Sunday, 14 May 2017

Book Report Part 4: Mrs. Dalloway, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and For Whom the Bell Tolls

In case any new readers wonder what this is all about, the answer can be found here:  "An ill-read man decides to get serious - by reading 25 books he really should have read". Regular readers will know the score, so without further ado - Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf. This is the first time I've managed to get through one of her novels, having never managed to get past the first couple of pages of any of her other books: there's just something about her tone and style that grates. I chose Mrs. Dalloway simply because it appears on a a lot of "Best English-language novels" lists. I wouldn't stick it on mine - but I found it far less annoying than expected...

...The story takes place over the course of a day in June, 1923. The two main characters are Clarissa Dalloway, an upper class lady married to an MP who has never quite fulfilled his early promise. She is organising a large formal party in London that evening, and wondering whether she married the right man, when a former beau calls on her. Meanwhile, Septimus Warren Smith, a young London clerk suffering from shell shock after serving in the First World War, is wandering around the city with his Italian wife, visually hallucinating and hearing voices. Late that afternoon, he pays a visit to a renowned Harley Street nerve doctor, after which he is taken home by his wife - and (SPOILER ALERT!!!) commits suicide by throwing himself out of the window of their flat while the balance of his mind is well and truly disturbed.

Mrs. Dalloway is not, as you may have gathered, exactly a barrel of laughs. And reading it requires an effort of concentration, because the author had recently read Ulysses (she enjoyed the start, but had become exasperated after 200 pages) and The Waste Land, by which she was entirely smitten. So Mrs. Dalloway is a member of that distinctly alarming species, the experimental novel. It is written almost entirely in a stream-of-consciousness style - or stream-of-consciousnesses, because she flits from recording the thoughts of one character to those of another on a regular basis, and I had to keep checking back to find out exactly whose thoughts were being relayed (except for those passages involving the deranged Septimus Smith, which are probably the best thing in the book - Ms Woolf had herself experienced a full-scale breakdown).

I don't think it's by any measure a great, or particularly well-written, book - but it is interesting. The problem was that I didn't really believe in any of the characters: or rather, I didn't believe any of them would have thought the thoughts the writer attributes to them. Even the nerve doctor, of whom, because of her own experiences, she throughly disapproves, isn't real. Everyone (apart from the mad clerk) is either too, too frightfully mentally febrile and skittish, or too stolid and stupid and shallow to live. And Virginia Woolf's snobbery towards those ghastly, mediocre people she just doesn't "rate" (and there are lots of them), and her unconvincing attempts to empathise with the lower orders - as well as her distinct lack of humour - eventually became exasperating. By the end, I felt as if I'd spent the whole book inside Virginia Woolf's head rather than those of her characters, and I won't pretend to having much enjoyed the experience.

James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man proved a very different kettle of potcheen. My experience of reading James Joyce had - like Virginia Woolf's - previously been confined to the first 200 pages of Ulysses (well, 205, to be precise). Like her, I'd thoroughly enjoyed the first 50 or 60 pages, but had rapidly fallen out of love with it after than. So  I thought I'd give his previous novel a go, especially as it was a more manageable 200 pages. Good choice, as it happens. It's a superbly-written masterpiece. In contrast to Mrs. Dalloway, I believed every character, and I believed every spiritual and artistic twist, turn, temptation, triumph, failure and self-deception of young Stephen Dedalus's life at Clongowes Wood College and University College, Dublin. Presumably some of the language Joyce employed, his references to bodily functions (his "cloacal obsession", as the hugely-admiring H.G. Wells described it), and his descriptions of his 16-year old self's frenzied whoring would have caused a few dropped monocles in 1917, when it was first published here. In fact, I'm surprised it didn't suffered the same fate as Ulysses. The accounts of the Dedalus family arguing over Irish politics are fascinating, as are (believe it or not) the large dollops of Jesuitical Catholic theology (Stephen almost enters a seminary). A stunningly great book.

[A side-note: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man got into print thanks to the efforts of Ezra Pound. As a traitor to his own country, a screaming fascist and a raving Jew-baiter, I'm disinclined to lavish praise on the poet as a man - but his critical instincts and the energy he expended helping struggling young writers to shape their work and to get it published were extraordinary - those he helped launch included T.S. Eliot, Joyce, Robert Frost and Ernest Hemingway. It's hard to equate the man who acted as a disinterested midwife to so many literary geniuses - and who was very nearly one himself - with the foul ranter who supported Mussolini until, and beyond, the dictator's fatal appointment with a lamp-post. And Pound went on producing almost-great poetry.  It just doesn't compute - or is that because I'm an admirer of his Cantos and some of his earlier work?]

