Wide Sargasso Sea (1966) by Jean Rhys

WideSargasso

And if the razor grass cut my legs I would think ‘It’s better than people.’ Black ants or red ones, tall nests swarming with white ants, rain that soaked me to the skin – once I saw a snake. All better than people. Better. Better, better than people.

Thanks to my lovely friends and family (and a carefully curated Amazon wishlist) I received a ton of new books for my birthday in June. They’re currently stacked up under the coffee table and will likely remain there for ages and ages while I slowly work my way through them. It’s not often I have nice things to say about Amazon (who need to pay their damn taxes and treat their staff a bit better) but I do kind of love the wishlist feature. It makes birthdays for lazy people like me so much easier.

Wide Sargosso Sea was the first to graduate out of the unread pile. I’d been curious about it for quite a while; it came highly recommended by a friend and I knew enough about it to suspect that we’d probably get along quite well. This novel is Rhys’s attempt to give Antoinette ‘Bertha’ Mason, Jane Eyre’s original madwoman in the attic, a voice and a life before Bronte’s classic story. The first part of the novel is told from the viewpoint of Antoinette and gives an unsettling account of her lonely childhood in Jamaica in the 1830s, shortly after the abolition of slavery. After a traumatic start for Antoinette the novel jumps ahead several years to the days immediately after her marriage to Mr Rochester (who’s never actually named in the novel). His narrative is one of resentment at having been coerced into a marriage with a Creole girl he doesn’t care for and later suspicion when he finds cause to doubt her. For the last few short chapters the novel again leaps forward in time, this time to a point where it overlaps with Jane Eyre; a wild, forgotten Antoinette is now captive in the attic of Thornfield while Rochester lives his life below, trying to forget that she ever existed.

As a Jane Eyre lover I found this last chapter most fascinating of all but in truth I was pretty taken with the whole of Wide Sargasso Sea. It had occurred to me before now that for a character so vital to Jane Eyre, Bertha Mason is given very little page time by Bronte. In effect she isn’t much more than a dramatic plot twist. When I first read the book as a teenager I pushed aside the niggling feeling at the back of my mind that maybe, just maybe, Rochester hadn’t treated his first wife (or Jane) very fairly; I argued that the book was a product of its time and that really Rochester, who never claims to be an honourable or a good man, was probably doing her a kindness by not having her locked up in some appalling asylum somewhere. I expect these are the kinds of things that many readers consider and while I’m not usually a fan of prequels I love the fact that Rhys must have wondered about some of the same things.

Rhys’s Rochester is aloof and occasionally cruel, much as he is in Jane Eyre, but she doesn’t really depict him as a liar or suggest that he behaves any differently to other men of his class and time would have done in his situation. Antoinette, on the other hand, is traumatised, desperate, childlike and distant; although she narrates much of the novel she still feels strangely shadowy towards the end. Rhys plays up her sense of isolation throughout the novel by suggesting that she doesn’t belong anywhere; as the daughter of a former slave owner she’s reviled by the island’s black inhabitants but as a Creole she’s not considered civilised by the white Europeans, including by Rochester.  She’s stuck in some lonely, untouchable place between the two so by the end of the novel you’re not really sure who the real victim is here. Were the seeds of Antoinette’s madness sewn in her childhood or was she driven to insanity by her husband’s cruelty? Were Rochester’s suspicions about his wife well founded or did he willingly accept an explanation that offered him an easy way out? I was still pondering some of these questions a week after I’d finished the novel.

Wide Sargasso Sea provided a welcome chance to tick off another destination on my Around the World in 80 Books tour. For Antoinette Rhys evokes the West Indian islands of her childhood as an almost indecently lush, green garden but for Rochester it’s an overwhelming contrast to Thornfield:

“Too much blue, too much purple, too much green. The flowers too red, the mountains too high, the hills too near.”

It’s claustrophobic and disorientating, much like this novel. And I mean that in a good way.

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The Truce (1960) by Mario Benedetti

truce

A weird thing happened with this book. For the first two thirds at least I was fairly ambivalent about it: I liked the diary format, the intimate tone, the protagonist’s careful, measured approach to his affair with a colleague… but there was something missing that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. At times I think I felt a bit frustrated with the self-indulgent soul searching of the main character; he was selfish, I thought, and his concern for the delicate feelings of his new lover seemed to be a front, a way of protecting himself from pain and embarrassment. A selfish, unlikeable protagonist shouldn’t usually bother me but I found it especially hard to get on board when he kept saying things like this:

I’ve never trusted women with numbers… During their menstrual period and even the day before, if they are normally intelligent, they become a little silly; if they are normally a little silly they become complete imbeciles.

