Sunday, 12 July 2015

Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen

All quotes are from the Folio society publication, 1975.

A group of five Minervans enjoyed discussing this classic novel written in 1798. The discussion rambled around all of Jane Austen’s works. Sue, our resident Jane Austen expert, was able to expand on many of the wonderful aspects of the novels and the many interweavings. Although Northanger Abbey was written when Jane was just 23 it was edited and revised when she was dying and only published in 1817. In a way it reminds Sue of Austen’s juvenilia but more controlled and with exuberance – it is a real hoot!

It is considered a Gothic spoof by some and the concept of ‘Gothic’ intrigued us. A definition includes the idea of suspense, old ruins, high emotion and ‘over-the-top-ness’ or exaggeration. For instance, during the journey to the Abbey, Henry Tilney describes the abbey to Catherine in melodramatic language, so she is at an unusual level of high emotion when she investigates a ‘large high chest’ in her bedroom

the sight of it made her start; and, forgetting every thing else, she stood gazing on it in motionless wonder, while these thoughts crossed her: This is strange indeed!’ (page 142)

Even the mention of this type of Renaissance furniture alludes to Gothic novels.

The more serious reflection and ‘true Gothic moment’ is Henry's realization that Catherine has surmised that his mother was murdered by the General. However, this is not a Gothic novel, he tells her, this is England. Nationalistic feelings were important.

The literary influences on this book were the Gothic novels of Anne Radcliffe including The mysteries of Udolpho which was also a favourite novel for the young female characters in Northanger Abbey.

In artistic terms Austen straddles the Regency period (classical – late eighteenth century) and the highly Romantic period (beginning of the nineteenth century). In this novel Austen uses irony and observations to clearly point out satiric moments and provide the reader with much enjoyment. Sue also noticed how often the colour red was important – for example red poppy and frequent blushing by the girls.

Catherine’s education in the world's ways is the central crux and this ‘coming of age’ is tested when she is forced to leave Northanger Abbey, literally turfed out by General Tilney. Can she cope with the trip? Yes she does. In a ‘Gothic’ novel she may not have coped so well, but this is realism.

We all enjoyed the pleasure of reading this book. Four really enjoyed the reread. It made Denise giggle and we all loved the funny scenes. Sandy didn’t like Northanger Abbey at first but gradually it grew on her. She is a big fan of Thomas Hardy.

The setting of Bath is glorious – it was just beginning to become the town it still is today when Jane Austen was writing this novel. The pump room was just becoming popular.

The central character of Catherine Morland moves from boyish child (ie tomboy?) playing ‘base ball’ (page 13 ) to a very naïve young woman of seventeen to a wiser girl over the period of the novel. The experiences and the men she meets do teach her some lessons in adult behaviour. John Thorpe teaches her how not to behave and Henry Tilney acts like an older brother, caring but also playful. For example, John was not reliable and left her at a dance. We appreciated that Catherine held her own opinions quite often and did not waver easily. Maybe more than we did at the same age?

The other main character is Henry Tilney and we remarked how patronizing and sarcastic Henry is towards Catherine. He is considerably older and she is young and silly – he is satirical and reminiscent of other characters in Austen’s novels, such as Mr Knightley in Emma and Edmund in Mansfield Park. He also teases Catherine and she falls for it often.

Mrs Allen is an empty head – not unlike Mrs Bennet we decided - interested in gowns and gossip and not much else. General Tilney’s behaviour is shocking and it was clever writing that he was tricked by John Thorpe twice. John Thorpe is an unreliable person and deserves his reputation.

Another feature we discussed was the word ‘nice’. As in the speech from Eleanor Tilney to Catherine:

‘The word “nicest”, as you used it, did not suit him (ie Henry Tilney) ; and you had better change it as soon as you can, or we shall be overpowered with Johnson and Blair all the rest of the way.’ (page 95).

Many of us have had similar discussions with relations about 'nice' words.

