Saturday, December 29, 2012

To The Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf (13 down, 87 to go)

...if you look from a mountain top down the long wastes of the ages, the very stone one kicks with one's boot will outlast Shakespeare.

This is the first time I've read To the Lighthouse or Virginia Woolf. The book is a Modernist novel written primarily in stream of consciousness. It begins in England prior to WWI, and covers several decades of the Ramsey family and acquaintances. 

The story has only three major divisions: Part one, "The Window" – a single day that introduces the principal characters; Part two, "Time Passes" – covers many years fleetingly, and; Part three, "The Lighthouse" – a single day with only a small number of the original characters from "The Window".

My rating: 2 1/2 of 5 stars

"The Window" gives the reader a glimpse into the lives of Mr. and Mrs. Ramsey, their eight children, and guests at the Ramesy summer home in the Hebrides sometime prior to WWI. One of the children hopes to make a trip to a lighthouse that is visible across the bay. His mother encourages him that they might go tomorrow, but his father dashes his hopes stating the weather will be too inclement. The child is bitterly resentful of his father, and even fantasizes about killing him. The Window reveals the duplicitous nature of the rest of the occupants, and the stark difference between their public face and private thoughts. Besides the Ramsey family, there is Charles Tansley an academic and admirer of Mr. Ramsey, Lily Briscoe, a young painter of no renown, Augustus Carmichael a poet of some import, William Bankes, a friend of the Ramsey’s, and Paul Rayley and Minta Doyle, who end up engaged, perhaps partially due to Mrs. Ramsey's matchmaking.

Time passes quickly in "Time Passes", which covers a period of some years. Several persons from "The Window" pass away and the house and property is vacant and neglected. A former housekeeper enlists help to restore things in preparation for the return of the former occupants.

"The Lighthouse" covers a single day. The house has been readied for the Ramseys and guests to return, though of course not all. Still the reunion has promise of something cheery and pleasant. There are plans to finish some long overdue business, and hopes to restore familial tenderness, or more precisely establish it…also long overdue. But this is no Hollywood sit-com reunion and Woolf is no writer of comedy. A single day, and simple gestures cannot amend for years of aloof detachment. There are a hundred clichés and ways to say it. Redeem the day at hand.

That's what I got out of it. Woolf likely intended some bright shining thought, some great beacon to illuminate the human experience, if you’ll pardon the pun, but I'm not sure what it is.

Though I'm not a fan of this story, one thing I did like: the way Woolf treated time with the three chapters, one day - many years - one day again. "The Window" and "The Lighthouse" were the real looks at the characters. The middle chapter, "Time Passes", is aptly named and just gives the reader hints of events that will have changed the remaining characters in the end. In more linear stories you may see characters change gradually over time, but this was like a leap forward in time. The characters were changed in what seemed an instant.

Overall, not a very cheery story though, and difficult to follow at times (a consequence of stream of consciousness). I did like the point of view of Lily in the final chapter. Something of an outsider, she is outside painting as she recalls the former days while observing the present.

One thing that struck me in the overall story was how astonishingly duplicitous the characters were in thought and deed. I know we all put on a public face, which can be quite different from our private thoughts. And I know it is difficult to be truly objective about oneself, but I don’t believe I am half so hypocritical as Woolf’s characters. I can only presume that to Woolf they seem quite normal. Perhaps I’m naïve, but I disagree.

The duplicitous family relationships are reminiscent of The Sound and the Fury.


Mrs. Ramsey's thoughts: 
Oh, but she never wanted James to grow a day older! Or Cam either. These two she would have liked to keep forever just as they were, demons of wickedness, angels of delight, never to see them grow up into long-legged monsters. Nothing made up for the loss. When she read just now to James, "and there were numbers of soldiers with kettledrums and trumpets," and his eyes darkened, she thought, why should they grow up and lose all that? He was the most gifted, the most sensitive of her children. But all, she thought were full of promise. Prue, a perfect angel with the others, and sometimes now, at night especially, she took one's breath away with her beauty. Andrew - even her husband admitted that his gift for mathematics was extraordinary. And Nancy and Roger, they were both wild creatures now, scampering about over the country all day long. As for Rose, her mouth was too big, but she had a wonderful gift with her hands. If they had charades, Rose made the dresses; made everything; liked best arranging table, flowers, anything. She did not like it that Jasper should shoot birds; but it was only a stage; they all went through stages. Why, she asked, pressing her chin on James's head, should they grow up so fast?

Mrs. Ramsey's thoughts:'s children so often gave one's own perceptions a little thrust forwards.

Did Nature supplement what man advanced? Did she complete what he began? With equal complacence she saw his misery, his meanness, and his torture. That dream, of sharing, completing, of finding in solitude on the beach an answer, was then but a reflection in a mirror, and the mirror itself was but the surface glassiness which forms in quiescence when the nobler powers sleep beneath? Impatient, despairing yet loth to go (for beauty offers her lures, has her consolations), to pace the beach was impossible; contemplation was unendurable; the mirror was broken.

