“I like to try new things.” (Rufus Wainwright)

This post contains strong language and adult content.  If you’re not an adult, or if you are and you find such things offensive, please don’t read on.  Now to the post!

FINALS ARE OVER!  FINALS ARE OVER!  Oh, the sweet, sweet relief.  I feel like this:

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The week before I felt like this:

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Unfortunately, during exams I felt like this:

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Six exams in eight days is not the worst finals schedule, but it was more than enough for me.  Well-meaning souls kept telling me it was a marathon, not a sprint.  I don’t run marathons.  I don’t sprint. I prefer to lie on my bed with some drool coming out of my mouth as I read books & watch films.  That drool is liquid contentment, people.  Anyway, as this wittering and reliance on GIFs is ably demonstrating, I think my brain has now dribbled out of my ears, possibly never to return.  And now FINALS ARE OVER (sorry, but I can never say that phrase enough) what is a bibliophile to do?  Well, I decided to read a book highly recommended by Charl over at Miscrawl, The List by Joanna Bolouri.

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(Image from: http://www.quercusbooks.co.uk/book/The-List-by-Joanna-Bolouri-ISBN_9781848663084#.U4DLzvldWSo )

I don’t normally read chick-lit; I don’t have a problem with it (except that I think the phrase chick-lit is condescending, but I don’t know what else to use), it’s just not my cup of tea.  However, after weeks, nay months, of ploughing through some seriously heavy literature, I wanted something fun and light.  And The List certainly delivered on that, but that’s not why I decided to write about it here.  The reason was that I think The List offers something unfortunately all-too-rare in fiction: a recogniseably authentic female voice.  And that voice is sweary:

“Back to work today, and I had a mountain of emails to go through…Two of the emails were from Alex, who obviously didn’t know I was on holiday, and I deleted them without reading, otherwise I’d be tempted to reply ‘GET IT RIGHT UP YOU FUCKFACE’ in 72pt comic sans.”

We’ve all had emails like that.

Phoebe Henderson breaks up with her horrible boyfriend (the aforementioned Alex), and eschewing the usual New Year’s resolutions to get fit/lose weight blah blah she makes a list of 10 things she’d like to do in bed but has never had the nerve to try.  The novel takes the form of her diary over the year as she tries out these activities, some successful, some not, with a variety of people, some nice and gorgeous, some most definitely not.

Bolouri achieves quite something with Phoebe: a slightly messed up, slightly neurotic character who, rather than getting frustrated with and wanting to shake vigorously by the shoulders, I wholly recognised and wanted to take for a drink.  She’s good company.  She hates her job, hates her flat, loves her friends, is in her 30s and hasn’t quite got it all figured out yet.  Who the hell has?  Oh Phoebe, let’s get smashed on cheap cocktails, buy a dirty burger from a botulism-on-wheels van on the way home and wake up the next morning with mouths that feel like Satan’s armpit, wondering why we’re still doing this after all these years.  I love you.

Some of the list opens Phoebe’s eyes to sexual adventure, some of it leaves her feeling a bit meh.  None of it leaves her feeling worthless or degraded.  This is a woman embracing her sexuality and feeling empowered by it.  In that way the novel has something to say, and it’s made more powerful by the fact that it’s funny and entertaining, yet not entirely escapist.  Phoebe doesn’t have a perfect body & a perfect life, and not everything goes to plan, like her first attempt at talking dirty:

“I walked out of my room, naked, to get some water and he followed me in to the kitchen where we did it over the worktops.  I was unsettled for a second when I found myself face down in toast crumbs, but then he started whispering delicious obscenities in my ear.  I tried to return the favour but failed miserably: “Fucking prick.”

“What?”

“Erm, nothing. Carry on.””

I love this: the banal detail of the toast crumbs, the epic fail on dirty talk.  It’s funny, and oh-so-believeable. Balouri shows how fantasy and reality don’t match up, and it’s OK because reality can be funnier and more exciting than fantasy anyway.

Joanna Bolouri blogs on WordPress here.

