Monday, 19 March 2018

But. nothing happens!

Mrs. Dalloway I imagine that many youths have developed a loathing for Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway because they have been forced to study it. The story begins with Clarissa Dalloway setting out to buy flowers for a party she is throwing later at her home in London. Its narrative weaves in and out of the minds of several characters, follows them as they wander through streets and parks, and accompanies them to appointments. "But nothing happens!" I can hear the teens cry. Having been exposed to Proust's reflections on tea and cake at school, I understand their anguish.

Woolf takes us into the minds of her characters using a stream-of-consciousness technique. As a writer, I was enthralled by the style and will more than likely read Mrs. Dalloway again. As a reader, I found it much less endearing. Without the usual narrative breaks of chapters, it's impossible to gage how much to read in any single session. There weren't even any section dividers in the ebook I used. This lack of visual markers, combined with the need for great concentration often resulted in my own thoughts drifting away from the narrative.

And yet I did like the book. The three main characters are Clarissa Dalloway, Septimus Warren Smith and Peter Walsh and the action takes place a few years after the European War (when Woolf was writing there had been no second disaster). Clarissa has recently had a heart attack and Septimus suffers from shell-shock. They are two sides of the same coin. Peter had proposed marriage to Clarissa many years before, but she had turned him down because, "in marriage a little licence, a little independence there must be between people living together day in day out in the same house." She had chosen Richard Dalloway for that reason rather than Peter, with whom "everything had to be shared".

I can't say that I related much to the primarily upper-middle-class characters, but Woolf's way of taking the reader on a walk with their thoughts was very appealing. It made me long to be in London again, on a hot day in June, experiencing the bustle, enjoying window-shopping, hearing Big Ben chime, wandering the streets I know very well. Mrs. Dalloway is a classic of early 20th century literature and the first of Virginia Woolf's books that I have read. It has changed my opinion of stream-of-consciousness, but I won't be reading Ulysses any time soon.

Friday, 9 March 2018

A proud mummy's boy

Barry Lyndon 'I have always found that if a man does not give himself a good word, his friends will not do it for him.' Barry Lyndon is not shy of praising himself in the book that bears his name. The subject of Thackeray's The Memoirs of Barry Lyndon, Esq. is self-explanatory. Redmond Barry is brought up by his mother, who fills his head with heroic tales of his ancestry. He is a belligerent boy, proud and naive, and grows into a wild teenager, who, in one of my favourite episodes of the book, becomes involved in a duel for the love of a local Irish girl.

Following the duel, Barry joins the British army and spends his late teenage years and early twenties involved in the Seven Years' War. After successfully extricating himself from military service, he calls himself Redmond de Balibari and joins his uncle in making a fortune and reputation through gambling. Up to this point, I found the character to be something of a cheeky rogue, but this changed once Redmond decides to obtain his money through marriage to a rich heiress.

Women, Barry Lyndon would have us believe, are his downfall. The 'only women who never deceive a man, and whose affection remains constant through all trials' are mothers. He tells us, 'Since the days of Adam, there has been hardly a mischief done in this world but a woman has been at the bottom of it', and blames everyone but himself for his misfortunes. But his wife is the worst of all. Lady Lyndon, was a blue-stocking and Redmond initially had no interest in her. However, when he hears she has said that he smells 'too much of the stable to be admitted to ladies' society', his pride is wounded. He felt 'equal in blood and breeding to any Lyndon in Christendom, and determined to bend this haughty lady.' His actions from this point can only be described as those of a stalker and a psychopath.

I didn't get a sense of Thackeray trying to put across a moral theme in the actions of his characters. Indeed he has said that 'the true end of fiction lay not in pointing morals but in the art of representing a subject, whether sordid or pleasing.' My own reading of the story did bring up the question of why certain activities are fine if you happen to be upper-class, but are seen as degenerate if you are poor. Redmond de Balibari sees society's hypocrisy in considering the profession of the law as honourable, 'where a man will lie for any bidder', and yet 'the gallant man who sits him down before the baize [-] is proscribed by your modern moral world'.

I had enjoyed the Kubrick film, which follows the story fairly closely. The book is Thackeray's first substantial work of fiction and as such I thought it lacked the skill with which his later book, Vanity Fair, was written. The use of the protagonists own voice to narrate the story was very satisfying. It's clear from the start that Barry Lyndon is unreliable in remembering and telling his story, which makes it impossible to be sure how much was truthful. Some of the inaccuracies are revealed through footnotes written by Thackeray's fictitious commissioner of the work, FitzBoodle, but the other characters are never given a voice except through the protagonist. Readers must decide for themselves on the veracity of Barry Lyndon's tale.