intense sensations

doctor-thorne It’s only by reading War and Peace all the way through without skipping a few chapters or throwing large chunks away that you can appreciate the towering genius of Anthony Trollope. He did what Tolstoy refused to do. He shaped life to make it fit neatly into a novel. He crafted a cunning plot, fleshed it out with all-too-human characters, spiced it up with scandal and plenty of jokes and served it up as a frothy concoction entirely for our pleasure and amusement.

It’s fiction, of course, but it’s also, as Nathaniel Hawthorne observed, “just as real as if some giant had hewn a great lump out of the earth and put it under a glass case, with all its inhabitants going about their daily business, and not suspecting that they were being made a show of.”

Doctor Thorne has one of Trollope’s best plots. It’s the plot he was most proud of. It’s neat. It serves his purpose well. For his purpose, of course, is not simply to tell a story but to dish up some situations that can entertain us, make us laugh and make us think.

There are one or two old-fashioned moral dilemmas in the novel. I say old-fashioned because these days anything goes. Whoever heard of a modern politician with a conscience or a doctor with a qualm? What banker or businessman would balk at profit? Self-interest is these days synonymous with commonsense. We put ourselves first in everything, “because we’re worth it.”

But if you can rise above our contemporary moral landscape and imagine a world where people have a burning desire to do the right thing, then there is nothing at all old-fashioned about the pleasure you will get from reading this superbly crafted and highly readable book.

You don’t have to digest indigestible sentences or wrestle with intrusive philosophical tracts. Trollope writes beautifully and simply. He sums up moral dilemmas with admirable concision. He is a genius at putting things in a nutshell. He lets his characters speak freely but he makes sure they always speak to the point.

Frank is told almost every day that he must marry for money. Frank knows he has a duty to his family and doesn’t want to see it go to ruin. But he is in love with a woman who has no money and no social status. What should he do?

It’s a straightforward quandary and no other novelist could spin it out so delightfully for over 600 pages without making us conscious of the novel’s length. Trollope is never a chore to read, unlike Henry James who accused him of “a complete appreciation of the usual.” There are no murders here, no shoot-outs, no car chases, no weird drug problems, no psychopaths. Instead there is a delightful lightness of touch, a mastery of motive and character, and an elegance of expression that makes us see everything with absolute clarity.

This will not get stretched beyond credulity the way the plot of Downton Abbey was. But it is getting the same exposure, on prime time Sunday night television, with a script by Downton’s creator, Julian Fellowes. I hope the script does the novel justice and the exposure gives Trollope the audience he deserves.

Lately my memory has become very unreliable. I keep waking up in the middle of the night with a recurring nightmare. It’s that I’ve reviewed the same book twice on my blog and expressed completely contrary opinions.

It has taken me five months to read this novel. I’d forgotten more than half of it by the time Natasha married Pierre. A compassionate author would have stopped there but Tolstoy had another 200 pages in him and was determined to give us every cruel word.

I formed some strong opinions of this book during those 200 pages. At the time they seemed very distinct and clear but they are fading fast so I’d better write them down quick before I forget them too.

Quite a lot has happened over the last five months. The six episodes of the latest BBC adaptation have come and gone. The actors and actresses have started to pop up in new projects. Andrew Davies has written half a dozen adaptations of other novels…

I heard that Andrew Davies ripped up War and Peace so that he could adapt it. He even threw large chunks of it away.

How I wish I’d thought of that!

I’m having therapy on my wrists because of the internal bruising caused by propping open its pages.

“The aim of an artist is not to solve a problem irrefutably,” wrote Tolstoy when he started this novel, “but to make people love life in all its countless, inexhaustible manifestations.”

The word “inexhaustible” is the most important word in that sentence. Life is inexhaustible and so must you be. It is a sprawling, unforgiving novel that follows the structureless confusion of real life. Intentionally so. Every minor character gets a starring role and an extensive backstory. The peaks become troughs and then peaks again and then hillocks and then peter out across a plain of infinite flatness stretching towards a horizon that we never approach.