And this on his gay son:

I would have preferred that he turn out to be a thief, a morphine addict, an imbecile. I would like to feel pity for him but I can’t.

And later:

When a person is rotten there is no education that will cure him or any amount of attention that will straighten him out.

I know it’s absolutely unfair to judge 1950’s anywhere by the moral standards of Britain in 2016. I get that. And usually I do a pretty good job of ignoring this sort of thing when it crops up, which it inevitably does when you regularly read books that were written fifty years ago. But still, this time, for some reason I can’t explain, I found it really jarring. Maybe it’s just me being a bit sensitive.

Anyway, as I said, my feelings for this novel at first were pretty lacklustre and I didn’t feel that this was going to be a particularly memorable read. That’s until Benedetti reached through the pages and punched me in the face with a plot turn that I probably should have seen coming. When I reread the blurb afterwards I realised, Oh yeah, of course that was always going to happen, it had to happen. It was at this point that I finally understood why he’d put us through all that moral wrangling, all that painful reminiscing and pondering on the future. It made sense. I knew now just how much Martin had staked on this relationship and why its sudden conclusion was so absolutely devastating. He’d been given a glimpse at a new happiness, a chance to feel really alive for the first time. But it had all been a dirty trick.

So, it’s a weird review this one. Can I say I liked it? I think so, but I’m not sure. Despite my initial reservations I closed the book feeling quite moved by it and wishing there was a happier ending for Martin Santomme. I was rooting for him in the end.

A Country Doctor’s Notebook (1963) by Mikhail Bulgakov 

(published elsewhere as A Young Doctor’s Notebook).

Do I express my thoughts lucidly?

I think I do.

What is my life?

An absurdity.

Now that Our Mutual Friend is well and truly behind me, I fancied moving on to something a little shorter, a little less taxing on the brain, for my next read. P read this book last year, not long after the TV show finished in fact, and has been raving about it ever since.  It seemed pretty ideal; not too lengthy, relatively light hearted (in places) and set in Russia. And we all know how I feel about novels set in Russia.

Back in 1916, Bulgakov was twenty-four years old and had just graduated with a medical degree from the University of Kiev. With frightening swiftness he was dispatched to his first practice, in an isolated spot in the heart of rural Russia, 35 miles from the nearest town and staffed with just two midwives and a feldsher. This book, written several years later, is a semi-fictionalised account of his two years in rural practice told in a series of short vignettes. In it, the inexperienced, overworked narrator must deal with emergency amputations, childbirth complications, syphilis epidemics and the wary distrust of the local peasant population. There’s no electricity, the roads are impassable except by cart, they’re frequently snowed in, and eventually there’s a revolution and a civil war raging in the background too.

“And there was I, all on my own, with a woman in agony on my hands and I was responsible for her. I had no idea, however, what I was supposed to do to help her because I had seen childbirth at close quarters only twice in my life in a hospital, and both occasions were completely normal. The fact that I was conducting an examination was of no value to me or to the woman; I understood absolutely nothing…”

The young Bulgakov seems to have viewed his time in the sticks as a necessary prison sentence, a step on the path towards finding a more respectable practice on his eventual return to the city. His stories are shocking and gruesome and horrifying to the modern reader but thankfully he never shies away from describing everything he sees in all its bloody gory. It makes for an engrossing and slightly unnerving read at times, particularly because he tells all his stories with a sort of dry, deadpan humour. This is especially noticeable when he recounts examples of his own panicked inexperience under all this responsibility. In one early scene he abandons a patient shortly before an operation so he can run back to his room and find a textbook with the necessary instructions for performing the procedure. In another he becomes completely enraged by the ignorance of a patient who refuses to accept that he’s suffering from a dangerous medical condition. These anecdotes are told so simply and matter-of-factly that as a reader you find yourself feeling quite glad that Bulgakov put himself through such hell since his experiences inspired such great tales.

The last two chapters of A Country Doctor’s Notebook shift away from Bulgakov and tell the stories of two other doctors of his acquaintance. The most gripping is the first of these – entitled ‘Morphine’ – and it’s the story of his successor at the hospital, a young man who sank into a crippling addiction shortly after taking up his first practice. It’s told in a series of diary extracts and, unlike other parts of this book, there’s not a lot of humour to be squeezed from his situation. However, it’s genuinely moving and provides an interesting shift away from the frantic chaos of the first half of the book.

