Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad – Review

“We live in the flicker—may it last as long as the old earth keeps rolling! But darkness was here yesterday.”

On a cold night floating on the Thames, Charles Marlow regales his shipmates with the tale of his encounter with Kurtz. This was a man with what many saw as natural greatness, yet on an ivory expedition in Africa he was swept up in corruption and madness.

There are (likely unintentional) echoes of Melville in the heightened language and mangy characters, but where Melville used his beautiful prose to elevate you to the skies, Conrad pushes your face into the dirt. His descriptions of Africa and the long river the characters journey down are so vivid that, much like in The Drowned World by Ballard, heat seems to radiate from the pages. It’s almost enough to make you sweat.

There’s also an impressive tension which permeates the book; while the description of Africa itself is a twisted caricature of the continent, often veering into colonialist wet-dream, cutting dialogue and a constant sense of danger means that character interactions are always fascinating.

The very last section, which isn’t even set in Africa, is the most interesting. This may be because Conrad is far more engaging when he’s writing about people in general rather than specific individuals, as with the latter his tendency for caricature again shows its head (although Kurtz is an exception).

During a scene with Kurtz’s wife, it becomes obvious Marlow will live a life contaminated by the darkness both he and Kurtz immersed themselves in when they went into a foreign land with little sense of danger. Marlow went to Africa just to travel along a snakelike river, but the serpent bit him and the poison will never leave his blood. He saw the continent, and the people inside of it, as something incidental to his own personal journey, and was punished for his naïveté. Conrad makes it clear that corruption and violence never quite leave those who encounter it. The taint will always be in the back of the mind, whispering.

Stoner by John Williams – Review

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“Sometimes, immersed in his books, there would come to him the awareness of all that he did not know, of all that he had not read; and the serenity for which he labored was shattered as he realized the little time he had in life to read so much, to learn what he had to know.”

William Stoner is a university professor with little ambition who walks through the world as though bracing against a strong and cutting wind. When he sits at a desk, it is too small for him; when he puts on clothes, the cuffs are too tight; after marriage, he discovers his wife is as bad a fit as most everything else in his life. His life is a slow, quiet trudge through ill ease.

This is a novel which is sad and tender, moving you over an emotional cliff face with a gentle touch and then watching you fall with pity.

It’s odd then that it’s such a joy to read.

The charming and meticulous prose surely helps. You can feel the effort and thought put into each sentence radiating from the pages:

“He listened to his words fall as if from the mouth of another, and watched his father’s face, which received those words as a stone receives the repeated blows of a fist.”

Williams has the gift of being incredibly erudite without excluding readers. There are few allusions to outside texts (or at least ones the reader needs to know to understand), and the language rarely uses in obscure words or references. Instead, word choices are so meticulous, and each sentence flows into the next with such delicacy, that this is writing which is simply awe inspiring.

William Stoner is big-hearted in the meek Midwestern way, and thus intensely loveable, so the attachment I and so many other readers have formed with him shouldn’t be a surprise. Yet it’s unusual for a protagonist to be so passive, and  strange how the petty acts of cruelty against him made me angrier than acts of pure evil in other novels. His timidity pushes a theme of isolation and endurance in a cruel world, and this may be what makes small moments all the more affecting.

Other characters are created and carefully cast aside by the author, but never forgotten by the reader. Dave Masters, for example, appears for maybe ten pages at a stretch yet has lodged himself more firmly in my mind than the protagonists from many other novels.

So this book is hardly plot heavy and has none of the hallmarks of what could be considered a page-turner, yet I didn’t want to stop reading. It gives you with the kind of warmth William Stoner longs for in literature and which makes me grateful as a reader, and so now I’ve finished I’ve already ordered another John Williams novel to light the same sort of fire in my chest.

My Struggle by Karl Ove Knausgaard (Part 1) – Review

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“He said something enormously charged and meaningful about death, the tone was resigned and laconic, but not without irony, and I thought I will have to remember this, this is important, I’ll have to remember this for the rest of my life, but by the time we were in the car on our way home along the Hardanger fjord I had forgotten.”

