13 June 2008

Tono-Bungay, by HG Wells

This is a really marvelous book. It's got a little bit of everything, I think, and what's so amazing about it is the way it manages to integrate all of it into a splendid seamless whole. There's love, there's adventure, there's social satire - it's great. I suppose the success of it is based on the narrator, who is also the protagonist - he's likeable and intelligent and interesting and generally a stand-up guy. He doesn't always do the right thing, but he approaches the world, or rather, his story, with a level-headed clarity that's immensely appealing. 

The style of the novel is closely akin to 19th century realism (a la Dickens and George Eliot) but has a decidedly modernist bent as well, a lush delicacy that's really quite lovely. There's something of Eliot, but also of Wilde, and Conrad as well, especially towards the end. It's not just an interest in the world, but also in the language used to describe it - the narrator occasionally ruminates on the best way to describe a given moment or feeling, and there's something about that reflexivity, the way he grapples for the words to convey the moment's quiddity, that makes the work seem all the more true - true as in an aim that is true, rather than the opposite of false. Much like my claim that the best works on love are not those that attempt to describe love as a thing in itself, but the particularities of a given moment - it's in that specificity that the universality of it so majestically emerges - and indeed, this is part of what makes the love scenes in this book so powerful, to me at least. And in keeping with that idea, what really struck me about Tono-Bungay was the way it was strongly local and specific to a particular moment in British history and simultaneously strongly aware of the rest of the world in this amazing imaginative community kind of way. "If Bladesover is my key for the explanation of England, I think my invincible persuasion that I understand Russia was engendered by the circle of Uncle Frapp" (48), says the narrator. It's the awareness and interest in the rest of the world, and the way he thinks about other places through metaphors and representations. The book is hardly free from racism and a highly problematic depiction of Africa, but still, there's something in it that, I think, points towards a kind of cosmopolitan worldview that is grounded in a strong sense of ethics, and that I find tremendously appealing. 

There are two moments in the book that particularly resonated with me. The first is when George, the protagonist, and his friend Ewart are discussing Socialism, which they both believe in, and George is passionately, enthusiastically planning to join some organizations! To act! To do something! And then the response from Ewart: "'I wonder why one doesn't want to,' he said..." (121). This is followed by a passage where George reflects on his friend's detachment, attempts to understand how his friend "quite seriously meant to do nothing in the world at all towards reforming the evils he laid bare in so easy and dextrous a manner." (121). It's not a condemnation, exactly, just a kind of detailed description, which is part of why I find it so intriguing. 

The second passage is at the end of the text, and a nice counterpart, or perhaps a rejoinder, to the previous one. I quote it at length because I like it so much, and why not:

"This is the note I have tried to emphasize, the note that sounds clear in my mind when I think of anything beyond the purely personal aspects of my story.
      It is a note of crumbling and confusion, of change and seemingly aimless swelling, of a bubbling up and medley of futile loves and sorrows. But through the confusion sounds another note. Through the confusion something drives, something that is at once human achievement and the most inhuman of all existing things. Something comes out of it... How can I express the values of a thing at once so essential and so immaterial? It is something that calls upon men such as I with an irresistible appeal.
        (...) Sometimes I call this reality Science, sometimes I call it Truth. But it is something we draw by pain and effort out of the heart of life, that we disentangle and make clear. Other men serve it, I know, in art, in literature, in social invention, and see it in a thousand different figures, under a hundred names. I see it always as austerity, as beauty. This thing we make clear is the heart of life. It is the one enduring thing. Men and nations, epochs and civilisations pass, each making its contribution. I do not know what it is, this something, except that it is supreme. " (420-421).

Man, I am such a sucker for that stuff. You find it, too, in Ayn Rand, and in Marx. It's this simultaneous awe and despair for humanity. That there is confusion and chaos and mess and misery but there is also beauty and wisdom and occasional moments of clarity. And you can't weigh those two against each other, or balance it out in any sort of way, that's just how it is. I suppose its the closest thing to a spiritual credo that I've got.

Ooof, it's getting all heartfelt up in this piece. Time for me to go play some softball. 

Meanwhile, if you're interested, the book can be found for  Free at Project Gutenberg. I enjoyed it thoroughly. You might too. But you might not. It's kind of hard for me to say. I suppose some people might find it dry and crusty and old and outdated - and certainly, it's a product of a bygone era. But perhaps the narrator will be personable enough to charm at least some of those people - there is a really pleasing feeling, as you read, that he's speaking directly to you, and even if his words are spanning across almost a century, they remain curiously relevant, I think.

Also, it turns out that Tono-Bungay the product is based on coca-cola. Which is kind of awesome. 

02 June 2008

Never No More, by Maura Laverty

This is a lovely book, and actually quite remarkable in many ways. It seems like a fairly standard coming-of-age kind of story, but it's told with such delightful warmth and sensuous description that it's a real treat to read. Witness, for instance, this beautiful bit - "Amorous shafts of sunlight poured down from the high window of the buttery and threw themselves on the jelly filled glasses, kindling them to a passion of lucent amethyst".
What makes this book such a treat, to me, is the richness of the world evoked, the fascinating portrayal of village life. While the book abounds with marvelous descriptions of rural Ireland - wakes, slaughtered pigs, turf-cutting, not to mention the fantastic mythic sorts of stories of star-crossed lovers and village misadventures, and descriptions of food that would make your mouth water - it's hardly provincial in the typical sense. There's a clear awareness of the rest of the world and larger political problems. The village is neither isolated nor backwards, just somewhat removed, one might say. And while the people are traditional and somewhat set in their ways, its not a repressive atmosphere. There's a nice moment, for instance, where the narrator reflects that it's somewhat curious that no one has ever said a harsh word of the town prostitute, "Even those who turned with horrified loathing from any young girl who anticipated her marriage by a few months, never shunned Sarah". Actually, the book is, on the whole, wonderful in its cast of strong-minded, independent women. 

While there's not much in the way of narrative, it ends up being a highly engaging read, happily meandering into tall tales of village characters and bits of gossip, coupled with more serious reflections and astute observations about life and the relationships between people. And the descriptions of food, my goodness - Laverty is apparently most known for her cookbooks, and I have ever intention of acquiring one when I'm in Dublin this summer because I've been dreaming off all these marvelous potatoes she writes about ever since I first took up the book.

Anyhow - highly recommended. A fantastically charming book.