Howards End by E. M. Forster

1 Comment

I decided that it was time to re-read one of my old favourites, so picked E. M. Forster’s Howards End off the bookshelf.

Howards End by E. M. Forster

I first read this wonderful novel eight year ago and it had a big impact on me. I also saw and loved the 1992 film adaptation, staring Emma Thompson, Anthony Hopkins, and Helena Bonham Carter, which to my mind is one of the very best literary novel film adaptations.

Now, as about a million people have no doubt already written lengthy and detailed reviews of this novel, I shall not attempt anything of the sort here. What I’ll do instead is just mention some of the things that I love about this novel.

A sensitive and intelligent exploration of a theme. Turn over the front cover of this novel and on the title page you see Forster’s memorable epigraph: “Only connect…” and the whole of the novel can indeed be seen as an exploration of our deep desire to truly connect with others, as well as the myriad ways in which this desire can get frustrated.

Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer.

There are also many other important themes intelligently explored in the novel, including those of sex and of class and of our quest for meaning in life.

Brilliant characters. Two of the principal characters are the half-German Schlegel sisters, Margaret and Helen, who are so vividly alive in their exploration of culture, beauty, and the arts. Their financial and intellectual independence lead them to explore many of life’s questions in bold and original ways. Contrasted with the Schlegels, are the wealthy Wilcoxes, who are almost entirely focused on practical matters and business and maintaining conventional values. Then there is the poor Leonard Bast who yearns for more out of life than his poverty allows him. The interplay between these and other characters in the novel is really what makes it so memorable.

They had nothing in common but the English language, and tried by its help to express what neither of them understood.

For despite all of the many misunderstandings and strongly held opposing views, we also see these characters do come together and truly connect – at least some of the time.

A finely written plot. E. M. Forster is such a great novelist. In this, as in his other novels, he clearly has his whole story mapped out precisely in his mind from the beginning and uses every scene, every piece of dialogue, indeed every word to layer up his themes and move forward his plot. The way that the different characters move from initial acquaintance with one another to friendship then to greater or lesser degrees of trauma and separation, and then finally to closure is also superbly handled.

Looking back on the past six months, Margaret realized the chaotic nature of our daily life, and its difference from the orderly sequence that has been fabricated by historians. Actual life is full of false clues and sign-posts that lead nowhere. With infinite effort we nerve ourselves for a crisis that never comes.

Beautiful, passionate writing. This is a joy to read. There are many, many sections that could be quoted from this novel. Here is just one typical exchange, which exemplifies the lively exploration of life and the human condition contained within this novel:

If we lived for ever, what you say would be true. But we have to die, we have to leave life presently. Injustice and greed would be the real thing if we lived for ever. As it is, we must hold to other things, because Death is coming. I love death – not morbidly, but because He explains. He shows me the emptiness of Money. Death and Money are the eternal foes. Not Death and Life. . . . Death destroys a man: the idea of Death saves him.

If you enjoyed this, you might also E. M. Forster’s A Room with a View, or A Passage to India (which I now definitely want to re-read!)

I’ll finish with one final quote:

Science explained people, but could not understand them.

Parade’s End by Ford Madox Ford

Leave a comment

As time is short and my brain somewhat frazzled, instead of a full review today I offer a short acrostic. Enjoy!

Parade's End by Ford Madox Ford

Parade’s End by Ford Madox Ford is a novel that I read recently.
Anticipation was pretty high, as I really love Ford’s The Good Soldier.
Reading this took a while, as Parade’s End is actually a series of four novels (836 pages).
According to one critic, the “best fictional treatment of war in the history of the novel”.
Dramatis personae: Our hero, Christopher Tietjens, who is noble, brilliant, and principled;
Enter next his cruel wife, Sylvia, who spends her days trying to torment our hero; then
Suffragette and pacifist, Valentine Wannop, who is Christopher’s soul mate and true love.

Excellent in parts, this novel is well worth a read, but loses its way towards the end.*
Nevertheless, I shall remember Tietjens – “the last Tory” and last of a dying breed;
Dead but not forgotten, as the saying goes…

 

*Graham Greene controversially omitted Last Post (the fourth and final novel in the series) from his Bodley Head edition of Ford’s writing, calling it “an afterthought which he (Ford) had not intended to write and later regretted having written.” I have to confess that I tend to agree with Graham Greene; I think the series would have been stronger had it been left to stand after the end of the third novel.

If you liked this, you might also enjoy Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier (which is a bit of an acquired taste, but definitely one of my personal favourites).

Brideshead Revisited – Evelyn Waugh

3 Comments

Around the time that I finished reading A Dance to the Music of Time, it happened to start getting gloriously warm and sunny. It was staying light until gone half past nine, and then, when the sun did eventually start to sink towards the horizon, there were often stunning red sunsets. As I was considering what to read next, I saw my old copy of Brideshead Revisited sat on the bookshelf, and thought to myself: What could be more fitting than to read Brideshead on such beautiful, long English summer evenings?

