Tuesday, January 31, 2012

1900s- a room with a view (1908)

I said in my previous post that I didn't understand E.M. Forster's books, and that's not entirely true. In fact, I found A Room With a View quite accessible, and really in many ways a straight-forward story. But I felt, as I did with Howards End, that I wasn't quite sure what he was getting at, that somehow Forster and I do not exactly get along. The Man Who Was Thursday, by G.K. Chesterton, on the other hand, is quite straight-forwardly puzzling, starting, as it does, as a thriller, and progressing to farce, before unexpectedly turning into a religious allegory. I'm not really sure where to go with that, so I'll review A Room With A View instead, and hopefully get some thoughts in order. I'd love to hear what other people thought as well, and whether I should be so flummoxed. I'd like to talk about the ending too, so be warned! Unfortunately I left this a bit late to write, and late night blog posts are not my most considered blog posts. But it's better than no blog post, right?

A Room with a View starts in Florence, where Lucy and her older (and somewhat more staid) cousin Charlotte. Excited as she is, the first night is not shaping up well- the hotel and the people in it seem so very very English, Lucy and Charlotte have not been given their promised rooms with views, and worse still they are overheard complaining about this and a stranger actually offers to swap rooms with them! The stranger is Mr. Emerson, travelling with his son, with a dislike of convention and a seeming inability to see why that makes him unpopular among the other English travellers. But Lucy is more torn, between the kindness shown by Mr. Emerson and the tensions of the more conventional travellers, between a kind of annoyance at his son and a feeling of empathy. She and the son, George, experience a moment of connection when Lucy witnesses a murder, and later another when they got lost at a picnic and he kisses her in a field of violets.

I really enjoyed this book, at least at first, and a lot of that was down to the character of Lucy Honeychurch. She was such a likeable character, torn between her sympathy for people and enjoyment of the world and the need to adhere to convention. Always polite and aware of what she should do, but sometimes rebellious all the same. Her foil is her cousin Charlotte, constantly 'thinking of others' to the point that she causes others great discomfort, constantly thinking of 'the right thing to do' to the point that it creates ridiculous complications, and seemingly determined to spend her time in Italy mostly in the hotel, to the annoyance of the more adventurous Lucy.

What I did not enjoy so much was the sudden shift in the second half of the book (fast-forward a few months and Lucy and Charlotte are home in England after visiting Rome, with Lucy now engaged to Cecil Vyse, a somewhat pretentious and aggravating young man). I'm just not a fun of sudden lurches forward in narrative. It bothered me last year in The Pastor's Wife, and it bothered me here. But that is not a terrible crime, eventually it is possible to readjust to the new time-frame. And the story continues in fine form, with Lucy and her mother and brother being lovely and a bit silly, Cecil being obnoxious, the clergyman Mr. Beebe (first encountered in Florence) sympathetic and humorous, the Emerson's as revolutionary as ever and Charlotte irritating as always, as Lucy realises reluctantly her attraction to George Emerson and her unsuitedness with Cecil. And then, another thunderclap! George and Lucy are married, all the sympathetic characters have turned their backs on their former friend/family member and the unsympathetic ones are redeemed. I found it difficult to believe that Lucy's loving mother and brother would cut her off like that, even if I could believe it of Mr. Beebe. I really did like, though, the twists that occur with Charlotte's character, the way they come to think that maybe they underestimated her, after all. Sadly for me, the edition I was reading included an epilogue written in the 1950s, which gave a small summary of the lives of George and Lucy up till then. I wish I never read it, I think it's much better to leave things at their ending and let the reader speculate than tack something on that tells you everything and yet does not feel like part of the book. I would recommend not reading that part if you get the chance to avoid it, finish on the happy ending!

Anyway, it was not this that confused me, after all. It is just that I can never quite figure out what Forster is trying to say, he pokes so much fun at everything. At the end of Howards End I did not really know what he was saying about women, or art or class I suppose. Should women marry the annoying man with the large house and dote on him, or live unconventionally and have babies and be excluded from society? *ahem* I know that's a little specific, but I was not that happy with Margaret's decisions. But! That's a totally different book. Writing this review it seems simple enough: it's a book that points out the restrictiveness of social conventions, and instead wants to celebrate the free human spirit. But it's the sly humour that gets me, that makes me unsure, sometimes, of quite who Forster is laughing at... Maybe I am overthinking it?

