Tag Archives: classics

Playing parts…a review of Between the Acts by Virginia Woolf.

‘All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages.’

William Shakespeare, As You Like It.

I’ve finished reading Between the Acts and, just like the story itself, it only took one day. I always find that I read Woolf’s books quickly – I think there’s something in her style of writing that sends me snowballing through the words. Also, plot is not the be-all-and-end-all of Woolf’s books and so one doesn’t have to spend time taking in events and their cause and effect as you do with other authors.

But what did I make of Between the Acts? Like all of Woolf’s books that I’ve read so far it takes some digesting (hence the delay in posting my review). I enjoyed reading Between the Acts, perhaps not so much as Mrs Dalloway or Orlando, but I did enjoy it. I think Woolf is a very acquired taste – it’s certainly not going to float everybody’s boat, so to speak. If you’re after a linear plot, characters who explain themselves and some sort of immediately discernible sense in the events which transpire on the page then you won’t like Woolf, that’s not what she’s about. Woolf’s writing is haphazard and eclectic, appearing as if she has merely dropped ideas and characters onto the page and is, herself, waiting to see how they turn out. There’s no rhyme or reason. There’s no obvious purpose for the story. Between the Acts very much conveys the impression to the reader that they’ve just woken up and found themself a fly on the wall in the lives of the Oliver family. You’re allowed a glimpse of one day, and that’s all, don’t be greedy; but you can discern a lot about people in one day. Though we are very much held at arm’s length, and encouraged to merely observe the story’s characters, the act of observation is not without its rewards.

All the world’s a stage.

I think Woolf chose her title for Between the Acts very shrewdly. At the start of my post I chose to quote Shakespeare, I feel that this quotation goes some way to explaining what Woolf was trying to say in Between the Acts. The events of the story take place in one day in 1939 when Britain was wavering on the cusp of war and there is certainly a sense of foreboding within the narrative. A sense that the age-old way of life is about to be shattered. The characters themselves are transient, the landscape older than the story being told. The pageant which takes place every year in the gardens of the Oliver’s home commences and is packed away – leaving the field bare once more. This year’s pageant play (that we witness in Between the Acts) tells the story of England from the beginning of time – we see the ordinary men and women of the neighbouring villages take on the roles of great and influential people throughout history. There’s something rather nostalgic about it and also something eerie –  a sense that soon nobody will be ordinary and the war will cast everybody to play a part for England.

At the end of the pageant the actors and actresses on stage cleverly become the audience and the audience members are forced to become the players – their rows of seats the new stage. This I think is one of the strongest and most potent metaphors in Between the Acts, every age of England is played out for the audience’s delectation, but it is their turn to decide the plot of the present age, they must take control of the narrative now. The characters themselves are aware of the roles they must play, perhaps not consciously, but the patterns of their thoughts reveal a great deal about the roles they each play within the society in which they live. However, it is also their roles as parent, spouse, friend and lover that we see. Take Isa Oliver, for example, the constant refrain of her thoughts beats clearly. Every time she spies her husband an almost involuntary tic rears itself and the thought, he is ‘the father of my children’ must be driven home.

The story’s final line reveals all: the play is over, the characters are alone, and yet Woolf writes, ‘The curtain rose. They spoke’. It’s quite a sad and menacing idea really. We are forced to reflect on the characters as actors involuntarily playing parts in some perverse puppet show, quite who Woolf’s puppeteer is isn’t clear. Although, I think that the story owes a lot of its menace to the time and environment in which Woolf was writing. As bombs fell and war raged overhead, Woolf and her Jewish husband, Leonard, must have felt a real sense of powerlessness and fear for the future. I think it is these emotions which drive the narrative of Between the Acts so that a book which is ostensibly about a summer pageant in the garden of a rich Englishman’s home becomes something far more threatening.

I would recommend Between the Acts, but would caution that in order to fully feel and understand the story you have to appreciate the period and setting and consider the impact they have. It is the time and setting which determine the plot of Between the Acts and not the characters. They, as Shakespeare wrote, are merely players being prodded and moulded until they play their roles without question or complaint.

I move on to The Pursuit of Love, by Nancy Mitford.

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Filed under 20th century, Books, Fiction, Novel, Virginia Woolf

The more I read of literature, the more I am dissatisfied with it.

