Friday, 28 December 2012

We are the Nihilists - Ivan Turgenev: Fathers and Sons.

Being both the things in the title of this 19th Century Russian Novel and as I am currently meandering through the works of old Fyodor Dost I thought I would make a pitstop at one of his contemporaries (and eventual enemies) Turgenev and this influential work.

I didn't really know what to expect of it but the title does give a clue.  Forget about the Andrew Marr sanctioned view of  Sunday Night TV 20th century history of the 1950s being the era of the "birth" of the teenager this 1862 work blows up the generational gap that was present in Tsarist Russia.  It also creates the role model for James Dean and er John Travolta in Grease's rebellious angry young man in Bazarov (probably).

Much is made that Turgenev popularised (or some would argue created) the term nihilist to describe Bazarov as someone who believes in nothing - thank you Big Lebowski!  But it is actually slightly inaccurate - the young medical student Bazarov does have beliefs essentially in the ultimate authority of rationalism.  That is to say he distrusts and rejects all elements of mysticism or romanticism whether in the form of religion (very controversial at the time) or poetry and art (ironically this would probably be more controversial today) and distills everything down to scientific experiment and reason.  In a sense Bazarov is the post French Revolution age of reason personified.

Leaving that aside because it would sound like Bazarov is purely allegorical a cypher to study these ideas and that would be very inaccurate.  He is a powerhouse of a character though who really dominates the work and the narrative arc, such as it is, revolves around him although the other "son" in the work provides the immediate focus - his friend Arkady.

What is quite refreshing in the book is that it is not really plot driven - a few incidents occur and Bazarov dies in the end in an understated way - but for a nineteenth century novel it is unusal in that it is really an exploration of character and theory.  I guess many radical Russians at that time used fiction as a method of expressing their political views as other ways were blocked by the Tsarist police state, even Dostoevsky although this altered into more spiritual and philosophical views.  Ivan T was definitely one of these - he dedicates his work to the Utopian Socialist radical literary critic - Belinsky.

The novel begins with Arkady returning home to see his widowed father a fairly small scale but wealthy landlord with Bazarov in tow.  In contrast Bazarov is not of the landed gentry - a critical distinction in feudal Russia - but his father is a doctor for the military.  Also thrown into the mix is Arkady's uncle Pavel a retired soldier who had had an obsession with a Princess which lead him to travel around 1800s Europe before returning home.

The timing of the work is also contemporary thus the emancipation of the serfs by Tsar Alexander II had just occured though the details of it all had yet to be worked out.  Thus we are in the midst of a transitional period - a fertile time for art.  What is significant that Arkady's father Nikolai (great name!) and Pavel are not really representatives of the worst elements of feudal society but the liberal wing of established society.  They believe in the emancipation, are influenced by European Romanticism.  Nikolai eventually becomes an official  arbitrator designed to regulate relations between the emancipated peasants and the landowners.  He also has a child with a peasant and eventually (though significantly not immediately) marries her.

But it is this liberalism that Bazarov and for a period Arkady most despises  - "we have decided not to do anything about anything" Bazarov proclaims at one point causing Pavel to shake with anger.  They want to smash things down and subject every institution in Russia to "complete and merciless condemnation".

Thus the older generation simplistically believe in limited reform which does not really challenge the status quo - seen in Nikolai's initial refusal to recognise his loving relationship with the peasant Fenechka - whereas the younger generation want to overthrow everything.

Bazarov has been labelled as the "first" Bolshevik and in many ways that is true.  Although the group were not around until 40 years later and even the birth of the general Marxist movement in Russia was in its extremely formative stage (Trivia fact: Turgenev had the same birth and death years as Marx!) what it shows is the tension between those tied to the power of the feudal state and working to maintain it even using liberal language and those who want to go much further.

It is that tension that lead Trotsky to come up with the concept of permanent revolution - essentially not trusting liberal elements of the Russian feudal state to introduce meaningful capitalist reform as was done in Western Europe in Holland and France and to some extent England.  And for Lenin - the guy who more than anyone formed the Bolsheviks - to argue when revolution did hit Russia to argue for "uninterrupted" revolution using the slogan All Power to the Soviets.  This exposed the closeness of even the Menshevik wing of the Socialist Movement in Russia to the state.

Through the arguments of this 1862 novel all of these tensions are there (quite incredibly).  In fact I saw an Unreported World on Channel 4 last week about Aung  San Suu Kyi trying to disarm a mass community movement against Chinese investment in Burmese capitalism using her liberal authority (well earned with her house arrest) and was reminded of that.

What is missing is that Bazarov has no vision of another society - in fact he rejects that which removes it from a traditional Marxist view - which remember was just being created at this time: Marx was  5 years away from writing Capital.  I also found significant Bazarov's attitude to the peasantry - although not part of the ruling order by not owning land he is elevated as is his father by their education - he is noted for being comfortable mixing with all classes.  But he has no romantic view of this group in fact he openly despises and derides their superstition and mystical nonsense.  This is in stark contrast to the Back to the Land attitude of the early Narodnik radicals in Russia who tended to romanticise the lifestyle of the peasants. Or indeed the "Mother Russia" idea of Dostoevsky of celebrating the unique-ness of Russian culture.  This again puts Bazarov back in the Bolshevik type.

In my view these political disputes and tensions are central to the work and give it an energy and modernist feel which is quite surprising but it is not the only thing within it.   We are introduced to Bazarov's parents  - poorer than Arkady's but still influenced by Russian society particularly the religion - Bazarov has dinner and plays cards with the local priest.  Both Arkady and Bazarov fall in love.  Arkady's love seems to bring him back to his father though rejecting the sharp rationalism of Bazarov.

Bazarov's putative relationship with the widow Anna Sergeevna is interesting as when he first views her he sees her as an object of lust - a possible physical conquest.  As he gets to know her though (as Arkady gets to know and fall in love with her younger sister) he struggles with his feelings of romantic love which he as a nihilist has rejected. His declaration of this is quite disastrous as he himself is not sure where these feelings have come from and are predictably rebuffed by Anna.  Significantly she marries at the end though not for romantic love but political support for a reforming politician and her attraction for Bazarov is largely due to his intellect and different viewpoint.

This part of the work shows Turgenev challenging Bazarov to an extent - it shows he did not fully buy into the philosophy of the "sons" - that maybe the Fathers did have some good elements.  This is also shown in Bazarov's death which he details in a  matter of fact way as he is infected when treating someone with Typhus and knows he is going to die - which he does at his parents' home.