And so I did just that. I sat in the evening sun, and delighted in rereading this wonderful novel: Brideshead Revisited: The sacred and profane memories of Captain Charles Ryder.

Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh

Indeed, summertime really is the time to read this classic. Evelyn Waugh’s depiction of privileged, slightly naive, hugely romantic young adults, just starting out in the world is beautifully written. The prose is sublime, the scenes well crafted, the settings evocative, and the characters brilliantly crafted. Waugh captures not only their enthusiasm and joy in exploring everything about the world around them, but also provides a snapshot of an aristocratic, feudal system that was very soon to be lost forever. It is partly this combination of youthful exhilaration coupled with a subtle underlying nostalgia that makes this tale so poignant.

The early chapters see our young protagonist, Charles Ryder, approaching the end of his first year at Oxford, when he makes the acquaintance of the charming, aristocratic, and entirely singular Sebastian Flyte. The two soon become inseparable, and enjoy an intense period of pleasure and discovery as they drink champagne, eat quails eggs, party and philosophise – all against the backdrop of the ancient spires of Oxford during a glorious English summer.

More

Hearing Secret Harmonies by Anthony Powell

3 Comments

For my next book, I decided to tackle the final instalment of Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time series: the wonderfully named novel, Hearing Secret Harmonies.

Hearing Secret Harmonies by Anthony Powell

And so, nearly five years after beginning this series, and having read 12 novels, each typically around 250-300 pages (totalling over one million words), I have now finished this vast and impressive work.

In keeping with one of the themes of the series – namely how chance encounters can end up having a profound impact on one’s life – I have been reflecting on how I came to read these books in the first place. It was the summer of 2010, and I was on holiday in Cornwall with my wife and some good friends. One day we decided to visit Truro, and whilst there I wandered past a second-hand book shop, and decided to have a nose around. Whilst browsing the shelves, and I spotted this series, and having heard of it and knowing that it chronicled the lives of a set of English characters from their school days right through to old age, I decided that I’d like to read it for myself.

More

Appointment in Samarra by John O’Hara

4 Comments

Next up in my pile of novels that people had kindly given me, was Appointment in Samarra by John O’Hara. A couple of years back I had noticed that this book featured in both the Modern Library 100 Best Novels list and the TIME Magazine 100 best English-language novels published since 1923 list, which piqued my interest. I then looked up some information about the novel, and decided it definitely sounded like my kind of read.

Appointment in Samarra by John O'Hara

Fellow book blogger Robert Bruce (over at 101books.net) mentioned in his review of the novel last year that some have referred to Appointment in Samarra as a “poor man’s Gatsby”, and having now read the novel, I can see why. Within the world of this novel we meet not only the rich and the elite, but also bootleggers and gangsters, mistresses and, ultimately, Death.The setting of the book is 1930s America and the main character is a privileged young man named Julian English, who is part of the social elite of his home town.

However, despite everything that he has going for him, including a good job (the owner of a Cadillac dealership, no less), a lovely home, a beautiful wife, society friends, and a certain amount of natural charm, Julian English is somehow dissatisfied with his lot. Yes, as with The Great Gatsby, here too, it seems that the great American Dream is not quite able to deliver all that it promises.

Be in no doubt: this is a cynical and darkly comic exposé of the reality behind the façade of 1930s respectability and outward success.

More

As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner

6 Comments

Anyone who is considering what to read next, and is looking for a nice easy, pleasant, not too demanding summer holiday kind of book… should absolutely stay clear of William Faulkner’s novels!

As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner

This is the third of his novels that I have read (the other two being The Sounds and the Fury and Light in August) and they are all pretty challenging reads.

What makes me say this? Well, here are few facts about this particular novel, which might give you some idea.

Firstly, the novel is narrated by not one, not two, not three, but fifteen (yes, 15!) different characters. With this number it becomes difficult to remember who they all are and what their relation to one another is. (This is made even more difficult by the unusual names the characters have – names such as Addie, Anse, Armstid, Cash, Cora, Darl, Dewey Dell, Vardaman, and Vernon.)

Secondly, here, as elsewhere, Faulkner experiments with his own form of stream-of-consciousness writing, which is at times brilliant – but can also be quite difficult to follow. Often you can be bombarded with many different and often not terribly related thoughts in a single paragraph.

Thirdly, this novel, like most of his work, is set in the Deep South at the turn of the twentieth century, and so you have to train your ear to the dialect and its unique words and phrases.

Finally, the entire novel is about the death of one woman and the efforts of her family to get her buried. Yes, seriously.

