women pretending to be desert dwellers.  Then, those images would mix in my mind with Luke Skywalker whining and C3PO and R2D2 getting sand in various mechanical crevices.

Apparently, at some point, I either watched Dune at a time where my young brain quickly forgot it, or when my brain was intoxicated, ensuring that I would also forget it (which happened with most movies watched in that state, except, ironically, Dazed and Confused).

Segue to me saying “These are not the droids you’re looking for”.

The movie is notoriously bad.  Everyone I told that I was reading the book all looked at me in horror and said “YOU HAVEN’T WATCHED THE MOVIE HAVE YOU?” and when I would say not that I remembered, they’d all look relieved and say “Oh the book is much better than the movie.”

The book is much, much better than the reputation and vague memories of the movie that I have.  I can’t say that it’s my favorite sci-fi I’ve ever read.  In all honesty, if it was written today and marketed, I can imagine it would be shelved in the YA section of the library.  That’s not an insult though, some of the best books I’ve read in the last 3 years have been shelved in the YA section of the library (Ashenfall, We Were Liars and Fan Girl, just from the last 3 months spring to mind).  It’s got an adolescent protagonist, Paul, who moves to the desert planet from Caladan which was a planet that was quite literally dripping with moisture (I refuse to use the word “moist”.  There is no worse word, well, except for Stephanie Meyers favorite word, “chuckle”).  His father has been assigned to the planet by the Emperor.  There is a huge feud between the Atreides (Paul’s family) and the Harkonnen household (which, going with the odd Star Wars parallels, has a version of Jabba the Hut as its patriarch).  The Harkonnens were the ones on the planet previously running the show.  The desert has something called “spice” which seems to be some weird class of something that is more than a spice for food but somewhere less than LSD.  People that can only eat food from Arrakis (mainly, the fremen who are the nomads of the desert on the planet) have eyes that are entirely blue, with no whites or pupils to them.  This indicates a diet entirely of food seasoned with “spice”.

Betrayal, disaster and exile occur.  Resurrection and retribution occur.  The book is both a novel of a humanity of the future’s quest to get genetics back under control and a group (they’d be the mage class if this was fantasy and not science fiction)’s desire to control the end result of the genetic manipulation and a coming of age story of a savior.

This is a completely PG novel.  While the main character Paul ends up having a son, if you were not aware of the mechanics of how sons come to be, you might think that a sand worm (yes, they do exist in the book but in a much cooler way) delivered them on door steps.  It’s also an accessible science fiction book.  I think some SF books are very hard to get into, obtuse and technical.  This reminded me a lot of Ender’s Game, in terms of the ease of reading it for a person who doesn’t read sci fi a lot.

And, the more I think about it, the more it seems like Lucas ripped a lot of Dune off for Star Wars.  I will have to discuss this with Greg.  Definitely put this on your list of things to read, while it might not be in my top ten, it’s worth the time and who knows, it might end up being in yours ;)

Have a great weekend!!

The Untouchable by John Banville

When a novel is all about a character being unmasked as a Russian agent, it seems like you’d be expecting a bit of a suspense thriller. Real cloak and dagger type of stuff. The Untouchable by John Banville isn’t quite like that. Elderly Victor Maskell has been unmasked as having spent much of his life as a Russian agent, demonized and even his knighthood stripped away though curiously not even arrested, but from there the book mostly takes the form of a slowly moving retrospective memoir.

(For those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 5th for Anita Shreve and 7th for Robert Wilson)

Victor Maskell is highly placed in English society as WWII approaches. He’s not exactly fabulously wealthy, but he is distantly related to the queen. He attends Cambridge and moves in the right circles. The sort of circles that with his Socialist ideals get him recruited by the Soviets:

I knew what was going on; I knew I was being recruited. It was exciting and alarming and slightly ludicrous, like being summoned from the sideline to play in the senior-school game. It was amusing. This world no longer carries the weight that it did for us. Amusement was not amusement, but a test of the authenticity of a thing, a verification of its worth. The most serious matters amused us. This was something the Felix Hartmanns never understood.