This novel is wonderful social history even though Austen doesn’t mention politics and isn’t writing history. It shows the power of the aristocracy and the newly wealthy having such power over everyone who wanted to be upwardly mobile. The Thorpe family are prime examples of the genteel poor trying to acquire money through marriage. It also shows that some things never change -- people are still influenced by money and status.

CE Brock illustration, c 1909, from
The other aspect of this novel is Austen’s own defence of the novel. This is in chapter 5 when Catherine is beginning to form her first friendship in Bath. Her new friend Isabella also liked to read novels. It is over a page of strong language from Austen which is alluded to later by Catherine and Henry when discussing young men reading novels. Sue told us this passage is famous, for Austen’s arguments have carried weight ever since. Liking novels is also a commendable personal attribute in this novel – Henry does and John Thorpe does not.

“Alas! If the heroine of one novel be not patronized by the heroine of another , from whom can we expect protection and regard ? … And what are you reading , Miss, --------- ?’ ‘Oh! It is only a novel !’ replies the young lady; while she lays down her book with affected indifference, or momentary shame.” (page 32).

Haven’t we all been there !! And more …

“ liveliest effusions of wit and humour are conveyed to the world in the best chosen language”. (page 32)

The aspect of the Romantic picturesque is also found in this novel – “The whole building enclosed a court; and two sides of the quadrangle, rich in Gothic ornaments, stood forward for admiration.” (page 154). You have the foreground and the background and features in between -- just like a painting.

Austen also enjoyed poking fun at the General allowing him to speculate on further developments of the estate just because it was fashionable to do so, and trying to keep up with others he thinks are of the same status.

A great read.

Wednesday, 27 May 2015

Peter Carey's Amnesia

Peter Carey is one of those writers readers rarely agree on. That's certainly been the case with our group in the past, and nothing changed this month when we discussed Carey's latest novel Amnesia. Consequently, the discussion was lively. Most people had finished or nearly finished it, but a couple gave up, finding it not to their liking. One found she was fighting her twenty-something son to read it - he kept picking it up when she wanted to read it. He didn't think his mum's group read books "like this"!

What we liked

Most, even those who didn't finish it, liked something. For some the beginning was engaging but they got tired of the "1970s political stuff". Others, particularly those who grew up in Melbourne, really enjoyed the middle part telling the story of the family - Sando, Celine and Gaby - and their lives in artsy Carlton and working class Coburg.

Another commented on Peter Carey's writing and his wonderful sentences, such as the description of the protagonist making a toilet for himself in the bush:
No-one saw him. No-one knew his aching knees. He was Felix Moore and he was aware of his position in his country's history and thus saw himself from a slightly elevated perspective, deriving some dour satisfaction from his similarity to Dürer's portrait of the hermit Saint Jerome.

Some enjoyed the humour, such as the story of Celine's grandmother, who, during World War 2, offered to entertain American soldiers, "except no Jews". She's sent a black GI. She tells him there must be a mistake, and he politely replies, "we are sorry to have inconvenienced you ... but it wasn't a mistake. Our Captain Cohen, he don't make no mistakes". Loved it!

Another enjoyed the satire, and particularly liked the second part of the novel. And one said that her husband thought it was a ripping yarn. (Never let it be said we don't involve men in our group!)

What we didn't like so much

For some the story was just a little too over-the-top and hard to follow. There was too much going on, and some of it, such as the computer-worm-and-hacking thread didn't fully hang together. A few felt that perhaps the story needed to be read in longer stints than last thing at night before bed!

One was a little irritated by the language at the beginning. Why did the character say "m'lud" in court rather than the more common Australian "your honour".  She also felt there were some anachronisms, such as the use of WTF. (However, later research revealed that WTF was first used on the Internet in 1985, which makes Carey's use okay.)

One felt the characters weren't easy to visualise.

We wondered whether Carey tried to satirise too many "things". And we all found Woody Townes a little mystifying. One described him as "shape-shifting". We knew he was an old university friend of the main protagonists, but who was he really and why was he doing what he was doing? Without spoiling too much, it was generally felt that he deserved what he got at the end!