Anna Karenina is a tightly-focused vignette compared to this. Infinite Jest is flash fiction.

I’m glad I read it, though. It was five months well spent. But then living my life would also have been five months well spent. And in a way I was living my life. War and Peace is life. That’s what it is. Not a novel. Life.

And I’ve lived it. Definitely.

There is one other thing I am very sure of. I can be absolutely confident that I will never review this novel twice.

The Days of AbandonmentThe Days of Abandonment by Elena Ferrante
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I wanted to give this book three stars but then a little voice in my head said, “Vanessa, be honest, this book is one of the most important books written by a living writer. How can you give it a lower rating than all those trashy erotica books you read?”

Well, the truth is I didn’t like the ending. It was too happy. It didn’t feel genuine. It was glib.

Not that sincerity is my strong suit. Some of you reading this may not know that I pretend to have a blog. It’s not really a blog. I simply paste my Goodreads reviews into it and pretend it’s a blog.

But I haven’t even been doing much pasting recently. My blog is suffering long Days of Abandonment. The most recent comment on my blog says “I miss your blogging.”

But instead of blogging I’ve been using the London Underground. I’ve been rubbing up against real people every day.

Last week I was on one of the most congested routes at the peak of the rush hour, on the Jubilee Line between Canada Water and London Bridge. The woman beside me was reading Troubling Love and the woman standing over us in the throng of people crammed into that carriage stooped and touched her book and said “Oh, you’re reading Elena Ferrante. Isn’t she just great? I’m about to finish The Story of the Lost Child.”

The startled stranger looked up at this weird woman on the Undergound. “Isn’t it fantastic? I had to read the last half really slowly because I didn’t want it to end.”

“I know! I don’t know what I’m going to read next. I have to read another one by her. What is that one like?”

“This one is good too. But have you read The Days of Abandonment?”

“No.”

“Oh you should! That is an amazing book. I really like the way she writes. She’s fierce. She’s kind of scary but I love it.”

I was deep into a Sweetmeats Press book at the time. I didn’t feel confident enough to lean across and say, “But weren’t you let down by the ending?”

And in any case, the ending is just a few sentences. The rest of the book is indeed scarily visceral and intense. And it’s all that scary visceral intensity that makes The Days of Abandonment a really important and thrilling book that will make you want to read everything by Elena Ferrante and enthuse about her to strangers on the Tube.

The rest of the book is not glib at all. Quite the opposite. It has the rawness of unadulterated truth. No wonder Elena doesn’t want you to know who she is.

Go and read all you can by her and tell all your friends about her, straight away!

Hollow HeartHollow Heart by Viola Di Grado
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I hope I never meet Viola Di Grado. Her latest novel, The Hollow Heart, has the authentic ring of autobiography. Pure imagination is incapable of inventing something this assured, this intense and vivid. It must be drawn from life.

And what a sick, doom-laden, psychotic life it is! The narrator, Dorotea Giglio, is a sensitive soul, quirky, morbid, self-obsessed and glum. But the most disconcerting thing about Dorothea is the fact that she is dead.

She is dead from the first sentence. She remains dead until the last.

You might wonder if there can be a plot in a novel when the main character, who is also the narrator, is dead throughout.

Well, let me assure you, this novel holds quite a few surprises. There is more than just a back story. Things happen to Dorotea after she dies.

First, things happen physically to her corpse. We are not spared the details. If you are squeamish you can skip the bits in italics but I don’t recommend this. The close-up scrutiny of her putrefying corpse is intrinsic to Dorotea’s story.

For although Dorotea has a scientific interest in bodily decay, she discovers there is more to death than this. There is spiritual change too. There is growth.

There is also an awful, chilling moment towards the end of the novel when you think something truly shocking and unforgivable is about to happen. I had my still pumping heart in my mouth.

I won’t spoil one of the best moments in the novel by telling you more about it. Suffice to say that Dorotea likes to tease.