I normally write on two books per post, but I’m only doing one this week, because FINALS ARE OVER (I don’t know if I’ve mentioned that?) and my stamina for rational thought and writing in continuous prose is severely depleted.  I’m off to replenish with rioja and a bag of chips.  I don’t care if it is 10am – don’t judge me.  All rules are off because FINALS ARE OVER!

yay

 

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“If I became a philosopher, if I have so keenly sought this fame for which I’m still waiting, it’s all been to seduce women basically.” (Jean-Paul Sartre)

Last week I watched When Corden Met Barlow, which had James Corden interviewing Gary Barlow. For those of you who don’t know these people, the former is a comedy writer and performer, the latter is a member of pop group Take That.  When Take That split, Barlow was vilified in the press, for reasons that aren’t entirely clear, as he seems an all-round good bloke. Take That have since reformed, and Gary Barlow is now proclaimed a national treasure by the very same press that tore him apart (update: see comments below for why this might have changed somewhat!)  This got me thinking about how fame is constructed, and how it seems almost entirely arbitrary, not based on the person themselves but the image that is created, sometimes not even that.  To this end, I thought I’d look this week at novels that feature a famous person as one of the characters.

Firstly, The Great Lover by Jill Dawson (Sceptre, 2009), which concerns the poet Rupert Brooke.  I went into this novel with some degree of trepidation because I think Brooke was a fairly mediocre poet, whose fame was elevated because he was posh, pretty and patriotic; exactly the type of person the establishment wanted to represent its lost youth in World War One.

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(Image from: http://www.allposters.com/-sp/Rupert-Brooke-English-Writer-in-1913-Posters_i6856357_.htm )

Rather him than Wilfred Owen, who was middle-class, ordinary looking, gay, and whose verse took an uncompromising look at trench warfare.  Of course, since then the quality of Owen’s poetry has seen his reputation far outstrip that of Brooke.  But I will now climb down off my soapbox, and say that my concerns were unfounded, as this whole issue of  image construction is precisely what Dawson is analysing in her novel. For example, with the rumour that Brooke fathered a child in Tahiti:

 “perhaps people find it difficult to square the idea of the golden Apollo, the intellectual gentleman-soldier, finding peace not in an English meadow but on a tropical island far away.”

The novel is alternately narrated by Brooke and a maid where he boards in Granchester, the spunky and (mostly) wise Nell Golightly.  In the present day, she is trying to convey the man she knew in a letter to the possible daughter of Brooke, who is now an elderly lady in Tahiti.  In this way, Dawson draws attention to how biographies are as much about the biographers as their ostensible subject:

“I believe your mother wrote: “I get fat all the time.” Well, any woman would understand the meaning in that sentence.  Unfortunately, your father’s biographers have all been men.”

The novel also shows the burden of fame, of being proclaimed “the handsomest young man in England” by WB Yeats. “I have the strongest feeling of foreboding.  Something beyond my worst fears is about to happen […] And I think I know what it might be, but what I cannot tell is whether it is coming from inside my head or outside.  Whatever it is, it is here at last. The construction, the Rupert Brooke, cannot hold me any longer.”

Through the first-person narrative, Dawson doesn’t give us a perfect golden-child Brooke, but the wholly subjective experience of a flawed, troubled man who is just so young, and given to unintentionally funny insights:

“The Great Lover, that’s me, not the beloved.  The beloved is despicable. That’s the role of a girl.”

“I have resolved that Sodomy can only ever be for me a hobby, not a full-time occupation.”

This callow, aggrandising way could irritate some readers, but for me it just brought home how beyond all the image, Brooke was just a young man, as human as the rest of us, and how tragic it was that he and so many like him had their lives cut short: “the war was only the last eight months of his life, and yet that’s what he’s remembered for”.

What Dawson gives us through Nell’s voice is a fond but clear-eyed portrait of Brooke. “All that he was to me was gathered into that look I cast, but I don’t know if he saw it, or knew.” It made me feel that a well-researched (as this novel clearly is) fictional interpretation is probably just as valid as a “factual” biography.

 “he was a difficult man to pin down, and he was in the habit of saying things playfully that he did not mean at all, or were quite the opposite of his meaning, so maybe it’s true that he was a little more of a slippery fish than some.”

So what are we left with?  The answer is, the same as with any artist we admire: “Rupert’s true heart beats only on paper”.  Their works are what speak most eloquently for them.

Secondly, someone who allegedly went skinny-dipping with Rupert Brooke, Virginia Woolf.

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(Image from: http://www.4thestate.co.uk/?attachment_id=10089 )

The Hours by Michael Cunningham (4th Estate, 1999) is Pulitzer-winning novel which tells the story of three women linked by Woolf’s novel Mrs Dalloway.

One is Woolf herself, writing the novel in 1923; the others are Laura Brown, a housewife reading the novel in Los Angeles 1949; and Clarissa Vaughan, planning a party for a friend who calls her Mrs Dalloway, in New York at the end of twentieth century.  The Hours is proof that a book doesn’t have to be long to be brilliant. At just 226 pages in my edition, it is so beautifully written that I had trouble pulling out individual quotes for this post.  Each of the women lives a single day, both ordinary and extraordinary:

“Here is the brilliant spirit, the woman of sorrows, the woman of transcendent joys, who would rather be elsewhere, who has consented to perform simple and essentially foolish tasks, to examine tomatoes, to sit under a hairdryer because it is her art and her duty.”