The dedication it takes to lay yourself out as freely as Knausgaard does is staggering. He displays parts of his mind that I keep behind a wall from nearly everyone. He’s not unselfconscious – he seems to care deeply for what others think of him – but has merely allowed himself to feel the shame of others’ eyes on his most intimate and shameful details and not shrink from them.

In the spirit of this novel, here’s an embarrassing confession:

I’m intensely jealous, in a stomach-clenching and shamefully angry way that I haven’t felt since I finished Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, of Knausgaard’s ability to write. Not the sweet kind of jealousy that pushes me to work, but the kind that takes over when I’m reading something that’s not just good — it’s something that I could never even attempt.

This is closer to what is normally thought of as a memoir than a novel, but the style borrows heavily from Proust. There is no plot, just a man with a father whose father just died. The prose is what keeps you engaged, as it is somehow both threadbare and grandious at the same time. Knausgaard allows his writing to freely drift from subject to subject, and his lack of devotion to plot allows him to be far more accurate in portray the fluctuating nature of the human mind than nearly any novel could be. It’s as though he’s trying to figure the world out with you.

I picked this up out of curiosity, and if you had told me that I would want to read the whole series (six novels) after finishing, I would have laughed. But every few pages, I found myself thinking the cliche thought that normally pops up only once every dozen novels or so: “I didn’t know anyone else thought this way.” Knausgaard doesn’t shy from unflattering moments and musings. He depicts the selfish inclinations of the human brain in everyday situations without the cloying rationalisation that frequents memoirs or the works of Eggers, and because of that stays absolutely fascinating  even when he’s doing nothing more than describing his day cleaning his dead father’s house.

The Fall by Albert Camus – Review

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“A single sentence will suffice for modern man. He fornicated and read the papers. After that vigorous definition, the subject will be, if I may say so, exhausted.”

Albert Camus, the French-Algerian novelist and Absurdist, lived what many would describe as an eventful life. He fought in the French resistance during World War 2, won a Nobel prize before he was fifty, and essentially founded a philosophical movement which still holds sway today. As his legions of fans over the last century would tell you, although probably not with this phrase, he was an unquestionable badass who lived by his convictions.

It’s therefore striking how often his work focuses on the unexceptional. His characters are not naturally brave and strong; they are ordinary men put in difficult circumstances which are nonetheless everyday: disease, melancholy, death.

The subject matter of The Fall, as with much of Camus’ work, could be fairly called depressing. On the surface, it’s the tale of a fallen socialite with a lot to say about the nature of truth and self-deception. You’re at a bar one night (the novel is a second-person narrative) and a stranger wants to tell you about his life as a judge-penitent. You don’t know him, or have any way of verifying if he’s speaking the truth. He seems arrogant, but intriguing. Do you listen?

After watching a woman commit suicide one day, this man found his mind slowly unravelling. He didn’t try to stop her. He didn’t even move. The world has shown him that he is ordinary and selfish. He’s come to some radical conclusions about the universe in the last few years, so listen up.

Camus’ tone is as witty and dry as ever, and due to the abundant grin-worthy aphorisms this novel almost works as a black comedy. The narrator is so melodramatic and slimy that it’s extremely entertaining if seemingly bleak. Deception is a running theme in his tale, and you question just what you’re being told is true and if that even really matters.

This is the kind of book that doesn’t read well if the reader isn’t willing to grit their teeth and wonder just what the hell the author is trying to get across. Passive readers, much like passive people, don’t have much luck in Camus’ universe. With the short page length, though, it’s worth your time.

Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon – Review

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“The hand of Providence creeps among the stars, giving Slothrop the finger.”

This seemed like a harrowing if quirky war story. Then things got weird.

I couldn’t decide with how to describe my experience with this novel. It was… unusual. After glancing through the notes I took while reading, I realised that contrasting my early reactions to my later reactions should give a good idea how things went.