There are also some good set pieces in the novel - a ridiculous duel scene between Bazarov and Pavel - how more symbolic a generational clash could you get; a few encounters with fairly strange fellow travellers of Bazarov. The translator of this Oxford World's Classics edition also does a good job with understated and funny phrasing where appropriate.  The edition of the work also has interesting background work - which shows how Turgenev had driven a background sketch of each character and a rudimentary plot line.  A method much utilised since - Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant did it in the Office for example.

The work was controversial with Dostoevsky and others seeing Turgenev's book as an attack on them and the liberal intelligentsia in Russia satisfied with the Emancipation Reforms.  The writers fell out soon after this. But I have to say FD must have seen the power of this novel - the style of writing and the economy of plot.  Having now read a lot of FD's early works this is much stronger than those with the exception of the semi-surreal piece the Double and parts of the Humiliated and Insulted.  Perhaps FD also saw this book as a challenge for him to lift his game.

For me this book symbolises the power of fiction which can cause heated discussion 150 years on in a way other things simply can't.  Or can cause me to garble on about it for 2 hours during my Christmas holiday - not sure if that is good or bad.  Impressive anyway, Ivan.

Sunday, 4 November 2012

Humiliated and Insulted: Dostoevsky back in the saddle?

It's taken me quite a while to complete this - Dostoevsky's first lengthy novel which foreshadowed a period where he produced his recognised great pieces.   Mainly this has been down to  external factors - an increasing workload due to the grinding cuts in the public sector and the timing of the current semester but it does also reflect the prose itself which I think is a bit stop -start and difficult to get into the flow of.

Like many 19th Century novels this was published in instalments through a journal.  This also gives the text a strange rhythm - something I remember noticing in Hardy - in that it builds up to climaxes in strange places in the overall structure of the work.   Of course in the novel (or I guess in serial terms the box set!) these can be a problem if the prose around it is weak as it is unusual and stands out - in part this work does suffer from it  I think.  Even though this is a strong recent English translation.

The novel is back in Dostoevsky's bleak urban environment of St. Petersburg after his dalliance with the rural     tensions of hierarchichal families in his previous two short works.   The central pivot of the piece is Vanya a writer who gets entangled in two plots - the life of an empoverished epileptic child Nelly who he discovers when he moves into her Grandfather's grotty garret flat and a fairly flimsy love triangle between him, his childhood love Natasha and her obsessive love the foppish, handsome, rich  and nice but dim Alexei.   The link between the two, apart from  Vanya, is the villainous Prince Valkovsky: the father of Alexei who is attempting to ruin Natasha's father in a law suit and is somehow indirectly involved in Nelly's dead family

In true 19th century style the two plots entwine with a series of (fairly unsurprising) revelations but in truth the narrative is not really driven by the plot. FD's heart doesn't really seem to be in that - even when he introduces a private detective - an old friend of Vanya - to drive elements of the plot forward.  So on that measure as a "cracking good read" copyright arch Will Self saying it is a failure - and probably one of the reasons it is not in the realms of TV adaptions (though Wikipedia tells me a Russian film was made of it in the 1990s).

It does have strengths though that really stand out that also put it outwith the realm of the disposable cheap novel.  In a sense Dostoevsky's ambitions for this work were not great he was really trying to find his feet following his lengthy exile.  But the stand-outs relate to a couple of set-pieces and as always in FD's work (well those that I have read so far) the development of ideas.

The opening chapter is remarkable where he encounters Nelly's grandfather seemingly an emaciated pauper and his dog, he witnesses his death in a very European setting (a coffee house) but in a very understated way.  That part will stay with me way longer than any of the later plot devices utilised by FD.  Also outstanding and indeed it is almost like it fell into the book from another novel is the confrontation between the Prince and Vanya.  It is partially hidden til this point but through an excoriating monologue the Prince reveals his villainous nature, his utter disdain for the wimpy Vanya (comparing him to the romantic poet Schiller) and in quite explicit tones for the team explains his love of debauchery and corruption of innocence. A really strong piece of writing which sadly is not really equalled anywhere else in the rest of the work.  As I observed earlier it also occurs at the culmination of the third instalment of the work.

Ideas around mortality, corruption and the nature of Russian Society are touched on but never fully developed which again suggests why the work is not up there with Dostoevsky's other works.  Alexei, before his betrayal of Natasha dabbles in a Utopian Socialist group and portrays the ideas in a fairly naive way - probably reflecting FD's cynicism at that time.  Interestingly at this post-Savile time the book touches on the possibility of  a peadophile ring involving aristocrats which there seems to be an attempt to put Nelly into.  The abuse of children is also one of the modern themes which Dostoevsky explores pretty well although the nature of the relationship between Nelly and Vanya is quite confused I think - similar to passages in his unfinished work which centred around a young girl of around Nelly's age.

Another significant element of the novel although ultimately I think one of its weaknesses is the character of Vanya.  He essentially is Dostoevsky.  His first (successful) novel has parallels with Poor Folk, as an aside he compares himself to other wealthier writers who can take years before they come up with a new novel whereas he needs to write to earn a living.  He also has pot-shots at publishers and indirectly at what it means to be a novelist when the simple Alexei says he wants to become one.

Stylistically though this is a problem it means that there is no differentiation between Dostoevsky the writer and Vanya the character.  Vanya is in almost every scene. Getting back in the swing of prose writing I guess that FD did not feel confident removing his all-seeing eye character.  The problem for that though is that the narrator simply becomes a cipher.  There is also no distance from the actions.  One pretty painful scene is where Natasha admits her love for Alexei to Vanya - it's almost like reading a teenage journal or listening to some early Morrissey lyrics - bleeding hearts on sleeves time.  It will be interesting to see if he continues to do this in his next works: I doubt he will.

So some highs (if that is the right word) and a few cringe-worthy lows in the book which does not really work on itself but only as part of Dostoevsky's overall oeuvre.

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Adiga: Last Man in Tower - What would you do?

Communal living has long been a source for fiction writers - ask any soap opera or tv drama creator. Whether it's the world's longest running soap Coronation Street , Jimmy McGovern's er... "The Street" or Glendarroch in Take The High Road.  This drama can be intensified though when the community is literally living on top of each other in a communal tower as in Indian wunderkind Aravind Adiga's latest storming work - a searing and topical indictment of our neo-liberal world and what it makes people become.