Film rendition: 1983 made for television production starring Rosemary Harris and Michael Gough. Faithful rendition, well cast, and great locations, but like the book, not very exciting.


Monday, October 29, 2012

The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway (12 down, 88 to go)

This is the first time I’ve read The Sun Also Rises. It is a modernist, first person narrative of Jake Barnes, an American expatriate working in Paris in the mid 1920s.

I am perplexed as to why this is considered such a great work. I am myself ambivalent; didn’t love it, didn’t hate it. I’ve read other novels on my list that I disliked, but still understood how they are considered great, but this? I don’t understand. This is not a criticism. I think it is superbly written, and somewhat compelling. I just don’t know why it ranks so high.

My rating: 2 1/2 of 5 stars


The main character, Jake Barnes, is Hemingway, and the story is based on a
real-life experience Hemingway had with a group of friends in France and Spain. The rest of the characters are also mapped to real persons, but their true tales, aside from this brief glimpse, are unknown to me, so I will only refer to the characters. The main characters being Jake, his friend Robert Cohn, and Lady Brett Ashley. Jake loves Brett but because he was left impotent from a war wound, feels a relationship is hopeless. Brett professes to love Jake, who seems to be the only person that understands her, but she is impetuous, fickle, and promiscuous. The two are resigned to the belief that a true relationship is futile. Numerous failed relationships are implied and Brett is now engaged to an Englishman Mike Campbell. This doesn’t stop her from having a brief and meaningless affair with Cohn. Campbell knows of the affair, and others, and accepts them as part of Brett’s fervidity. Cohn however, is ridiculously in love with Brett, in spite of the fact that she does everything to discourage him.


The story culminates when Jake, Brett, Mike, Cohn, and another American Bill, travel via different groups and means, to meet at the Festival of San Fermin in Pamplona Spain. It includes the famous running of the bulls, bullfights, a love quadrangle, interpersonal complexities of the group, and a lot of drinking.


As I understand it, Hemingway originally called the novel, The Lost Generation. I think it was a better title. What a mess these people were. If this was a glimpse of Hemingway’s life, I think it was a sad life, glorious adventurer persona notwithstanding. As I said though, it was superbly written. I especially like one account, not really important to the overall plot, of an older matador, Belmonte. He was once, one of the very best. His legend is still recognized, but the crowds have begun to express contempt for his lackluster performance. Hemingway did such a wonderful job describing him, I could feel his pain, and wounded pride.


For the record, I don’t condone bullfighting; it’s just the setting, and a real-life avocation of Hemingway’s.


Quotations: Really just one bit I liked. I like the writing, but also a peculiar notion of prayer and religion that Jake (and I presume, Hemingway) held. Jake steps into a church in San Fermin, and decides to pray. 

I knelt and started to pray and prayed for everybody I thought of, Brett and Mike and Bill and Robert Cohn and myself, and all the bull-fighters, separately for the ones I liked, and lumpin all the rest, then I prayed for myself again, and while I was praying for myself I found I was getting sleepy, so I prayed that the bull-fights would be good, and that it would be a fine fiesta, and that we would get some fishing. I wondered if there was anything else I might pray for, and I thought I would like to have some money, so I prayed that I would make a lot of money, and then I started to think how I would make it, and thinking of money reminded me of the count, and I started wondering about where he was, and regretting I hadn’t seen him since that night in Montmartre, and about something funny Brett told me about him, and as all the time I was kneeling with my forehead on the wood in front of me, and was thinking of myself as praying, I was a little ashamed, and regretted that I was such a rotten Catholic, but realized there was nothing I could do about it, at least for a while, and maybe never, but that anyway it was a grand religion, and I only wished I felt religious and maybe I would next time…


Film Rendition: The 1957 film starring Tyrone Power as Jake, and Ava Gardner as Brett is a very good rendition. Gardner is especially good and appropriately beautiful as Lady Brett. Eddie Albert was an amusing choice for Bill, but he pulled it off. Errol Flynn played Mike Campbell, and Mel Ferrer as Robert Cohn was convincingly annoying.



Thursday, October 4, 2012

Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison (11 down, 89 to go)

I try belatedly to study the lesson of my own life ~ the invisible man

This is the first time I've read Invisible Man or Ralph Ellison. It is a modernist, existential, first person narrative of - the invisible man - who is never named. It is the agonizing tale of an African-American man, set mostly in 1930s, Harlem, New York. 