Early on:

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Later:

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Much later:

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In the world of Gravity’s Rainbow, kindness is rare and cruelty is common yet absurd. Humans are constantly attempting to transcend both their physical and mental limits through sex, magic, and physics, and almost always fail; put another way, the characters are a variety of horny Icarus’s. Slothrop, an American in London during World War 2 and the protagonist, can predict rocket-explosions with his penis. He doesn’t realise this, but shadowy organisations around him do, and they want him under their control.

Thomas Pynchon, an American, writes better Englishmen than most English writers. He covers every subject imaginable. His prose can be mind-boggingly sharp; he can be erudite, beautiful and very funny all in one paragraph. He is, in short, brilliant. Brilliant people don’t necessarily write brilliant novels, though, and there were moments reading this where I considered that it might just be an extremely well-researched and well-written prank on readers everywhere.

The twisting sentences and obscure references can be extremely confusing, yes, but as with most difficult things, after prolonged exposure you can adapt and appreciate the challenge. I was really, really enjoying the experience; I wanted to love this book. My favourite moments were when the intensity paused and we were just allowed to breath in the sorrow of the confusing world which Pynchon writes with such wonderful prose: the sad fall of Pökler, who began as a well-intentioned scientist but finished utterly corrupted; anything to-do with Roger Mexico and his desperate love for Jessica, an engaged woman; the tragic tale of Byron the  Bulb, an immortal light-bulb (yes, an immortal light-bulb is a character) who appears almost out of nowhere several-hundred pages in for his own chapter, and then is only mentioned once after. However, touching stories like these were often followed by dozens of pages at a time which I read with a grimace and a strong instinct to throw the book out the window.

I realised I had been wrong in my assumptions about why this book is considered so hard to read around three-hundred pages in. It’s not just because of the challenging language; it’s the subject matter, the horrifying, tragic, fucked up subject matter. I’d never been angry at an author for making me read disgusting scenes before, but this book ‘accomplished’ that. The third time I found myself raging internally against Pynchon for writing something so repugnant but still emotionally affecting, I began to wonder whether this book was even worth the effort I was putting into it.

It was putting my mind through a wringer, and for what?

Well, a lot, as it turns out.

Meaning between one page and the next can be elusive. This novel has intentionally broken narrative cause and effect; events drift in a whirling state so that you will be left confused and occasionally frustrated. Because of this, though, it can make you look at the world around you in a fucked-up but fundamentally altered way for several-hundred pages; if that doesn’t appeal to you, fair enough, but if it does, you’ve got a novel ahead of you which you will likely remember for the rest of your life.

To say I had conflicting feelings while reading is an understatement, but I’m glad I stuck with Gravity’s Rainbow. If you have a strong stomach for, well, everything, it’s more than worth the considerable effort needed to finish it. Just expect to feel like your brain is melting and being rearranged in potentially damaging ways at some point.

The Shadow of the Torturer by Gene Wolfe – Review

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“I felt that pressure of time that is perhaps the surest indication we have left childhood behind.”

The Shadow of the Torturer is an interesting but frustratingly inconsistent book. After a morbid tone for over one-hundred and fifty pages, with musings on the universe and the indifference to horrors such as torture which can be habituated during childhood, the narrator suddenly has a ridiculous monster-cart race through the centre of the city with a horny peasant girl. This was not a smooth or enjoyable tone shift.

Every time something in the novel impressed me it was followed by something objectionable: the world is imaginative while the characters feel stale; the setting is fascinating, but the plotting is tedious; the writing is carefully crafted and a joy to read, while the characters are anything but.

Men and women come across as fundamentally disconnected from events that are unfolding around them, and I don’t think this was a narrative trick to make a point. They react with mute fascination and then swiftly move on from whatever trauma has been inflicted on them just to keep the plot rolling; they become horny instantly because Wolfe would like a sex scene, not because it might be an appropriate human reaction.