Other questions and comments

This was a big, somewhat rambling book, and so our discussion was big and rambling too! One reader said it reminded her a little of Tim Winton's Eyrie which we read last year, because it too was about a journalist who got himself into trouble.

Given the political nature of the novel, a couple found themselves wondering whether characters in the book were meant to represent specific people. For example, the main character, leftie journalist Felix Moore. Was he supposed to be Mungo McCallum, or Bob Ellis, or even John Pilger? Others weren't sure, and one felt that Peter Carey who, like his character was born in Bacchus Marsh, may, at times, have been sending himself up. She quoted a sentence on the second last page:
For the crime of expressing pleasure that my book would be available to future generations, I was judged not only immoral but vain and preening ...
Why did smells and birds feature so much in the novel?

So what was it about?

We didn't come to a complete resolution on this, but we came up with several ideas:
  • how the young radicals of the 1960s/1970s brought up their own children and the ways in which they "sold out"
  • that modern activists now work with hacking and computer worms/viruses whereas their parents marched and leafletted, lobbied, etc.
  • cybersecurity, perhaps inspired by Julian Assange and Edward Snowdon
  • independence and/or interference in journalism, how "true" it is (or is not), pernicious "editing"
  • the importance of maintaining the rage, of not forgetting (hence the title "amnesia") what's happened in the past, of the need to be aware of the ways in which the USA has not been Australia's friend.
Not bad for a discussion which started out with more of us not liking the book than liking it. 

Wednesday, 29 April 2015

Aminatta Forna's The hired man

Aminatta Forna was strongly recommended to us by one of our original members, who now joins us only in spirit from her coast abode. We chose The hired man, Forna's most recent novel, and it proved a good choice - we had a fascinating discussion.

The language was spare, the setting sparse

As we usually do, we started by asking if everyone had read it, and had we all liked it. A couple said that it had taken them a while to get into it. For one, it was because of the spare language and sparse setting. She usually likes the opposite she said. But, when she picked it up to give it a second go, she said, she loved it, partly because Forna is good at building up a sense that "something big will happen". Similarly, another said the beginning was slow-going, though she noticed "words" and "little clues" hinting at where it was going. She really enjoyed the second half.

Which war?

So, to get to the nub. The novel is set in Croatia. Our first person narrator Duro tells us about his life in the town of Gost from his youth, through the Croatian War of Independence and up to 2007. While war frames the story, the issues that drive the plot start pre-war, when Duro falls out with his best friend Krešimir who shows himself to be cruel, and full of hatred. This turns out to be just a precursor for what happens during the civil war when "men started hunting each other" and neighbour turned against neighbour, particularly as "ethnic cleansing" started to happen. It's a macho, chauvinistic world, one that Duro belongs to but doesn't condone.

We discussed the relevance of reading this book just as we've commemorated the 100th anniversary of ANZAC Day which has made us think about the definition of heroism, what we understand about conflict and its causes, and the whole randomness of who survives and who doesn't. While these aren't Forna's main themes, they are present. One horrific scene, for example, occurs when Duro describes the death of his father and sister, caught by a shell because they happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

What sort of narrator?

We spent quite a bit of time discussing Duro. A few of us wondered at first whether he might be an unreliable narrator, but we all agreed that while he didn't always tell us the whole truth when we'd expect it, he was reliable. As our psychotherapist member said, many who have experienced traumatic war often don't tell the full story - some never, others not straightaway.

The novel opens in 2007 with Duro telling us that "at the time of writing I am forty-six years old". Later we realise he is writing it for a future reader, after he dies:
They will go through my papers and when they do they will find this. 
Maybe that person is you. Or, at least, I have to tell this story and I must tell it to somebody, so it may as well be you, come to sort through my belongings.
So, here we have it in Chapter 3, his need to tell us a story - and what a story it is. Given all Duro had experienced and lost, we wondered why he'd stayed. We decided there were probably two reasons: he wanted to be the thorn in the side of those men who betrayed their neighbours, and perhaps he hoped that his first love, Anka, who had "disappeared", might return. We also felt that while his life seemed "small", he knows himself and what he is doing, he's self-sufficient and in control of who he is.

