Lavinia, Ursula K. Le Guin

Lavinia is austere, meticulously researched, beautifully written, but for the most part curiously uninvolving.

Perhaps my greatest complaint about it is that although Le Guin sets out to give a voice to a voiceless character from Vergil’s Aenead, the king’s daughter whom Aeneas wins in order to found the Roman empire, I finish the book feeling that I don’t really know Lavinia any better than I did at the start. She never comes alive, except as a quiet, curiously passive woman who moves through the pages observing the tumult swirling around her. We are meant to feel a great love affair between her and Aeneas, but we are not given any real stake in it.

As a critical reader, I can not help but admire Le Guin’s prose. She is a great stylist, and you can feel the careful craft behind every sentence. It’s a long time since I read Vergil in Latin, but I sensed that certain passages were direct translations. All in all, this novel read a little like an academic exercise in scholarship and clear, luminous prose.

There is an emotional pay-off at the end that makes up for quite a bit, but I’m not sure I’d recommend the novel to anyone except those interested in the period or who, like me, are long-time admirers of Le Guin’s work.


Her Fearful Symmetry

Her Fearful Symmetry, Audrey Niffenegger

I mostly loved this, even though it sagged a bit in the middle. Some people seem to hate it because it’s not The Time Traveller’s Wife. Well, it’s not. But it is a graceful, odd, faintly sad novel, populated by characters who are more subtle and have more complex motives than you might first suspect. It has the same kind of matter-of-fact fantasy; I’m not sure whether you’d call it magic realism, or a ghost story. One of the main characters is a ghost (and that’s not a spoiler – she dies in the first chapter). I loved the world Niffenegger creates: the old house on the edge of a cemetery, full of the lonely and the slightly odd. There’s something of the Moomins in characters like Martin, the obsessive/compulsive, trapped in his apartment, or the twins, Julia and Valentina, who when first we meet them sleep curled up together, dress exactly alike, seem to think each other’s thoughts and dream each other’s dreams. I haven’t decided yet what I think The Fearful Symmetry is about – different kinds of love, obsession, power. I’m going to want to reread it, and it’s one of those books that you immediately want to talk about with someone who has read it.

The Road

The Times of London recently named Cormac McCarthy’s The Road the book of the decade. I was telling my students this evening that it was the one novel I would recommend to everyone I know. So it seems appropriate to reprint my review (originally posted on my Other Blog on April 10, 2007)

This book is agonizingly beautiful, tough, horrifying, and entirely remarkable. Few books have held me with the same almost painful fascination; I couldn’t bear to read some of it, but couldn’t bear to stop reading.

Two characters, known only as “The Man” and “The Boy” traverse an unimaginably blighted landscape, eking out a fragile existence in a world made entirely horrific after some nameless apocalypse. They are travelling “south” from where to where we never know. They are starving, sickly and always fearful; their journey is filled with unbearable tension. They are like field mice constantly in fear of larger predators; they know that if they are caught by the bands of “bloodcult” that scour the road the boy will be raped and both will be killed and eaten. Their world is wrapped up completely in one another, and it is in the achingly tender relationship between the two that this novel finds its transcendent grace.

In the relationship, and in McCarthy’s crystal pure prose. I found his style, the sentence fragments and deliberate misspellings, took a little getting used to, but once I got into the rhythm the cadences cut to the soul and haunted my dreams. He is a master of the “show, not tell” and can say in two words or three what other less powerful and assured writers would take a page.

Ssh. Got to keep quiet now.
I’m so scared.
I know. Ssh.

Any criticism seems niggardly, and I don’t hesitate to call this work a masterpiece, but the only slightly jarring note for me was the role – or non role – of the mother. She appears briefly for the birth of the child as the end of the world begins, then we learn that she has committed suicide in despair, leaving the boy in the care of his father. It was an unnecessary and almost throwaway detail and perhaps seemed a little misogynist in spirit, but I’m prepared to admit that my feminist sensibilities could be a mite oversensitive.

There are scenes in this novel that I will never forget: the man cutting his son’s hair, this simple act becoming almost a sacrament in its tenderness and beauty; acts of barbarity, told in simple, matter of fact details that somehow make the horror more unsparing. The images of ash, billowing and rustling, settling everywhere. A dog that barks once. And the man cajoling, comforting, simply loving his son to the core of his being.

The son believes that he and his father are among the “good guys” because they are “carrying the fire.” In its simplicity, passion and transcendent beauty, this novel carries the fire.

The Time Traveller’s Wife

Those of you who have read and loved the book of The Time Traveller’s Wife can be reassured that the movie is not a travesty. It is a respectful adaptation, trimming the book to its main storyline. The two leads are lovely, and I was also impressed with the children who played Claire as a child and Alba, Henry and Claire’s daughter.

