Tag Archives: Greece

The Marriage Plot (2011) – Jeffrey EUGENIDES

Jeffrey Eugenides’ previous novel, Middlesex, rightly won the Pulitzer Prize in 2003 – it’s an excellent novel, and you should all check it out if you haven’t already. But that was eight years ago, which is a long time between drinks. I didn’t even know he’d written anything new until a reading copy turned up at work the other day, which was a pleasant surprise. I finally got around to reading it, and proceeded to lose a whole load of sleep, staying up and reading this rather excellent novel.

It’s 1982, Madeleine Hanna is about to graduate from Brown University. Her obsession with Victorian literature is derided by her classmates – this is the time of Derrida and post-modernism, there’s no room for traditional love stories here. Her boyfriend, Leonard, is having something of a breakdown. And her friend Mitchell has decided that he wants to marry her. As the three of them graduate, they must begin to face the real world, and real decisions that will have a lasting impression on their lives.

The title is a literary term that describes the plot of a whole raft of nineteenth century novels which are concerned with a young woman marrying the right man. Inevitably, they end with the young woman finding her man, and getting married like she should. With the advent of feminism in the 1960s, as well as the increasing divorce rates, it is something of an ironic title. There is one marriage in the novel, though it does tend to subvert the traditional marriage plot. This is not a happy ending kind of novel, either, though there is a sense of hope in the closing pages.

By splitting the characters up for the majority of the novel, Eugenides allows at least two and a half discrete plots to take place. Perhaps most interesting is Mitchell’s, who decides to take a gap year after graduation, and travels to Europe with his best friend with the intention of slowly making their way to India. For Mitchell, religion is something at once to be studied and to be lived. He is ostensibly Christian, though his constant questioning of both his own faith, and others’, means he is not defined by his belief. Indeed, when he finally does make it to India, he volunteers at a charity hospital run by Mother Teresa, though as he soon discovers, doing good in the world is not as easy as it sounds. He is the epitome of the recently graduated university student trying to find himself by travelling the world, and the fact that he fails time and time again at this quest is refreshingly honest.

Madeleine seems the most grounded of the three characters,  and the anchor of the novel, she gets the most point of view chapters. Her falling in love with Leonard is nice, and her feelings of betrayal when he is unkind to her are keenly felt. Her decision to stay with Leonard after finding out about his condition is clearly motivated by good intentions, though whether it is good for her remains another matter. Despite the advice from her hilariously rich parents, (or indeed, perhaps because of it – there’s a lot of parent angst from the three leads) she stays with him because she feels responsible for him. She is a fundamentally good person, and her quirky old-school love of Victoriana is a pleasant contrast to the wall of post-modern pretentiousness that her fellow classmates spout.

Eugenides covers a lot of ground stylistically, too. The Marriage Plot opens as something of a campus novel, complete with weird lecturers, annoying classmates, and drunken hijinks at college. Slowly, though, we shift away to a far wider reaching narrative – both physically and thematically. We travel from Brown University to New Jersey to New York to Paris to Athens to India, and each one is there for a reason. There are echoes of Franzen’s The Corrections here, too, partially because of the wide canvas they both have, as well as the themes of family and love in modern America, but I think Eugenides manages to tie his overseas sections with the overarching American themes better than Franzen managed in his novel.

This novel spoke to me at a particularly personal level – I, too, am about to graduate from university, and so seeing these three characters try and deal with leaving that safe bubble, and moving into the real world was something I really connected with. The speed with which the trio are plunged into real-world issues is frightening – Madeleine doesn’t even make it to her graduation ceremony before something far more important takes place. All of a sudden, the ridiculous conversations she has had with people in tutes about whether love is a construction, about whether life is really real, become shallow and unreal. Her choice – Leonard or Mitchell – cannot simply be based on theories of love and societal constructions of love, it must be done with thinking about the real-life implications of all three people involved.

The Marriage Plot confirms Jeffrey Eugenides as one of the most interesting American writers of our time. From the minutiae of English literary criticism – along with a LOT of references to other texts, to big themes of love, family and religion, he has written another thoroughly excellent novel. Check it out – it’ll make you laugh, it’ll make you cry.

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Sputnik Sweetheart (1999) – Haruki MURAKAMI

Haruki Murakami’s new novel, 1Q84, is being released in English translation later this year, and I’m quite keen to read it. As such, I’m trying to catch up on some of his older stuff, since I’m woefully under-read when it comes to the most famous contemporary Japanese novelist. Sputnik Sweetheart is a shorter Murakami novel, which appeals to me, partly because it’s term time, and I don’t want a giant brick of a novel, and partially because Murakami’s big novels tend to leave me cold.

