Tag Archives: society

The Age of Innocence (1920) – Edith WHARTON

As with so many books I read, this had been sitting on my pile for a long time. I had even picked it up and tried to read it some months ago, but just couldn’t get into it. Finally, though, it came up again, and I plunged head first into The Age of Innocence. I don’t know what was stopping me last time, but it certainly wasn’t there this round.

Newland Archer is a new man for a new time. In New York society of the late nineteenth century, there are unspoken codes and restrictions in relation to who you converse with, who you do business with, and where you see these people. One of the rules is that you certainly do not have romantic feelings for your fiancée’s cousin. Alas, Archer has found himself in this exact situation, and everything could very quickly fall apart.

Wharton’s choice to have a male lead character allows her to give us a view of women not tinted by the thoughts of women. If that makes any sense. By having a male think that women should be independent, intelligent, and all that good stuff, we are perhaps more inclined to believe it. I hope that doesn’t sound too off. By having that distance (by not having women talking about women), readers are maybe more likely to pay attention. Or maybe I’m just talking crap. Certainly, in the 1920s, I like to think this theory stands up.

And so Archer’s disposition for intelligent and beautiful women causes him some problems. His fiancée, May, is lovely. But that’s about it. When he meets Ellen, he is drawn to her spunk, her tenacity, and her tortured background. This is what he wants in a woman – not someone who will just lay down and take whatever is coming to her, but someone who will fight for what she believes. Her impending divorce from her husband provides Wharton with enough material to provide a biting critique of New York society at the time (the 1870s), but as with any good historical novel, it seems that she is also talking about her own context.Ellen wants to be free of the history of her failed marriage, but of course, in high society, this cannot happen. And in this way, Archer is drawn to her. Not that May isn’t a lovely person – in many ways, she is more intelligent than Archer gives her credit for. Before they are married, she gives him the chance to back out of the marriage, because she thinks there is another woman. Which, technically, at this stage, there isn’t. But of course, Archer cannot back out of his obligations, and tries to stop seeing Ellen. And yet, he cannot.

New York society is perfectly evoked here, too. Granted, I don’t know much about New York in the 1870s, but Wharton shows us a society so concerned with outward appearances, with social customs and conventions, there is a sense of being stifled the entire time, as is clearly evidenced by Archer’s actions, as well as Ellen’s. Family is vitally important to relationships, and Archer’s marrying into May Welland’s family means he cannot do things he might otherwise have wanted to, and instead must pretend to be friendly with people he may not like, or even offer Ellen advice contrary to what he himself thinks.

The ending is perfect, too. Wharton has chosen to not give us the perfect love story ending, preferring to show us a more, arguably, realistic choice from Archer. He chooses to stay with May until her death, creating a family and life together. The coda at the end gives Archer the chance to rekindle his relationship with Ellen, but as a final act of strength, he decides instead to not see her again, preferring to keep his memory of her alive in his head, content with this idealised image. There is a sense of resignation in the ending, too, as though it simply isn’t possible to break with societal traditions and customs, and that if one were to break, it takes time.

Wharton’s gift is character. It’s been a long time since I’ve read about characters that are so real in their motivations and actions. And it’s not just the three young people involved in the love triangle – the supporting characters are also perfectly pitched somewhere between caricature and reality, allowing both of these to shine through in her desire to critique high society, as well as gender roles in a time of great change in America. A true classic.

Tagged , , , ,

The Waves (1931) – Virginia WOOLF

In my recent ‘reading less’ period, I’ve been trying to pick short books, in the hope that I will actually get through them at a reasonable rate. I have no idea why I”m not reading as much as I used to, but there you go. And yes, I should have known that, even though Woolf’s books aren’t physically big, they are chock full of heavy ideas, and prose, so it’s taken me a bit longer than I expected…

Six children are playing in a park near the sea. Their thoughts are unordered, random, and noisy – spilling onto the page. As they being to mature, though, their thoughts become more orderly, more concerted. And so, as they begin to grow up, and move into the world, we follow the progress of their lives, and how dependent they have become on each other, and how lonely each one of them is in the modern world.