The universe of The Shadow of the Torturer is fascinating, and the society we’re introduced to really feels like it could have been around for millennia. It ends up seeming like a hollow ruin instead of a city, however, because it’s inhabited by broad caricatures instead of believable people.

 

The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea by Yukio Mishima – Review

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“Glory, as anyone knows, is bitter stuff.”

I picked up The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea by Yukio Mishima because the author was a body-builder and martial artist who tried to topple the Japanese government through a rousing speech, and, when that failed, stabbed himself in the stomach. This was, admittedly, not the purest motivation to read a book. I was going by the logic that whatever a man like that wrote, it was likely to at least be interesting. I was right.

A sailor begins to realise that the greatness he has been grasping at his whole life may never come within reach. A widow tries to move away from the memory of her dead husband. A young boy, caught in the grandeur of his pseudo-revolutionary school chums, has begun to dream of violence.

This is a creepy novel, and that’s a compliment. There’s a sense of unease and looming disaster which is rare to feel outside of the horror genre, and this is particularly affecting because the characters seem normal, just in a strange set of circumstances.

There’s a dark influence from our protagonist Noburu’s friends. They long to be special, and are willing commit horrors to separate themselves from what they see as the brainwashed and inferior masses. Their minds are being warped by the terrifying influence of the Chief; that doesn’t mean Noburu’s not accountable for his actions, but it demonstrates the power of a strong group on an impressionable young man. This novel could be retold as a simple parable about the allure and dangers of fanaticism, which is ironic coming from an author with fascist sympathies.

The pacing is occasionally listless; it’s a short novel that feels long, but not unintentionally so. Mishima is willing to diverge into the mundane in a way that Western authors rarely would, and if it wasn’t for the malicious goings-on in the background it would almost be relaxing. Actually, this has been the case for every Japanese novel I’ve ever read. Hmm.

Characters drift lazily through their lives, but we get the chance to know them intimately. Everyone here is restless, searching for meaning or purpose; some try and find what they need through materialism, others through faux intellectualism, others through love but no one feels content. You keep waiting for some small crack in their lives to cause everything to break apart, and when the climax comes, there’s a satisfying and horrifying pay-off thanks to a well executed slow-burn of a plot.

Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion – Review

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“We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget. We forget the loves and the betrayals alike, forget what we whispered and what we screamed, forget who we were.”

If melancholy could be said to have a patron saint, it would be Joan Didion. She travelled throughout California during the 1960s to try and understand what she saw as a confused and desperate time. Not the cheeriest subject, but interesting nonetheless. There’s despair, as this book describes a world of tumultuous change and violence—yet, reading it decades later, there’s also poignancy. We watch social movements grow and gather momentum when we know they will fizzle out and die, having accomplished few of their goals; this is a useful reminder of how difficult it can be to see all ends.

Didion’s perspective on the 1960s is raw and fascinating due to its frustration. Popular culture often sides towards romanticizing Flower Power and the few moments of peace, but Didion reveals destructiveness unchecked naivete can cause. Hippies come across less as fantastical dreamers, and more like perpetually drugged up cliché factories desperate for the illusion of change in a society that seems fundamentally broken.

And then there’s the writing itself. Didion addresses the world with prose utterly devoid of warmth and yet stays emotionally resonant. She was one of the greatest stylists of the 20th century, with the eloquence of Nabokov and the restraint of Hemingway. You would have to be deliberately obtuse not to see her influence on some of the greatest essayists of our own time. Her sentences are devastating, delivering calculated punches to the reader’s solar plexus at just the moment for maximum impact:

“I could tell you that I came back because I had promises to keep, but maybe it was because nobody asked me to stay.”

There’s a moment in nearly every essay of Slouching Towards Bethlehem where Didion seems to lament the lost dreams of both her nation and the individuals who strive and usually fail inside it. The mood is of an extended eulogy for a land of moral decay which she doesn’t seem certain was ever better than now anyway.

