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.

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