Long time, no blog. I know. Unfortunately I seem to be having something of an existential crisis at present. Not on behalf of my own life, thank goodness, but rather on behalf of my blog. ‘In my good books’ I named it, although I have to say I’m beginning to think that ‘In my boring books’ might have been more accurate. I set out to read books that others had hailed as ‘classics’ and have, for the most part, been a little disappointed and a lot uninspired. I love reading, I chose to study English at Uni because of this love. I had anticipated, therefore, that beginning this blog and undertaking to read more ‘classic’ books would be something of a treat, lately, at least, it hasn’t been. I seem to be reading less and less as time passes.

Since the low point of Madame Bovary, I seem to have got rather stuck in a rut. I have not found any new characters, especially heroines to aspire to or admire. I had assumed that there were a few more Elizabeth Bennets out there but am beginning to conceive that perhaps she is, after all, a flower amongst weeds in the garden of literary heroines. One thing that this blog is at least affirming to me is my love of my old favourites. I am gaining a greater insight into what exactly it is I love about the books I have cherished for so many years. Take Pride and Prejudice, for example. Previously I’d thought that it owed a great deal of its charm to the period in which it is set and the manners of the time, although having read Middlemarch I am not so sure. No, I think, where my love affair with Pride and Prejudice is concerned, it is not the period that makes it for me, or even, shock horror, Mr Darcy…it is Elizabeth. If there’s anything I love about that book it has to be her. Sure she has her faults…pride and prejudice are not the reserves of Mr Darcy, but her wit and vivacity (as Mr Collins puts it) are in my reading so far unparalleled.

Now, where the book I am currently dawdling through is concerned…where to begin. The Catcher in the Rye does not seem to be a bad book, although it is, for me, not the holy grail of literature. I haven’t finished it yet, so am aware that I am in no way fit to pass comment, but I have certainly developed a general air of apathy where reading this book is concerned. Thus far my reading of it has only commenced on trains, not a good sign. Instead, in the evening, I find myself drawn to the charms of sweeping….Minesweeping, that is; and can now boast the richest Sim I’ve ever played. Yes, it is that modern trapping, the computer game, that has robbed Salinger of my perusal. The Catcher in the Rye is by no means a doorstop of a book, in fact, compared to the likes of Middlemarch it is but a minnow in the pool. In fact, if I felt so inclined, I could probably sit down and read the whole thing in a couple of hours; and perhaps that is the way I’ll have to go. Maybe the quick short burst, like the ripping off of a plaster, will be my solution for The Catcher in the Rye. Maybe by the end of it I’ll even find I enjoy the sensation. But finishing it is not my main concern at present. It can be done, if I set my mind to it. No, what concerns me is my need to rip off the plaster and read in such a forced fashion. I’ve only encountered this sort of reading when studying academic texts and course books when revising. This is not the way I would choose to read for pleasure, as it confers little pleasure at all.

But how to solve the problem? The answer seems clear, read better books. But how to find them? I am, after all, currently reading my way through texts that have, for years, been ranked amongst the best. The pinnacle of literature. If they are not satisfying then where to turn next evades me. I’m not even so fussed when it comes to plot, all I want, as I’ve said from the start, is a heroine to be proud of. To be honest, even a hero would suffice. The perfect escapism, for me, is to wander into the life of a character I admire, to view the world as they do and to learn of worlds different to my own through their eyes; but where to find these characters? Again, I turn to the wisdom of Elizabeth Bennet, ‘The more I see of the world, the more am I dissatisfied with it; and every day confirms my belief of the inconsistency of all human characters, and of the little dependence that can be placed on the appearance of merit or sense’. Perhaps I just need to be grateful that I have found books that I do love, and be content with the pleasure I have had in reading them.

What about  In my good books…? Well, I will trudge on, turning pages, scouring for that heroine to be proud of. After all, hope flames eternal…perhaps there is another Lizzie out there, skulking amongst the dross of boring characters, waiting to be discovered and truly loved. I just wish my course to find her would run a little  smoother.

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A slow, but promising start…beginning Possession: A Romance by A.S. Byatt.

Well, I’ve made a start on Possession, albeit a very slow one. I’ve found the book rather hard to ‘get into’, not helped of course by my being totally shattered after going back to full-time work.

