Review: A Dance to the Music of Time: First Movement, by Anthony Powell

A Dance to the Music of Time follows a group of British men as they move from school to university to adulthood.  The story begins in the 1920s when the narrator, Nick Jenkins, is at boarding school with his friends Stringham and Templer.  Their school days are coming to an end; will they go up to university or go directly to work?  As they contemplate their next phase of life, they also spend countless hours mocking other students — especially a boy named Widmerpool — and playing pranks on their  house master.

The “first movement” of A Dance to the Music of Time consists of three novellas spanning just over a decade: A Question of Upbringing, A Buyer’s Market, and The Acceptance World.  Jenkins and his friends come of age, finding their adult footing and struggling with love and loss.  Several other characters move in and out of their lives, like partners in a dance.  A woman appears initially as one man’s girlfriend, later as the wife of a second man, and still later as a third man’s lover.  Other characters have recurring roles in the dance, taking the floor every so often and then fading into the background.   As Jenkins muses in the second book:

I certainly did not expect that scattered elements of Mrs. Andriadis’s party would recur so comparatively soon in my life … their commitment was sufficient to draw attention once again to that extraordinary process that causes certain figures to appear and reappear in the performance of one or another sequence of what I have already compared with a ritual dance.

The dance metaphor works very well in this book.  The sequence and pacing reminded me of a ballroom filled with people gracefully stepping through a minuet.  And while it is obvious that time is passing, precise measures of time are rarely mentioned, giving the book a languid, leisurely feel.  Yet every so often Powell sums things up with powerful prose, like this paragraph towards the end of A Question of Upbringing:

I knew now that this parting was one of those final things that happen, recurrently, as time passes: until at last they may be recognised fairly easily as the close of a period.  This was the last I should see of Stringham for a long time. The path had suddenly forked. With regret, I accepted the inevitability of circumstance. Human relationships flourish and decay, quickly and silently, so that those concerned scarcely know how brittle, or how inflexible, the ties that bind them have become. … A new epoch was opening: in a sense this night was the final remnant of life at school.

A Dance to the Music of Time is very British, and very evocative of the period between the wars.  Every time I sat down to read, I was instantly transported into that world, while simultaneously reflecting on the “dance” representing my life.  While this “first movement” was more than 700 pages long, I never tired of it and was sad to say good-bye to characters who have inhabited my imagination for over a week.  I will most definitely be reading the rest of this series.

Review: The Portrait of a Lady, by Henry James

The Portrait of a Lady is a story of Americans abroad, and a story of love and loss.  Isabel Archer arrives in England with her aunt, Lydia Touchett, who is intent on broadening her horizons.  Lydia is the mother of Isabel’s cousin Ralph, who lives with his father on their English estate, Gardencourt.  Within a few weeks of her arrival at Gardencourt, Isabel turns down two marriage proposals, insisting on maintaining her independence.  She inherits a considerable sum of money, and it appears she will be able to achieve her goal.  Unfortunately, her “friends” have other ideas, and when Isabel travels to the continent, she soon finds herself falling for Gilbert Osmond, an American living in Italy.  Sadly, their marriage is not a happy one and Isabel is stuck making the best of a bad situation.

The story evolves quite slowly, but there’s much more to this rich novel than can be described in a simple plot summary.  Henry James’ writing is complex, but not as difficult to read as I’d feared.  James was himself an American living abroad, and he clearly loved his adopted country.  Speaking through Ralph Touchett’s father, James offers a delightful point of view of an American living in England:

I’ve been watching these people for upwards of thirty-five years, and I don’t hesitate to say that I’ve acquired considerable information. It’s a very fine country on the whole–finer perhaps than we give it credit for on the other side. There are several improvements I should like to see introduced; but the necessity of them doesn’t seem to be generally felt as yet.

And the characterizations are superb.  Ralph cares deeply for Isabel, but never acts on his feelings.  Lydia is self-centered, but in an amusing way.  Madame Merle, a good friend of Lydia, is quite eccentric and takes Isabel under her wing; however, there is a mysterious side to her as well.  Isabel’s friend Henrietta is assertive and brash, perhaps representing the “typical American” in Europe.  Gilbert Osmond is completely unlikeable, and his sister Amy, the Countess Gemini, is vapid and self-centered, but pulls off a major feat near the end that shows there’s much more to her than meets the eye.

Throughout this novel Isabel is caught between a desire for independence, and societal pressures and expectations.  James’ understated prose delivers surprising emotional intensity, through a collection of memorable characters.  Highly recommended.