She is playful with language too. “I died of optimism,” she laments. “I thought my suffering would end after I died.”

Suffering is only part of the process. Through suffering comes revelation. After revelation, something else. I’m not sure what to call it. Perhaps you could call it redemption but that sounds inappropriately religious. The novel is too subversive to fit into the tradition of religious doctrine suggested by the themes of suffering, revelation and redemption. It is a meditation on death that becomes a celebration of life. It celebrates, above all, a life rooted in the senses and expressed in words. Life holds possibilities the dead can only envy.

Because of this, the dead need psychiatric help. Your help.

As a disembodied ghost, Dorotea loses the ability to read. She can see the words on the page but she can no longer decipher their meaning. She can, however, write, and in writing she hopes to be rescued — rescued by you, the reader.

If that seems paradoxical, a greater paradox was that in reading her words I found myself rescued by Dorotea.

Yes, I think the word rescued is not too strong to describe what happened to me. It happened on a subconscious level. I didn’t realise the connection at first. But towards the end of the novel, having put it away in my bag and finished with it for the morning, I received a text from a friend whose father had just died. I didn’t know her father well but I suddenly had a strong conviction that I wanted to go to the funeral. Normally I avoid funerals. But this time I felt an irresistible compulsion to bond with my friend and pay respects to her father. What can I say? It was an epiphany. I felt different, very different inside.

It wasn’t until the next day when I pulled The Hollow Heart out of my bag again and found where I’d left off, that I realised that Dorotea had changed my attitude to the dead.

I am not going to attempt to put this feeling into words. I cannot begin to come near Viola Di Grado’s proficiency with language. I will just say that it was her words that brought about this change in me.

I no longer fear death. In fact I want to make friends with the dead. I long to embrace Dorotea as a sister.

Alas, I can’t say the same about Viola Di Grado. A writer this powerful is scary. I really hope to God I never meet her.

Total ChaosTotal Chaos by Jean-Claude Izzo
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Some books shouldn’t be rushed. Although Total Chaos is a slim book, written in short, punchy sentences, it is like a rich ragout, brimming with flavours, pungent, concentrated, sensual and intense. It should be savoured slowly. There is a lifetime of experience distilled into it.

At first I struggled. The names of people and places were strange to me. I was reading the English translation but it was an English I couldn’t understand. I had no idea who the characters were or what kind of lives they led. Although each sentence meant something in isolation, together they made my head spin and I became confused.

But Jean-Claude Izzo gives you everything you need to know in this novel. It’s not his fault if you don’t get it. He immerses you in Marseilles, his city. It is a fully realised Marseilles, though not the city the tourists know. He takes you to places tourists have never seen and shows you things you will want to forget.

In a few paragraphs he can sketch out whole lives. He blends and blurs the colours on his canvas like an impressionist painter. A fear-filled teenage scuffle is inseparable from the eroticism of the touch of a woman’s breast. Neapolitan songs mingle with Ray Charles and the sounds of old men playing belote. Tomatoes, basil, bay, meatballs, garlic and red wine merge with the scent of the sea as it crashes against the rocks, recalling the stories of Homer and Conrad peddled by an anarchist bookseller on Cours Julien.

This is very specific writing. The plot is dense but fully explained. I understood it finally but I didn’t enjoy it until I read the book a second time. Then I fell in love with it.

This is not a thriller. It is a celebration. It is a poem. It is a classic French crime novel. Mediterranean Noir. Making beauty out of chaos.

Love's Labour's LostLove’s Labour’s Lost by William Shakespeare
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I should probably point out before I begin this review that I have watched the Opus Arte production of it on DVD several times, with subtitles, and it is largely thanks to the skill of the actors that I have managed to understand some of it. Trystan Gravelle as Berowne and Michelle Terry as the Princess of France are particularly brilliant.

By which I mean I can understand what they are saying.

But all the actors and actresses are excellent. I am always moved by the two songs at the end, which are sung by the whole ensemble. The actors’ voices are both clear and resonant. The harmonies are magical. But the voices and the harmonies merely carry the words and it is the words that somehow, every time I hear them, cut right through everything and stun me.