Virginia Woolf’s fragile mental state is handled with great sensitivity, showing how she struggles to remain sane, and how the desires of those around her to keep her so may not be the best thing for her life:

“She is better, she is safer, if she rests in Richmond; if she does not speak too much, write too much, feel too much; if she does not travel impetuously to London and walk through its streets; and yet she is dying this way, she is gently dying on a bed of roses.”

The novel brilliantly captures the small, transient moments that make up life, and how they can all add up to great meaning, whilst seeming to signify nothing:

““You can’t possibly have too many roses” Clarissa says.

Sally hands the flowers to her and for a moment they are both simply and entirely happy.  They are present, right now, and they have managed, somehow, over the course of eighteen years, to continue loving each other.  It is enough.  At this moment, it is enough.”

Astonishingly, the echoes across the three women’s lives from Mrs Dalloway and between each other never feels contrived.  It is a brilliant evocation of lives led more or less quietly, and each character is strongly drawn enough to stand alone as well as alongside the other two.

I loved The Hours.  The individual plots were well-paced, sensitive and insightful, in a style that used language delicately but was never pretentious. Highly recommended.

A film was made of The Hours in 2002.  It’s quite good if you can get past the distraction of Nicole Kidman’s prosthetic nose (it took me a while):

A Room of One’s Own – Virginia Woolf (Le Monde’s 100 Books of the Century #69)

Today’s post is  the latest in a series of occasional posts where I look at works from Le Monde’s 100 Books of the Century.  Please see the separate page (link at the top) for the full list of books and an explanation of why I would do such a thing.

A Room of One’s Own grew out of lectures Virginia Woolf was asked to give at Newnham and Girton Colleges, Cambridge, in 1928. You can read the full essay in various places online. Women were only officially admitted to the university in 1948, and the fact that these talks were given 20 years previously shows just how ground-breaking Woolf was.  A Room of One’s Own is a vital proto-feminist text that remains relevant today.  The fact that you can buy bags, pillows, tea towels, deckchairs, mugs, notebooks ad infinitum with the book cover on is an indicator of how much the central image continues to speak to people, as well as the arguments themselves.

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(Image from: https://www.pinterest.com/particularbooks/postcards-from/)

The central image is: “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.”  In other words, she needs a means to support herself, and space to reflect and think; she needs liberty, and these things have been traditionally denied to women.  They have been dependent on the men in their family for financial support, and not supposed to concern their pretty little heads with intellectual endeavour.  Woolf argues her points forcefully but wittily, you never feel you are being bludgeoned by polemic.  Take for example the opening paragraph:

“But, you may say, we asked you to speak about women and fiction – what, has that got to do with a room of one’s own? I will try to explain. When you asked me to speak about women and fiction I sat down on the banks of a river and began to wonder what the words meant. They might mean simply a few remarks about Fanny Burney; a few more about Jane Austen; a tribute to the Brontës and a sketch of Haworth Parsonage under snow; some witticisms if possible about Miss Mitford; a respectful allusion to George Eliot; a reference to Mrs Gaskell and one would have done.”

The paucity of women writers Woolf has at her disposal to refer to speaks volumes about the male dominance of writing up to this point, and the reliance on male point of view for literary portrayals of women:

“women have burnt like beacons in all the works of all the poets from the beginning of time — Clytemnestra, Antigone, Cleopatra, Lady Macbeth, Phedre, Cressida, Rosalind, Desdemona, the Duchess of Malfi, among the dramatists; then among the prose writers: Millamant, Clarissa, Becky Sharp, Anna Karenina, Emma Bovary, Madame de Guermantes … Indeed, if woman had no existence save in the fiction written by men, one would imagine her a person of the utmost importance; very various; heroic and mean; splendid and sordid; infinitely beautiful and hideous in the extreme; as great as a man, some think even greater.”

Of course, Woolf was a highly accomplished and inventive writer herself, and this is reflected in the lecture which is not traditionally academic but instead illustrated with fictional characters such as Judith Shakespeare, sister of the more famous William:

 “his extraordinarily gifted sister, let us suppose, remained at home. She was as adventurous, as imaginative, as agog to see the world as he was. But she was not sent to school. She had no chance of learning grammar and logic, let alone of reading Horace and Virgil. She picked up a book now and then, one of her brother’s perhaps, and read a few pages. But then her parents came in and told her to mend the stockings or mind the stew and not moon about with books and papers. […]She had the quickest fancy, a gift like her brother’s, for the tune of words. Like him, she had a taste for the theatre. She stood at the stage door; she wanted to act, she said. Men laughed in her face […]who shall measure the heat and violence of the poet’s heart when caught and tangled in a woman’s body? [She] killed herself one winter’s night and lies buried at some cross-roads where the omnibuses now stop outside the Elephant and Castle.”