Review: Pride & Prejudice, by Jane Austen

This is my second time reading Pride and Prejudice, so it was a bit like going to visit an old friend.  I knew I’d enjoy it, and I also hoped I’d discover something new.  I was not disappointed!

The story opens with the famous line, “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” Charles Bingley is the aforementioned single man, and when he arrives in the neighborhood Mrs. Bennet is determined to marry off one of her five daughters. Jane, the eldest, catches Bingley’s eye.  At the same time Jane’s younger and feistier sister Elizabeth verbally spars with Bingley’s more reserved friend Mr. Darcy.  Misinterpretation and poor communication keep Lizzie and Darcy apart for far too long.  During that time Lizzie works to bring Jane and Bingley together, and rejects an offer of marriage from Mr. Collins, a distant relative who is set to inherit her father’s estate.  And there’s so much more: balls, elopements, kind relatives, nasty relatives … and of course true love conquers all.

I most enjoyed rediscovering Jane Austen’s marvelous wit.  Characters like Mr. Collins, and Lizzie’s mother Mrs. Bennet, were so ridiculous I just had to laugh.  And even though Pride and Prejudice was written two hundred years ago, the book and its characters seem just as realistic and relevant today.

This really isn’t much of a review, just a few impressions of a book I know I will re-read many more times.

Review: The Man Who Loved Children, by Christina Stead

This is a most unusual family drama, simultaneously frightening, funny, and intense.  Sam and Henny Pollit have six children.  Eldest daughter Louisa was a product of Sam’s first marriage; Henny has been nothing more than Sam’s brood mare, spawning an assortment of children that offer endless amusement to Sam and endless stress and torment to Henny. Sam is self-centered and without a care in the world; he prides himself on being the “fun” parent, organizing all manner of escapades with his children.  He speaks in a language all his own, full of cutesy nicknames and odd turns of phrase.  Henny grew up in a wealthy family, and cannot accept the reduced circumstances of her life with Sam.  She lives beyond their means, both materially and socially.

Sam and Henny neglect many of the practicalities associated with raising a family.  At 13, Louisa is far too young to shoulder these responsibilities and yet there she is, fixing breakfast every day, and making sure the household runs smoothly.  Henny has never accepted Louisa into the family, and verbally abuses her.  Sam showers her with pet names like Looloo, but also smothers her with his prying and controlling behaviors.  Louisa longs for summer holidays, when she stays with her mother’s family:

For nine months of the year were trivial miseries, self-doubts, indecisions, and all those disgusts of preadolescence, when the body is dirty, the world a misfit, the moral sense qualmish, and the mind a sump of doubt: but three months of the year she lived in trust, confidence, and love. (p. 163)

Sam and Henny have such a poor relationship that all communication occurs through their children.  Even Sam’s impending posting to Malaya is communicated to Henny via her eldest son.  And when they argue, all hell breaks loose:

When a quarrel started (Henny and Sam did speak at the height of their most violent quarrels) and elementary truths were spoken, a quiet, a lull would fall over the house. One would hear, while Henny was gasping for indignant breath and while Sam was biting his lip in stern scorn, the sparrows chipping, or the startling rattle of the kingfisher, or even an oar sedately dipping past the beach, or even the ferry’s hoot. Exquisite were these moments. Then the tornado would break loose again. What a strange life it was for them, those quiet children, in this shaded house, in a bower of trees, with the sunny orchard shining, the calm sky and silky creek, with sunshine outside and shrieks of madness inside.  (p. 326)

Louisa often finds herself caught in the middle of this marital drama, trying to break up the fights and protect the younger children.  While Sam is away in Malaya, life settles into some semblance of order, and on his return it seems as if normalcy will continue.  But a series of events dramatically change the family’s place in the community.   Sam and Henny are unable to work through this together, and when Sam takes charge you just know it won’t end well.  Louisa continues to serve as a stabilizing force, but increasingly resents Sam’s intrusion and control.

By now the “frightening” and “intense” elements of this novel should be clear.  It’s strange and uncomfortable to admit that in the midst of all this, there are funny elements as well.  Sam is larger than life.  He’s a complete prat and yet amusing and likable.  He and Henny share equally in their family’s dysfunction, and as much as she’s a victim of Sam’s ridiculous notions, I couldn’t help liking Sam more.  But Sam does some really awful things to his children, things that (if they were real people) would scar them for life.  As a reader, I felt really conflicted, which I think is by design.  Christina Stead is able to make the reader feel like one of Sam and Henny’s many children — fond of both parents, hurt and abused, and completely caught in the middle.