K and Sumire are friends from university, though Sumire never finished her degree. Drifting through life, unsure of what she really wants to do other than be a famous writer, she meets Miu at a wedding, and suddenly realises she is in love. With another woman. Willing to do anything this woman wants, she travels with her to Europe on a business trip, ending up on a small Greek island. It is not until K receives a call from Miu late one night that he realises what a mistake this might have been.

Taking his characters out of Japan seems like a good idea. There’s something to be said for Murakami’s preoccupation with people being sidelined from mainstream Japanese society, but to have them then be sidelined from other parts of the world, too, reveals a much deeper sense of isolation and loneliness than simply being a social misfit in a far too rigid social structure. Rather than simply being another of Murakami’s lonely, quirky Japanese women, Sumire begins to take on a deeper level – Miu’s rejection of her, even on the other side of the world, away from Japanese society, is another realisation that she may never have a true relationship with anyone.

Either I’m reading way too much into this, or perhaps my mind simply works in weird ways, but was I the only one to think that the Greek island they all end up on is Lesbos? Close to the Turkish landmass? Tick. Somewhat undeveloped? Tick. Link to lesbians, all over the world? Tick. This has absolutely nothing to do with anything else – it just came to me while I was reading, and I wanted to know what other people thought.

Our narrator, too, will seem familiar to anyone who’s ever read any other Murakami work – a young man, somewhat isolated from the rest of society, unable to fully function. This time, though, he’s a primary school teacher, having an affair with the mother of one of his students. Professional, I know. This, of course, sets up a chance for K to teach the lessons he’s learned from his experienced in Greece (that you will always be lonely in life, and that love is always fleeting) to a young, fatherless child.Perhaps not the best message to be telling small children, though – that you’ll be alone your entire life, and that everyone you ever love will leave you.

There’s a particularly excellent sequence near the end of the novel, where Miu is explaining her reticence when it comes to matters of intimacy. Essentially, she recounts an out of body experience, and watches herself have sex with a man, which understandably makes her uncomfortable. Perhaps I’m reading too much into it, but the whole thing reads like a very uncomfortable rape scene, and Murakami pitches it perfectly. Honestly, you could rip out that chapter and turn it into a short story, and it would be brilliant by itself.

I’ve always thought that Murakami’s short stories are better than his longer novels. Fortunately, Sputnik Sweetheart is perfectly a perfectly formed short novel that manages to bring together all of the tropes we have come to expect from Murakami’s work, while never outstaying its welcome. If you’re inclined to start reading Murakami, perhaps here’s a good place to start – an easing in to his magical realist style, without the baggage of a giant, sprawling novel that has too many characters to keep track of.

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The Penelopiad (2005) – Margaret ATWOOD

When I read Salley Vickers’ entry into the Myths series, I was expecting some kind of topsy turvy postmodern reconstruction of old tales. I was disappointed. So when I picked up The Penelopiad, I wasn’t sure what to expect. And it’s been a long time since I’ve read any Atwood, so I had no idea what might happen as I started reading.

Penelope – Odysseus’ wife – is dead. But she lives on in the underworld, and wants to tell us her story. The story of what she did while her husband went to fight the Trojan War, and took a twenty year detour to get home. This is the story of a young girls trying to grow up quickly as the world around her becomes nothing. More than that, though, it is the story of those twelve maids who are killed as soon as Odysseus returns from his rather extended holiday.

It’s a very postmodern thing, this filling in the gaps of famous stories – looking for gaps in the grand narratives, and trying to fill them up with smaller mini narratives that tell stories of those people to whom history did not give a voice. And what a voice Penelope has been given. She is unbelievably average, and I think that’s her weakness. She is the everywoman, the best kind of narrator, because we feel for her. Her cousin, Helen, is not necessarily unlikeable, but she certainly is annoyingly beautiful, and the somewhat sarcastic tone Penelope takes with her is quite funny, particularly since Helen causes no small amount of trouble in her life.

Also important, though, are the twelve voices of the maids. I must confess, I haven’t read The Odyssey, but I do know what happens (who doesn’t?). But I didn’t know about the maids – when Odysseus finally comes home, after killing all the suitors banging on Penelope’s door, he also kills twelve of her closest, and youngest, maids. This is never explained by Homer, but here, Atwood goes out of her way to give these maids a voice. They become the chorus of this Greek tragedy, interrupting the flow of Penelope’s story with their own songs and skits, some of which are excellent. I particularly like the court scene, which is their last aside – with a modern judge trying to rule over a courthouse full of Greek gods and mythical creatures, Penelope trying to give her evidence. It’s funny, but more than that, it’s wickedly good satire.

Is this a feminist novel? Atwood herself has claimed that it is not, citing the only reason people label it feminist is the fact that a woman is the protagonist. And I think in many ways she is correct. This is not a tale of a strong, independent woman in charge of everything around her, but of a woman who is constantly being attacked emotionally from every angle – and she does spend a fair amount of time crying. Not that strong women don’t cry, but, you know.