The community here though is not just set up for dramatic tension and interaction they are an organisation - the tower they live in is a housing co-operative in Mumbai.  All decisions have to be made collectively, the neighbours have regular Parliaments to discuss issues related to the property and they employ the Secretary ,also a tenant, and the staff drawn from the nearby slums.  The flats are meagre with poor water supply and electricity but it is theirs.

The dilemma is immediate.  I am not giving anything away because the author puts the issue up front in the preface.  A property developer symbolic of the new wealth at the top of Mumbai puts an offer of untold wealth (in this world - specifically £210,000) to each tenant  so he can demolish the tower and build luxury flats which as is pointed out even with the money they get they wouldn't be able to afford.  As a co-op though everyone needs to agree or the entire deal falls away.  So do you keep the property developer at bay , maintain the co-operative housing or take the money and run.   The end result as Adiga also clearly signposts from the beginning  is that eventually only one resists : "The Last Man in Tower".

As a novel then the narrative is unusual in that the dilemma is immediately apparent and does not unfold over chapters.  I think this allows Adiga to clear the deck though and simply focus on how different people react to these situations.  In a sense it is the fleshing out of a philosophical dialogue or  a "political" discourse which in a sense all of us as inhabitants of a deregulated neo-liberal world have to engage with, particularly those of us that want to live in a better different sort of world.

5 paragraphs in and I haven't mentioned any of the characters which is strange because they are not simply pawns to fill in Adiga's discussion of  "choices".  The Last Man is the most respected part of the community a teacher Yogesh Murthy known as "Masterji" - he is recently widowed, retired and teaches the kids of the coop all sorts to help them with their schooling.  His apartment is full of books which he lends out.  In a sense Masterji is symbolic of Old India with its emphasis on education rather than the raw chaotic energy of bonkers entrepreneurial capitalism as shown by the property developer and offeror of the riches, self made millionaire Dharmen Shah.   One of the criticisms of the work could be it tries a little too hard to be allegorical.

He is not initially alone though "communist" social worker Mrs Rego and elderly couple the Pintos (Mrs Pinto is blind and would not be able to easily adapt to a new building) also hold out at first. In fact they seem more adamant than Masterji. The rest of the community almost immediately is turned by the cash though - which will be paid in installments and has to be agreed by a specific time limit.  At the core of the supporters are sleazy estate agent Ajwani, lazy coop Secretary Kothari and the formidable Mrs Puri who is the carer for her son with Downs Syndrome.

Another literary problem though is that many of the residents can only really be names as the work couldn't examine them all.  So they are literally just Yes votes to the offer.  This is slightly offset though by another character - the city of Mumbai which is portrayed brilliantly in the work.  The geography, politics, architecture and energy of the city are all here - and key moments for all the characters come in very distinct locations of the city.  To help there is even a map of the city at the start of the book

This interaction of contemporary city politics and structure with people reminded me very much of Tom Wolfe's work - the New York of Bonfire of the Vanities but even more the Atlanta of A Man in Full.

All dirty tricks are wheeled out by the property developer and his thoughtful but cynical sidekick to break the resistance.  Blackmail, financial and emotional, Violence, real and imagined all are used.  But still Masterji holds out - in fact the longer the battle goes on the stronger his principles become.  In one excellent scene he watches the poor of Mumbai struggling in a cafe after their back breaking work and sees the importance of his struggle.

Shah's ultimate weapon though, and he knows it, is to get the community to do his dirty work for him.  Initially the pressure is subtle Mrs Puri asks him to think of his family - a disaffected son and daughter in law who have little to do with him.  This is a common refrain in the work - each person by taking the money thinks of their immediate family and what they could do with the money.  How any individual who would prevent them helping their unit is the ultimately selfish man - although Masterji himself is protecting a broader view of family or community.  But the dreams for their families have a very precise cash limit - meaning they are limited by their very nature (and of course reliant on destroying a bigger property).  Access to these figures of cash which neo-liberalism does periodically particularly in the Majority World where the population are so desperate.  This community cannot be thrown out of their slums by security firms or the state they need to be persuaded by a cash incentive that it would be best for them.  I was reminded of the Elvis Costello/Robert Wyatt line from Shipbuilding "diving for dear life, when we should be diving for pearls".

Dreams of a better society which albeit in a twisted way the cooperative movement represented are shattered over the offer of hard currency.

Masterji is not persuaded and the methods used by the community become more and more horrible. His education once the virtue is now degraded, children are withdrawn from classes.  In a telling passage when they are attempting to undermine his character they criticise his educational methods stating he didnt stick to exam syllabus but tried to teach them "other" stuff.  Again showing how modern turbo capitalism attacks all elements of old societies that are not of immediate "use".    He seems to be able to resist it all though until the deadline. The climax when it comes is shocking, I thought, even though perhaps inevitable.  Although there is the partial redemption from an extremely unlikely character.  If it is an allegory Adiga is not optimistic over where this neo-liberal world is leading us and it is also not a coincidence that Mrs Puri borrows Murder on the Orient Express from Masterji at the start of the book.

There are flaws in this intriguing work.  The breaking of Mrs Rego's resolve is not particularly convincing as she is the only one with an explicit immediate political opposition to the development. Perhaps Adiga is making a point on the corrupt nature of Communist Politics in India or is cynical of the left-ism of Arundhati Roy who Rego has  pictures of up on her wall.  Either way I thought it didn't work.  In contrast to the Pintos where the threat of violence and the effect it has on an old couple is powerfully written.

I also thought it seemed a little rushed this is his third work in as many years - energy is good in writing and this novel abounds in it but I think more work could have teased out even more some of the themes.  Getting into the generally villainous Mrs Puri's head and the feelings she has to her disabled son or looking at the slum-life which surrounds the Tower.  This is all done but sometimes had too break neck a speed.

What is done well is his use of animal metaphor which is becoming a constant in his work.  Masterji's sighting of a jackal in the Zoo before the whole story begins - the Secretary's mystical memory of flamingoes.  Really strong and again accurate because of the prevalence of wildlife in Indian urban society.

As an Indian novel there is little reference to caste or really religion (only in passing and in one particularly odious character) and this is explained by the fact that Mumbai is now ruled by money.  Shah states it is all that matters - in contrast to when he was making his wealth.  That wealth as Shah finds offers no protection or guarantee which I think is one of the many points Adiga is making.  I could write on and on about this novel - there is much to read and argue about - so do it!  Anyway for £210 k what would you do?