He also starts working for the English secret service. A double agent. Thrilling, right? Well, he’s an art historian.

Victor doesn’t jump out of windows or watch shop windows to see if he’s got a tail waiting to bump him off with prussic acid. He just hangs out in high circles and relays gossip. In his work for the British secret service, he sometimes passes along memos he comes across. There isn’t big adventure here, not the pulse-pounding sort at least:

“Do?” he said, putting on an arch, amused expression; his earlier, violent mood had subsided and he was his smooth self again. “You do not do anything, really.” He took a draught of beer and with relish licked the fringe of foam from his upper lip. His blue-black oiled hair was combed starkly back from his forehead, giving him the pert, suave look of a raptor. He had rubber galoshes on over his dancer’s dainty shoes. I twas said that he wore a hairnet in bed. “Your value for us is that you are at the heart of the English establishment—”

“I am?”

“—and from the information you and Boy Bannister and the others supply to us we shall be able to build a picture of the power bases of this country.” He loved these expositions, the setting out of aims and objectives, the homilies on strategy; every spy is part priest, part pedant.

No, Victor is old. He’s been disgraced…but he’s living quietly at home and remembering how it all came about. No locking him in a room and throwing away the room, just memories. How he was recruited, how he served, how he was betrayed, his homosexuality, his wife and children, all that. It’s a quiet book. For a spy novel, The Untouchable is very quiet.

The Untouchable wasn’t quite what I was expecting. It’s more remembrance, and much more slowly paced than I thought it would be….not much of a thriller at all. It’s well done, but the prose is fairly dense and the pacing is a little slow for my tastes. Really, it struck me more as a literary examination of a character’s life. The spy stuff was just details.

The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

So, for some reason, and I’m sure it’s because I read it somewhere, I keep wanting to say the “Taming of the Shrew”. Is that a real story somewhere? Does anyone know where this literary mistake keeps coming from?

Michael Cunningham listed The Turn of the Screw as one of his favorite books (but not the Taming of the Shrew).

I liked this story. I wasn’t so wowed by it that I’m going to heap loads of praise on it right now. I think part of the lack of wow factor is that it reminded me too much of both Rebecca and Jane Eyre. However, the thing that I -did- like about The Turn of the Screw was that it was honestly something supernatural, not a thing that seemed supernatural but was not.

At the beginning, they have a group that meet together at a club and tell stories. While I was reading/listening (I listened to the first couple of chapters then switched to reading the book) to it, it reminded me of Peter Straub’s Ghost Story. Which, if you’re looking for a more contemporary ghost story, I highly recommend it. One of the only horror novels to ever scare me so badly that I nearly jumped out of my skin in a crowded public place (Village Inn) while reading it when Greg tapped my shoulder. It was cool though to think that it might be where Straub got his inspiration for Ghost Story (partly). I’ve also read at least one short story/novella from King that had a similar premise.

If you like ghost stories, and you have never read The Turn of the Screw, you must do so. In some ways, I think it was the real genesis of the literary ghost story. I did get a couple of shivers up my spine towards the end, so it is definitely worth it for that.

I think part of it was scary though because of being a parent. Like, there was nothing that could be done to really protect the two children that the book centers around. The story is about the governess’s struggle to do so. This is not me crawling up on some high handed “I’m a parent you aren’t so you don’t know nyah nyah boo boo”. I’m just stating that I think it created a different dimension to the creepiness I felt that would not have existed prior to having a child.

Definitely read this one. Even though I’m not cooing over it and not heaping mountains of praise on it, it’s a damn good story and not very long either.

Hope everyone’s weekend is fantastic and Happy Valentine’s Day!! (had my brain been more on top of things, I would have tried to pick out something more “love” appropriate. For example, the poetry of Pablo Neruda is in The Top Ten, and would have been perfect. But since Dave and I have approximately eight more years to go on this, I’ll just save it for a different V Day!)