But if we define feminism as a framework for highlighting the stories of women in history – no matter what they are – then we can definitely take The Penelopiad as a feminist text. Because that is almost all this novel focuses on. Instead of the manly battles of ancient Greece to which we have become accustomed, Atwood gives us the stories of Penelope, of Helen, of Anticlea, of Eurycleia – these sidelined women of history that do have stories to tell.

Even here, Atwood’s penchant for science fiction-ish ideas does not go unassauged. Penelope is telling us this story from beyond the grave, in the underworld of Greek myth. And it’s not much, but it is nicely done, with her meeting people who are already dead, including Helen, and Eurycleia, and even manages some interaction with the present time.

There is quite a lot going on here, and in some ways that works to Atwood’s advantage. But the time shifting that takes place means that you can’t settle into one period for very long, and the whole thing moves along at something of a breakneck speed – particularly the beginning, which doesn’t help set up the growth of Penelope into a young woman, from the timid girl she once was. But this is my only complaint, which I think stems from my wanting more. Because this is a short novel, but it left me wanting much more. If there were more, though, I feel it might drag. So there’s a conundrum for you.

Actually, interestingly enough, there is almost no plot to speak of here. Everyone already knows the conditions under which this story is to take place, so all Atwood has to do is colour by numbers. It’s the way she does it – with such verve, such sympathy for Penelope – that makes this an excellent retelling of The Odyssey, and a good novel in its own right.

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Where Three Roads Meet (2007) – Salley VICKERS

We’ve been talking about myths, folk tales and fairy tales in English this semester (I’m doing a thoroughly pretentious creative writing course), and I’ve always meant to get around to reading the Canongate Myths series. I love the idea of retelling famous old stories in new, exciting ways, which is pretty much the brief of the series. So now is as good a time as any. Picking the ones off the shelf at work I could find, this one was the top of the list.

Sigmund Freud is dying. While lying in his bed, waiting for the pain to end, a blind man appears, and begins to tell him a story. A story about his life as a seer in ancient Greece, and the events he saw unfold before his blind eyes. This man is no ordinary seer, though. This is Tiresius, the blind seer who was so closely involved with the tragedy of Oedipus. And so the life of Oedipus begins to unfold, but from a different point of view.

This is, I’m going to be honest, not the most exciting retelling of the Oedipus myth you’ll ever get. It’s got everything you want from the story – mother incest, father murder, terrible eye stabbing out scenes – but other than that, not that unique. That’s not a criticism, just an observation. Vickers instead chooses to focus much more on the last days of Freud, which are actually thoroughly interesting. I suppose Freud’s work has become such a figure in psychoanalysis, it’s easy to forget the man himself. There’s a small historical note at the beginning describing his last days (in which this novel is set), and it turns out he died of terrible, terrible mouth cancer. Thank you, smoking. So, while his body degrades, his mind is still as sharp as ever. And the marriage of Freud and Oedipus is an obvious one – though, as Freud himself points out at the end, Oedipus himself never had an Oedipus complex. He never wanted to sleep with his mother, it just kind of happened.

The tragedy of Oedipus, then, is his desire to know what he must never know. Had he never wanted to find out about his real parents – something that is here presented as an unconscious desire, tying in with Freudian ideas – then none of this would ever have happened. What is even more tragic in this retelling is that he had in fact already fulfilled the maternal half of the prophecy – as a child, he had slept in his mother’s bed. Nothing funny, he was just a crying baby. His quest for knowledge eventually destroys what he has built.

Phrophecies are tricky things – as Professor Trelawny has taught us. Do they really tell the truth? Or do they simply plant an idea in our minds that slowly makes itself become true? This latter idea is an interesting one, and not dissimilar to predestination time paradoxes – that is, you create something that you then experience later, and nothing can change it. In essence, then the myth of Oedipus is one giant predestination paradox – once his father goes to Delphi to decide whether or not to have a child, he has set in motion events that will almost certainly happen, because the people involved will only act in one certain way – it is in their nature.

I should probably talk about Tiresias, too. I like him. As a character, he is here sympathetic and interesting enough to not only tell the main story, but his own as well. His tragedy is that he, too, is destined to become what he becomes, and indeed, his family background is not too dissimilar from Oedipus himself. He, too, has a dysfunctional family, and his time as a seer and oracle has changed him – he often doesn’t like the visions he has, particularly the ones about Oedipus. Indeed, for a while, he’s not even sure what he really saw.

I’m not sure Vickers has brought a whole load to her retelling of her chosen myth. This is a solid novel, but I’d be reading it more for Freud’s last days, and the charming narration and philosophy from Tiresias than any exciting new theories or angles on the tragedy that is Oedipus.

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