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

The Village of Stepanchikovo: Dostoevsky's Trapped Comedy.

A companion piece to Uncle's Dream in some ways for FD's next work.  Also written in exile, also originally envisaged as a drama (which it was eventually staged as after Dost's death), also on the face of it a comic tale  of misunderstandings and machinations about the semi-aristocracy in Tsarist Russia- but I have to say this piece has a bit more substance to it and illustrates his ability to understand both human character and relationships.  Indeed the work has a very lightly disguised anger running through it which bursts out now and then - hardly surprising given he was coming to an end of his imprisonment and Siberian exile.

They (whoever they are!) say that great sitcoms stem from the characters being trapped - in a situation, a location, a personality: the pub in Cheers, the hotel in Fawlty Towers, the Office.  I'm not sure that theory holds up completely but there is an element of truth in it and this book illustrates it.  In a sense you cant get more trapped than a feudal society - your role was very specifically labelled and you could neither escape it nor ignore it.  Russia was a peculiar one though as it held on to its feudal trappings much longer than other similar societies whilst trying to develop a modernist outlook.  Britain maintained its feudal overlords as the recent Jubilee "celebrations" showed whilst making damned sure that real power was removed from them after the monarchy was restored following the English Civil War.  As old Moz so cleverly put it in Irish Blood English Heart

But in Russia the development of the elements of a modern state was done in a feudal way - so the hierarchy was maintained strictly in the civil service and the army (both controlled by the Tsar who of course was appointed by God).  In this tale a young student is returning to his adopted village home where his "Uncle" a retired Colonel from the army is struggling with his existence by the return of his mother and a parasitic entourage headed by a brilliant villainous character Foma Fomich.  Though the Colonel does not recognise this he is in awe of Fomich but wants his nephew to marry his children's governness who is facing poverty.

The return of the gauche youth essentially precipitates a crisis within this bizarre household and reveals hidden crises and loves. The comedy comes from the desciption of the grotesques who populate the Colonel's household - drawn to him because he is a "good man" but wealthy in control of many "souls" or serfs - written as this was before the 1862 Emancipation.  The writing skill of Dostoevsky was coming to the fore here with using the outsider to expose all of this in his return.

The hangers on in feudal courts at high and low levels must have been a real phenomenon in Russian Society - one escape from utter penury I guess must have been to be a chancer who proclaims higher normally spiritual powers who is showered with the wonders of the top table.   Rasputin (Russia's greatest love machine) confirms this  the real aristos eventually did him in angered by his position - but that was a couple of generations after Foma Fomich who was clearly cut from the same cloth.

Of the Dostoevsky books I have read so far with the exception of the protagonist in the Double this baddy is the best crafted characted I think he has written.  He is sanctimonious, manipulative and knows exactly how to exploit his relationship with the Colonel to maintain his power and situation.  To draw a parallel with great sitcoms again he is Albert Steptoe to the Harold of the Colonel!  He is as trapped as Harold is in the junkyard to Fomich but also his mother who also exploits her son but  who is utterly dependent on the chancer.

Powerfully he does not appear until the 100th page of the book but is spoken of almost from the first - a great dramatic device.  When he does you can almost here the vitriol in FD's description:  apparently FF is a vicarious characterisation of Gogol - the earlier Russian writer who ended in death a complete reactionary and supporter of serfdom.  Again similarly to his other early work FD runs the roost in parts of the tale over current fiction, journals and poetry in 1850s Russia - even quoting a poem in full at one part through the mouths of one of the children.

In FF's vicious bullying of the Colonel's peasants we can see the dilemma of the arrogant Russian nineteenth century intellectual - he despises the illiterate masses but wants to elevates them with his own higher knowledge: symbolised here by FF bullying them to learn French.  Quite painful to read actually and beyond a comedy.    The setting is clearly rural as well with the urban landscape of St Petersburg a distant reference as it was at that time for Dost.

FF has a symbiotic relationship with the Colonel though who is impressed not really by status but by knowledge - which FF ( a court jester in a previous time apparently) exploits to the full.  Unusually I guess for the time the comedy ends with a complete triumph for the villain "complete and unassailable" - who although he oversteps his mark with the Colonel pulls it back in and is restored in his parasitic place.
The other place where I sensed real anger on FD's part was his description of a wealthy single older woman who almost falls prey to gold diggers in a very well written couple of pages that really stand out from the rest of the work.

Plot wise it bounces along - I think it started as a serial a la Dickens - but that is not the real point of the work - it is a character study and as an ensemble piece is quite funny - a nun appears for no real reason at the end !  So although it has chapters called things like "Concerning the White Bull and a Peasant named Komarinsky" it is quite a complex piece which belies its appearance.  Maybe why it is quite difficult to get and not translated very often.  Perhaps not as weighty as his later works but the signs were there and it tells you much about Russian society and the human condition as well.

Thursday, 14 June 2012

Virginia Woolf: A Room of Ones Own .....

One of the things I really enjoy about Virginia Woolf's writing is her ability to use language in the way that people actually think and act.  Not in the sense of dialectal realism like Welsh or to some extent even George Eliot but in the way the actual mind works.  So in this seminal essay which is actually an amalgamation of two lectures on women and fiction she goes for a walk in Cambridge, sees a cat, has lunch, goes to the British Library takes a few books of the shelf but in between (and indeed during) she dissects not only the history of women and literature but also more correctly the role of women in patriarchal society.

Written in 1929 the year after all women got equal voting status with men in Britain and hardly ancient history and the year after she wrote Orlando - another historical examination of the position of women but in a fantastical fiction form.  The title itself comes from the thought that for women to write they need a space (or room) and independent finance.  Both for huge swathes of human history would have been impossible for a woman even from the upper classes  - and still is for many if not most women across the world.

This exposition starts as she walks around Oxbridge the heart of the educational establishment in 20s England and considers the hundreds of years that women were not allowed to be part of it.  Indeed she even finds that as she attempts to get into a library she cannot get in because of her sex.  This beginning allows her to consider the nature of literature and she makes her famous discussion of Shakespeare's Sister - as lifted by old Moz in the Smiths and Siobhan Fahey post Bananarama!  This passage is really excellent as she outlines the historical impossibility of a woman being able to do this in the 16th and 17th Century - a point explored in her gender shifiting hero Orlando and his/her journey through history.
This is not only because women were literally chattels with no status (lower than an Athenian slave she says at one point)  but also the talent of an artist would be vilified and attacked - literally she quotes a fairly reactionary historian who spoke of the perpetual violence women faced in these times.  She speculates that witch hunts and women losing their minds or committing suicide could have been because of their skills being thwarted.  This would also be true of the poor man (a point she makes) but the entire female population even from a background like Shakespeares would have been excluded.