Although it captures the romantic core story of the book, it misses the novel’s complexity. We lose the sense of how devastating Henry’s condition is to him – in some ways it is treated almost like a joke or a novelty, not the real curse that it is. Some of the time paradoxes seemed more blatant – I don’t remember if this was something that I just didn’t notice in the book or if some of the changes made things worse. Obviously, the movie also loses the rich layers of intertextuality: art, poetry and music are both essential elements in the novel that are mentioned but not developed in the movie. On the other hand, the faithfulness of the adaptation makes the movie lose some identity or even coherence of its own as a movie; the friend I saw it with commented that those who had not read the book, as we had, might have found it confusing.

I am not sorry I saw it – it was a pleasant way to spend an evening. I did not feel that it was in any way a violation of the book; if anything, it reminded me what a lovely experience reading it had been and made me want to read it again. I’m not sure whether to recommend it to anyone who has NOT read the original, however – you might find the movie confusing and silly, and I would hate it to put you off reading the novel.

The Scholars Weigh in on Beowulf (the movie)

(crossposted to Gladly Learne)

I haven’t seen it yet, and am not sure I want to. I’d rather like to go with my 280 students and sit in the back and be silly and throw things, but I think we’re all mired in writing papers and marking papers and just Getting Through the next few weeks. Maybe we’ll go – we’ll see.

Anyway, I thought you might be interested to read a few responses from the scholars of Old English and/or Medieval studies on my blogroll.

Dr Virago calls it similar to a student’s B- paper, which I think is a very good analogy. Something that has good intentions and some ideas but fails in the application.

Michael Drout, on Wormtalk and Slugspeak, has rather the opposite reaction: he thinks there are some marvellous visuals (naked Angelina Joli being one) but that the themes are tedious and cliche.

Richard Nokes is still waiting for the Great Beowulf Film. He seems to quite like the theme (of narrative unreliability) but didn’t seem to like much else except Angelina Jolie’s prehensile tail braid.

Love, let us be true to one another

Ian McEwan, On Chesil Beach (or Philip Larkin meets Virginia Woolf)

Note: it’s really impossible to write anything with insight about this book without at least implied spoilers, so if you don’t want even a hint of the outcome, do not read any further.

I can’t decide whether this is a Postmodern novel about the death of Modernism, or a Modernist novel about the birth of Postmodernism. It, or at least its setting, the tone and the manners portrayed within it, is very much of the author’s time (the early sixties) rather than its own (2007). If Modernism ends in or with this novel, it ends not with a bang (pardon the pun) but with the embarrassed whimper of a premature ejaculation.

It is 1962, and, as everyone knows, sexual intercourse did not begin until 1963. A man and a woman are on their wedding night, staying, like two characters in a Graham Greene novel, in one of those shabby genteel British seaside hotels. Everything is contained in the opening line: “They were young, educated, and both virgins on this, their wedding night, and they lived in a time when a conversation about sexual difficulties was plainly impossible.” Discuss.

The novel is very short – 162 pages – but not by any means slight. It is the story of, I would say, just over an hour, with excursions to the past and the future. We see how a brief episode in a life is both informed by what has come before and has enormous repercussions for the way the life will unfold. In the same way, this brief, deceptively simple story contains within it through allusion and association its literary forbears, the Victorian (we can’t escape echoes of “Dover Beach”) the Modern, and its contemporaries.

It is told mostly in the prim, dry voice of a narrator who is not so detached from the unfolding events as to miss the humour in the awkwardness and acute embarrassment of the characters. The narrator becomes perhaps a third character in the novel; I say “perhaps” because I have my own theories about its identity, any explanation of which would involve even more egregious spoilers than are already contained here. I can foresee more future exam questions about the role of the narrator.

The main characters are both decent and likeable. Edward wants to escape from a home life shadowed by a mother damaged by a head injury, and Florence from a successful businessman father and aggressively blue-stocking mother. Edward has hidden depths of aggression revealed in an attraction to street fighting, and Florence is a talented musician whose own strong personality is expressed in her art and in her ability to found and lead a string quartet. Neither, then, is weak, yet both are completely undone by the prospect of The Act and The Act itself, he because he has withheld masturbation in the week leading up to this event, with predictable results, and she because she is sickened and frightened by the very idea of it, appalled by words like “penetration” in the sex manual she has studied. The outcome is almost inevitable.

The sex act becomes, then, a metaphor for life, or at least moments of consequence in a life. It is a novel about impotence or ineffectuality, the inability to act, to take action even if it will save a relationship or a life. As a result, it is in many ways as much a horror story as many of McEwan’s earlier works.

for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.