The Massive Tragedy of Madame Bovary!

Bristol Old Vic, 6 May 2016

It’s probably for the best that Tim booked this without my knowledge and also that I didn’t look it up before we went, because on paper I’m not sure I would have been convinced by the concept. An uproarious, farcical comedy based on Flaubert’s tragic novel Madame Bovary, with song, dance, magic tricks, strobe lighting and adult humour. It seems so unlikely to work that I suppose it was inevitable that it actually would.

I should say upfront that I thoroughly enjoyed this. I spent a lot of the show crying with laughter. Once I got the message that this was not a serious adaptation of a serious novel, but a fourth-wall-breaking comedic homage, I settled in for some very-not-serious fun.

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It was a wish so far from the probabilities of life

by Evelyn Waugh

I had been meaning to read this novel for many years, as its satirical truth-telling about journalism is legendary. Despite the almost 80 years that have passed since its first publication, a lot of what it has to say still rings true.

The plot centres around young William Boot, an impoverished young country gentleman who is happy living in his country manor writing a weekly nature column for London paper the Daily Beast. Thanks to a farcical opening act, the paper’s management mixes him up with his distant cousin John Boot, a fashionable novelist who is eager to be sent abroad as a foreign reporter, and a reluctant William is sent instead to a “promising little war” in the fictional African republic of Ishmaelia.

I found the opening, covering London society and Fleet Street proper, genuinely laugh-out-loud funny. I may even have snorted a few times. Waugh’s first-hand knowledge of having written for the Daily Mail means that this is truly observational humour, and it’s easy to recognise the journalistic traits being picked apart. It isn’t subtle – the Daily Beast is housed in the Megalopolitan Building opposite its nearest rival the Daily Brute – but that doesn’t stop it from being cleverly done.

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Visitors would wade through steaming pools of human blood

holidays on iceHolidays on Ice
by David Sedaris

I thought I would get in the holiday spirit by reading this small volume of essays and short stories about Christmas. I’ve really enjoyed Sedaris in the past and I love Christmas, so I didn’t see how this could go wrong.

Well…I wouldn’t say I disliked it, but I was a little disappointed. I actually really liked the two essays about Sedaris’s own life, which were funny and insightful in just the way I had come to expect.

“SantaLand diaries” describes his time working as a Christmas elf at Macy’s department store in New York. It gives him a perfect opportunity to bring a critical eye to the various people who work as santas or elves, and the people who pay to visit them. Sedaris can be a little cruel in his observations, but he is so honest about his own failings that it all evens out.

“I spent a few hours in the maze with Puff, a young elf from Brooklyn. We were standing near the lollipop forest when we realized that Santa is an anagram of Satan…We imagined a SatanLand where visitors would wade through steaming pools of human blood and faeces before arriving at the Gates of Hell, where a hideous imp in a singed velvet costume would take them by the hand and lead them toward Satan. Once we thought of it we couldn’t get it out of our minds.”

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You’re just a totalitarian angel

AmorousDiscourseSuburbsHellAn Amorous Discourse in the Suburbs of Hell
by Deborah Levy

This is a long poem (ish – it’s no Faerie Queen) in the form of a dialogue between a couple, “He” and “she”, alternating having their say in this argument/conversation. It’s different from anything else I’ve read, wonderfully surreal and packed with references to everything from Shakespeare to pop songs. I read it in one sitting and immediately wanted to read it again.

The poem works so well because it could be read in many ways. Is this an ordinary human couple living in suburbia? Or are they angels fallen to hell? Is one of them fallen and the other trying to save them? Is one human and one God? The many religious references (to the Bible, to Dante, to the language of faith) are woven in such a way that they could just possibly be the twee fondnesses of a couple in love, or they could be wholly serious.

Best of all, it’s funny. Genuinely, laugh-out-loud but also cleverly, funny. It’s profound and profane, full of meaning and simple, pure entertainment.

“i try to introduce you
to the way i see things
and all you want is a wife
a wife and a second-class stamp and a bath
a bath and a donut and a product to kill moths

“You’re just a totalitarian angel
Full of self-rapture
I thought you were a divine messenger
In fact you’re a glutton
With wings”

First published 1990 by Jonathan Cape.
This edition, with revisions, published 2014 by And Other Stories.

Source: I subscribe to the publisher.

Up close the city constitutes an oppressive series of staircases

sedaris-me-talk-prettyMe Talk Pretty One Day
by David Sedaris

I had come across Sedaris a few times in the New Yorker and found him invariably hilarious, so I’d been meaning to read this, his most famous book, for ages. Finally, on a day out in Oxford earlier this year with my friend H, we inevitably found ourselves in my favourite branch of Blackwells and I wandered around happily picking up and putting down books indecisively until I spotted this volume and knew it was the one.