This is Woolf’s most experimental work, and regarded by many as her greatest. At least, that’s what the blurb says. As experimental works go, it’s pretty good. While The Waves is ostensibly narrated in third person, the only things the narrator says are the names of the six characters, and the word “said”. It reads almost as a script, with the dialogue alternating between each of the six characters, often in the same scene. Until the final section, the characters narrate their surroundings in present tense, providing a somewhat unique experience, as you are fully immersed within this world. The last chapter is narrated in past tense – an old man reflecting on his life, wondering if it was all worth it.

While there are six separate characters in this novel, they are, to some extent, facets of the same person – perhaps Woolf herself. They all share similar thoughts, fears and desires, and for most of them, a reliance on the other characters. Interestingly, these characters are most dissimilar during their formative years – as rowdy children, and as somewhat suppressed schoolkids, they retain some sense of individuality. As their lives slowly inch forward, however, they become more and more like each other, their inner monologues occasionally interlocking, and definitely complementing the others that surround their own.

So, six facets of Woolf’s own personality. We have Bernard, the writer; Louis, the insecure Australian outsider; Neville, the man looking for love in the same sex; Jinny, the socialite; Susan, the woman who finds solace outside the city, searching for motherhood; and Rhoda, always seeking solitude. To some extent, I think the male characters work much better than the female characters here, except perhaps in the school scenes – the women tend to fade into the background as the novel progresses. I love the insecurity of Louis, though, and the measures he resorts to in order to find someone who likes him – not that his friends don’t, but his constant questioning of himself means that he never truly fits in. Bernard is excellently drawn, too – partially because it is he who closes the novel, and muses on life and death in ways that only Woolf can ever do.

Woolf’s writing is as impenetrable as any other good modernist stylist, but what she says is written with such beauty, it almost doesn’t matter. As the title might suggest, it is sometimes better to simply let the words wash against you, enjoy the feeling, and pick up the flimsy plot as you go on. Just wait for the next part of the framing story – a lovely little short story about one day at a beach. To some extent, the plot (such that it is) isn’t important. This definitely falls into the character study basket, and that’s ok. We get a thoroughly interesting insight into this one (or six, depending on how you view it) character, and almost every single thought they ever have – from childhood to death.

I’m not sure how I feel about The Waves just yet. I know I’ve just read a work of genius, but I probably couldn’t tell you what it was trying to tell me. So, completely modernist in its style, then. I do love the language, though, and the audacity Woolf has to try and pull something like this off. And pull it off, she does – this novel is not a one trick pony, and beyond its unique structure lies a complex and thought provoking character study into (perhaps) her own mind.

Tagged , , ,

Plains of Promise (1997) – Alexis WRIGHT

And so the march of contemporary Australian novels continues at university, and so, therefore, do my reviews. I read about half of Carpentaria a little while after it won the Miles Franklin Award in 2007, and I’ve always meant to go back to it. When this came up, though, I was pretty interested – not least because it is much, much smaller than the epic that is Carpentaria.

Plains of Promise is the story of a mother and daughter – though they never meet. Ivy Koopundi is a child born into St Dominic’s, a missionary for Aboriginals in the Northern Territory, and her life there is far from perfect. She is subjected to constant torture, because it is believed her presence in the camp is a curse. When her daughter, Mary, is born under unfortunate circumstances, the newborn is whisked away to be looked after properly. Years later, Mary returns to the camp, in the hope of finding out who she really is.

This is very much a novel of two halves. Not just when we talk about the plot, but I think stylistically as well. And there’s one half I thought was much better than the other. The first half of the novel concerns itself with the treatment of Ivy in her youth, and let’s be fair, it’s not very nice. She is tormented by the other Aboriginal tribes who are in charge of the camp, because her people are unknown to them. Similarly, because she is a half-caste, she has caught the eye of the superintendent of the camp, and is being raped. After Mary is born, she snaps, and we get a really good little section between the two main stories about her time in a mental institution. There’s this feeling throughout the novel that no one really knows what to do with Ivy, and as such, she is bounced back and forth through so many different situations, none of them are any good for her. Clearly Alexis Wright has a point to make about the treatment of Aboriginals in the twentieth century – and she pulls it off surprisingly well. She doesn’t have to resort to melodrama or trying to falsely pulling at our heartstrings – the facts are staring us right in the face, and they are pretty brutal by themselves.

