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Giovanni’s Room (James Baldwin, 1956)

GiovannisRoom

4.5/5*

It’s safe to say that this book left me a little lost for words. What a wonderful introduction to James Baldwin! The prose is exquisite; it makes you ache, scream, crumble with its intensity. How Baldwin managed to pack such a power punch, such raw emotion, in 150 pages, is beyond me.

David is as enigmatic as characters come, oscillating throughout between his impulses and dissonant convictions. He dreams of being the true American man – wife, white picket fence, tucking his future children into bed every night. While drifting about in Paris, he becomes enraptured by the eponymous Giovanni, an Italian bartender also living there. He succumbs to his urges and begins a relationship with Giovanni, until his fiancé Hella, who has been travelling in Spain and is unaware of David’s predilections, returns to begin a life with him.

Giovanni’s Room is indeed a love story, though it feels well-judged to say it is more about the failure of love, or, indeed, the failure of emotion. David is simultaneously exhilarated and repulsed by his feelings for Giovanni. For all his wanderings, he has not come to know himself – or, more likely, has not built up the strength of conviction to move past the profound self-loathing he harbours within himself. Though Giovanni’s character, on the contrary, is at relative peace with this part of himself, the discourse we are exposed to throughout the novel, particularly in the conversations between the two men, reveals a great deal about what it meant to be gay in the 50s – you were either one way (middle-aged, lecherous, rich), or another (petite waiter or rent-boy). There was nothing in between. No other option, no other way to be. The sexual politics of the time were no doubt pretty messed up, though by no means unrecognisable. And so we feel for David.

The prose shook me to my very core. What fluid, seamless, gorgeous writing. The yearning, the confusion, the treachery – the dazzling complexity of the conflicting sentiments involved – are portrayed with such effortlessness, and the visceral observations of love, of companionship, are deeply affecting:

“Much has been written of love turning to hatred, of the heart growing cold with the death of love. It is a remarkable process. It is far more terrible than anything I have ever read about, more terrible than anything I will ever be able to say.”

The story behind the novel’s publication is noteworthy, too, with Baldwin’s publisher initially advising that the homosexuality theme would alienate him from his African-American audience. Baldwin’s decision to make his protagonist white also merits mention. On this, he said:

“I certainly could not possibly have—not at that point in my life—handled the other great weight, the ‘Negro problem.’ The sexual-moral light was a hard thing to deal with. I could not handle both propositions in the same book. There was no room for it.”

Giovanni’s Room really is writing at its most bold, most beautiful. I already look forward to revisiting it.

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Turn the Ship Around! A True Story of Building Leaders by Breaking the Rules (David Marquet, 2015)

ship 3.5/4*

I must confess – I didn’t read this in full. I skimmed most chapters, extracting examples I found particularly compelling and coming back to anecdotes and passages I thought were the most valuable. The book was suggested to me by a friend of mine, after I vaguely mentioned wanting to read something on leadership. I also subsequently ended up using a lot of the content for a work presentation (which is fitting, since my job is related to transport), which was received – I thought – pretty well. I generally resist books of this category (self-help/self-development/leadership/business transformation etc. etc.), so was mightily surprised at how much I got out of it, especially considering I didn’t read it in full!

In Turn the Ship Around!, David Marquet, a retired US Navy captain, tells the story of how he managed to completely transform the rankings of nuclear-powered attack submarine USS Santa Fe, by launching a total paradigm shift of the culture on the ship. Naval culture and traditions, I have learnt, are based around very formal, very specific protocols, very much following the traditional leader-follower, command-and-control mode of leadership. When Marquet was suddenly assigned to command USS Santa Fe, after preparing for a year to take control of a different navy ship, USS Olympia (indeed, it takes more than a year to learn all the ins and outs of nuclear submarines!), he was thrust straight into the deep-end (pardon the pun) and, being so unfamiliar with this particular submarine, was forced to re-examine the leadership approaches so common in the Navy. He began making small but very deliberate changes to his behaviour, gradually altering the dynamics between himself and his crew. The USS Santa Fe went from the worst performing ship in the fleet, with the lowest retention and operational standings, to the highest. Even after Marquet’s departure from the ship, the Santa Fe continued to win awards and promoted a disproportionate number of officers and enlisted men to positions of increased responsibility, including ten subsequent submarine captains.

The examples and anecdotes Marquet uses are genuinely fascinating, and do not assume much prior knowledge of navy ships to be appreciated or understood. I was surprised at how useful and practicable I found Marquet’s advice, and how adaptable his main points were. Undoubtedly, that is why he has become such a strong voice in the leadership space, and why the contextual dissimilarities of navy ships from (presumably) most of the target audience’s careers and working lives do not much matter. If anything, it made this all the more engaging to read. I highly doubt that I – and many others – would want to read a manual on leadership in which the author recounts his experiences of corporate life, and so Marquet’s unique story and experiences give the book a particularly distinctive and quirky character. Through his accounts of the various issues and challenges faced on the ship, I also learned a great deal about nuclear submarines, a topic I did not anticipate ever being interested in.