This both is and isn’t an autobiography. It’s a collection of essays, previously published in various places including the New Yorker and Esquire, but they are all stories from Sedaris’s life and they are arranged in chronological order, so a sort of memoir emerges, a highly selective one.

“That’s one of Alisha’s most well-worn adjectives, sweet, and she uses it to describe just about everyone. Were you to kick her in the stomach, the most you could expect would be a demotion to ‘semi sweet’. I’ve never known someone so willing to withhold judgment and overlook what often strike me as major personality defects. Like all of my friends, she’s a lousy judge of character.”

The first half of the book deals with Sedaris’s childhood in North Carolina, his failed attempts to be an academic, his move to New York and the varied jobs he took to survive there, including as a house mover and as PA to an eccentric publisher. I say “deals with” but each essay tells one memory, or set of linked memories, so this is by no means the full story of Sedaris’s life. However, his open engaging style makes it feel a lot like a memoir, so it can be a bit disconcerting to realise that information learned in one essay means that some pretty important information was withheld from a previous essay.

“It was my father’s dream that one day the people of the world would be connected to one another through a network of blocky, refrigerator-size computers…He envisioned families of the future gathered around their mammoth terminals, ordering groceries and paying their taxes from the comfort of their own homes…’I mean, my God,’ he’d say, ‘just think about it.’ My sisters and I preferred not to. I didn’t know about them, but I was hoping the people of the world might be united by something more interesting, like drugs or an armed struggle against the undead. Unfortunately, my father’s team won, so computers it is.”

Apparently Sedaris has attracted some controversy for the questionable veracity of his non-fiction, to the extent that some magazines that regularly publish him label the work as fiction. It’s fairly clear in some stories that there’s an element of exaggeration if nothing else, but this doesn’t bother me at all, as they’re so very well written.

Sedaris really is a great humorist, making me laugh out loud and save up so many great quotes that I ended up reading whole essays out to Tim for him to share the fun. Sedaris makes genuinely funny observations on an at first glance unremarkable life – he’s been a drug addict and lived in Paris and New York, so it’s hardly been a dull life, but he somehow paints it as painfully ordinary, while also making it wildly interesting.

“If you happen to live there, it’s always refreshing to view Manhattan from afar. Up close the city constitutes an oppressive series of staircases, but from a distance it inspires fantasies of wealth and power so profound that even our communists are temporarily rendered speechless.”

What I’ll admit I did find odd is that there is no reference to Sedaris becoming a writer, and a successful one at that. The second half of the book deals with his time in France with his partner Hugh, from shorter trips and language difficulties to moving there full-time and taking French lessons (from which the title of the book comes). These essays feel like a series, like they had been commissioned and were being written in the moment, as indeed they were. This was long after Sedaris had achieved some success telling his stories on NPR, but he continues to refer to taking odd jobs and helping Hugh do up his rural French cottage, while never talking about writing or being a writer. It’s almost as though he wants to maintain the character built up in the first half of the book, that of a lovable loser, a disappointment for not making the most of his comfortable middle-class start in life. Perhaps he wanted to save writing on writing for another time, or perhaps he thought it a dull subject. I’m more than happy to read more of his books to find out!

First published in 2000 by Little, Brown & Company.

Source: Blackwells, Oxford.

Challenges: This counts towards the Rory Gilmore Reading Challenge.

I have no culture, no humane harmony in my brains

Breakfast of Champions

Breakfast of Champions
or Goodbye Blue Monday!
by Kurt Vonnegut Jr

When I read Slaughterhouse 5 a couple of years back, I completely loved it and was eager to read more Vonnegut. This was even more crazy and indefinable but, for me at least, not as good.

Where to begin describing this book? Perhaps I should quote from the preface:

“This book is my 50th birthday present to myself…I am programmed at 50 to perform childishly – to insult ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’, to scrawl pictures of a Nazi flag and an asshole and a lot of other things with a felt-tipped pen…I think I am trying to clear my head of all the junk in there…I’m throwing out characters from my other books, too. I’m not going to put on any more puppet shows…I have no culture, no humane harmony in my brains. I can’t live without a culture anymore.”

Okay, maybe that doesn’t help, except to show that the narrator is a strong character in this book, and a pretty invasive one at that. So, essentially the story is about science-fiction author Kilgore Trout (reappearing from Slaughterhouse 5) and how one of his books sends a man called Dwayne Hoover mad, as in lunatic asylum, full-blown crazy. We’re told that this is the story in the preface but it doesn’t happen until near the end, so most of the book is back story to this incident, with plenty of foreshadowing and random asides and, yes, pictures that look like they were drawn with a felt-tipped pen.

“Trout was petrified there on 42nd Street. I had given him a life not worth living, but I had also given him an iron will to live. This was a common combination on the planet Earth.”