The second half of the novel, though, is where we really get going. Just throwing it out there now – I much preferred the second half. Mary Koopundi has grown up, and the parallels begin to cascade around us. She, too, has a daughter with a man who leaves her pretty quickly, and works for an organisation trying to organise some kind of pan-Aboriginal political action so their voice is recognised by the Australian public, and the government. This insight into the way they work, the blocks they constantly face, and the in-fighting that is such a huge part of the Aboriginal community was, for me, some of the most interesting facets of the novel. I wonder how much of Wright herself is in Mary, as she seems to be a heartfelt character that one instantly feels for, and her daugher is lovely as well. And while Mary and Ivy meet, they do so in circumstances that mean they never know. The Stolen Generation has been in the news quite a bit lately, and this look at how these people are treated by Aboriginal communities trying to forget the past is also a fascinating insight. I did feel a little dumb reading this beook, because there’s so much about these issues I just don’t know. It is intersting that Wright is one of the few successful Aboriginal authors in Australia – I’m really struggling to think of any more.

While people may remember Carpentaria as Wright’s epic, Plains of Promise gives it a run for its money. While not physically big, it is thematically huge, and essentially gives us a history of the Aboriginal peoples in the twentieth century. The ending is not, I think , particularly optimistic, and while this was written at a time of conservative government policies, despite the Apology, we are still at the same place, 12 years later. This is not a happy read, but it’s getting close to essential reading for Australians.

Tagged , , , , , ,

The Yacoubian Building (2002) – Alaa AL ASWANY

To distract myself from the huge pile of Australian novels I have to read very soon, I thought I’d pick up something that was thoroughly different. The Yacoubian Building caught my eye when al Aswany’s new novel, Chicago, came into work, and when I saw a cheap copy of it in a second hald bookshop, I picked it up. Now, I’ve finally got around to reading it.

There’s a building in downtown Cairo called the Yacoubian Building. Built in the early twentiety century in a showy style, there are now many, many people living in it. These range from the rich people who inhabit the apartments, to the poor people how live on their roof. And yet, none of them are so different. Each of their lives is fascinating – from the womanising old man, Zaki, to the son of the doorman, Taha, who wants to be a policeman, to Souana, the wife of a man who has high aspirations in Egyptian society. This novel is a window into a society that is oft ignored by the Western world.

This book has a pretty huge cast of characters, but you don’t feel bogged down by names and situations really quickly, as other novels can do (I’m looking at The Slap here…). Instead, each character has a discrete storyline that very rarely meets another. As such, it’s almost like a big collection of short stories about these people, but somehow, they gel together, and it really works out. I didn’t fell at any stage as though one character was getting preference over another, though I think Zaki is probably the main character – his tale book-ends the novel, so there’s a sense of his story definitely beginning and ending.

Al Aswany’s writing style remind me of Alexander McCall Smith, in that both strive for a kind of old-world charm in their prose. If it weren’t for the storyline about Islamic fundamentalists in Iraq, I could clearly see this book coming from the 20s or 30s. And that’s a good thing. I love the juxtaposition of al Aswany’s writing style and what he’s writing about. Because what he is writing about is very much contemporary society.

This book is very much concerned with gender roles and sexuality in contemporary Egypt – perhaps ironic, considering Western views of Islam and sex. These people go at it all the time in all ways imaginable. What makes it more interesting is that the people who go at it often hide what they are doing from the public, in case of shame. This is particularly evident in the gay plot, where the editor of a newspaper is having affair with a married man – they clearly love each other, but they still can’t say it. Granted, the book’s treatment of homosexuality gives way to stereotypes pretty quickly, but I don’t think that was a conscious decision by al Asway. It’s just the way this society views the gays. More important than this, however, is the way women are portrayed in the novel.Each and every one of them is subjected to subjugation by their male partners, who seem to think this is ok. And yet, there is love here. People truly fall in love and are happy about where they are, despite what is going on around them. What makes this most ironic, perhaps, is when Taha is tortured by the police, a process that involves his ‘honour’ being violated. It is ironic that he should be so outraged and hurt by what they did to him, when there’s so much inherant misogynism in the socity in which he lives – misogynism that extends to forcing a woman to have an abortion because the father doesn’t want the child. This scene is pretty brutal, but necessary, I think.

I was surprised at how good this book actually is. Despite being a first novel and all that, al Aswany has a good grip on how to write his story and his characters. Clearly there’s something to be said for being a dentist in a large city, a source of inspiration he has admitted to many times over. Ignore what people say about this book being like a soap-opera – here, they mean it as a great compliment.

Tagged , , , ,