What have the English got to do with it?

Duro is prompted to write his story by the arrival of an English woman, Laura, with her teenage son and daughter, Matthew and Grace. Laura and her husband have bought a house and plan to do it up, sell it, and move on. This house is the "blue" house which had been Krešimir and Anka's home. Duro, a handyman, becomes Laura's "hired man", to help renovate the house. As he does so, he becomes friendly with them - but, surprisingly to us, despite sexual tension, he never "makes a pass" at this married woman.

There is an underlying theme here of the British moving into Europe, oblivious of history and inherent dangers:
The way the English saw it, the past was always better. But in this country our love of the past is a great deal less, unless it is a very distant past indeed, the kind nobody alive can remember, a past transformed into a song or a poem. We tolerate the present, but what we love is the future, which is about as far away from the past as it is possible to be
Laura acts as a catalyst for Duro's memory, and for the resolution of the novel. She reminds him of Anka. (Interestingly, her favouring of her son and rather dismissive treatment of her daughter parallels the way Krešimir and Anka's mother had treated them.)

We are all implicated

We spent some time discussing the conclusion. We had various theories about what it meant. Why would Laura want to return after being intimidated by the town bully? Who was doing the graffiti, and why? Whatever the answers, we agreed that the ending was intended to be positive - as positive as it could be, anyhow - and that Forna's "message" is that the only way towns like this can survive is for their people to learn to live together.

We concluded the night with a lovely Croatian Cherry and Walnut Cake made by our host Kate. It was yum.

Sunday, 19 April 2015

In My Mother's Hands by Biff Ward

A disturbing memoir of family life by Biff Ward

This month Minerva book club was very pleased and honoured to welcome Biff (Elizabeth) Ward to our meeting.  It is not often we are able to talk to an author and it was very pleasing to meet her and be able to ask her questions. This book largely concerns Biff’s mother and her difficult life suffering from severe mental illness. Naturally, it is also about the young Biff and her brother Mark and their father, the academic historian, Russel Ward.

Biff Ward is a ‘writer, poet and human resources consultant’. She is also a former teacher and women’s activist. (More information about her is available through the National Library – they hold an interview with her done by Sara Dowse.)  

To begin Ms Ward explained a little about her writing experience: she has always been a writer and has conducted courses in writing fiction and has always loved fiction, both the reading and the writing.  She published her first book in London thirty years ago, called Father-daughter rape, published by the Women’s Press. She contributed to Different Lives, in 1987, which is a book of ‘reflections on the women’s movement and visions for its future’. Ms Ward won the FAW Donald Stuart Short Story Award in 1991, for the unpublished story, 'Leaving Tennant Creek', and in 1992 she and two other women poets wrote, Three’s Company.

Biff Ward explained to us that she was expected to write a biography of her Dad. However, she decided to write a memoir about her Mother instead, as she didn’t want to write a conventional biography. She chose to write it according to themes – each chapter with a different title and focus. For instance the first chapter is entitled ‘Alison’, ‘The Mother’ is chapter 2 followed by ‘The Father’. The themes become more unusual later with such titles as : The tower, the pills and the cobweb.

Ms Ward was asked about the research involved.  Letters by her father and her grandfather held in the National Library of Australia were a good source of information as well as oral memories from her brother and friends.  It was not traumatic for Biff to write this memoir she stated as she had been in therapy for 25 years before she started. Mark’s stories of their childhood helped them both to analyse the family complexities.

One of the many themes in the memoir is their father’s strong love for his wife and women in general. She is very open about his flaws as well as his good characteristics.