This is not an easy book to read, but not for the reasons you might think.  Yes, the subject matter is difficult, and it’s a bit like watching an impending train wreck.  But the prose also makes its demands on the reader, particularly Sam’s invented language.  However, those willing to invest the time and effort in this book will be rewarded in the end.

More reviews of The Man Who Loved Children:

Classics Circuit Review: Barchester Towers, by Anthony Trollope

The Classics Circuit’s Anthony Trollope tour is in full swing.  It began Monday, December 6 and will end Friday, December 17.  The button comes from the frontspiece of the first publication of The Last Chronicle of Barset (published 1867).  Anthony Trollope was born in London in 1815. When he died in 1882, he’d written 70 major works, including novels, stories, sketches, essays, and travelogues.

Here’s my review of Barchester Towers, followed by some more comments on the tour.

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I’d never read Trollope before, and chose to read Barchester Towers for this blog tour.  First, because it was a familiar title.  It’s part of The Chronicles of Barsetshire, one of Trollope’s best-known series.  And second, because I had a copy on my shelves that has gathered dust for something like 20 years.  I thought it was high time I read it!

And … I made it through 140 pages of this 533-page tome before throwing in the towel.

I typically enjoy classic English literature, and the storyline was promising.  When a bishop dies, his son expects to be appointed successor, but another man is chosen.  This causes a bit of controversy, and the new bishop stirs things up by actually expecting clergy to work.  Trollope’s tongue is firmly lodged in his cheek as he paints vivid character portraits, such as this description of the new bishop and his wife:

It is not my intention to breathe a word against the character of Mrs. Proudie, but still I cannot think that with all her virtues she ads much to her husband’s happiness. The truth is that in matters domestic she rules supreme over her titular lord, and rules with a rod of iron. Nor is this all. Things domestic Dr. Proudie might have abandoned to her, if not voluntarily, yet willingly. But Mrs. Proudie is not satisfied with such home dominion, and stretches her power over all his movements, and will not even abstain from things spiritual. In fact, the bishop is henpecked.  (p.23)

But the humor was not enough to compensate for the glacial pace.  In 140 pages a new bishop was appointed, and the bishop and his wife had a party.  In between these epic events, various characters were introduced.  Trollope spent 11 pages describing five members of a notable family in exhaustive detail.  The bishop’s party received similar treatment, except that took twice as long.  I just lost patience with it.

At first I was disappointed in myself for giving up, for not appreciating the detail and use of language.  Then I thought about Charles Dickens, a contemporary of Trollope.  I don’t particularly like reading Dickens either, but I adored dramatizations like Bleak House (2005), and Little Dorrit (2008).  These films brought Dickens’ world to life in a way the books never did.  As I was struggling with Trollope, a bookish friend recommended the 1982 BBC production of Barchester Chronicles.  If nothing else, I think I’ve learned that the best way for me to experience Victorian literature is through film.

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Despite trying very hard to get past it, there was another aspect of Trollope’s writing that put me off.  As LifetimeReader said, “Trollope reflects many of the assumptions and prejudices of his time.  Sometimes his portrayals of gender or race can be kind of off-putting.” And Falaise was even more direct: “Let’s make no bones about this.  Trollope is a racist and he’s not afraid to show it.  Not for him the subtle sneer or the coded comment.  No, sir.”

I couldn’t agree more.  One of the characters in Barchester Towers dabbled in Judaism (as if that even makes sense), giving Trollope a forum for overt racist comments about Jews as “dirty” people.  It was unbelievably offensive, and even though I know it’s unfair to hold Trollope to today’s standards it was a complete turn-off.

But who knows, maybe I’m alone in my views on this book.  I’m looking forward to visiting these blogs for more thoughts on Barchester Towers, and I hope you’ll join me!

To learn more about Trollope’s entire body of work, check out all the tour stops.

The Sunday Salon Review: Summer, by Edith Wharton

This was a big week in literature, with the Booker Prize announcement on Tuesday.  I also reached a reading milestone:  reading all the Booker winners through 2009.  This inspired me to write a retrospective on Booker winners, with my view on favorites and clunkers.  I’ve ordered the 2010 winner, The Finkler Question, and plan to read it in November.

This week I also finally read a better-than-average book, so I saved up my review to share with you today.  Actually, it was also a pretty busy week, so it was Saturday by the time I sat down to write my review!  But whatever the reason, here it is …

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Charity Royall came of age in North Dormer, an isolated Massachusetts village.  Her guardian was a prominent lawyer, who gave Charity a home after her mother proved unable to care for her.  Charity has led a life of relative privilege, and has no memory of life up on the impoverished Mountain.  She resigns herself to village life, and working as the local librarian.