My rating: 4 of 5 stars

First, I need to point out that Invisible Man by Ellison is not to be confused with The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells. If only someone had pointed this out to me, I wouldn’t have first read the latter, which was entertaining but hardly worthy of such high status. I caught my error when I started to prepare my blog entry, and checked the list to get the publication date, I noticed the author, slapped my forehead, and felt rather silly. I am glad however, that I caught the mistake before posting a review of Wells’ novel. In spite of this accidental detour, I will not be renaming my quest The 100 Greatest, Plus One Reasonably Entertaining but Hardly Great, Novels Quest.

So now about Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison: I must admit there is much I don’t understand about this important novel. It is written from the perspective of an African-American man in the first half of the 20th Century. Reading his account offers insight, but can't truly make me understand his lot in life. So, if any of my commentary is wildly off the mark, I’d welcome alternative views.

I have not read extensively about Ellison himself, but I get the sense Invisible Man is based on his own perceptions of African-American life, though not quite autobiographical. The entire first person narrative is told by an unnamed African-American man, who is born and raised in the south and moves to New York (Harlem) in early adulthood, probably in the 1930s. The fact that the central figure is unnamed is doubtless intentional as it contributes to the title and theme of invisibility. The narrator, or invisible man, states:


I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.

I believe this is an important novel, and timely, but I am reluctant to be more precise. I think there are lessons the invisible man learned that could serve African-Americans well, but I don't have the right to suggest it. Ellison on the other hand does, and I believe, at least in part, that was his intent. Take it or leave it.

Ellison did a marvelous job of making me empathize with the invisible man. I was angry at the injustice he faced, and stung bitterly by those who betrayed him. Ellison uses brilliant and subtle symbolism, such as Jack. Jack was a white leader in the Marxist brotherhood and a supposed friend and ally of the invisible man. Not until near the end of the story is the narrator aware that Jack has a glass eye. I think it symbolizes that Jack could see the narrator, and yet not see him. The leaders of the brotherhood never really saw African-Americans as brothers, they were assets used, and sometimes sacrificed to their own agenda. Similarly, the fact that the narrator was unaware of Jack’s half blindness symbolizes his own blissful ignorance that he was being used.

Overall, a great novel. It wouldn’t be quite correct to say I enjoyed it. There was too much injustice and ignorance left unanswered. But it is powerful and compelling, and also somewhat outside my comfort zone. Not the sort of novel I’d pick up on my own if it wasn’t on the list. I’m glad it was.

I was particularly happy, that in spite of the gross injustices he suffered, the invisible man remained hopeful.

But the world has become one of infinite possibilities. What a phrase - still it’s a good phrase and a good view of life, and a man shouldn’t accept any other; that much I’ve learned underground. Until some gang succeeds in putting the world in a strait jacket, its definition is possibility.


Film Renditions: As I understand it, Ellison would not allow a film to be produced. There is supposedly a documentary about Ellison with dramatic portrayals of certain scenes interspersed, but I have not seen it.


Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Lord of the Flies by William Golding (10 down 90 to go)

Ralph wept for the end of innocence, the darkness of man’s heart, and the fall through the air of the true, wise, friend called Piggy.

This is the second time I’ve read Lord of the Flies and the only work I’ve read by William Golding. The book is an allegory regarding the nature of humanity and tells the tale of a group of school boys, stranded on an uninhabited South Seas island.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Bravo Mr. Golding. Easily my favorite thus far. I read Lord of the Flies the first time just a few years ago, so I already knew I would like it, and it was better the second time. Oh, I don’t know where to begin, and should I begin, I think I might never end for all the powerful emotions and thoughts this masterpiece evokes. So, I will begin with a synopsis.

A group of “innocents” or boys ages 5 to 12, are stranded on a South Pacific island, after their plane crashes. There are no adult survivors and the time setting, somewhat vague, is around WWII. Two leaders emerge, Ralph and Jack. The boys elect Ralph their leader; Ralph, Jack, and some of the older boys establish order and discipline. Ralph revels in his position and views their plight as a grand adventure. He is mostly kind and just, and always keeps a sharp interest in survival and rescue. My heart ached for Ralph. He bore a responsibility no 12-year-old should ever bear. For the most part, he bears it well though imperfectly.

Illustration of Ralph blowing the conch from my 2003 Perigree Books edition.

His chief supporter and confidant is Piggy, a fat, weak and be-spectacled asthmatic that is wiser than the rest, but impotent. He is often the subject of ridicule and scorn, even by Ralph.

Ralph’s leadership is immediately challenged by Jack. Jack has intelligence and charisma, but there are hints of cruelty and ambition. Jack defers to Ralph in the beginning, though he is clearly envious, and the reader expects treachery.

And then there is Simon, who at one point has a hallucinatory conversation with the lord of the flies, the head of a pig the boys put on a stake. The head is, of course, decaying and swarming with flies. Lord of the flies is also the literal meaning of Beelzebub.