As my extensive quoting shows, I think this is a fantastic essay, well worth reading. It isn’t flawless, it’s culturally biased towards the speaker and her audience: middle-class, white, Western women.  But Woolf never claims to have all the answers: “women and fiction remain, so far as I am concerned, unsolved problems.” (I think the idea of women as an unresolved problem is ironic and assertive, not derogatory?) A Room of One’s Own highlights enduring problems, relevant to both genders, of how to claim societal freedom that will permit individual voices to be heard. It also makes me very glad that I am a woman in this day and age; I may be embarrassed at how ridiculously over-educated I am (a perennial student) but at least I had the choice to become so.

To end, a picture of a room I wish was my own – it could do with a few more books, though…

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(Image from http://pawilson.ca/are-there-some-books-you-keep-reading-over-and-over/ )

“Everything being a constant carnival, there is no carnival left.” (Victor Hugo)

Today is May Day, and I was thinking about the traditions of this time: celebration, revelry, pastoral fertility.  Please note I said thinking about, not participating in.  Confession time, reader: even though I’m in Oxford I didn’t want to do an all-night pub crawl/ball or get up at ridiculous o’clock to go to Magdalen Bridge for May Morning.  I lay in bed, and because Oxford is so quiet I could hear the choir and bells anyway, and it was beautiful.  Better warm in bed than in an inebriated crowd, I told myself.  Before I seem too virtuous, I should tell you that I’m really just lazy, because an hour or so later I got up for a champagne breakfast.  If this post seems even more waffly and incoherent than usual, you know why.

So, the traditions of May Day, and choosing books for this post made me think about the carnivalesque in novels.  Mikhail Bakhtin said that the carnivalesque (this is a shockingly rough paraphrase) is a time when social hierarchies are overthrown in energetic riot: as norms are disregarded, reversed and subverted, anything can happen.  Sounds like the spirit of May Day to me. Hence, for this post I’ve picked two novels that are carnivalesque/subversive in some way.

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The Battle Between Carnival and Lent – Pieter Bruegel the Elder 1599 (Image from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Pieter_Bruegel_d._%C3%84._066.jpg )

My first choice is Nights at the Circus by Angela Carter (1984, Chatto & Windus).  The minute I started to think about carnivalesque, this is what sprang to mind. I thought the summary on the dust jacket was spot-on, so here it is:

Fevvers: the toast of Europe’s capitals, courted by princes, painted by Toulouse Lautrec, the greatest aerialiste of her time. Fevvers: somersaulting lazily through the air, hovering in the moment between the nineteenth century and the twentieth, between old dreams and new beginnings, born up by the spread of wings that can’t be real! Or- can they? Fevvers: the Cockney Venus, six foot two in her stockings, the coarsely lively and lovely heroine…Obsessed with Fevvers, constantly bamboozled by the anarchist sorcery of her dresser and confidante, Lizzie, the dashing young journalist Jack Walser stumbles into a journey which takes him from London to Siberia via legendary St Petersburg and out of his male certainties, into a transforming world of danger and joy, the world of Colonel Kearney’s circus…Featuring a cast of thousands, including : the clown’s requiem, the tigers’ waltz, the educated apes, the bashful brigands, the structuralist wizard. Not forgetting Sybil, the Mystic Pig.”

Just brilliant. I’ve said before that there’s no-one like Angela Carter, and Nights at the Circus is her writing at her very best.  Fevvers voice leaps of the page at you in the first paragraph:

“Lor’ love you sir!” Fevvers sang out in a voice that clanged like dustbin lids. “As to my place of birth, why, I first saw the light of day right here in smoky old London, didn’t I! Not billed the ‘Cockney Venus’ for nothing…Hatched out of a bloody great egg while Bow Bells rang, as ever is!”