Then one day a young architect named Lucius Harney arrives in North Dormer, to visit his aunt and sketch local buildings.  He is much more worldly than Charity; he buys her nice things and introduces her to unimaginable experiences.  Despite lawyer Royall’s efforts, the passion between Charity and Lucius culminates in a full-fledged clandestine affair.  Although Charity lacks experience, she enters into the affair with full knowledge and intentions.  The time she spends with Lucius is memorable and idyllic, and the subsequent turn of events is not entirely unexpected.  Towards the end of the book Charity has to navigate some extremely difficult situations which show her depth and strength, and her actions in the last chapter show clearly why Wharton gave this character the name, “Charity.”

Charity Royall experienced emotions and physical sensations that women in the early 1900s simply didn’t discuss with others.   Edith Wharton was a pioneer in portraying Charity as a normal, healthy young woman, creating a new view of female sexuality.  My edition of Summer included an introduction by Marilyn French that discusses this topic at length, and greatly enriched my reading experience.

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Read more from The Sunday Salon here.

Review: Troubles, by J.G. Farrell

In May, 2010 J.G. Farrell’s Troubles won the “Lost Man Booker Prize.” The award brought renewed attention to this classic, first published in 1970.  I knew the novel was set around 1920, and dealt with the war between Sinn Fein/I.R.A. and British occupational forces in Ireland.  I enjoy historical fiction, and I read several glowing reviews, but unfortunately this book failed to live up to my expectations.

The story begins when Major Brendan Archer, recently discharged from the British army, travels to Ireland to reunite with his fiancee, Angela, whose father Edward owns The Majestic, a huge, decrepit hotel.  The Major isn’t quite sure how he became engaged to Angela, but all of her letters to him imply a commitment was made.  However, on arrival at The Majestic, Angela behaves strangely towards him, and is soon taken ill and confined to bed.  Meanwhile, Edward is attracted to Sarah Devlin, a young woman from town.  She is an obnoxious attention-seeker, and I never understood what he saw in her.  Later, Edward’s twin daughters Faith and Charity arrive on the scene.  Like most of the characters in Troubles, they are caricatures, but I also found them distasteful.

The book is satirical, and infused with dry wit which I really enjoyed:

They had kissed behind a screen of leaves and, reaching out to steady himself, he had put his hand down on a cactus, which had rendered many of his parting words insincere.  The strain had been so great that he had been glad to get away from her. Perhaps, however, this suppressed agony had given the wrong impression of his feelings. (p. 7)

The story is long and sprawling, with several subplots and a number of fantastical events.  I could appreciate The Majestic as a metaphor for the decline of Empire, and the residents as stereotypes of the Anglo-Irish privileged classes.  But late in the novel there were several acts of senseless cruelty to animals, all described in the same “witty” style as the above quote, and that was the turning point in my opinion of this novel.  There was something about Troubles that appealed to me (I did, after all, read all 459 pages), and other aspects reminded me of magical realism, a genre I do not care for.

Many of my fellow readers have loved this book, but for some reason it just wasn’t for me.

The Sunday Salon & Classics Circuit Review: A Shilling for Candles, by Josephine Tey

Welcome to The Sunday Salon, and The Golden Age of Detective Fiction blog tour.  The Golden Age of Detective Fiction refers to the 1920s and 1930s, when the genre flourished, producing many famous writers:  Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler … and today’s guest, the British author Josephine Tey.

Born Elizabeth Mackintosh in 1896, she grew up in Inverness and Birmingham, became a teacher, and turned to writing when she quit teaching to care for her father.  She wrote under two pseudonyms:  Josephine Tey and Gordon Daviot.  In several of Tey’s novels, the hero is a Scotland Yard inspector by the name of Alan Grant. Two of Tey’s novels have already been reviewed on this tour:

I read A Shilling for Candles, an Alan Grant mystery published in 1936.  I will confess up front that I don’t read a lot of mysteries.  Many of the popular, modern mystery writers seem formulaic after reading more than one of their books.  But when this tour was announced, I jumped on it as an opportunity to discover another new-to-me woman author.  So, let me tell you a bit more about the book …

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Early one morning, the body of actress Christine Clay is found on the beach.  While it initially appeared to be a drowning, after further investigation the local constabulary chose to call in Inspector Alan Grant of Scotland Yard.  Grant initially suspected Robert Tisdall, a young man who shared a cottage with Miss Clay at the time of her death.  But as he learned more about Clay’s life and career, several potential suspects emerged.