SPOILER ALERT: The following contains spoilers.

As I said, the reader expects treachery from Jack and it comes full force. Jack is able to turn most of the boys away from Ralph, and two rival factions are created. They initially intend to co-exist, but the larger, stronger group begins to prey upon the weaker. Simon is murdered, though accidentally, and Piggy is murdered in cold blood. Finally, an island wide manhunt for Ralph is underway, and his murder is averted by the last-minute arrival of a British warship.

There is a brilliant bit of irony at the end. The crew of the ship spots smoke and fire on the island, which is part of the hunt for Ralph. Upon coming ashore to investigate, a naval officer sees the disgraceful condition of the boys and laments: 
I should have thought that a pack of British're all British aren't you?...would have been able to put up a better show than that ...I mean...

A bit hypocritical, from the commander of a warship...I mean…

I believe Lord of the Flies is Golding’s expression of his world view, more precisely his humanity view: that humanity is NOT inherently good. I know that belief is unpopular, but life has taught me that popularity has nothing to do with truth.


He found himself understanding the wearisomeness of this life, where every path was an improvisation and a considerable part of one’s waking life was spent watching one’s feet. ~ Ralph

Soon, in a matter of centuries, the sea would make an island of the castle. I just love the truth and irony of the wording.

Film Renditions: 1963 British version was true to the book, but the production and acting was horrible. The 1990s version was better acted and better cinematography, but a drastic departure from the Novel, modernized (1990s) and Americanized. I don’t recommend either.


Monday, July 16, 2012

Lolita by Vladimir Nobokov

After reading a few chapters, and for reasons that seem good to me, I've decided to eliminate this from my reading list (see rule #6). I will skip to the next novel which now becomes number 10, all others shift up, and I'll add #101 to the end of the list.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner (9 down, 91 to go)

I love the title, not sure why. It might have something to do with what the Bard had to say about life:
It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing

This is the first time I’ve read The Sound and the Fury or William Faulkner. The book is a southern-Gothic, modernist novel, told mostly in stream of consciousness, telling the tale of the Compson family, Jefferson Mississippi, early to mid-20th century.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The title is the only thing I loved. I’m not a fan of stream of consciousness, though I enjoyed this more than Ulysses.

Like the previous novel, The Grapes of Wrath, The Sound and the Fury is about the disintegration of an American family, in this case the once proud and genteel Compson family. Set in Jefferson, Mississippi it covers nearly three decades of the Compson family.

The first chapter, there are only four, is told from “the idiot’s” perspective. I apologize for the term; it is how Faulkner and his characters describe Benjy Compson who is severely mentally handicapped. Benjy’s account is very hard to follow as it jumps around, one moment describing the present, the next recalling events years or decades earlier, and then switching back to the present, or some other time. I suspect this was Faulkner’s intent, to confuse the reader, and thus let them view the world through Benjy’s confused eyes. You get the sense that the only person who Loves Benjy, and the only person he loves, is his sister Candace (Caddy). Caddy is headstrong and impetuous and the only likeable character in the story. She is also the only main character not given voice to recount her perspective.

The second chapter is told by Quentin, the family's shining hope. They sell a portion of the estate to send Quentin to Harvard, but he fails to restore the family to its former station.

In the third chapter, hope for the family is now placed upon the youngest, Jason; it is poorly placed. Jason is selfish, conniving, bitter, and cruel. He must provide for his hypochondriac mother, dependent brother Benjy, and Caddy’s illegitimate daughter, Quentin (not to be confused with her Uncle Quentin). There is no parcel of land to purchase a Harvard education for Jason, so he works in the local hardware store, does the best he can, and holds everyone in contempt.

The final chapter is told mostly by the African-American servant, Dilsey, as she recounts the further decline of the Compson family.

Overall, the novel is about as cheery as Macbeth, from whence it takes its title. Again, I am not a fan of stream of consciousness, but this story grew on me once I realized my confusion was probably the author’s intent.

I only noted one quotation worth mentioning. Quentin reflects on his father’s words about time and a gold watch his father gave him:
I give it to you not that you may remember time, but that you might forget it now and then for a moment and not spend all your breath trying to conquer it. Because no battle is ever won he said. They are not even fought. The field only reveals to man his own folly and despair, and victory is an illusion of philosophers and fools.

Film Rendition: The 1959 film with Yul Brynner as Jason only covers chapter three and that not very faithfully. The film has a happy, hopeful ending that is not true to the book, and utterly unbelievable in the film. There is a new version under development directed by James Franco. That is interesting since Franco directed and starred in a rendition of another Faulkner classic, As I Lay Dying. Financially it was a disaster, but it was a very faithful rendering. Franco is also producing, Blood Meridian. He seems to have a passion for turning classic American literature into film. Bravo Mr. Franco, and thank you.