The other point she makes is  a more artistic one that a woman at that time would not have had the "unblemished" mind that Shakespeare had  - to view things in such a universal and poetic way - mainly because of the social stigma they would have to deal with in their mind by attempting to write which in one sense would paralyse her and dominate her work.  She explores the 17th Century poet and aristocrat Lady Winchelsea and explores how her poetry is "bursting out in indignation against the position of women" which means her poems are more limited in their scope and vision than Shakespeare's.

One of the historical ironies though which she points out and is never fully explained is that female characters totally dominate fiction in all historical periods - including in the slave state of classical civilisation.

She also considers the nineteenth century and the growth of the novel as a form of artistic expression and indeed female novelists.  Initially this was seen as an acceptable outlet as initially the novel was viewed as a lesser form compared to poetry.  Woolf speaks of how talented women were pushed at that time into that outlet rather than any other - science, history etc  But she speaks of Jane Austen and the Brontes  - whilst also pointing out that even at that time George Eliot and George Sand had to adopt a male persona and indeed (she argues) mimicked a male style of writing.

She believes Jane Austen to be the greater writer (I have never read her) because she transcended the gender issues that bedevilled all female artists with her fiction.  In fact she goes further and says that Charlotte Bronte "had more genius in her" than Austen but could never fully express this.  "She will write of herself where she should write of her characters".  Austen, interestingly, didn't write in a room of her own but in her living room in the midst of family hubbub. Austen then came closest to having the "unblemished" Shakesperean approach.

The artist should strive to be androgenous and above gender, again a point underlined in Orlando and in a way by Patti Smith!  Male artists have always been more able to do this because of patriarchal society.  In the most difficult passage when she reads a mythical modern novel she sees that this female writer is trying to do this (I think it is a critique of her own fiction ) "she wrote as a woman but as woman who has forgotten that she is a woman".

Ironically and in quite a funny way contemporary male writers in the 1920s had now the problem of being obsessed with their own gender but in this context of outlining their superiority - threatened by the impact of the suffrage movement and the strength of the women's campaign at this time.  Thus they now cannot have the unblemished mind of a Shakespeare or a Keats or a Coleridge.  In a brilliant passage she speaks of a shadow over the work of a male writer's work "the shadow of the letter I" .  Thus Shakespeare himself may not have existed if "the women's movement had begun in the sixteeenth century and not the nineteenth" because he would have the self doubt and problems with his ego that twentieth century male writers were having.

As a lecture/essay this is a very well structured and argued piece compared to the Myth of Sisyphus which I read earlier this year which had not developed its ideas fully.  A lot can be learned and a lot of views of life can be changed by these 100 pages.

Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Iain M Banks: Surface Detail - Death arrives at the party?

I have got the sense in Iain Banks last few novels - both sci fi and traditional he has been struggling a little bit. Not with their scope or even the art of writing which he still maintains at a high standard but mainly with running out of things to say. Even where his sci-fi has such a grandiose scale literally creating his own universe there seems to have been a limit of ideas. I thought that his last traditional novel, Transition, though very good repeated a lot of its concepts from Banks' own science fiction. However this is not something that can be levelled at this work.
 Surface Detail is a very impressive novel which wrestles with the ultimate question of mortality albeit through the advanced prism of the Culture - the utopian communist intergalactic society which surely is Banks greatest literary creation. Banks has along with nearly every other artist confronted the ultimate question before but never in such a systematic way as he does here.

 The saga starts with a death of a painted slave at the hands of a cruel master but surprisingly and without her knowledge she has been "backed up" using Culture technology and can be re-entered into a new body or "re-vented". This is one of the core problems examined in the work - death has no real meaning in the Culture has people can be downloaded and kept - their consciousness a constant. Yet this can cause problems as their is no real consistency. People get tired and want to just disappear. There is even a new section of the Culture outlined here the Quietus whose role is to intervene with the "dead".

The "micro" story of the death, re-birth and journey of Lededje the murdered woman forms the backdrop to the big "macro" story and inter-galactic battle where the big ideas stomp around. This takes the form of a "Virtual" war between civilisations over the existence or not of Hells. That is in this time period of the Culture most societies even not directly linked with the Culture have managed to transcend death particularly with the use of Artifical Intelligence. Some though want to keep the threat of an evil After-life and to use it to keep societies in Check. Other advanced societies disagree - the Culture, perhaps surprisingly, are neutral or are they? So when God is dead essentially why have a Hell - even if it is only virtual?
 The picture which Banks presents of specific inter galactic hells are very impressive particularly that of the Pavulean civilisation which is like a Breugel painting in its grotesque vision. The Pavuleans are a quadraped race with two trunks with fingers at them (!) - a bit of an echo of some of Alistair Gray's fantasies I thought. There is a constant exploration over the Hell of this society and the internal battle against it. It never integrates with the main plots which tie the macro and micro together ultimately and it has the oddly disconcerting tone of the reader ascribing human emotions to a species who look a bit like Mr Snuffaluffagus in Sesame St. 

One of the pleasures I have in reading Culture novels is as a socialist rooting for the way-advanced civilisation in its battles against lesser and more arrogant exploitative groups. In that sense Banks has adapted this literary trope from series of fiction which rely on the reader identifying with the central repeated character - like detective or spy novels. But there is not one person or one Artificial Mind who are the essence of the Culture here (though Banks gives a knowing wink to readers in a twisty reference to an earlier Culture book) it is literally a way of life that we are celebrating and "rooting" for. It may explain why I enjoy it in this setting and dont enjoy repeated characters in other fictions or maybe Im just a hypocrite.