All in all, I thought this was pretty perfect. It’s put me in half a mind to have another stab at Master and Margharita. Maybe in a few months’ time anyway. Probably not right now.

The sot-weed madness

Sotweed1

I’m still struggling through The Sot Weed Factor at an embarrassingly slow pace. All my usual reading habits have gone out the window and I’ve taken to browsing the internet on my phone at all my usual reading times. Obviously this has to stop or I’ll never finish it. It occurred to me today that maybe if I blog as I go along it might help me stay motivated. It’s worth a try I reckon.

I didn’t know a great deal about this book before I began and I’m not sure I’m much the wiser yet. It’s a fictionalised account of the life of Ebenezer Cooke, who wrote a satirical poem of the same name about the colonisation of America in 1708. Since starting we’ve heard all about Ebenezer’s education (under his beloved tutor Henry Burlingame III), his unsuccessful years at Cambridge and his time as an unhappy clerk in London. Most recently his father has become enraged by reports of Ebenezer’s behaviour in the taverns and brothels of the capital so Eben has been ordered to depart for Maryland at once so he can prove his worth by taking charge of the family tobacco plantations. Since then he’s blagged a commission to write an epic poem on his travels (the Marylandiad!), attempted unsuccessfully to purchase a notebook in which to write said poem, and been happily reunited with his long lost tutor (who’s been having some adventures of his own in the meantime).  I’m currently on Chapter 6 of Part 2 and at last reading the two men were on their way to Plymouth to begin their long voyage to the New World.

Of course this all takes place in the seventeenth century so along the way we’ve been treated to quite a bit of bawdy drunkenness and whoring, made all the funnier by Ebenezer’s fierce defence of his virginity in the face of some trying temptation.

“…What am I? Virgin, sir! Poet, sir! I am a virgin and a poet; less than mortal and more; not a man but Mankind! I shall regard my innocence as badge of my strength and proof of my calling. Let her who’s worthy of’t take it from me!” 

This has more than made up for an unbelievably looooong treatise by Ebenezer’s patron on the province’s complicated history. It’s only nineteen pages long but in all truth it took me 4 days to read. FOUR. DAYS. And I’m not convinced I’ve remembered any of it.

Although published in 1960 The Sot Weed Factor is written entirely in a sort of mock eighteenth century style which I quite like, although it took some getting used to. I’ve understood most of it and the bits I haven’t understood have started to make sense the more I’ve read. There have been some wryly funny moments so I’m not too sure why I’m dragging my heels with it so much. Perhaps I just need to keep persevering until eventually something (hopefully) clicks.

The Wombles (1968) by Elizabeth Beresford

One of Margaret Gordon's original illustrations in The Wombles

The Wombles: Illustrations by Margaret Gordon

“Human Beings like shouting,” said Orinoco through his hat, “Haven’t you noticed that yet? They shout when they play goluff and they shout at their dogs and they shout at their children. They like it.” 

“Very odd,” said Bungo, wrinkling his forehead, for Wombles, though they are great talkers, are quiet creatures by nature. 

Like many people who were born in the mid-80s, I remember watching the Wombles on TV when I was very small. I still remember the theme tune by heart (and have been humming it for the past two days) but I never read the book. In fact, I’m not even sure that I knew it was a book until I moved in with P. He’s quite attached to his battered copy and it seemed only fair to give in to his subtle hints and actually read it, especially as I am constantly badgering him with books I think he should read. It must get very annoying.

I promised I’d be kind about it, partly because (as he pointed out) I did say that children’s books could be just as appealing as adult books (if you distinguish between them at all). I knew that comment would come back and bite me on the bum. Luckily it’s pretty easy to be kind about The Wombles.

The wombles, for the uninitiated, live in a burrow under Wimbledon Common in south London. P’s book has lovely pictures that show them to be small bear-like creatures but I’m sure they were much larger and had pointier faces on the TV show. They spend their time clearing the rubbish left behind on the common by messy humans; this rubbish is either eaten, repaired or recycled in some way by the wombles (‘Making good use of the things that we find/Things that the everyday folks leave behind‘ as they say in the theme tune). The Wombles is the first in the series; we’re introduced to young Bungo (wombles chose their names from an atlas when they come of age) and his friends and see them get into all kinds of scrapes. Tomsk gets stuck up a tree, Orinoco runs away, Great Uncle Bulgaria and Cousin Yellowstone get front row seats at the tennis…. My favourite story was the one with Mr. D. Smith, a lonely old human the wombles invite to their Christmas celebrations. It was surprisingly heart-warming.