First thing to say is that this book is completely insane. Also, it really pushed my comfort zone. I’m generally pretty happy with meta weirdness (and this book is beyond meta, it breaks the fourth wall so thoroughly) but there seemed to be a deliberate edge to the book’s oddity, not to mention that it’s crude. I can see that Vonnegut is making a point by using the “ni**er” word repeatedly and then describing every character by the colour of their skin (just black or white, and one yellow) but it still made me uncomfortable to read “ni**er” over and over again in a relatively recent novel.

Drawings by the author
Click to enlarge.

“This book is made up, of course, but the story I had Bonnie tell actually happened in real life…As for Dwayne Hoover’s dog Sparky, who couldn’t wag his tail: Sparky is modelled after a dog my brother owns, who has to fight all the time, because he can’t wag his tail. There really is such a dog.”

(You could write a whole essay just on that extract, couldn’t you?!)

And yet I enjoyed the read. I enjoyed the brief synopses of Trout’s ridiculous novels; the way chapter breaks are completely random and often fall in the middle of one of said synopses; the way the whole story is told as if to an alien completely unfamiliar with our planet, let alone American culture. I also like that there are lots of overt and hidden references that I am sure I missed more than half of to Western culture. It’s not my favourite Vonnegut so far but I am still interested to read more.

First published 1973 by Delacorte Press (US) and Jonathan Cape (UK).

Source: I bought this secondhand from a stall at BristolCon 2011.

Challenges: This counts towards the 2013 TBR Pile Challenge.

A dictionary of loss

Mr Chartwell

Mr Chartwell
by Rebecca Hunt

Since this book came out I had wanted to read it and finally persuaded my book club to read it for April – only to get the date of our meeting completely wrong and then get in a reading funk that meant it took me over two weeks to get through this thin little novel. I suspect this reflects unfairly on the book, because it never gripped me and yet I thought it was great.

The Mr Chartwell of the title is a large black dog who turns up on the doorstep of mousy librarian Esther and asks to rent her spare room. He is a bizarre combination of obnoxious human being and actual dog, but we gradually realise he is far more complicated than that. He is the physical manifestation of depression and shares out his attentions between Esther and a certain Winston Churchill.

Mr Chartwell, also known as Black Pat, is a repulsive character, as of course he should be. He irritates, demeans, distracts and tires out his victims. The setting is 1968, on the eve of Churchill’s retirement, so he is by now a dab hand at dealing with Black Pat’s visits, while Esther is completely new to it and takes most of the novel to figure out what is going on.

“A shirt dropped on the floor had developed a modest beauty, cultivating the painterly creases of a restaurant napkin. On the windowsill was a small balding plant. The magic of the late light made it gorgeous and exotic.
Esther stared from the bed, blind to these things. She lay on her side of the mattress. A hand explored the other side and it was a dictionary of loss. Up came the hand, disturbed by something disgusting. A tuft of collected fur. Over the bed, over everything.”

It really is a very original and interesting premise. It’s a clever way to depict depression and anxiety, giving an explanation that is at once nonsensical and yet makes a lot of sense. Several times, Black Pat comments how easy it is to give in to him, how he becomes a friend but of course he is a hated enemy so how can that be?

“She did nothing. The noble action was no action, for to discuss the dog would violate a guarded privacy, exhuming the bones of a family of secrets. It would be grave robbery. The dog’s genius was to make orphans of hope and brotherhood, and she was united with Churchill in their isolation.”

The characterisation is excellent. While it may seem clichéd to have a mousy librarian sinking into depression, Esther’s colleagues Beth and Corkbowl add a bit of liveliness and variety to the workplace. And Churchill’s brash, often aggressive conversations with Black Pat make an interesting contrast to Esther’s meek acceptance. I did find that Churchill spoke a little too much like a speech-maker, in wise aphorisms (except when he was swearing at Black Pat) but perhaps he really did speak like that. I would imagine Hunt did some research on him.

The quote on the front cover of my copy calls it “original, tender and funny” and I largely agree. It’s not laugh-out-loud funny but between the ridiculousness of the talking dog and gentle humour provided by characters in a more everyday way there is definitely some fun. And the issue of depression is certainly explored tenderly, carefully keeping its extreme depths at a distance, though they are certainly acknowledged. But really this is more about the lower-level, longer-lingering depression, a constant anxiety that has to be kept in check, the ongoing battle to get on with life.

“‘I aspire to have the smile of Tess of the D’Urbervilles…Hardy wrote that she had a smile like roses of snow.’
…Esther took in the exhibition of teeth. No roses of snow, it was a split haggis stuck with shards of coconut bark.”

First published 2010 by Fig Tree. Published in Penguin Books 2011.

Source: I think I bought this myself from an actual proper bookshop.