 The big ideas and the plot integrate and culminate in a big and little war centred around the Sichultian regime dominated by the arch - baddy Veppers who is a neo-liberal (intergalactic equivalent) exploiter of planets, resources and people. Banks also does villains very well as he seems to focus all his hate he has for what' going on in this planet in one person. And for the times we are living in with a rapacious Capitalism reliant on state bail outs and sticking its claws into public service Veppers does this role very well. It is he who carries out the murder of his indentured slave Lededje in the first chapter and he plays a critical role throughout.
 The big problem that people have with these sort of novels from Banks is that they are in some ways traditional sci-fi - it's not because of the ideas which are intriguing and radical or for the writing which in general is of a very high quality. But there's also a lot about space ship design and descriptions of things blowing up. So you have to deal with sentences like this: " the space - marshal here, on behalf of those forces known as the anti-Hell side, now taking part in the current confliction being overseen by the Ishlorsinami, requests that we - the Veprine Corporation and the currently constituted and here configured sub-section of the Gestepian- Fardesile Cultural Federacy..." and so on - that's not for everyone! But I always think this stuff is balanced out enough with the ideas. The problem is there needs to be an exposition when you are describing a completely new universe and the political tensions within - there are always a few key passages in a IMB novel that you need to keep flicking back to. But he always does this in a original narrative way.
 And he definitely is a master of the form of running several scenarios alongside each other - making passages shorter as the climax of the work approaches. One criticism of the structure which I noticed is he introduces a couple of new characters in quite a complex battle setting two thirds of the way through - this noticeably jarred for me and was a bit like a speed bump in the work. I was also not sure about elements of the "micro" story which is about the death and the rebirth of Lededje and her revenge on Veppers. Lededje is a tattooed human who is majorly abused by the horrific figure of Veppers - this seems to be a bit of a nod to the publishing phenomena and pretty poor Dragon Tattoo novels. It is turned around though because tattoos in Lededje's culture are a sign of slavery and ownership by the rich elite - not a liberating thing at all : part of the "surface detail" of an oppressive society. The skin paintings are literally bred into the genes of her type. Yet the Culture's take on a tattoo proves a useful thing later on, not to give away too much. The revenge element (which contrasts again with the Larsson novels) is dealt with in a slightly more satisfying way - with a bit of a dilemma and discussion about whether one abused person's revenge is more important than the liberation of billions of abused people. But ultimately I think it's discussion of abuse and sexual violence and its effect on Lededje even though she is in literally a different body could have been more developed though it is more sophisticated that the Dragon Tattoo book.

 There is so much more here - interesting species including the Culture's own Facebook fan group the GFCF who cause a lot of problems, the exploration of the minutiae of the Special Circumstances part of the Culture, people's struggle with mortality and the complexity of the Artifical Minds to name a few. It is a big book in a way that Banks has not done in either element of his fiction for a while. Death is looked at up close here albeit in a galaxy far far away and I think the reader can take much from it if they want to give the scifi a chance.

Monday, 2 April 2012

Patti Smith: Just Kids Review - The Birth of an Artist(s)

Do all great artists need creation myths? Reading this excellent semi- autobiography of Patti Smith ostensibly about her symbiotic relationship with controversial artist/photographer Robert Mapplethorpe but also about her (re) emergence as a musical icon from the scuzzy sexy New York of the 1970s I wondered. For there are many passages in here where I wasnt sure if it was truth, exaggeration or fiction: at one level it doesn't matter because the art stands apart and may or may not have had such a genesis.

So whether a young Patti had a chat with Jimi Hendrix on the stairs a few months before he died, whether Allen Ginsberg made a pass at her in a diner because he thought she was a he or whether she shared bon mots with William Burroughs in the Hotel Chelsea (actually believed that) is neither here nor there. In the world she was in that could have happened and it could have help her create the original masterpiece of Horses.

What is most touching and true is her account of her remarkable relationship with Mapplethorpe - the work is bookended with memories of hearing of his death from the distance of her new life and world in the late 80s. Yet for the majority of the period looked at they are almost "twins". You could almost say soul mates if that term hadnt been terminally destroyed by god awful internet dating adverts .

They run into each other almost by accident refugees in the underworld of NYC and bind together for survival. Again there is a whiff of mythology about exactly how they meet but their initial life together is a believable bond. I like the way their initial meagre surroundings are made palatable by their artistic impulses with little design touches and ornaments which they share with each other. Although they seem to start off as lovers in a fairly conventional early twenties relationship this is not really maintained as Mapplethorpe embraces his sexuality more fully, having as is the American way come from a fairly repressed military/religious background. He even has a period of working as a male prostitute when together with Patti before embarking upon lasting male relationships. They share a living space and a bed for much of this period - including a couple of years in a Chelsea hotel bedroom with a shared bathroom. As their Art develops their relationship deepens but becomes something different - they live in separate parts of the same studio. Patti develops a relationship with a guy out of Blue Oyster Cult who she also lived with, they contemplated having her as the singer of the band fact fans! and in a very well written bit an encounter/fling with Sam Shepherd - the actor/playwright.

The art that each engage with is almost interchangeable - I get a sense that they were both experimenting with which medium they felt more comfortable with. Patti always is writing poetry in particular but paints and has an eye for books and design. Robert begins as a designer of jewellery goes into visual art with a focus on collages particularly of gay pornography (there seems to be a theme!) and finally - and famously - Photography which he initially only tentatively embraces. I think it is significant that the launchpad for both comes around the Horses album which Robert M took the iconic photos with.

Mapplethorpe also has a small obsession with Warhol and entourage though Patti is a little less committed - she likes artists who shake up their time not merely document it. Though this is the late 60s early 70s period Warhol where he is more or less in hiding following the SCUM assassination attempt. So that is strange a lost movement of drag queens, male models and wannabees hanging around nightclubs and bars waiting for their leader who never shows up.

Though through this world Smith sees the Velvet Underground, Hendrix, Joplin and famously in her eyes Jim Morrison who in her eyes showed her that she could become a musical performer. These are intertwined with her love of Rimbaud, whose trip to Abyssinia inspired her second album. In echoes of Dylan's autobiography she mentions key musical tracks through this time which are versatile - heavy roots reggae along New York Doo wop - and all worth a listen. One amazing find for me which was her soundtrack in part of the 70s was a pan-pipe album from Morocco produced by Brian Jones.

Danny Baker, of all people, gave an interesting analysis of Punk on an interview I watched recently stating that the 70s was an amazingly productive musical period and Punk was the last throw of this - following Bowie, Krautrock, Reggae, New York, soul etc etc. It was in contradiction to the Year Zero manifesto of the London Punk movement of MacLaren/Pistols/Clash etc. Patti S with her broad appreciation of musical form and language through poetry is clearly an argument for the former. Her description of creating her first recording of a Hendrix track, Hey Joe, with Tom Verlaine and Lenny Kaye is spellbinding. Even cliches of rock biographies like how she gets her band together and the tracks on the first album have a new perspective. She also explains how she wanted to integrate political protest into her work - something Robert M shied away from. Her later work is only really skirted over - maybe for another bio although I dont think she would be interested in doing a musical chronology which had no real theme.