It’s an odd opening to a novel, and a very literary and academic opening. Considering I’ve got an English degree and felt a tad ignorant when faced with all the literary references and academia cited, I’d imagine someone without said degree would feel more than a little lost. The characters so far all seem a little stuffy and, dare I say it (again!) rather self-absorbed, although judging by the reviews quoted on the cover and the all-round success of the book, I’m assuming the somewhat hard and superior exteriors of the characters are more easily penetrated as the story continues.

As I’ve said above, I’m ashamed and sorry to say that my reading so far has been of a plodding and lack-lustre quality; not helped my state of tiredness, and general inability to concentrate on anything requiring more than ten per cent of my sleep-craving brain. Although, as I read, I am starting to see a light at the end of the tunnel, the story is starting to stick to my mind – I find myself thinking about it while I wait for the kettle to boil, or while I wash my hair…this must, I think, be a good sign.

And so I read on…a slow, but promising start.

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Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert…giving women, wives and mothers a bad name.

I know, I know…it’s been a while. I have been away, although that usually means I read more books (but, then, perhaps that’s only where chick lit’s concerned). So, Madame Bovary? Yes, I have finally finished it. It’s taken an incredibly long time for a relatively short book and I’m not exactly sure who or what to blame. Yes, I have been rather lax and easily distracted, but simultaneously the book has done little to entice me to pick it up and has failed to sustain my attention when I have done.

What is it about ‘classic’ novels that stipulates they only contain characters who are intrinsically boring or bad people? – and sometimes, shock horror, a person who has the unhappy misfortune to be both boring and bad – a very unappealing combination! I thought this was going to be a book with a carefully woven plot which cleverly and perceptively revealed the feelings of a woman who has chosen her husband badly and lived to regret it; and, on paper, I suppose that’s what this story is about, but I was bitterly disappointed by so many aspects of the book that the plot has been rendered unappealing by belonging to the same pages. Madame Bovary is – no, I won’t mince my words – an ignorant, vain, self obsessed monster of a woman. In fact, she gives women, wives and mothers a thoroughly bad name; and she was created by a man, I can’t help thinking that some woman must have made herself very repugnant to Flaubert to make him create such an abomination. She ponces around the small French towns that the story inhabits thinking only of herself – and, believe me, she has an unaccountably ‘puffed up’ opinion of herself, imagining that life has somehow tricked her out of living the life of a Duchess and robbed her of the beautiful, expensive possessions that she so covets – and eventually buys, at the expense of her baby’s booties. No, not even the birth of a healthy, happy daughter can draw this stubbornly selfish woman out of her own self-obsession. Gradually she is overcome with a seething, vengeful anger towards her somewhat simple, but basically honest and good husband. She sneers at him, blames him for not earning more money with which to buy her fine things and flings herself from one extra marital affair to another. I was both infuriated and angered by her in equal measure from the moment she appeared on the page.

What of the novel’s plot and other characters though? Whilst certainly not inspiring such strong feelings as the eponymous heroine, they also are not what I would call ‘good people’. From Charles Bovary to Homais  (the apothecary in the story) almost every character introduced seems completely self-absorbed and out to further their own cause. Charles, though not an overtly bad person, plods through his life never bothering to consider the world from anyone’s perspective but his own, he is also so easily persuaded to one course or another that at points you simply want to shake him and tell him to use his brain. Where plot is concerned, by another pen perhaps this could have been an engaging story, although perhaps never gripping. It is a simple tale about rural people and their ordinary lives, but there’s no shame in such a plot and, invariably, it is such simple settings and plots which are able to expose the magic of everyday life and the gems found amongst ‘ordinary’ people; but these rewards were not to be gleaned from Madame Bovary, well, not for me, anyway.

I would not recommend Madame Bovary, unlike The Five People You Meet in Heaven, it presents a very poor picture of humanity and, were one to consider it accurate, could become more than a little depressing. To put it simply…I think people are intrinsically better than this. And ‘classic’ books, well after the last two, I won’t deny I’m becoming a little despondent – maybe I should’ve stuck to Jane Austen and Tolkien after all? But I refuse to be so easily beaten, especially by the horrendous Emma Bovary. If people are better than this, then by that virtue, books should be too. My next book? A slightly more modern one for some variation…Possession: A Romance by A. S. Byatt. Fingers crossed for a woman to be proud of, it’s about time.

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