I won’t attempt to break down Marquet’s main tenets of strong leadership here – as that would, no doubt, result in the loss of context and nuance – but I will say that much of the content is not as radical or surprising as one might think. The book’s true achievement, to me, lay in the way that Marquet demonstrated how a real, lasting difference can be made to whatever role it is that one does. The book does not get lost in the minutiae of psychology or management theory. It simply explains, with numerous examples, how to get the most from the people around you, actively empower others (whether junior, or at the same level), and create trust. As Marquet himself says – if this worked on a nuclear submarine, it can probably work within any organisation!

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Silas Marner (George Eliot, 1861)

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4*

I was surprised at how much I enjoyed this. Despite being George Eliot’s favourite of her works (her, indeed! https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Eliot), Silas Marner is definitely a lesser known novel than, say, Middlemarch or Adam Bede.

Though a short book – my Wordsworth Classics copy is 163 pages – there was certainly some tedium involved. This was in the form of several long, drawn out passages of what seemed, at first instance, to be entirely irrelevant descriptions of people or events, in no way germane to the overall narrative of the novel. But, I revisited some of these passages after finishing the book, and found myself getting a better sense of how and why they were there, and, on quite a few occasions, even laughing. The prose contains a fair amount of humour, and re-reading certain bits of it undoubtedly allowed me to appreciate this more. The scenes in the local tavern, of the banter and jesting between the inhabitants of Raveloe, had an almost filmic quality, reminding me a little of the Shire from the Lord of the Rings. Through her flawless capturing of the frolic and gaiety of provincial life, I got a sense that Eliot was both poking light fun at the villagers, and conveying a feeling of genuine affection for their quirks and foibles, as well as for their attachment to the land (this was set pre-Industrial Revolution). I particularly enjoyed the way she peppered the text with acute, witty insights into various facets of human nature:

I suppose one reason why we are seldom able to comfort our neighbours with our words is that our good will gets adulterated, in spite of ourselves, before it can pass our lips. We can send black puddings and pettitoes without giving them a flavour of our own egoism; but language is a stream that is almost sure to smack of a mingled soil.

In short, I loved Silas Marner. It had a deceptive simplicity, was so eloquently written, and contained characters as cannily as observed as you can find. Though I did feel a slight clunkiness in the writing style at times, this was likely more indicative of my laziness as a reader than of Eliot’s proficiency as a writer!

As far as the plot is concerned – the eponymous Silas Marner is a linen weaver, residing in a remote stone cottage in the small, rural village of Raveloe (a fictional place, somewhere in the West Midlands). He’s perceived as bit of an oddity, not least because he’s a weaver – which appears a strange profession to the villagers – but also because he is an outsider (he comes from the North), and never quite ingratiated himself with the villagers or their customs. Day in and day out, he sits indoors, working tirelessly over his loom (he lives this life for fifteen years). He gradually amasses a relatively decent fortune (him being the only weaver in the village and all), and his relationship with his gold becomes his sole source of joy and meaning. He develops an obsessive habit of counting his money and gazing at it for hours on end, until, one evening – as he settles down to carry out this bizarre ritual – he discovers the money has disappeared. This event serves as the catalyst for the rest of the novel (the pacing definitely picks up from hereon). Silas has no choice but to seek the villagers’ help in tracking down the stolen gold, and, slowly, they begin to warm to him, out of a mixture of both pity and curiosity. Shortly after, Silas finds a small, golden-haired child (whom he names ‘Eppie’) sitting on his hearth, and believes her to be the fruit of some divine intervention, a manifestation of the stolen gold being returned to him. Long story short, he decides to bring up the girl, he learns to love and have faith again, and together he and Eppie live out their days in happiness.

I’ve missed out a lot of the background, so as not to spoil too much. In essence, Silas’ backstory involved him being unjustly thrown out of the Calvinist congregation he was part of, as a result of being framed for a theft. Upon moving to Raveloe, he renounced all religion, and led a wooden, emotionally absent existence, the highlight of which was counting his gold. The story is thus very much about his transition and socialisation after adopting Eppie. This being quite a common theme in literature, I was reminded a bit of a Dostoevsky short story I read years ago called The Dream of a Ridiculous Man, in which a disenchanted, misanthropic man’s encounter with a small child inspired a complete transformation of character. There is a loveliness to the concept, and to the way that Eliot depicts the tenderness with which Silas cares for Eppie. I wonder if perhaps she was making some kind of ahead-of-its-time statement about the meaning and portrayal of traditional masculinity. There is no rationale behind Silas’ decision to raise Eppie – it is a deeply emotional impulse; he simply feels he must. His characterisation contrasts starkly with that of Godfrey Cass, the other major male character (the wealthy Squire’s son, and biological father of Eppie), who, after years of denying his illegitimate child, rationalises himself into telling the truth. This decision is based largely on his realisation that ‘truth always outs’, as opposed to any particular sentiment of affection or desire to nurture.

The commentary on social class also cannot be missed, and is definitely one of the most interesting themes in the novel. When Godfrey Cass decides after eighteen years to come clean, claim Eppie as his own, and offer her the life of privilege that she supposedly ‘missed out’ on, he and his wife Nancy, in all of their deliberating about the potential outcomes of this course of action, do not even consider the possibility that Silas, the man who has lovingly raised Eppie from the very beginning, may object. We cannot help but laugh in incredulity at the arrogance of this assumption:

It had never occurred to him that Silas would rather part with his life than with Eppie. Surely the weaver would wish the best to the child he had taken so much trouble with, and would be glad that such good fortune should happen to her: she would always be very grateful to him, and he would be well provided for to the end of his life – provided for as the excellent part he had done by the child deserved.

Then:

…but we must remember that many of the impressions which Godfrey was likely to father concerning the labouring people around him would favour the idea that deep affections can hardly go along with callous palms and scant means….

Eliot’s omniscient narration allows us, to an extent, to feel empathy even for these sorts of attitudes. Eliot was a passionate observer of human behaviour. In Silas Marner, she delves into the innermost emotions of her characters, in a gentle, and yet honest and direct manner. When Godfrey and Nancy Cass visit Silas’ cottage to reveal the truth about Eppie, Eppie politely declines their offer of being parents to her. She sincerely thanks the Cass’ for their proposal, but plainly tells them: “I can’t feel as I’ve got any father but one”. Our empathy falls to the Cass’, particularly Godfrey, whose stream of consciousness is narrated throughout this experience. We pity the Cass’ not because of this outcome; we pity them for their flawed belief that things could turn out any differently. Eppie’s good-natured rejection is touching, particularly in juxtaposition with Silas’ understandably angry outburst. The Cass’ most likely assume that Eppie’s refinement is due to her genteel lineage; we know, however, that it is a result of being raised by Silas. This subversion is portrayed brilliantly.

Reading a bit about Eliot/Evans, I was surprised to learn just how unusual her life was for the time in which she lived. She was educated until the age of sixteen, was allowed complete access to the library of Arbury Hall (the estate for which her father was manager) and was later in an open marriage with the philosopher George Henry Lewes. I wouldn’t necessarily have guessed all of this from reading Silas Marner. The narrative – while critical of social class – still came across as somewhat moralistic in parts. Having said that, when you look closely at the novel’s female characters, Eliot’s modern outlook can be somewhat sensed. Eppie, Nancy Cass, Priscilla Lammeter – these are all women who differ greatly in their values and ways of living. They are each of them strong-willed (Eppie in her devotion to her community despite the offer of a life of privilege, Nancy in her moral strictures and Priscilla in her decision never to marry), and though not in radical ways, they were still presented with depth, nuance and a certain toughness – in spite of the patriarchal world in which they live.

A final point that I deliberated over, perhaps a little too extensively, was the racial heritage of Silas Marner. There were several descriptions of his appearance being starkly different to that of the residents of Raveloe, and though this may well be down to the way his body was said to have contorted because of his weaving, his ‘otherness’ was a recurring motif. The references to him as ‘pallid’ do not necessarily confirm that he was white; ‘pallid’ simply means pale (a relative term – someone of a dark complexion can surely look pale), generally as a result of poor health. If anything, this emphasis on his complexion lends weight to the possibility of him being from elsewhere. The overarching narrative of the story – the villagers’ initial suspicion of him, the portrayal of him as ‘mysterious’, the myths surrounding his knowledge of herbs, and his gradual acceptance – seems to fit in with the idea that he was not in fact white.

Ultimately, the nostalgic feel, detailed descriptions and warming story – all filled with substance – made Silas Marner an intellectually and emotionally rich read.

 

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The Gilmore Girls Companion (A.S. Berman, 2010)

2*

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Oh, man. As a long-time Gilmore Girls geek, I reaalllly wanted to like this. The idea was just so wonderful. A.S. Berman, along with his wife (the art director for this project), is certainly a steadfast fan, and while the book did uncover some interesting tidbits about the series (so the back of the set of Lorelei’s house is the front of Sookie’s house!), I thought it was pretty poorly put together.

It was all just a bit of a mess. The book focussed not on trivia, cast interviews, or behind-the-scenes gossip about the production of the show, but more on the author’s personal commentary on each episode. It was, in essence, an episode-by-episode regurgitation of scenes and quotes, with the odd sidebar containing some hastily written background on some of the cast and crew members. Whilst I did enjoy the fact that I could recap and relive each individual episode, I wasn’t given much new information surrounding the show’s making, which is what I was really interested in.

This isn’t to say that the episodic rundown wasn’t well-written. I shared quite a few of Berman’s opinions on the characters and on significant events that take place over the course of the series. He’s clearly watched it several times over, and thought painstakingly about each and every element. I liked his critical approach; Berman wasn’t afraid to point out some of the inconsistencies (the enigma of Mr. Kim, for example!), and his passion for Stars Hollow – and all its wonderfully idiosyncratic inhabitants – shone through at all times. It renewed my own love for the show, and reminded me of its uniqueness: its ability to appeal to multiple generations, its nuanced commentary on social class, its considered handling of all types of relationships, its fast-paced, witty (if sometimes maddening) dialogue, all the while remaining warm and fuzzy and leaving us in mirthful disbelief that a place like Stars Hollow could actually exist (perhaps that’s my big city bias, but seriously, the revolutionary war reenactments, the 24-hour dance-a-thons…?!).

Ultimately, however, I felt that the show deserved a more thorough, more well-researched, more complete Companion guide. Since coming off air, Gilmore Girls has consistently been cited as one of the greatest television shows of all time. This book simply didn’t do it justice, and didn’t allow fans to celebrate all that is great about the series.

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Help Me, I’m a Hypochondriac (Philip Martins, 2017)

3.5*

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If somebody described themselves or another person as a ‘hypochondriac’, we’d probably find it vaguely amusing. There is a certain comedic connotation to the word, which is likely why it’s been replaced by the simpler, more modern term ‘health anxiety’. And anybody who has ever experienced health anxiety will know that at its best, it can be greatly distressing, and at its worst, completely debilitating.

I decided to read this as a self-help measure, as a way to try to calm my own health anxiety. As a child, I remember having a somewhat morbid fascination with death and disease. At some point, this fascination evolved into sheer terror, and I became utterly obsessed with the myriad of illnesses and afflictions in existence, convinced by all means that it was only a matter of time until some serious, lifelong malady took hold of me. Working through this with an empathetic (if slightly bemused) therapist, I was able to identify some of the life events and experiences that may well have triggered this fear, which, if not an instant fix, at least allowed me to understand the reasons behind my perturbations. As a young person who has always been in relatively good health, the thought of having to continue living in such a state of disquiet ultimately became too much to bear. And so, alongside the therapy, I picked up this book (or my Kindle, rather), having read several favourable reviews online.

There aren’t a great many self-help books on health anxiety. There are many books on anxiety in general, of course, but health anxiety is a rather specific subset of anxiety disorders. This book provided me with a tailor-made toolkit to tackle some of my anxiety-induced symptoms, and to recognise that the majority of physical symptoms also have mental causes. Health anxiety is certainly a vicious circle of worry, and to an extent, a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you convince yourself you are unwell, chances are, you will become unwell. If you incessantly check your pulse, forever Google your symptoms, and obsessively monitor every freckle on your skin, it’s more likely than not that you’ll be pointed towards something being fatefully wrong (even if there isn’t).

For me, the best thing about this book was that it’s written not by a medical professional, psychologist or self-help guru, but by a regular 33-year-old guy who himself suffered from health anxiety, and self-published this to help others. It was relatable, funny, and readable in the space of about an hour. Definitely one to come back to as and when it might be required.

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One Hundred Years of Solitude (Gabriel García Márquez, 1967)

4*

solitude

Finally finished this after stopping and starting a few times last year. Wasn’t initially sure I’d enjoy it after feeling rather ambivalent about both Love in the Time of Cholera (though flawlessly put together, I struggled a bit with the premise – the Great Gatsbyesque pining was waaay over the top) and Love and Other Demons (which was similarly grotesque for other reasons), but my familiarity with Márquez’s writing style compelled me to give it a go, with the novel being his magnum opus and all. And – I’m glad I did, as I found myself swimming pleasurably along in its depths for a good few months, a couple of pages a night, relishing the humour and delicacy of the prose.

There’s lots to say about this novel (including lots I probably missed!), and it’s definitely one I plan to revisit later down the line. Some of it is pretty weird, in a classic Marquez way (the sex, rape and inappropriate relationships make Humbert Humbert seem a total saint by comparison), but barring that (lol), it was absolutely astonishing, so rich and layered and lovingly written, even if every sentence averages around 2000 words and everyone in Macondo has the same two names (seriously, I thought Anna Karenina was bad, but this easily beats the Russians in its level of name-confusion). Honestly, I had to draw myself a little family tree once I met the fifth Arcadio. Once you get past that, though, it’s a sheer delight. Oh, and everyone in the book is completely insane, which makes it all the more fun.

Now, I’m still not convinced I fully get this novel, and it was certainly a challenging read, but the reason I’d rate it so highly is due, quite simply, to the way it made me feel while reading it. There are a great many books that are close to my heart, and a great many writers that inspire me (to read, to write, to think, to somehow just be better) but it’s quite a rare thing when the experience of reading a novel ignites that overwhelming, tingly sense of unbridled wonder that this one did. Macondo is a microcosm of the world; it is the world in miniature. Inside it, and inside the relations between the Buendía family, there exists quite possibly the entirety of human wisdom, feeling, madness, possibility, absurdity. Just everything. Really, read it – it’s mind-blowing. But perseverance is key! There were indeed several times that I was tempted to give up, and a few times that I almost did. How glad I am that I ultimately did not.

I always feel a little sad when I read a translated work. Despite the quality of the translation, I’m sure some nuance is lost. (Note to self: must read more in Hindi, must get back on the German, etc. etc….)

Anyway, this has been a lazy and mostly rambling review. Whoops. But there’s not much else I am able to say.

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A Little Life (Hanya Yanagihara, 2015)

3*
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Who am I? Who am I?

You’re Jude St. Francis. You are my oldest, dearest friend. You’re the son of Harold Stein and Julia Altman. You’re the friend of Malcolm Irvine, of Jean-Baptiste Marion, of Richard Goldfarb, of Andy Contractor, of Lucien Voigt, of Citizen van Straaten, of Rhodes Arrowsmith, of Elijah Kozma, of Phaedra de los Santos, of the Henry Youngs. You’re a New Yorker. You live in SoHo. You volunteer for an arts organization; you volunteer for a food kitchen. You’re a swimmer. You’re a baker. You’re a cook. You’re a reader. You have a beautiful voice, though you never sing anymore. You’re an excellent pianist. You’re an art collector. You write me lovely messages when I’m away. You’re patient. You’re generous. You’re the best listener I know. You’re the smartest person I know, in every way. You’re the bravest person I know, in every way. You’re a lawyer. You’re the chair of the litigation department at Rosen Pritchard and Klein. You love your job; you work hard at it. You’re a mathematician. You’re a logician. You’ve tried to teach me, again and again. You were treated horribly. You came out on the other end. You were always you.

Having finished this novel, having somehow ploughed through to its shattering conclusion, I cannot overstate the absolute heartache that re-reading the above passage evokes. The protagonist, Jude St. Francis, does not learn to believe these things about himself. He does not, cannotaccept the countless, distinctive attributes that comprise his personhood. He does not, despite being deeply endeared to those around him, manage to move beyond the profound trauma of his past. He is a character we love desperately, a character we want to see get better desperately, but a character that will not, ultimately, be saved from himself. This is something that we, as readers, know intuitively all along. It is an awareness present throughout A Little Life’s 800-odd pages, and it is possibly the most heartbreaking thing about this book.

I spent around two weeks on my commute to and fro work getting through A Little Life. I noticed a sort of lethargy that would set in after I’d stop reading, one that’d continue well into the latter half of the morning. It’s not only that the subject matter is dark. It’s the way that this darkness envelops Jude entirely, and invariably seeps its way into all the little kernels of happiness he has established for himself: his high-powered job (and his genuine enjoyment of it); his stylish New York apartment; his solid, loving group of friends. I found there to be something almost meritorious about the author’s refusal to let Jude ‘get better’, about her total commitment to ensuring that his trauma remains the epicentre of his existence, always. Perhaps because the generalised atmosphere of anxiety that permeates the book’s pages resonates particularly with a generation of ‘millennials’ raised with the conviction that life will be extraordinary, only to find that it is, in truth, bleak and underwhelming. Or, perhaps Yanagihara’s determination not to rescue Jude is admirable for its apt and honest acknowledgement of the lasting, damaging legacy that childhood rape and sexual abuse can have. Either way, the novel serves as a stark confirmation of something most of us eventually realise about life – that nothing is really guaranteed, ever.

Though it was a compulsive read, I’m not sure if I enjoyed A Little Life. Is it possible to really enjoy the deliberate, graphic chronicling of a person’s deep-seated anguish and suffering? I shared the same sentiment of outrage with many other of the book’s readers: how can so many bad things all happen to one person?! At times, the writing felt a little manipulative – as if I was being forced to feel sad, forced to fixate on the brutalities of Jude’s existence, like the book was sustaining itself on my misery and disgust. It seemed as though all the forces of life had conspired intently against Jude, in the most grotesque way imaginable – though this is precisely what Yanagihara says was intended:

One of the things my editor and I did fight about is the idea of how much a reader can take. To me you get nowhere second guessing how much can a reader stand and how much can she not. What a reader can always tell is when you are holding back for fear of offending them. I wanted there to be something too much about the violence in the book, but I also wanted there to be an exaggeration of everything, an exaggeration of love, of empathy, of pity, of horror. I wanted everything turned up a little too high. I wanted it to feel a little bit vulgar in places.

Indeed, this quality of exaggeration is wielded throughout the novel. The writing is certainly unabashed in its sentimentality; there are frequent and recurring declarations of love, guilt, regret. These occur mostly within the context of adult male friendships, the fundamental lens through which the story is told. I did love this aspect of it, and it dawned on me how little the theme of friendship seems to be traversed in literature and culture more generally. It is the romantic relationship that is usually at the centre of all things, the romantic relationship that is presented as the ultimate, most significant relationship, the one to which all other relationships are but subordinate. This is an idea that comes up repeatedly, and is echoed here in one of my favourite passages:

Why wasn’t friendship as good as a relationship? Why wasn’t it even better? It was two people who remained together, day after day, bound not by sex or physical attraction or money or children or property, but only by the shared agreement to keep going, the mutual dedication to a union that could never be codified.

I loved the first few chapters for the very reason that the friendship between Jude, JB, Malcolm and Willem was examined with so much depth and humour.

And yet, in the end, friendship and love are unable to keep Jude from succumbing. There is no ultimate, conclusive fix, and in retrospect we are amazed that he has made it this far.

The book certainly made me think. All those that care about Jude – his friends, his adoptive parents, his colleagues, doctors, psychiatrists – despite their measures, are unable to save him. Through his multiple suicide attempts, his decades of self-harm, they insist, and keep on insisting, that he must carry on living. He must carry on living no matter what, in spite of himself and in spite of everything he feels. Of course, this is hardly callous. It is the most intuitive, most instinctual reaction that any one of us would have towards someone we care for. It is a wider precept, too – that people should strive to better their lives. Still, it is striking that nobody, not even for a moment, is willing to accept that Jude – to put it simply – may never get better. Yes – that would be defeatist, unduly pessimistic, perhaps. I am optimistic that most of us can recover, over time and with adequate support, from our traumas and anxieties, however severe they might be. And yet the passage below, though from Willem’s perspective, perfectly encapsulates one of the underlying motifs of the book:

But these were the days of self-fulfillment, where settling for something that was not quite your first choice of a life seemed weak-willed and ignoble. Somewhere, surrendering to what seemed to be your fate had changed from being dignified to being a sign of your own cowardice. There were times when the pressure to achieve happiness felt almost oppressive, as if happiness were something that everyone should and could attain, and that any sort of compromise in its pursuit was somehow your fault.

And so, whilst I am still unsure of my feelings towards the book on the whole, there was something undeniably powerful it had to say about modern life, and the attitudes and expectations of the world in which so many of us live.

 

 

 

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Love in the Time of Cholera (Gabriel García Márquez, 1985)

Translated from the Spanish by Edith Grossman

3*

LiTtoCIt’s been a while since I’ve wanted to write about a book, probably since my feelings towards most of what I’ve recently read have been without doubt or ambivalence. Love in the Time of Cholera, however, was different. After I’d finished, I came away with this lingering sense of nothing much having really happened. In actual fact, in its 350 pages, the novel tells the tale of two people’s entire lifetimes.

My thoughts, however, remain unclear.

Undoubtedly, the story made an impression – the title alone is ladened with melodrama. Its aims and ideals are noble, aspirational – eternal devotion, the enduring power of love, the unique human capacity for unwavering faith, even when the odds are stacked against us. The prose is glorious, the writing technically excellent, the lyricism magnificent. Throughout the novel, Marquez weaves a complex but beguiling web; a web of rich, lovingly constructed characters, all with their own unique histories and idiosyncrasies and impulses. The structure and pacing are intricate, but flawless – the story circles back on itself time and time again, each time revealing new layers for us to get lost in, layers coated in charmingly vivid detail. All that is ordinarily mundane – about life and about love – is made magical by Marquez’ complete mastery of language. The novel is, in essence, a delight to read.

And yet – there are themes and references that are, to the modern reader, plainly problematic: the casual racism (reflective of the time, no doubt, but even so), the blasé portrayal of paedophilia, and the normalisation of rape. These are not adequately dealt with, or even presented as occurrences which warrant being dealt with. The chain of events stemming from them (a young girl committing suicide, for example, following an ‘affair’ with Florentino, a man who is three or four times her age) have no consequences for the perpetrator, who, at most, seems to perceive them as mere inconveniences disrupting the course of his ultimate quest for Fermina. We are not made to feel as though we should alter our opinion of Florentino following these incidences. He remains the ultimate hero, a symbol of a pure, profound, ‘higher’ love that, to my mind, appears to be excusing him from the monstrosities of his less noble exploits. It is his love for Fermina that alone defines Florentino, and defines the novel; his love for Fermina is all that matters, and all that can ever matter.

The problem with this so-called love, the force sustaining the story, is that it is simply not convincing. It is a love – if you can call it that – that is superficial, that is glib, that is grounded in nothing but shallow observances and juvenile fantasies. It is an all-consuming, obsessive, absurd kind of love. It is too senseless, too sentimentalised to be truly romantic, and, ultimately, too bizarre to be revered.

It is this, for me, that prevents the novel from having any real or potent impact or meaning. But for all his grand proclamations, Florentino is essentially a slimy, self-abasing, and decadent character. Perhaps if he wasn’t made to be glorified, perhaps then I would take a different view – but I found the fundamental premise of the novel, and indeed the nature of Florentino’s ‘love’, too grotesque to empathise with.

Having said that, there is a genuine love story in the novel. It is the love story between Fermina – a spunky, stubborn, headstrong woman whose characterisation I absolutely adored, save for her incomprehensible acceptance of Florentino at the end – and her husband, Dr. Juvenal Urbino. The passages detailing their complicated, decades-long marriage were amongst the most beautiful and moving in the entire book, their years of oscillating happiness, misunderstandings and compromises serving as a study of the realities of long-term love, in all its beauty and complexity:

It was the time they loved each other best, without hurry or excess, when both were most conscious of and grateful for their incredible victories over adversity. Life would still present them with other mortal trials, of course, but that no longer mattered: they were on the other shore.

It was as if they had leapt over the arduous cavalry of conjugal life and gone straight to the heart of love. They were together in silence like an old married couple wary of life, beyond the pitfalls of passion, beyond the brutal mockery of hope and the phantoms of disillusion: beyond love. For they had lived together long enough to know that love was always love, anytime and anyplace, but it was more solid the closer it came to death.

I also especially enjoyed the passages describing Fermina’s newfound independence following her husband’s death, and her acceptance of her status as a widow. Often, upon remembering that Márquez was male, I was impressed by the remarkably acute and insightful depictions of Fermina’s psyche, and of Marquez’ intuitive sense of what she, as a woman, may be experiencing. The Fermina we meet at the beginning of novel, the teenage girl who writes her response to Florentino’s proposal on a scrap of toilet paper, has remained, but her character has been etched out so fully and completely that she is a joy to have followed through the story. The same cannot be said of Florentino, whose life of vice evokes, at most, a sense of pity, but a pity devoid of compassion, or of any real understanding of what he has become.

Despite this ambivalent review, Love in the Time of Cholera is a graceful, poetic read, and certainly a memorable one. The style trumps the substance, without a doubt, and it is precisely this – the magical, dreamlike quality of the writing – which has led me to immediately want to read more of Marquez’ work.

 

 

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Solaris (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1972)

4.5*

Solaris was the first film that introduced me to cinema as a true art form. The late Roger Ebert, in his December 2014 review of the film, said:

The films of Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky are more like environments than entertainments.

Environments, not entertainments. This apt statement helped me realise what it was that I found so compelling about the two Tarkovsky films I’ve seen to date, the other being Stalker.

It lies in the atmosphere Tarkovsky forges – an atmosphere which lingers for long after the rolling credits end. Solaris left me feeling utterly perplexed, and yet, without sounding hyperbolic, after a few viewings and sufficient musing, it has become part of my psychological makeup, forming a piece of that complex, layered lens through which each of us, individually, see the world. 

What does it mean to really know another, to really love another? Is such a feat even possible?

These are some of the questions Solaris grapples with, despite its categorisation as a work of science fiction (a categorisation imposed solely by media outlets, and one that Tarkovsky himself vehemently opposed).

The film is adapted from a novella of the same name, by Polish author Stanislaw Lem, which concerns humanity’s attempts at uncovering the mysteries of the distant planet Solaris, the study of which has long eluded scholars and scientists. This field of study has come to be known as Solaristics. The planet is covered by an enormous, ‘conscious’ ocean, that keeps forming its surface into bizarre shapes. On the space station orbiting Solaris, the astronauts are exhibiting increasingly odd behaviour. Dr. Kris Kelvin, a psychologist, is sent up to the space station to investigate the goings-on and report on the astronauts’ mental states, in order for a decision to be made on whether the mission should be aborted or not.

Kris arrives on the space station to find one crew member dead, and the remaining two deeply disturbed by the events on the station. It transpires that when X-ray probes were used to investigate Solaris’ ocean, the planet replied with probes of its own, entering the minds of the astronauts and bringing to life some of their memories, in the form of ‘Guests’. It is the manifestation of Kris’ dead ex-wife, Hari, and their ensuing relationship on the space station, that is the central subject of Tarkovsky’s film.

The duplicate of Hari that appears is exact in every way, save for one thing – she lacks all of her memories. Her being also seems to be limited to what Kris remembers of her, a theme that plays out through the whole film. She wants to know more of herself – she questions Kris about her past, and upon learning that the real Hari committed suicide, attempts to also do so (only to regenerate immediately – it turns out that this duplicate Hari cannot be killed). Her presence begs the question – is she any less real than the original Hari? Or, to an extent, is she just as real? Sure, we know that her presence is only made possible through the ocean’s eerie capabilities, but the very nature of our relationships with others, particularly romantic partners, is examined here.

For aren’t our ideas about those we claim to know and love precisely those – ideas? And, more than ideas about them, are they not, in actual fact, ideas about ourselves? The new Hari is but a collection of the notions and memories Kris has of her. She is, essentially, a projection of his desire, a point made clear through her confusion and total lack of knowledge of who she is. 

Romantic love, for good or for bad, has long been regarded (in Western traditions, in any case) as something of a spiritual force, something in which there lies immense power for change, growth, and the realisation of goodness. But in this potential, there is also room for great failure. To a certain degree, the relationship between Kris and Hari can be interpreted as a series of recurrences on the failings of love. At one point, Kris dwells on whether he loves the new Hari more than the original Hari. Kris creates her as something he can love, as lovers often do, and as something that can love him. He also creates her as something through which he can absolve himself of his guilt at his role in the original Hari’s suicide on Earth. Though their ‘reunion’ on Solaris might initially seem magical, mystical, romantic, their love on the space station fails, over and over, with Hari eventually convincing the other astronauts to destroy her for good.

The irony being performed becomes apparent here. Humanity seeks other worlds to explore, to enhance its knowledge of the unknown and the unfamiliar, as in the case of the scientists studying Solaris. But Solaris hides its face, and instead projects back to the scientists their own memories and struggles, forcing them to look inward, as opposed to outward. Kris goes on the mission with the aim of investigating the effects of Solaris, but ends up spending his time on the space station introspectively confronting his past.

We don’t want other worlds, we want mirrors,

Gibarian, one of the astronauts, says at one point.

Solaris is no easy film to comprehend; indeed, certain scenes are doubtlessly bewildering and make us wonder what it is that Tarkovsky is trying to get across. Early on, we’re shown a continuous scene of a car driving over a highway. This scene lasts for eight minutes, and there’s zero dialogue. What are we being told? Tarkovsky actually addressed this in an interview, and whether or not it was said in jest, his explanation was certainly comical: he was using this scene to see which viewers would stick around, and which ones would leave the cinema theatre. It was included as a sort of test of patience, of commitment. Despite the cheekiness of this statement, if it’s true, it’s a testament to Tarkovsky’s utter devotion to his art, similar to his assertion of his view that in true cinematic art, music shouldn’t be necessary to convey feeling or emotion. Visual experience alone should dominate, and this conviction can be felt through the painstaking visual detail in the film, with everything right down to the paintings in the space station chosen to evoke the particular sensations of nostalgia, of reminiscence, of a bittersweet earthly yearning that is, rather than space or technology, the ultimate theme of the film.