The work with the exception of the foreword and ending is very linear though - one experiment Dylan did with his Chronicles was to be episodic - dip in and out of times jump back and forward. I thought that worked well and would have liked to see Patti S try this method. But this is a more stylistic criticism than content.

Being an analysis of her closest adult relationshop - they even look spookily similar in some photos mortality is central to the work. Death is something which is all around Patti S work - the musicians that died young, her husband who she nursed before he died, her brother and numerous casualties around the NY scene. But touchingly it is the dying of Mapplethorpe with AIDS which seems to have the most profound effect. Her pursuit to wake the dead is "the one that burns most deeply".

So it's a book about growing up, life long relationships, death and art. And great music. What more do you need.

Monday, 27 February 2012

Uncle's Dream: Dostoevsky has a laugh?

In his decade of exile, the first few years of which he spent in hellish prison conditions, Dostoevsky produced little written work. You could argue that all of his great works couldn't or wouldn't have been produced in the same way without his 1850s experience. After all many writers don't immediately draw on traumatic life experience in their own work. I'm thinking of JG Ballard whose work specifically on his childhood in occupied Shanghai came relatively late on in his work or the prolific Dennis Potter where only his later TV dramas like the Singing Detective (currently repeating on BBC4) dealt with his own youthful trauma.

There was another problem for FD though - he was living in a feudal dictatorship which he had been arrrested and exiled for opposing. Although by the end of exile he supported the new Tsar. They had controls of publication and also in his prison time he was not permitted any writing material.

So the sum total of that time was two ostensibly light novellas - Uncle's Dream being the first. Seemingly a literary confection, a bauble as Mark Cousins would say, this short work explores the machinations of a provincial village elite trying to marry off an elderly, possible senile, member of the aristocracy to a young beautiful woman. Lots of visits to country houses, aristocratic balls and comic misunderstanding.

The tone is very theatrical and I wasn't surprised to see it had been turned into a play something like 20 times. The lightness is obvious and it flies past as you read it. However I have a sense there are glimpses here of deeper issues. One theory is that FD stuck to this path so there would be no issue around censorship.

Given all that the characterisation is pretty dark - the key villain - the manipulative mother who believes she controls all the comings and goings of the village and equally can control the doddery old Prince: Maria Alexandrovna is a sophisticated creation that could come from a modern writer. I could see similar issues being done and a similar woman in an English play by Alan Ayckbourn or a TV comedy drama by Victoria Wood. The pathetic thwarted suitor of the intended for the Prince and indeed the nominal nephew Pavel Mozglyakov also stands out.

What is missing from the work I have read so far of FD are the contemporary literary and artistic references. This village is in a bubble where banal worries about who is going to marry (and trick) an elderly aristocrat are to the fore. Although there are references to light French novels like Dumas and constant quotes in French - these stand out because they are so isolated. I guess this is not surprising because FD himself was miles away from the literary milieu he had cultivated.

Yet in passing the number of "souls" -peasants - controlled by these figures is thrown about pretty lightly. The deference to the feudal structure, a constant them in FDs work, is there in spades in fact the whole plot revolves around it. The Prince even raises the issue of serf emancipation, one of FD's crimes in the eyes of the Tsarist state, before almost as quickly dismissing it - he speaks of being influenced by foreign ideas. And in a very unusual last chapter the issues of mortality are raised darkly and really out of kilter with the rest of the piece.

So all those things are touched on but I have to say it is actually funny - maybe unusually for a nineteenth century literary comedy. I could see some influence perhaps of Dickens whose jokes have not all stood the test of time. There is a funny line about a boring male character who often "looks blankly like a sheep that has seen a new gate" well it made me chuckle. And the plot whilst derivative is pretty well paced and structured for humour. Also in quite a modern way FD contrasts the lightness with quite dark and bitter ideas- Maria's essential prostitution of her daughter and her relationship with her husband is quite shockingly violently cruel.

So you could argue this got FD back in the saddle of published work and it's a good distraction for a few hours read. Also have to give word of praise to edition I picked up by Hesperus press. Lovely lay-out and good translation and introduction - published last year. I think it specialises in publishing more obscure literary works from the great writers. Lucky for me!

Saturday, 18 February 2012

Camus: The Myth of Sisyphus - How to Live?

There's been an excellent documentary series on Monty Python currently on Sky Arts (inevitably they have bought it from somewhere else) it shows the amount of research and intellectual endeavour that went into their work. So seeing the end of Life of Brian again with its iconic crucifixion scene one line of the famous song stood out after my reading of this work : "Life is so absurd and death's the final word".

As what Camus attempts to disentangle in this detailed and complex essay is the "absurdity" of life. Humans intrinsically want life to have a purpose, a direction a framework but we live in a direction-less vast universe in which we will all die and disappear. This is a duality - one cannot exist without the other - human hope and existence on the planet. The prism that Camus wants to examine this from is that of suicide which he says is the essential question as Shakespeare puts it "to be or not to be".

If there is no meaning in life or an after - life what is the point of continuing life. He uses a literary example -in quite a detailed critique of Dostoevsky's work - of a character in the Russian author's work (the Possessed) who kills himself because he knows there is no God. FD was fundamentally critical of this position which was reflective of elements of his position that life is brutal but it has a direction towards an after life because of the existence of God.

Thus Camus in the most difficult first part of the work critiques a series of philosophers who try and deal with this central question by accepting the existence of a supernatural being. Kierkegard as an example essentially argues life is hellish and the universe is bleak but we need to believe in God ultimately: "one can only live in that prison". This is what Camus calls philosophical suicide. In a pretty complicated bit of the work he also critiques the school of phenomenology which (I think) attempt to put some spiritual being into real things which ultimately falls into the same trap as the quasi - religious thinkers. Camus believes essentially the "point is to live".

Humans have to embrace their absurdity and throw themselves into life - a "revolt". Not only that humans should attempt to experience as much as possible. This is where the work takes on a different tack rather than a detailed philosophical rebuttal many examples from literature, art and myth are used. In this there is a really thoughtful analysis of the art of acting, the work of Kafka and as mentioned Dostoevsky. This shows the work is not really a lengthy statement of a new philosophical view - in a sense it is a contemporary comment on aspects of life through this absurd position. It is an essay in the fullest sense of that term.