What follows is a bit of a romp across southern England as Grant delves into the case and strives to learn more about each suspect.  If I were giving Grant a performance review, I’d tell him to dig a little deeper and not be taken in by red herrings, like the shady character with a criminal past.  Come on, anyone who has read at least one mystery knows that guy’s not the murderer!  But Grant pursued several obvious leads right into investigative cul-de-sacs, only to emerge and tear down another route.  When the murderer was finally identified, I could almost hear Grant smack his forehead in astonishment.  Though I hadn’t figured it out myself, I should have.  If Grant had only looked for the “slightly less obvious,” he would have cracked this case in no time.

What this novel lacked in suspense, it made up for in fun.  Grant is a sympathetic character, and Tey fills this story with a myriad of others who are endearing or comical.  This book was a great escape and a welcome break between more “serious” reads.

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Read more from The Sunday Salon here.

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Classics Circuit Review: Thérèse Raquin, by Émile Zola

Bienvenue á Paris!

Welcome to Paris in the Springtime, on The Classics Circuit!  Émile Zola is our featured author.  Several of us are reading Thérèse Raquin, Zola’s first major work.  Wikipedia describes this book as the tragic story of a young unhappily married woman and her ill-fated affair.  Published in 1867, Zola’s goal was to “study temperaments and not characters”, and he did so with a very detached, scientific approach.  I thought this book would be a good introduction to Zola.  I guess a lot of others did, too, because there are eight people reviewing Thérèse Raquin for this tour.  This is review #5 and while I have linked to previous reviews below, I was careful not to read any of them until I’d finished the book and formed my own opinions.

Thérèse Raquin was pretty well-received by Classics Circuit participants.  I’ll say more about that after my review.

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In the preface to Thérèse Raquin, Émile Zola wrote,

In a word, I wanted only one thing: given a powerful man and a dissatisfied woman, to search out the beast in them, and nothing but the beast, plunge them into a violent drama and meticulously note the feelings and actions of those two beings.  I have merely performed on two living bodies the analytical work that surgeons carry out on dead ones. (p 4)

The book was written in 1867, when psychology and behavioral studies focused largely on the idea of  “temperament.”   Zola chose to examine how two individuals of different temperament would respond to a set of circumstances.  Enter Thérèse, a young woman abandoned by her natural father, raised by her aunt (Madame Raquin), and married to her sickly cousin Camille.  She worked as an assistant in her aunt’s Paris haberdashery, and helped care for Camille.  Life was dull, even stifling.  Camille worked in a railway company office, and soon established a regular Thursday evening dinner with colleagues at his home.  One of the guests, Laurent, was young and virile, and Thérèse was instantly attracted to him.  The feeling was mutual, and they quickly found themselves entangled in a passionate affair.

From this point Zola explored what two people of such temperaments might do to satisfy their desires.  As Thérèse & Laurent’s passions escalated, their actions became more rash, culminating in an unthinkable act.  Zola meticulously dissected the couple’s thoughts and actions, and the impact of the act on their relationship.  Things turned quite dark at this point; the claustrophobia and fear were palpable.  There was never any doubt in my mind how the story would end, and yet there was still an element of suspense.

Zola’s writing style is detached and analytical — like a news reporter or scientist, reporting the facts without judgment — but he also brought 1860s Paris to life, with settings modeled on popular paintings of the day.  Despite the detached style, Thérèse Raquin was an excellent character study.  I actually found Madame Raquin’s character most intriguing.  She’s somewhat of a passive bystander, and yet as the situation escalates her passivity takes on a level of importance that I did not anticipate.   This book was so well-written that I was quickly hooked.

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Four other reviews of Thérèse Raquin have been published so far:

I was a little worried that Classics Circuit readers would tire of hearing about dear Thérèse.  But each of these reviews addresses different aspects of the book.  Some are more focused on plot, and others on style.  Taken as a whole, readers gain a comprehensive understanding of this work.  It was almost like being in a book group, sharing so many different perspectives.  And surprisingly, everyone liked this book!  Bibliolatry wrote, “I was shocked by how graphic and disturbing this short novel was” — a sentiment expressed in different ways by each reviewer.  We liked the suspense, the intrigue, and even the unusual “Naturalist” style so characteristic of Zola’s writing.

But wait!  There’s more!  Thérèse will make three more appearances during this tour:  

I’m curious to see whether their opinions will be markedly different from those expressed so far.  But even if they aren’t, I’m sure each blogger will bring their own unique point of view, and I am looking forward to reading their thoughts.

To learn about Zola’s entire body of work, check out all of the tour stops.  À bientôt!
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