If you know the words you might think I am exaggerating. I’m not. The words are very simple but they cut very deeply.

The imagery in these songs is very clear. We see the flowers in the meadows and hear the cuckoos in the trees and we feel the fear of married men that their wives are being unfaithful. Such is the power of spring.

The imagery of winter is even more vivid. Dick, the shepherd, is blowing on his fingers, Tom is bringing in firewood, milk is frozen in the pail, Marian’s nose is red and raw, crabs are hissing in a bowl and an owl is hooting while greasy Joan “doth keel the pot.”

What a spectacular way to end a piece of entertainment that is all about the convoluted wordplay of men and women in the courts of Europe. No, it seems to say, it is not a story about kings and princesses. It is about Dick, Tom, Marian and Joan. It is about simple English folk. Yes, and Chinese ones too. It is about all of us.

In spite of all the dizzying wordplay, the message is very simple. You learn about life not from books, not from making oaths of celibacy and studying hard, but from giving yourself to life and experiencing it. Love is an especially powerful teacher for it lives not alone in the brain but courses through all our senses and gives to every power a double power.

There is hardly a scene that doesn’t celebrate love, erotic love, physical love, lust and passion.

But in the end the lovers do not win the hands of the women they love. The women make them wait. A year and a day. Which, as Berowne wryly points out, is “too long for a play.”

This is not a happy comedy. It is rueful. It is full of fear.

In this respect it is very truthful. Life is like that. Erotic love is like that. Whatever is intense is never without some element of dread, of difficulty and pain. Although, it may, while it lasts, spur us on to magnificent flights of eloquence and wit.

Parts of this play, I should add, are hilarious. I have never laughed so much at a play as I did at this one. Even though I do not understand every phrase, I find this far more enjoyable than English TV comedies. It is still, after so many years, English drama at its very best.

ControlControl by Charlotte Stein
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’ve mentioned somewhere in another book review that I regularly listen to audio books in order to improve my English. There’s nothing more embarrassing than mispronouncing a cool word dropped into a hot conversation. A mangled “progeniture” could have dampened the squib of many a top drawer English gentleman with whom I’ve mingled. Without the right guide, simple words like “taut” and “tighten” can prove an insurmountable obstacle to those of us from foreign parts.

So I am a target consumer of the latest audio developments from Amazon. And I was delighted by Amazon’s video for their Whispersync technology that shows an attractive woman reading and/or listening to a sizzling erotic book in bed, in the shower, in a meeting, at lunch, on the train, and, finally, in bed again. I was delighted not just by the technology but also by the choice of book. An erotic book. A literary erotic book. Not this one, by Charlotte Stein, as it happens, but it might easily have been.

What a ringing endorsement of my favourite reading matter! They have got it so right, I thought to myself. But of course they have got it right. For if anyone knows how technology has changed our reading habits, it’s those clever researchers at Amazon.

Let’s face it. One of the joys of a kindle and an iphone is being able to load it up with steamy texts to digest in private not just at home but at lunch, on the bus, on the train, at the doctor’s … everywhere!

But being sophisticated readers we do not want rubbish on our gadgets, do we? We do not want detritus.

And with Charlotte Stein’s gorgeously svelte novel we certainly do not get detritus. This book is sophisticated and elegant. It turns you on and gets you thinking at the same time. It’s light but it’s so cleverly light that it’s heavy, dark and deep.

I won’t summarise the story, since discovering the plot is one of the pleasures of the book. This is an author who knows how to take control. Her skill is quite thrilling. She unfolds the narrative with enviable panache.

How can you write a dirty story without being crude? you might ask. Well, but that’s just it. Charlotte is in control because while she’s clever, she is also crude. Compellingly crude.

So get under the covers with Charlotte, and on the bus and in the kitchen and in the bath. The audio book is available from Audible and, take it from me, every word is beautifully pronounced.

Books by Vanessa Wu

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