Sisyphus is the Classical example of this - doomed to roll the rock up the hill watch it roll down then repeat, for ever in the Underworld. This punishment was ascribed to Sisyphus as he dared to challenge death and refused to go - hence his role in Camus' eyes as an absurd hero. The parallel is clear with the modern individual in capitalist society bound to endless work. Yet Camus, convincingly I think, argues that people can adapt to this and one must "imagine Sisyphus happy". Knowing there is nothing else other than rolling the rock - no higher meaning means he can enjoy the process "the struggle is enough... to fill a man's heart".

Essentially then the work is a refuting of religion and a declaration of the enjoyment of life. Where I think it is a bit ambiguous though is the idea that more experience rather than the quality of experience. This is seen in his archetypal absurd heroes - the conqueror, the actor and Don Juan. It is better to have many romantic lovers than one - clearly as long as each has depth. I am unclear how this fits into the vision of routine as captured by Sisyphus and am a bit unconvinced that the endless search for new experience after experience is the most fulfilling way to live life. Surely by doing that one is searching for something which Camus himself thinks doesn't exist. In the introduction to my copy the translator believes he is using secular metaphor rather than religious metaphors but it still doesn't really fit in for me.

Another interesting perspective is the time Camus wrote this was 1940 - the high point of Nazism on the continent. Maybe this was a method of intellectual survival to contemplate the wonder of life just as the reality of living was becoming so impossible. A bit like Gramsci and McLean did in prison during the first world war. Given that context it is a remarkable essay and as a paen to the wonder of life in a secular universe it has to be admired: though still very difficult.

A sad after thought is this book was beside Nick Drake's bed when he died. I dont fully understand why as it really is an attack on the motives for suicide - much (as Camus explained) L'Etranger is an attack on murder. Read this, be puzzled, wonder at the language and imagery, be puzzled again and enjoy.

Tuesday, 3 January 2012

Revolutionary Road: You're Only Kidding Yourself...

My 2011 reading trip round the decay of American family structures and consumer capitalism concluded with this book - Richard Yates' first novel from 1962. My appetite has obviously been whetted with John Cheever but as explained below although the subject matter is in the same ball park it's a slightly different game that Yates is playing.

One of the limited benefits of a movie being made from a novel is that it reinvigorates interest in the work. This was the case for this as Sam Mendes 2008 version led to a reprint and increase in sales of the work; Yates himself died in 1992. I've not seen the film as was waiting to finish the book but as adaptations go it is very good apparently and pretty faithful to the work. But as ever the internal monologue of a good writer, use of phrase and metaphor only enhances itself in prose for me and this is particularly true here.

Split into three the novel is ostensibly an examination of a young suburban couple living on the eponymous street in the mid 1950s. Young as in their 30s with the requisite two children (of which more later) - in 2012 you could probably add 10 years to their age for the same stage of life.

Cars, new televisions, tentative attempts at creating a suburban community, cocktails after work, train journeys home - so far so Cheeverian 1950s America and I would argue many modern developed captialist societies in 2012. But there is a distinction this couple : Frank and April see themselves as apart and removed from their literal lifestyle. More of the avant garde than the golf club/swimming pool set. When they meet 10 years before Frank fresh from the war lives in Greenwich Village and frequents jazz clubs. Even his job in a proto- computer company in the City (which he commutes to) is taken as a post-modern prank or so he would have people believe.

This deceit although buried eventually sprouts up into loathing between the couple which comes to a head after a disastrous (and hilariously written) am-dram production of a mainstream American play which had been a big success in 1950s tv. April is the lead (she trained vaguely as an actress in the 40s) but the show almost literally falls about around them. The fight between the couple is bitter and quite painful to read.

Warring couples are also a Cheever trait but I think the route of the unhappiness is different. This is not simple alienation creating a consumer lifestyle to fill the emptiness of modern capitalist work in a place removed from your geographical being. This is a couple who are pretending to play the game but hold it in disdain but as they play the game becomes more important than the disdain.

The Cheever novels I have read actually only deal with the suburban lifestyle in passing - they have a broader historical sweep ( as this work does slightly with the examination of the couples' parents' lifestyles). It is his short fiction where he forensically dissects it so it is a change to read it in the context of a novel.

An escape is offered - an emigration to Paris where April will work to sustain Frank in "finding out what he wants to do". This is unclear as although Frank tries to be aloof he never really exhibits any particular desire or interest in any other direction - he even refuses to audition for the terrible play. Thus his emptiness or fear of it is exposed by this possibility. It is not a mere fantasy the plan gains legs and serious moves are made to turn it into reality but ultimately Frank baulks using the excuse of April's pregnancy to hide his growing reliance on the lifestyle he despises.

This hesitation exposes April and Frank and their relationship for what they really are with truly sad consequences. Adultery is almost inevitable on both sides. But it culminates in the banal setting of a suburban hospital with a poster advertising a staff dance and Life magazines on the table.

You could make a case that Yates is making broader points about American capitalism - a country born on Revoulutionary Road remember. The book is set almost mid way through the twentieth century in the richest society ever created on the planet but that point but the desire not to be part of it and the unhappiness that seeps into the protagonists bones is palpable. But this is no obviously didactic piece it is in the minutiae of personal relationships that Yates is brilliant at , and a big influence on other writers I think.

He also preempts one of the defining issues of American society in the late 20th Century : abortion. Unusually this is dealt with in an open, honest and contextual way. This divides the couple though they both have ambiguous views on it - again parallels with the broader USA.

The use of minor characters - the realtor Mrs Givings who provides the passage into suburbia for the Wheelers, her son an asylum inmate who is the mirror that reveals the deep truths that the young couple don't really want to see, Shep and Milly a sort of distorted mirror image of the Wheelers with some similar disdain but ultimately I think Shep deals with it in a more honourable way - particularly at the climax.

I enjoyed Yates style of narrative which provides sort of mute and multiple witnesses - he sweeps into scenes and takes different perspectives: Frank, April,Shep, even briefly and memorably Frank and April's children. Yates speaks of the curtainless massive windows in all the houses in Revolutionary Road and the adjoining estate and in a sense he invites us the readers to look through them.

The closing image of Frank as described by Shep is an image that will stay with me for a long time. An important and beautifully written work.