Sunday, 21 August 2011

Dostoyevsky: Poor Folk - Communication Breakdown

Every journey begins with a single step someone once said. This unusual piece of prose was Fyodor D's first "novel" and for the record this is the first one of Dostoyevsky I have read in full. I tried the Brothers Karamazov when I was 17 but I was too too young and couldnt get past the first few chapters.

The form of this (pretty short) work is a set of letters between two people - an older man employed as a copyist a fairly low role within the burgeoning Russian civil service and an impoverished young woman once from a relatively privileged background. What is their relationship - well it is familial at a distance they seem to be second cousins but is it more: lovers, future partners?

This chamber piece has limitations - indeed I think about 120 pages is about as far as you can take the forms of two letters between two narrators, unreliable or otherwise. Other novels which use letters usually break down more into a narration of events as a third party or protagonist - Wuthering Heights from memory does this and much more recently White Tiger.

It doesn't help that both characters are very pathetic, in the literal sense of the word, the male Makar is a balding, occasionally heavy drinking, in debted individual. Varenka is an ailing abandoned soul open to abuse and manipulation from richer people. Both lived in cramped penury in the urban setting of St. Petersburg - opposite each other: this is what leads to their communication. So their missives are not full of laughs!

Varenka, almost inevitably, by the end is married off to a brutal landowner who wants to hide her away in the Russian countryside. This leaves Makar devastated in a final sad letter to her he states: "I write only in order to write, only in order to write as much as possible to you". But even this is unusual. One doesnt get the sense that this is a great romantic tryst broken by the needs of feudal society and property - a common theme in 18th/19th Century literature - Jane Austen, the Brontes et al.
Makar is a pretty sad character who never gives a sense of being a romantic partner of Varenka. He continually calls her little mother, for example. He is self indulgent in a very male way in his tone particularly after drinking escapades or trying to borrow money - FD does this brilliantly - subservient to his masters but torn by his very real poverty: not a great catch for Varenka!

So not a doomed love story, definitely not. What it is though , which surprised me, is very contemporary (for its time). It explores the static nature of Russian feudalism - which in a sense both characters are victims of - where everyone has their station from which there is no escape. Everything that happens is because of God's will - nothing can be challenged. What is innovative is that this is done from two "urban" characters rather from the serf's perspective which FD was very pre-occupied with in the 1840s.

Urban landscapes are also central - the crowded nature: people living on top of each other; sharing (unwillingly) their most intimate moments - love and death. Compared to Austen where her romances take place in vast spaces - country estates and houses. The claustrophobia here is palpable.

But also, and perhaps most importantly for the author the work explores contemporary literature. Apparently it is very influenced by Gogol which I have not read, in particular a story called the overcoat. In one very funny communication Makar takes personal offence when Varenka sends him this work to read as he identifies so closely with it - stating "I am going to register a complaint". Pushkin is also central - in a moving piece Varenka writes how in her past she searches for a complete works of Pushkin to buy for her first love (also doomed) but allows the boy's impoverished father to say he bought them. French and English lit also get mentions in passing.

So you could say that this novel is about novels albeit this is not clearly stated - the quote at the beginning of the work talks of the power of fiction. And I suppose in the 19th Century the novel was finding its form - which FD was going to spend his life working on.

Others saw it in other ways - it was thought of as Utopian Socialist - with its vision of poverty and its implied critique of the ruling elite. FD was going to do 5 years hard labour for such thoughts in a short amount of time. I think that is there but its lasting significance comes from its other elements. He was also only 26 when he wrote this an incredible fact in itself.

So a lot in 120 pages! And a good signpost for a future journey through FD's work.

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Review of the Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim: Broken Britain

Sometimes I think Jonathan Coe is one of the most subversive English novelists working today. Ostensibly his novels look very straightforward contemporary comic works - sometimes set in a specific recent historical time: the Rotters Club, 70s; What a Carve Up, 80s; the Closed Circle 00s. Yet his biography of the idiosyncratic experimental novelist BS Johnson (brilliant, incidentally) and his involvement in discussions on the future of the novel give a sign that Coe's work is trying to aim beyond the "cracking great read" idea of the book.