If that all sounds a bit “cor-blimey-luvvaduck-rent-a-cockney”, don’t worry.  With Angela Carter you are never in the land of the stereotype, but in an exuberant world of characters the like of which you will never have met before, or since.  She is master of the original and evocative image (“like dustbin lids”) and while her work is carnivalesque and destabilising, it’s also great fun.  The circus is Carter’s world, which means anything can happen.  But beneath all the sparkle and pizzazz, she creates a world of substance.  Buffo the clown reflects:

“We are the whores of mirth, for, like a whore, we know what we are; we know we are mere hirelings hard at work yet those who hire us see us as beings perpetually at play. Our work is their pleasure and so they think our work must be our pleasure, too, so there is always and abyss between their notion of our work as play, and ours, of their leisure as our labour.”

Carter uses magic realism to explore how we construct reality, and how easily it can be deconstructed.  Where better to do that than the circus? She plays with notions of gender and sexuality, challenging the idea that they are fixed entities, and explores how identity can be constantly created and recreated.  Jack falls in love with Fevvers, unsure of who, or what, it is he loves: if he gets behind the image of the Cockney Venus, who will be there?  Is she part bird?  And who will he be in response?:

“When Walser first put on his make-up, he looked in the mirror and did not recognise himself. As he contemplated the stranger peering interrogatively back at him out of the glass, he felt the beginnings of a vertiginous sense of freedom , that, during all the time he spent with the Colonel, never quite evaporated; until that last moment where they parted company and Walser’s very self, as he had known it, departed from him, he experienced the freedom that lies behind the mask, with dissimulation, the freedom to juggle with being, and, indeed, with the language which is vital to our being, that lies at the heart of burlesque.”

Angela Carter clearly had a fierce intellect and something interesting to say about how we make our worlds.  But she also didn’t let that get in the way of a good story.  Nights at the Circus is a fantastic read, in all the senses of the word.

Secondly, Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift (1726, full text available online).  Obviously, this novel is hugely famous (even if you haven’t read it I bet you know what physical feature distinguishes a Lilliputian).  Lemuel Gulliver relates fantastical tales of his travels, and in the process Swift offers a satire on travel narratives (which were hugely popular in the eighteenth century as people travelled further and wider) and on the human condition.  I chose it for this theme as it is full of inversions and reversals; Gulliver travels to Lilliput, where he is a giant, then to Brobdingnag where he is minute; to Laputa which he considers crude and unenlightened, then to the Houyhnhnms who consider him a “yahoo” barbarian.  Gulliver’s Travels is episodic, so I’m just going to pick out a couple of events.  Firstly, one of the most famous ones: many writers at the time were obsessed by bodily functions, and Swift is no different, though thankfully not nearly as scatological as some of his contemporaries.  Here is Gulliver putting his urine to good use in Lilliput:

I was alarmed at midnight with the cries of many hundred people at my door; by which, being suddenly awaked, I was in some kind of terror….her imperial majesty’s apartment was on fire, by the carelessness of a maid of honour, who fell asleep while she was reading a romance.  I got up in an instant; and orders being given to clear the way before me, and it being likewise a moonshine night, I made a shift to get to the palace without trampling on any of the people.  I found they had already applied ladders to the walls of the apartment, and were well provided with buckets, but the water was at some distance.  These buckets were about the size of large thimbles, and the poor people supplied me with them as fast as they could: but the flame was so violent that they did little good… this magnificent palace would have infallibly been burnt down to the ground, if, by a presence of mind unusual to me, I had not suddenly thought of an expedient.  I had, the evening before, drunk plentifully of a most delicious wine called glimigrim, (the Blefuscudians call it flunec, but ours is esteemed the better sort,) which is very diuretic.  By the luckiest chance in the world, I had not discharged myself of any part of it.  The heat I had contracted by coming very near the flames, and by labouring to quench them, made the wine begin to operate by urine; which I voided in such a quantity, and applied so well to the proper places, that in three minutes the fire was wholly extinguished, and the rest of that noble pile, which had cost so many ages in erecting, preserved from destruction.

And just to finish, here is a bit of the more heavy-handed satire for you, when the king of Brobdingnag responds to a summary of British politics:

“He was perfectly astonished with the historical account gave him of our affairs during the last century; protesting “it was only a heap of conspiracies, rebellions, murders, massacres, revolutions, banishments, the very worst effects that avarice, faction, hypocrisy, perfidiousness, cruelty, rage, madness, hatred, envy, lust, malice, and ambition, could produce.”

I’ll leave it to you to decide if such motivations have left politics these days…

Gulliver’s Travels is a complex book, and one that is very hard to pin down: it is funny, it is sad, it can be read to children, it is baffling to adults.  It shifts meaning and genre according to who is reading it: truly carnivalesque.

I was hoping to end with a clip of Bellowhead performing One May Morning Early: apt, no?  But YouTube failed me.  So here they are singing about a carnival romance instead: