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.

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.

 

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.

A Little Life (Hanya Yanagihara, 2015)

3*
a little life cover

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.

 

 

 

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.

 

 

Anna Karenina (Leo Tolstoy, 1877)

5*

So I’ve spent the past few weeks rapidly and greedily devouring Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, and what an absolute revelation it has been. At 806 pages, it seemed a little intimidating at first, not least because I hadn’t read anything by Tolstoy before. Despite him being such a seminal and celebrated author, my preconceptions of his novels told me he was someone with whose writing I couldn’t, or wouldn’t, relate to. But how wrong I was, and how glad I am about it.

Facetious though it may sound, these last few weeks really have felt to me as if I’ve been embroiled in an earnest and passionate love affair. Nothing else in my recent reading has come even remotely close to matching the intensity, the excitement – in fact, just the whole spectrum of possible human emotion – that I’ve experienced while reading Anna Karenina. I’ve read and re-read (and listened to the audiobook version for times when holding a hard copy just hasn’t been possible) and read and re-read, and I’m positively certain that this novel consists of an entire (and highly necessary) education that up until now, I had no idea I’d been missing out on.

Tolstoy was clearly someone who was deeply in love with life. How could he not be, for such detail, for such in-depth examination of each and every meticulously constructed character, to comprise this novel?

When he went in to the sick man, his eyes and his attention were unconsciously dimmed, and he did not see and did not distinguish the details of his brother’s condition. He smelled the awful odour, saw the dirt, disorder, and miserable condition, and heard the groans, and felt that nothing could be done to help. It never entered his head to analyse the details of the sick man’s situation.

But Kitty thought, and felt, and acted quite differently. On seeing the sick man, she pitied him. And pity in her womanly heart did not arouse at all that feeling of horror and loathing that it aroused in her husband, but a desire to act, to find out the details of his condition, and to remedy them.

The basic plot – a love affair between two aristocratic elites in 19th century Russia’s high society – doesn’t necessarily lend itself to becoming regarded one of the greatest novels ever written. Not at first instance, anyway. But Tolstoy, among other things, was a philosopher, a psychologist, and in his world, nothing and nobody is mundane. Nothing and nobody is commonplace. Everyone and everything is delightfully and uncompromisingly complex – and thus, complete.

There are no archetypes, no caricatures. The writing reads timelessly; we are reminded, constantly, of the sheer, unparalleled uniqueness of the human experience. Characters don’t feel like characters; they are afforded the richness and fullness and complexity of actual people. They have their joys and sorrows and struggles, their conflicts and turmoils, their triumphs and their despair, all laid out with meticulous, artful analysis. The famous opening line – ‘[a]ll happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way’ – hints at this forthcoming examination of human nature: it is the ways in which we hurt and suffer that make such an examination so fascinating. It is our distinct, individual reasons for suffering that set us apart, making us – whatever else they may make us – so overwhelmingly, and uniquely, human.

Stoner (John Edward Williams, 1965)

5*

Stoner is a novel that really allows one to revel in the delights of language. So beautifully and movingly written, its sad descent into the forgotten depositories of literature is a shame. However, recently reissued by Vintage Classics, the novel is now being (rightfully) celebrated for its grace and elegance.

Stoner follows the life of the protagonist, William Stoner, from the age of 19 up until his death from cancer in old age. His life is not remarkable in a conventional sense: he enters the University of Missouri to study agriculture, later switches to literature, and then stays on and remains there as a teacher for the rest of his days. What is remarkable, though, is the startling poignancy of its prose; the way it slowly, softly – but surely – breaks the reader’s heart.

Very loosely juxtaposed against the events of World War II, the historical context of the novel heightens the intensity with which Stoner’s life is depicted. Two weeks after he receives his degree, Archduke Franz Ferdinand is assassinated in Sarajevo by a Serbian nationalist, and war breaks out over Europe. Stoner, however, doesn’t see the future as uncertain and obscure. He is to go on and do his doctorate, while teaching a seminar at the University:

He saw it, not as a flux of change and potentiality, but as a territory ahead that awaited his exploration. He saw it as the great University library, to which new wings might be built, to which new books might be added and from which old ones might be withdrawn, while its true nature remained essentially unchanged.

‘Reclaiming the significance of the individual life’, the prose draws our attention to aspects of life and of experience which are, despite what they might appear, inevitably filled with meaning and significance. The ease with which the novel reads makes it very hard to put down. Each paragraph contains delicate insight, uninhibited truth and subtle wit, and some passages left me so moved that they would murmur in my consciousness for hours after, compelling me to re-read them, and marvel once again at the beauty of the prose.

It’s a sad book – you’ll surely shed a few tears. But for me, what overrode the sadness was the notion that often, the inner life, the life of the mind, compensates for the outer. Quiet thought and silent reflection can carry just as much ‘meaning’ as actions on the outside. Stoner is a graceful reminder of the soundless conflicts, defeats and triumphs of the human race.