I thought his last novel the Rain Before It falls pointed in this direction most clearly: an examination of a woman faced with all sorts of abuse in Society it also integrated an innovative structure and an examination of modern classical music as well. It engaged very little with contemporary comment but sought to make more universal points.

This combination is struck again in this work although at the start of the work it doesn't feel like this. Indeed my initial thoughts were that Coe had retreated to his earlier work with a very broad brush approach to current social issues. A bit like a bad observational comedian he makes points on spam emails, cappuccinos that are served too hot and the contradictory nature of friends on Facebook. But this is misleading in fact perhaps Coe uses this to lure the reader in to a narrative about an alienated, lonely, broken man who through a journey discovers some truths. And at the end, which I won't give away, it is arguably one of the most experimental passages that Coe has ever written.

The "unreliable narrator" is Maxwell Sim as he outlines his own breakdown and his voice is a difficult one. Part of the problems of the early part of the work stem from this I think as he is an unengaged man who loves the structure of motorway service stations, idealises chain restaurants and finds difficulty expressing his feelings or even describing anything (a point he makes in the first chapter) and dislikes books. This is risky as it relies on the reader sticking with him even though it seems he has nothing to say. I remember feeling similarly about the narrator in Alexei Sayle's underrated novel Overtaken, who was much more dislikeable (deliberately) than Max Sim. On the other hand it is clearly not Coe's own voice which in some of his other works I think intervenes in a not very subtle way.

Of course this develops - he is a keen observer of humans and their various schemes which ultimately lead to his own catharsis. The narration is also broken up by 4 pieces of writing - a letter, an essay, a short story and a memoir - written by 4 other characters who will all have significance. Through these writings Max gains his self awareness. This episodic use of different forms of writing is quite a common trait of Coe's but he uses it to full effect here. He also labels each one of the elements - following the Structure of Eliot's Four Quartets - which is significant in itself.

This makes the novel sound poe faced and academic which it is miles from - it is very funny, hilarious actually, in places and moving ultimately. The title "Terrible Privacy" is good as well as we seem to value privacy talk of it as a human right but not recognise the isolation which it can also bring. So society never really thinks of privacy as "terrible". A common theme is the inability of people to communicate even in a wired world.

Max's journey is across Britain as he recovers or rather doesnt from depression seemingly brought on by the break-up of his marriage, for some half-arsed business promotion which requires him to drive to the Shetlands going via Birmingham, the Lakes and Edinburgh. The use of a road trip to discover home truths is not a new idea in Art but the structure and link with the other texts give this one originality.

The ending seems a little pat - revolving around Max and his relationships - and you can see it coming from about two thirds through but even this is teasing of the reader - because even after the revelation Coe pulls his experimental writing trick- this turns your feelings on their head, if feelings can have heads!

I felt some similarities with Franzen, the keen eye for contemporary detail and how it interacts with the most intimate issues people have, the unreliable voices and the use of different types of text within a novel but the ending is most definitely Coe-style.

There are some nods to BS Johnson particularly in the memoir part (written by Max's father) with a character who bows to pagan ritual, which BSJ does. It also has a parallel with the life of doomed sailing fraudster Donald Crowhurst , contemporary Artist Tacita Dean who did work on Crowhurst and as always with Coe the nature of writing and the novel particularly with his ending

Ultimately Coe is such a confident writer so although I think all these themes are there they stream by as you turn the pages because it also is a "cracking good read"!

Monday, 1 August 2011

Orlando - Fantastic Life.

An incredible piece of work. Quite unlike anything I have read before but in some ways one of the most significant.

Ostensibly a fantasy, Woolf herself apparently called it a writer's holiday, but don't worry it's not about goblins or medieval characters called things like Spatcock as that genre usually has. It covers the life of the aristocrat Orlando over a 500 year span during which she changes gender from male to female. It ends literally at the current day - 1928 - coinciding with the date of publication.

The historical sweep is massive and one part of the work is its overview of English history and literature. Yet part of its brilliance is the work's combination of this with its dissection of the intimate and the exploration of what it means to be human and how to live.

I particularly enjoyed the summaries of the 19th Century and its imposition of a moral code vis a vis marriage which attempts to declare itself as universal yet in Orlando's experience is in direct contrast to her previous 300 years of life! The chaotic baroque period of the 17th century is also done very well. And of course as a modernist the 20th Century scenes are remarkably observed - but by an outsider.

For Orlando is that, an outsider, not simply because of Gender but throughout history she is ancilliary to great events - from the Elizabethan period to the Civil War to World War 1 - these do not really figure in her life.

Literature and Biography are constant themes as well. On the face of it this is written as a biography of Orlando - who in many ways reflects Vita Sackville West - an adventurous aristocratic woman who Wolf had a love for and sometime relationship. Yet the limits of biography and indeed writing about the human experience are commented on by the writer throughout. The work opines that one individual has a thousand characters or more yet a biography has to distill that to one or two at most, outlining that writing can never really do that.

As a parallel there is a character who appears twice - a hack writer who rips off Orlando - in the Elizabethan times he attacks the current writers Shakespeare, Marlowe et al as a pale reflection of the Classical Roman and Greeks. Then he re-appears in the 19th and 20th Century to attack modern writers and praise the Shakespearean era. This reflects attack on Virginia Woolf's work which moves away from traditional narrative to try and be a closer reflection of human experience.

The last chapter set in the "modern day" does this to amazing effect - all of the character's 500 years of life bubble around her head as she walks around her estate and come out in different ways. Many writers Becket, Joyce, Flann OBrien etc do this but this is one of the more accessible examples of this I have read.

It is also experimental in other ways - it uses faux illustrations like a normal biography mostly of Vita S-West to represent Orlando. It also pre-figures magic realism by a few decades with its surreal elements, use of nature and animals and obviously the central scene of her sex conversion.
The change of gender is obviously crucial in the work yet I dont think it is a bold statement on transgenderism or transvestism - rather its an exploration of the flexibility of gender in some ways particularly over a long historical period. What it means to be a woman and a man is explored - the nature of attraction and love. All Orlando's partners are fairly ambiguous sexually - from a Russian princess to a sea captain.

In part I guess this is about Virginia Wolf expressing her love for Vita but it is more I think about a love of people or life and how gender only is only one part of it. The nature of sexual relationships is not really explored indeed she has quite a witty side swipe at DH Lawrence's work on that issue.

But gender aside the work explores life and what is important - the strength of nature, home comforts and friendship. One of my favourite chapters occurs when Orlando is in Turkey and has just become a woman - ends in a debate with gypsies over what is important - a 365 bed -roomed house versus wandering across the earth.

It is an aristocratic vision which Orlando has - the nature of work or labour which is so significant to most of us because of the nature of society is never an issue to him/her because she never has to do it. Even in the last scenes she visits a department store where goods are brought to her and taken from her car by her servants. This liberation from work, which I think intrigued Woolf who was from a more traditional bourgeois life, allows the experimentation of thought and gender. Orlando's house is more like a town than a normal house - similar to Vita's mansion which significantly due to property laws although an aristocrat was not allowed to inherit because of her gender.

There is so much more to the work though - the nature of mortality - interesting as the character is more or less immortal: the clock on the mantlepiece as Woolf says. The awkward conversations that men and women can have - there is one hilarious scene with an Archduke! Shakespeare is also commonly referred to - the master of English literature because I think the book also deals with the nature of English identity particularly around its ruling class.

A masterpiece, definitely, and not easy but if you dig around it I think some of the secrets of happiness and life are here.