(My comment :
I like the description of her parents :
‘Dad was never beige. If he were a colour it would be rich maroon…’
‘Mum …inhabited the soft end of the yellow spectrum, ranging from a faint cream through the pastels …’ (Chapter 1))

Biff Ward enjoyed ‘finding the words’ to explain the family dynamics. One member found it ‘endearing ‘ and thanked her for explaining the ‘journey’ and how Russel had to ‘do his thing’.

Another member mentioned that she found the book ‘profoundly moving’.  She felt that Biff and her family suffered so deeply because of their mother’s illness, and it was profoundly sad that the drugs were not available to help Margaret Ward.  

Biff Ward brought along the beautiful painting of her mother by the artist Paddy Taylor, reproduced in the memoir. This oil painting was painted in 1946 and shows a young, good-looking woman staring off into the distance while her hands are busy with knitting.  It was lovely to see the original.

One member felt that the memoir was resonant for her as she had grown up in Adelaide in the 1960s and did many of the things enjoyed by Biff and her brother, such as riding bikes around until dusk and having one’s hair washed over a basin. This was quite a sensual experience and enjoyable when one didn’t have much sensory stimulation, growing up in a family which didn’t touch much!

Another member said how much she liked the book as Biff Ward mentions ‘things’ that families didn’t talk about in that era.  We have to be careful not to judge people by today’s standards. 

The newest member of our group is a psychologist and she acknowledged to Ms Ward that her memoir is having an impact with some of her clients. It is already proving useful for people in therapy.

Maybe one of the features which appeals is that it is a ‘kind’ book – there is very little anger or blame. Biff stated that she ‘didn’t grow up in a blaming culture’.  Her father really tried to do the best for his wife even after they separated.

Another member commented that it was a ‘harrowing’ read. Margaret Ward’s mental illness was known about by many friends but there were no words for it in the Australia of the mid twentieth century. Also we were told that the friends didn’t know how to help. Margaret Ward lived with schizophrenia for 55 years  with no ‘real’ treatment. It was sad too that Margaret’s family never really recognized her illness or had sufficient empathy with Russel and the children.

We also discussed Russel Ward’s problems with his ASIO file and the fact that the authorities thought he was a Communist and didn’t want him employed at UNSW. Luckily he was able to be employed at UNE with other ‘radicals’ of the time.  

At the conclusion of a good discussion we talked more generally about ‘memoirs’ and how they ‘reflect moments in life’ – as if for a rehearsal.  The change in thinking makes this memoir stand out from the ‘ordinary’ ones. Biff also acknowledged that the biography started out very large but was greatly reduced by the publisher.  It became more focused on her mother and less about Biff.
This book is a very courageous memoir about a very troubled relationship and a sad woman. There is a sense of loss through it – memory and grief of what might have been. It was good to hear that Biff and her father could talk about their wife and mother towards the end of Russel’s life.  It is a very moving book and we all appreciated the opportunity to read about Biff Ward’s early life.

Friday, 6 March 2015

Tiger tiger burning bright

The Night Guest by Fiona McFarlane is a very clever first novel and a real page turner.

However there are lots of questions arising from this story many of which we couldn't answer during our very pleasant evening discussing it. We also tried to answer some online questions from the Penguin website which was a first for our group.

Basically the story is about Ruth, a lady in her seventies living independently in her own home, probably on the south coast and beginning to contend with mental issues associated with getting older. The appearance of the tiger is a 'mechanism' for showing Ruth's stress levels. Also her early swearing is indicative of a problem for this well brought up woman. She is after all a daughter of a missionary doctor who would not have sworn at all during her early life.

Early on in the novel a carer appears in the guise of Frida and the story takes off. Some of us were suspicious of Frida from this moment on while others were not so quick to judge. We were all aware that there were 'age' issues for Ruth from the beginning. The author jumps into the story immediately showing how vulnerable Ruth is and how lacking in assistance and family companionship. One of her sons living in New Zealand is an early character but is totally devoid of real input into the life of his mother from such a distance. A phone call is hardly sufficient for an old lady's welfare. We felt he should have done more.