For the first few pages I was a bit distracted looking up womble names on Google Maps. I discovered that Bungo is in Japan, Tobermorey is on the Isle of Mull and Madame Cholet is named after a region in France. Once I had all that cleared up I started to get into it a bit more. It’s nice in a very twee, innocent sort of way – the wombles are unfailingly polite, they have bracken and berry pie for tea, play Wombles & Ladders at weekends and do The Times crossword (apart from the female wombles who work in the kitchens – this is the 1960s after all!). I wish I’d read it as a child, I would have loved it.

The New Moon With The Old (1963) – Dodie Smith

TheNewMoonI should probably state quite early on in this review that I am a huge fan of Dodie Smith’s earlier work, I Capture The Castle. It’s a cliché, I know; I’m sure everyone says this when they review her other books. I first read ICTC when I was in my early teens and nearly twenty years later it is still a favourite. I could quote entire passages by heart.

So you can imagine how pleased I was to find an original hard-back copy of The New Moon With The Old in the Oxfam shop for just a few pounds (original price: 21 shillings!). I’ve never read anything else by Dodie Smith and this seemed like a good time to start exploring some of her other works. Unfortunately, however, it is surprisingly difficult to read The New Moon without comparing it to I Capture The Castle. I tried, I really did, to give it a fair chance but I think my review is unfavourably biased.

The book begins with the efficiently spinsterish Jane Minton, who has been hired as a sort of secretary/housekeeper to a rich, dashing banker named Rupert Carrington. In the first chapter Jane arrives at his beautiful Suffolk mansion, Dome House, and meets his four children: Richard, Clare, Drew and Merry, all of whom are aged in their teens or early twenties. Within a few days of Jane’s arrival Rupert is accused of fraud and flees the country, leaving Jane and his children with a little money, mounting debts, a house to maintain and two servants to support. The book then follows each of Rupert’s children, one by one, as they abandon their former lives and try to make their own way in the world.

The plot really rests on a series of lucky, but often bizarre, events which sometimes stretch the imagination a little far. I don’t think it spoils things too much if I say that the Carrington children land on their feet rather quickly, three of them securing implausible but promising positions away from Dome House within just a week or two. I liked Drew’s story best, I think, and Clare’s least. And Merry… well, when has that sequence of events ever happened to anyone? I’m pretty sure never.

So the plot is a bit weak but I did find the characters engaging. I liked the Carrington children from the beginning and I understood Jane’s unspoken longing to be one of them. It’s the 1960s (although it’s easy to forget that) so there’s none of the ‘conscious naivety’ of Cassandra Mortmain in I Capture The Castle, even in fourteen year old Merry:

“She had been falling in love since the age of nine and had recently been in love with three men at once: two famous actors and a waiter at a hotel in Ipswich. And nowadays her imagination went beyond merely kissing men; she considered the implications of going to bed with them, though hampered by being none too sure what the implications were, having found Weary Willy’s biology lecture so dull that she had (a) not listened carefully and (b) discounted much of what she heard. No doubt the rough outline was correct but as to the details – well, Weary Willy’s knowledge was likely to be purely academic.”

The description of Merry’s rather, um, mature performance as Juliet in the school play might be my favourite bit.

Having said that, it is the sexual morals that I find a little troubling in this book. As soon as the two female Carrington children enter the big, wide world they are preyed upon by much older, rich men and no one seems to find this overly worrying. Instead, after a few half hearted objections, everyone seems to agree that it’s all very romantic. I’m pretty sure that if I found myself in Clare Carrington’s position my siblings would think it was sleazy; they’d be appalled even if I was desperately in love. And at least Clare is an adult; the Merry story is all the more unsettling because she’s so young.

Perhaps the problem is that I’m reading this with 21st century eyes. Or perhaps I’m just being a bit of a prude?! I’m sure, in fact, that it’s a combination of both these things. And this isn’t to say that there’s not a certain sort of innocent charm to The New Moon With The Old. I really did enjoy reading it, in spite of how improbable it all was.

Of course it doesn’t stand up well when you compare it to I Capture The Castle (as I am inevitably going to do). But I’m not overly disappointed by this. I had prepared myself to not expect much so I was either going to be pleasantly surprised or proven right; somehow I was both.