Here is a sample extract to give you a flavour of the prose:

And now them others sitting there, like buzzards. Waiting, fanning themselves. Because I said If you wouldn’t keep on sawing and nailing at it until a man cant sleep even and her hands laying on the quilt like two of them roots dug up and tried to wash and you couldn’t get them clean. I can see the fan and Dewey Dell’s arm. I said if you’d just let her alone. Sawing and knocking, and keeping the air always moving so fast on her face that when you’re tired you cant breathe it, and that goddamn adze going One lick less. One lick less. One lick less until everybody that passes in the road will have to stop and see it and say what a fine carpenter he is. If it had just been me when Cash fell off of that church and if it had just been me when pa laid sick with that load of wood fell on him, it would not be happening with every bastard in the country coming in to stare at her because if there is a God what the hell is He for. It would just be me and her on a high hill and me rolling the rocks down the hill at their faces, picking them up and throwing them down the hill faces and teeth and all by God until she was quiet and not that goddamn adze going One lick less. One lick less and we could be quiet.

At this stage, you might be wondering why anyone would read, let alone enjoy reading As I Lay Dying.  However, like Faulkner’s other books, it is a rich and complex text, that does have much to offer. Ultimately, it is a study of one family and how each member reacts to the death of Addie in different ways.

Throughout the narrative, we learn of the conflicting desires, the fears, and the rivalries that exist amongst the clan. Whilst at times it is quite harrowing, at other points it is more like reading a black comedy. It is also very successful at creating a vivid, memorable landscape.

So, it’s one of those novels that I am glad that I’ve read, and one that I will remember. However, I think I’ll go for a somewhat easier read next!

Finally, a piece of trivia: Faulkner claimed that he wrote the novel from midnight to 4:00am over the course of six weeks while working at a power plant, and that he did not change a word of it. I doubt that this is the absolute strict truth, but even if it is broadly true it is an astonishing achievement. (Note to self: Perhaps I should get night work in a power plant…)

If you liked this, you might enjoy Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury or Light in August.

An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser

Leave a comment

Hello dear readers. Apologies for my absence. It has been a very busy few weeks. I did in fact finally finish reading An American Tragedy a while ago, but this is the first time that I’ve had the chance to sit down and update this blog.

An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser
Here are some titbits and highlights from this large novel:

First published: 1925

Length: my edition runs to a whopping 856 pages

Meaning of the title: I guess that Dreiser is subverting the well-known notion of “the American Dream”. Broadly speaking, the American Dream can be said to represent opportunity for all and the possibility of each man reaching ever greater levels of success, riches and happiness. So, even in the very title, Dreiser appears to be questioning this notion. The novel is also a tragedy in the true sense of the word, as Clyde’s downfall is brought about by his own innate weaknesses.

Opening lines:

Dusk – of a summer night. And the tall walls of the commercial heart of an American city of perhaps 400,000 inhabitants – such walls as in time may linger in a mere fable.

Setting: Kansas City, Chicago, and Lycurgus – a fictitious small town in New York

Origins: Dreiser apparently based the book on an infamous criminal case. As in the novel, the real case featured an overturned boat and the body of young woman found in a lake in Upstate New York. The man convicted of killing her also denied murder.

What’s to like? For me, the plot is the best thing about this novel. It is compelling and it does make for a good read. However, see the next point…

What’s not to like? Whilst the plot itself is gripping, the writing style sometimes leaves a little to be desired.  It is very heavy-handed in places, so much so that you nearly always know a long time in advance what is coming next. And, strangely, this makes the experience of reading the tragedy more not less painful. There is also some highly questionable punctuation, including dashes seemingly in every other paragraph. In fact, to my mind, the text cries out for some editorial attention.

Key quotes: I’ve picked out a few choice excerpts that give a flavour of the tale.

Early in the novel we find Clyde reflecting on his current situation and comparing his life with the lives of others:

His life should not be like this. Other boys did not have to do as he did.

Next is one of the many passages that highlight the conflicting desires that rage within the young Clyde. On the one hand he is desperately trying to better himself and to fit in with those he views as his social superiors, yet on the other hand he cannot seem to escape certain desires and behaviours that run counter to his social ambitions:

… he had sought to be as retiring and cautious as possible. For – after that and while connected with the club, he had been taken with the fancy of trying to live up to the ideals with which the seemingly stern face of that institution had inspired him – conservatism – hard work – saving one’s money – looking neat and gentlemanly. It was such an Eveless paradise, that.

Towards the end of the novel there is a powerful scene wherein a local priest gets to the heart of the matter when reciting a gospel passage to Clyde:

What matter it if a man gaineth the whole world and loseth his own soul?

In summary: a good yarn that I would recommend, although I suspect that its length and slightly dry style will put some people off trying this novel.

If you liked this, you might also enjoy: Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham.

Older Entries