So much occurs in Ruth's head that the boundaries of real and imagined are difficult to work out. About half way through the book Frida starts to make extra demands and it is also the time when Ruth's friend Richard starts to dominate her thinking.

Ruth's house is also important. Is it a prison or a sanctuary? This is a hard question as we don't know what is happening exactly. Was Ruth locked in or was she bananas? This is shown particularly when Ruth thinks Frida has locked her in.

The landscape is an important factor in Ruth's life as she is so isolated from friends and family -- but enjoys the view when she can and expects others to enjoy it. Many of us felt we knew parts of the coast where the story could be set.

How much can Ruth rely on Frida? Very little we decided but Ruth is not really given the opportunity to think the situation through until it is too late. We also agreed that the story is typical of what can really happen to the elderly.

Frida shows that she is lacking in compassion although she is somewhat sympathetic at times -- for example, washing Ruth's hair before Richard visits. We thought Frida probably had narcissistic personality disorder.

Does the tiger 'prefigure' the future guests? Frida and Richard? I don't think so as it is more to show how Ruth is feeling at the time when these people are about to intrude into her life.

We saw similarities in the novel --  The life of Pi -- Richard Parker is the name of the tiger! In this earlier novel the tiger is a presence -- with a love/hate relationship with the main character. Both this character and Ruth try hard to 'survive' the tiger.

Was Frida's hairstyle changes indicative of anything? Could it be part of the conspiracy?  Or was it innocent? Frida's appearance as a partly Maori woman -- certainly a person from the Islands was a happy co-incidence as far as Ruth was concerned as it brought back happy memories for her. It also reinforced her desire to see her first 'love' -- the young doctor Richard. Some of us didn't like the young Richard finding him insipid and lacking humility. For instance, he showed very Protestant values in not liking Ruth's father's washing of feet on Good Friday. He also thought he could do a lot of good with the Indian women but we didn't hear any more about that.

We felt that Ruth's current relationship with Richard was overall positive for her and it was a great pity that his letters were not delivered to her. She was greatly cheated of a good old age with him if Frida hadn't intervened.

We also discussed the ending --  Frida is an unusual character in that she is not only guilt ridden by her behaviour to Ruth but she does something about it.

Did Frida leave Ruth in the tiger trap? How could she do this after being her carer?  The clever writing leaves the reader undecided whether it is Ruth who is unclear about her position; or whether Frida was planning that Ruth would be OK.  Did Ruth die of exposure? Was Frida a victim? She was George's victim but she did have a choice whereas Ruth did not have a choice. Frida was a 'con artist'. Why did the bank allow Ruth's money be taken out by someone else ?  

The book is exquisitely crafted and really makes you feel what it must be like to have some level of dementia. Fiona McFarlane is very clever using the third person subjective.

How did we come to read it? Sue had heard that it was awarded great accolades so it was worthy of our attention. We agreed it was very worthy. It also brought up memories of another novel about old age -- Reunion by Andrea Goldsmith.

Friday, 30 January 2015

My crime, your punishment?

Crime and punishment

Our first reading group for 2015, and I had persuaded our group to read Crime and Punishment over summer, and to discuss! A select group met, with a number having read it as young adults at University, and others reading for the first time, with one keen member re-reading it and another deciding to read The Idiot instead. Those who had read it in their youth were quite affected by it, with the re reader declaring it did not quite have the same emotional impact for her as a later reader.

It was written in 1866, the year after Alice in Wonderland was written, and the same year as Dickens' last book, Our Mutual Friend. It was written in 12 parts in a magazine. 

I reported that I related Raskolnikov to my experience with psychosis and schizophrenia, with many similar symptoms displayed, including: Impulsiveness, delusion, paranoia, disorganisation, passive aggressive, self centred, unable to manage money. We agreed though that mental illness was not Dostoevsky's intention in writing the book, but the  book is described as a psychological drama, as it describes the action quite often from inside the head of the main character, describing his mood changes, uncertainties and irrational behaviour. 