I wonder where Ernest Hemingway's reputation stands these days? By the '60s, he was still the acknowledge GAN (Great American Novelist) - but I presume decades of feminist revision regarding this most testosterone-charged of manly male writers has helped to tarnish his hard-drinkin', marlin-huntin', gun-totin', bull-buggerin' image. For Whom the Bell Tolls is his great Spanish Civil War novel. I recognised chunks of it, so I might have seen some of the Gary Cooper/Ingrid Bergman film version when I was little. I'm not quite sure what I thought of the book, which is the first Hemingway novel I've finished. I've read quite a few of his short stories, as well as The Old Man and the Sea (more a novella in my book), and A Moveable Feast, his readable but bitchy memoir of life as a young writer in Paris, in which he proves himself a bit of a shit by sticking it to F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ford Maddox Ford.

If I were a football pundit, I'd say For Whom the Bell Tolls was a book of two halves. There's so much to admire: the formidable - and formidably ugly - peasant woman Pilar's description of how her husband Pablo organised the murder of fascists in their village by getting his fellow-villagers to beat them with flails before throwing them off a cliff (which all rings horribly true); the whole of the final sequence in which the young American volunteer blows up a bridge to prevent Nationalist forces getting through (a pointless act, as it turns out); the depiction, near the end, of André Marty, an actual French communist leader, as a deranged psychopath; the evocative descriptions of the mountainous region where Robert Jordan is to destroy the bridge; the even-handedness of Hemingway's depiction of fascists and communists as equally horrible; the description of the Nationalist planes passing overhead like birds of prey; his honesty regarding the strengths and weaknesses of the Spanish character ("Of course they turned on you. They turned on you often but they always turned on every one"), etc.

On the other hand, certain aspects of the book begin to drive one nuts after a while: the attempt to accurately translate the rather formal speech of the peasants (all those "thees" and "thous"); the insistence on letting us know when a profanity has been uttered (endless "unnamables" and "unprintables"); at one stage I began to flinch every time I saw an italicised Spanish word or phrase - yes, Ernie, we've got it - we're in Spain and these people are speaking Spanish, so give it a rest, por favor... But it's the love affair between Jordan and Maria, the 19-year old girl who has been rescued by Pablo's peasant band after being raped by the fascists who killed her parents, that almost fatally wounds the novel. Their dialogue is emetic, farcical and utterly unbelievable. For instance:

"Put thy hand on my head," she said, "and let me see if I can kiss thee."

"Was it well?" she asked.

"Yes," he said. "Take off thy wedding shirt."

"You think I should?"

"Yes, if thou wilt not be cold."

"Qué va, cold. I am on fire."

"I, too. But afterwards thou wilt not be cold?"

"No. Afterwards we will be as one animal of the forest and be so close that neither one can tell that one of us is one and not the other. Can you not feel my heart be your heart?"

"Yes. There is no difference."

"Now, feel. I am thee and thou art me and all of one is the other. And I love thee, oh, I love thee so. Are we not truly one? Canst thou not feel it?"

"Yes," he said. "It is true."

"Blimey!" she shrieked. "You've got an 'orn on you like a bloody rhino! Dirty sod!"

Well, to be honest, I made that last line up - but I was really dying for one of them to say something like that. Just once. To make matters worse, Jordan's oft-repeated term of endearment for Maria is "my little rabbit." Now, I'm a romantic soul, but after reading about twenty exchanges of this sort, with "little rabbits" popping up all over the place, I very nearly gave up. Either this sort of nonsense worked a treat with the girls in Havana and Key West, or Hemingway was just fantasising. Or perhaps he always wrote love scenes when he'd had a few. Whatever, he just couldn't do boy/girl dialogue for toffee. Apart from these regrettable lapses (the worst one being his introduction of the concept of "making the earth move"), it was, all in  all, a fine book (realmente bueno, in fact).

I'm on to The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman now. I'm about half way through - and the joke is starting to wear thin.


  1. Blimey guv, Hemingway gets a bit of a roasting.
    Agree about A Moveable Feast.

    1. Don;t worry, southern man - Papa's one tough hombre: he can take it!

  2. You've done it now! Expect assassination attempts from the sisterhood.

    They don't like it when you point out that Ms Wolf was a raging manic depressive and that much of what they proclaim as her 'literary brilliance' was actually symptomatology.

    1. I may get away with it as long as I promise to leave the sainted Sylvia Plath alone.