Solaris is a film I’m certain I’ll watch for years to come, and hopefully uncover something new each time. Here’s a clip from the film, showing Kris and Hari levitating through the room in a brief period of zero gravity on the space station. For me, it’s one of the most hypnotic, enchanting scenes in all of cinema, and brilliantly sums up the phenomenal beauty and artistry of the film.

 

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Adelheid (František Vláčil, 1969)

4*

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Yesterday, a friend and I happened upon a tiny little Czech café in Hackney which, besides the excellent coffee, displayed a small collection of Czech films for sale. I picked up a copy of a film called Adelheid. The DVD was released by a company called Second Run, who restore eclectic and award-winning films from around the world. The cover looked vaguely intriguing; it was made by a director who, although well-known for the artistry of his films, has been largely overlooked. I’d never seen any Czech cinema before, and the DVD came with a little pamphlet with an essay by a Czech cinema expert talking about director František Vláčil’s emphasis on ‘film poetry’.

In a 1998 survey of Czech film critics, Vláčil’s film Marketa Lazarová was voted the best Czech film ever made. Vláčil even received a lifetime achievement award at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival the same year. But the reason for Vláčil’s lack of presence in general histories of cinema is, according to Hames, because he was not a member of the famous Czech 1960s New Wave, nor a product of the Prague Film School. He was rather more concerned with making films focussed on visual imagery, and Adelheid is no doubt exemplary of this aim.

With Adelheid, it seems Vláčil broke away from his previous works in two different ways: firstly, the film is in colour, and secondly, it’s not a historical epic. Watching the film as someone in completely new territory, it seemed to me to be much more of a meditation on human nature – and all the complexities, dangers, and distortions that comprise it.

But the film has undeniable historical value, too. It caused quite a stir upon release, apparently, for being the first film to address the Czech treatment of Sudeten Germans during the expulsions of the mid-1940s. It’s set in the aftermath of World War II, and tells the story of Viktor, a Czech airman returned from service in the RAF, who is given the responsibility of managing a large estate on the Czech-German border, formerly owned by a Nazi. The daughter of the Nazi, the eponymous Adelheid, is assigned to him as a servant. Her grasp of Czech is limited (or perhaps she is pretending – we never truly know), as is Viktor’s command of German. Thus, the majority of the storytelling is done through the camera alone – through following the characters in their movements, and observing them in their stillness.

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The slowness ceases to be tedious, and soon becomes poetic. Shut away from the outside world and confined to the dark, vast house (whose vastness we never really get a sense of, as the shots tend to be close-up, almost claustrophobic in their framing), we too are trapped with Viktor and Adelheid. I found the cinematography compelling. The lack of verbal communication means that the growing (and mostly wordless) attraction and romance between the two characters is expressed through seeing, and through looking. The film is obsessed with observation. At first, it’s mostly Viktor who observes. He watches Adelheid as she washes the floor, her waist slightly exposed. He spies on her through binoculars, chopping wood. But she too, returns his gaze. It’s hard to tell what she’s thinking – is it defiance, or desire? She seems to enjoy cooking and caring for him, but at other times she recoils from him. When a German woman brings the news that her father, the Nazi to whom the estate belonged to, has died, she breaks down and rebuffs Viktor’s attempts to comfort her.

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It is these instances that remind us that outside of the internal, closed world of the huge estate, there are social and ideological forces at play. The faint hope that is conveyed through Viktor and Adelheid’s strange – yet somehow comforting – relationship, is shattered in these moments. Even the warm, languid scene where the two sit by the fire and Viktor talks of his childhood, seems comically simple now. We want for them to find solace in each other, but know that any affection that may subsist is doomed from the outset.

Indeed, when Adelheid’s brother returns, Viktor just about escapes death. But – despite Adelheid’s ‘betrayal’ (she was, undoubtedly, waiting for him), Viktor refuses to testify against her. “You’re all I have”, he tells her. Aided by a translator, he begs to know whether she ever truly cared for him or not. He asks: “Did you hate me all of the time?” She tells him no. She too, it turns out, was enamoured by little details she’d observed in him. He tells her she has no reason to worry, and that he’ll take care of her. This last display of hope, of vulnerability that Viktor exudes, makes the final act all the more heartbreaking. The darkness, remoteness, and relative safety of the mansion could not, ultimately, keep the wider context at bay.

It’s a complex film, no doubt. I’m not sure I’d quite use the term ‘love story’ to describe it. The romance aspect is never fully realised; it is quiet desperation, as opposed to burning desire, that for me, defined the relationship between the characters. They are both symbolic of the internal conflict between loyalty and the need for intimacy, and though the subtleties of their everyday interactions hint at the possibility for more, the characters are ultimately unable to move past their own walls and barriers. The score – music by Bach and Strauss – lends pathos to the caged, gloomy world of the mansion. The imagery, graceful and gentle, evokes a sense of longing, of silent despair; it is reflective of the minute, carefully observed instances that draw Viktor to Adelheid, the impulse to believe that amongst all the anguish and desolation of the war, there do, perhaps, exist small, modest moments of beauty and peace.