We discussed the significance of the Superman idea, where there are those in the world to whom normal mores do not apply, and who can exert their superiority by their power over others, including the ultimate power, to murder others of less value. This was Raskolnikov's avowed reason for murdering the old pawnbroker, and he compared himself with Napoleon and others. However is Dostoevsky supporting this idea? Perhaps as the consequences of Raskolnikov's action unfolds, we see the flaws in this ideology. He was punished ultimately after he finally confessed, and then finally came to repent in the epilogue, under the influence of the saintly Sonia. Another reader suggested that his punishment was also in evidence throughout the book, as he was racked with anxiety, and fear of being uncovered, while still maintaining he was quite justified in the murder.

We compared Dostoevsky with Dickens, seeing them both as writing on a large scale, with a complex intertwining of characters, focussing on the lower classes, and revealing a lot about the social ills of the time. Dostoevsky wrote at a time when the impact of the emancipation of the serfs, flooding into the cities, but often living in great poverty was being felt. The impact of alcoholism was also clearly revealed through the Marmeladov family, where the father had been sacked twice from a well paid position, leaving his family in poverty, and forcing his daughter to become a prostitute. There was some debate about whether Dostoevsky was writing about the social times, and trying to raise awareness of some of the inequities and suffering of those who fall into poverty. He had a strong focus on ideas, and discussion about morals and religious ideas. 

We talked about Dostoevsky's portrayal of women, and his use of the saintly whore (Sonia), and the sacrificing sister and mother, whose role seems to be to take care of Raskolnikov as the son in the family.

Did we empathise with Raskolnikov? Most of us not totally. We are inside his head, and we see his mood changes, and his frailty, and his generosity. However in the end the murder served to alienate us as readers, and some of us were not convinced by his speedy redemption at the end. One member compared him with Macbeth, as he unravels following the murder.

The use of religious metaphors and the significance of religion in the book was shown as important, and in the end the hero is redeemed by the love of a good woman, and finally repents. However, the sense of nihilism, the chaos in society, the superman ideology indicate Dostoevsky was very affected by ideologies running at the time, including Darwinism and capitalism, which were challenging the dominance of religion. Dostoevsky was a Russian Orthodox, and in one of his later books: The Brothers Karamazov, he explores a range of religious questions, and seems in favour of Courts run by the Church rather than the state.

We looked at some of the challenges of the language, often in keeping track of the names, and their derivative forms. We also compared translations of the books we had, some reading the traditional translation by Constance Garnett, and others quite modern translations, which may have given the text more flow in reading, but in the sample we looked at did not greatly vary many of the words used. 

So most members were pleased to have read this significant work from world literature, even though we could spend a lifetime unravelling the many aspects of this great novel. Thanks Minerva members for indulging me, as I now continue my reading of The Brothers Karamazov! And there's much I have left out, so happy to take other input!

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Eimear McBride's A girl is a half-formed thing

Courtesy; Faber and Faber
Eimear McBride's girl might be half-formed but Minerva's discussion of this challenging book sure wasn't. It. Was. A. Lively. Discussion. Read on as I "trup trup" through it ...

Around the table

As we sometimes do, we went around the table asking Minervans for their overall impression or response. Listen in to what we said:

  • I recommended it because I heard the author interviewed and she sounded interesting, but I couldn't finish it.
  • I loved this book. I loved how the style and the language mirrored the girl's emotions. I cried.
  • It's the worst book I've ever read. I saw it as "verbal impressionism".
  • It was challenging to read but the style was interesting. I felt if I stopped to analyse what I was reading I'd lose it. It was painful, gorgeous, tenderly done but I wasn't sure about maintaining that style all the way through.
  • It was tough going but the style was interesting. Is there an Irish story that isn't tragic?
  • I couldn't read it but I read a few reviews.
  • This is how traumatised people think and talk. I think the language did develop, did become more coherent.

  • Then the discussion proper

    The round-table was then followed by a pretty unformed free-for-all discussion that your correspondent found hard to capture but will give it her best shot. This means I'll be grabbing the scattered ideas which I jotted down as I was engaging in the discussion myself and will try to form it into some sort of whole!