It’s the 1960s without the kaleidoscope of modern pop-culture obscuring the nastier elements, and thus a harrowing but powerful read.

Middlemarch by George Eliot – Review

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“Character is not cut in marble – it is not something solid and unalterable. It is something living and changing, and may become diseased as our bodies do.”

Middlemarch is the perennial favourite of well-read parents everywhere, and my mother was no exception to this. That guaranteed that that I would do everything I could to avoid this book as a sulky teenager, and as adulthood began to creep along I merely forgot it existed.

This year, after reading a number of the looming geniuses of 19th century England (and having discovered that the writing there was, unsurprising to everyone but me, bloody good), an essay by the incredible Zadie Smith went over just how special this book is to her and should be to others. So, I decided to finally give George Eliot a go.

I began reading and thought:

“Okay, so Middlemarch has one of the best written opening paragraphs in fiction. Not a bad start.”

I kept reading.

“Right, so Middlemarch has one of the most gorgeous opening pages in fiction. This is a great start.”

I kept reading.

Three weeks later, after forcing myself to take the novel slowly—I wanted to savour the experience—I was in love with Middlemarch in a way I have been in love with very few books. Yes, that’s a melodramatic way of describing how certain books can make you feel. In my experience, it’s also an accurate one.

The omniscient narrator gives us an all-encompassing view of life which only 19th century novels can pull off with such lightness. I’ve recently become fascinated with authors who can truly create multiple personalities within a single novel; David Mitchell and Susan Barker are great examples of this rare talent, but if they’re chameleons then George Eliot was a shape-shifter.

Young, old, handsome, homely; poor; rich; there’s no one Eliot can’t write fully fleshed. She was absurdly talented at expressing the intricacies and individualities of humanity, and she did so without demonizing those who held views likely extraordinarily different to her own.

This is by far the least plot-driven book to sit on my favourites’ shelf; the actual events are small scale by design. That small acts can have huge implications for those we live with is one of Eliot’s central conceits, but this means it’s difficult to express what makes this book special succinctly. George Eliot describes this feeling of the gap between experience and explanations better than I can, unsurprisingly. Near the end of the novel, Celia asks Dorothea to explain just how a surprising relationships came about:

“Can’t you tell me?” said Celia, settling her arms cozily.

“No, dear, you would have to feel with me, else you would never know.

 

In the Heart of the Heart of the Country by William H. Gass

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“I want to rise so high that when I shit I won’t miss anybody.”

Some authors examine characters; Gass dissects them. His writing cuts into the inner workings of the human mind like a scalpel, and even if you don’t enjoy what’s being shown you will recognise it as similar to something deep within yourself.

Reading In The Heart of the Heart of the Country is like staring at a house-fire: the spectacle may be aesthetically beautiful, but it’s ultimately just depressing as it’s the cause of so much misery. Kafka said that “we need books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.” Normally, I would agree. This short story collection strayed too far from trying to provide narrative satisfaction, though; Gass doesn’t just illuminate the disgusting elements of life, he wallows in them. The result is emotionally numbing. 

The prose is intricately written, with complex sentence structures and occasionally confusing dialect (although Gass knows how to temper his own intelligence based on whether it is appropriate for his characters; many authors lack this self-awareness). A number of the stories here fall into the dreaded short story trope of “middle aged man contemplates the meaning of clouds,” although the first — “The Pedersen Kid” — has an interesting set-up and multiple engaging characters. Things soon settle into monotony, however. Three hundred pages of nihilism is going to be dull no matter how intricate the writing.

Gass said that “these stories emerged from my blank insides to die in another darkness.” Regardless of its lack of commercial success, and even if its grotesqueness makes it difficult to love, it’s hard to deny that In The Heart of the Heart of the Country is extraordinarily well written. It will make readers gag, but still feels true to the despicable parts of our world. However, the stories are so relentlessly ugly and cynical that I couldn’t escape the feeling that it was written out of pure spite rather than a desire to engage the reader in a truly meaningful way.