In summary: I would recommend this book, it's light and fun but at the same time quite serious. On the whole, I enjoyed it. But definitely don't read the epilogue/appendix.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

1900s- the man of property (1906)

Since I don't read much from the 1900s usually I thought I should make a list of options to make sure I found something to read, but then I couldn't choose so I read three (unfortunately two ended up being from the same year):
The Man of Property by John Galsworthy (1906)
The Man Who Was Thursday by G.K. Chesterton (1908)
A Room with a View by E.M. Forster (1908)

Basically I decided to use this challenge as an excuse to read some of the books I've been meaning to read for a long time but haven't gotten around to. It's taken me a while to get around to blogging about them because I just wasn't sure what to say. I said to a friend the other day that I used to judge whether books were good or not by whether I could understand them. If I had no idea what a book was about by the end of it, it must be very high literature indeed. By this token The Man Who Was Thursday is incredible, and E.M. Forster should be my favourite writer. On the other hand, reading The Man of Property was like being hit over the head with the one idea. John Galsworthy likes to demonstrate his concepts, then explain them, and then spell them out again in case you didn't understand them the first time. But all this sounds extraordinarily negative, and really it wasn't like that at all, so I'll go through them in more detail (with some spoilers). Starting with:

The Man of Property by John Galsworthy
Published in the 1900s, but set in the 1880s, this is the first book of the famous Forsyte saga. It follows the Forsyte family, with its many aged uncles and aunts and the family patriarch, Jolyon Forsyte. It opens at the engagement party for June (Jolyon's grand-daughter) and her architect fiancee Bosinney. Meanwhile, June's uncle, Soames, and his wife (and June's best friend) Irene are having marital difficulties. 

The title says it all really, a lot of the novel is a criticism of, I guess, materialism- or rather the focus on ownership. The novel's crisis is brought about by Soames purchase and construction of a house, and focuses on his desire to 'own' his wife. The writer claims all Forsytes are obsessed by property, and by 'Forsytes' he means the upper-middle classes, the noveau riche I suppose. The book is informed by  Victorian social changes and a real distaste for 'Forsyte-ism', mixed with occasional affection (for Jolyon and June, for instance). It's mostly quite a fun (if terribly tragic) read, though I did feel for June, who loses her fiance to her best friend. But we are not allowed to sympathise for long, she is a Forsyte after all.

While you do get a sense of authorial intervention, very critical of the Forsytes, the story is largely told from their perspective. This reinforces the sense of Bosinney and Irene as outsiders. While that may be effective, I found it frustrating to have so little sense of Irene's character. She is charming, and we're constantly told that she is sort of accidentally seductive. But we are always on the outside, Irene is, after all, a mystery to all the Forsytes. She is also apparently pliable with a core of certainty. She has a horrible time of it through the book, and I just wished I knew more about her. 

This is also a book in which I spent a lot of time thinking "why don't you just talk to each other? Just ask each other what's going on?" This would clearly be more effective for some characters than others, but I feel that if my fiance didn't talk to me for weeks, maybe I would ask him about it? And on the other hand, that's not really behaviour that's calculated to make me feel sympathetic towards anyone, starving artist or no. Overall, I found Bosinney really quite infuriating. If I felt that Irene was made out to be mysterious, Bosinney's character was made out to be very irritating. But while they drive the plot of the book, it's not really about Irene and Bosinney at all. It's about the Forsytes, and at that the book is a lot more successful.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

on egypt

Last year I wrote about reading The Map of Love by Ahdaf Soueif, and how relevant it felt reading about Egypt's history in light of the Tahrir Square demonstrations and the revolution that was happening. I wondered how Ahdaf Soueif would feel about it, and whether she would write her book differently if she was writing today. Well, apparently she's written a new book about the revolution in Cairo (in which she was involved), and there are what I think are extracts from that book in the Guardian here. It's a very personal account of Egypt and revolution, interesting to read as Egypt's new Government holds its inaugral session, although the extracts end before the elections.

And my reading around the world posts will come soon! I hope.