    The book, for anyone who hasn't read it, is about a highly religious mother, her son and the younger daughter. The novel opens with the son, a toddler, afflicted with a brain tumour from which he recovers, only just, and which leaves him with some brain damage:
    There's good news and bad news. It's shrunk. He's saved. He's not. He'll never be.
    But, of course, it returns.

    We saw the book as a classic Irish story about victims and suffering. It depicts the tensions involved in practising strict Catholicism, in trying to meet expectations, but all of it little tempered by love. It describes, one member said, faith practised without love.

    In this environment is the girl - loving her brother, loving her mother, but too often pushed aside by the mother's pain and focus on the son. As she hits puberty she is abused - raped - by an uncle and learns to use sex, first as power over others and later as punishment for herself. She is, we agreed, complicit in her own decline, letting it happen when she could have made - but with whose guidance? - other choices. Sex is her mechanism of self-harm, of replacing emotional pain. One member suggested that the only thing that can soothe a human being is another human being, but soothing human beings were in short supply in this book.

    We discussed the topsy-turvy nature of parental relationships in the book, in which children were expected to soothe the parent rather than vice-versa. In an early scene, the brother and sister tenderly place soup outside their mother's door after she'd physically abused them for not meeting their grandfather's religious expectations. (Who's fault was that, the reader asks!). One member felt that it was very likely that the mother had also been expected to soothe her father.

    The girl then is not the only "half-formed" thing in the book. We felt, in fact, that no-one in the book is fully-formed in the sense of being "mature" human beings in control of themselves. One member also wondered whether the sibling love could be seen as half-formed, unable to fully develop due to the tensions in the family and the restrictions caused by the boy's tumour and the repressive religious environment. 

    The mother does not come off well in the novel. She's more harsh than loving to her daughter - though there are moments of tenderness. She is not a good role model, evoking suffering rather than coping. However, many of us felt for the mother - abandoned by her husband who couldn't handle his son's situation: "I'd give my eyes to fix him but. The heart cannot be wrung and wrung". She deserved some sympathy. And, as one member said, the story is told through the daughter's eyes. We do not get the mother's perspective.

    So, the novel is painful to read - emotional, confronting, raw - but its language also makes it difficult to read. It is this that, primarily, defeated those who didn't finish it. McBride has said in interviews that she was inspired by James Joyce, which shows in the novel, though it's by no means a copy. The story is told first person through the daughter. It rarely follows the rules of grammar, nor of syntax. The language is fragmented - and becomes more so when the girl is distressed. There are new words, and old words used differently, and a lot of allusions, including to beautiful prayers (or novenas). Those who read it agreed that you had to go with the flow, not stop to try to understand every word. 

    There are rewards though for those who persevered. There is humour, such as some of the scenes at the grandfather's wake, and some gorgeous or pointed descriptions, such as this of the grandfather (again), "a right hook of a look in his eye all the time". A loving grandfather? Not so much! Not, that is, if you don't meet his strict expectations. No "forward rolls in a skirt" allowed! For one member, the beauty of the book is that this language contains the stress, the emotions. There's no mediating narratorial voice here - the feelings are right there in the language. Here she is, returning to college in the city, having seen the impact of the now-grown brother's brain damage:
    I make off from it. I make my escape. Leave you cough it up fight it out amongst yourselves. Get away from it oh god. And don't. No. Answer the calls. Fill my ear up. Fill my mouth instead. Man drink do what you like to me. I am safe. I am free. In my own way I am but it weighs me, beats me when I'm not doing the rounds. Split and splatter my heart head. So I get cold in the mouth on answering her bring bring. 
    So what, some asked, did we learn from the book? Well, there's the visceral understanding of the drive to self-harm, self-abuse, for one. There's also the beautiful tenderness in the sibling relationship.  And there's seeing a writer use language so differently and with such skill. All in all a powerful story, even if it's one that most wouldn't care to repeat!