Man is many things, but he is not rational

The Picture of Dorian Gray
by Oscar Wilde

I have had this sat on my shelves for ages because, even though I’ve watched and loved a few of Wilde’s plays and have fond memories of his children’s stories, something in me said this is old and “classic”, therefore it will be hard. It was not a hard read at all, it was a thoroughly enjoyable one.

I would say that everyone already knows the storyline, but I was surprised to discover how vague my understanding of it was before I started reading. So I will summarise. At the start of the novel, Dorian Gray is young, beautiful, charming and innocent, and is serving as a muse to painter Basil Hallward, who is a little obsessed with him and has just painted his masterpiece, a portrait of Dorian. Dorian remarks that he wishes the painting might grow old while he stays young and beautiful and…well, it happens, but more slowly and darkly than I had expected.

“Hour by hour, and week by week, the thing upon the canvas was growing old…The cheeks would become hollow or flaccid. Yellow crow’s feet would creep round the fading eyes and make them horrible. The hair would lose its brightness, the mouth would gape or droop, would be foolish or gross, as the mouths of old men are. There would be the wrinkled throat, the cold, blue-veined hands, the twisted body.”

Dorian, when he realises what is happening, slowly becomes quite bad. Is this the influence of life in general? The circumstance of being able to look fresh and beautiful no matter how guilty he feels? Is it how Dorian’s nature was always fated to develop? Or is it all the influence of Lord Henry Wotton, a friend he was introduced to by Basil on that fateful day when the portrait was finished? Lord Henry is a fun character, talking largely in aphorisms and painting himself as morally repugnant, but the key seems to be that he doesn’t mean half of what he says, whereas Dorian takes it all to heart.

” ‘I adore simple pleasures,’ said Lord Henry. ‘They are the last refuge of the complex. But I don’t like scenes, except on the stage…I wonder who it was defined man as a rational animal. It was the most premature definition ever given. Man is many things, but he is not rational. I am glad he is not, after all.’ “

This book is so very quotable. Even skipping the slightly trite aphoristic preface (which I have seen quoted from many times), the language is full of both delightfully Wildean phrases but also exquisite descriptions:

“There was a silence. The evening darkened in the room. Noiselessly, and with silver feet, the shadows crept in from the garden. The colours faded wearily out of things.”

The characters are interesting. I didn’t feel I ever got to know any of them well, but they are certainly varied and in some cases fascinatingly complex. Even those characters that might have been verging on caricature are described so well it hardly matters.

“The exaggerated folly of the threat, the passionate gesture that accompanied it, the mad melodramatic words, made life seem more vivid to her. She was familiar with the atmosphere. She breathed more freely, and…would have liked to have continued the scene on the same emotional scale, but he cut her short. Trunks had to be carried down, and mufflers looked for. The lodging house drudge bustled in and out. There was the bargaining with the cabman. The moment was lost in vulgar details.”

Nothing is straightforward and not all of the mysteries of the story are resolved. Which was sometimes frustrating – exactly what are the rumours circulating about Dorian? I can imagine, but I want to know! I suppose that’s one of the moments to remember that this was written in the 19th century – it rarely if ever feels that old.

First published in the July 1890 issue of Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine. Revised and published as a book in 1891 by Ward, Lock and Company.

Source: I have a chunky Complete Works of Oscar Wilde that I have owned for more than 10 years. I think I bought it for myself. Probably.

Challenges: This counts towards the Rory Gilmore Reading Challenge.

Caught up to her among the luminous clouds of deity

A Handful of Dust
by Evelyn Waugh

After my recent discovery of Waugh’s genius, I was glad that this title was picked by my book group. I must say it didn’t bowl me over the way Vile Bodies did, and if it hadn’t been for the book group discussion I would have been left very confused by it.

By which I don’t mean that the style or storyline was confusing. I mean that it has an odd tone, one that I didn’t entirely like. It’s, as you might expect, a comedy, but always at people’s expense – the comedy is never about the circumstances or event, so it’s a painful comedy.

The story is that an apparently happy marriage – that of Tony and Brenda Last – very suddenly falls apart thanks to an unappealing interloper. But can it really have been as happy as it first appeared if it is able to fall apart so suddenly and apparently easily? There are clues that boredom may be setting in:

“Although they were both in good health and of unexceptional figure, Tony and Brenda were on a diet. It gave an interest to their meals…Under their present system they denied themselves the combination of protein and starch at the same meal…
‘I’m sure it does me a great deal of good.’
‘Yes, darling, and when we get tired of it we might try an alphabetical diet, having things beginning with a different letter every day.'”

This is a book absolutely loaded with irony (in a possibly very bitter, personal way) and crammed full of vicious attacks on high society and the people therein. It simultaneously deplores and is guilty of snobbery. And yet, if you cut through the irony, what you are left with is really a sad, painfully real story of a marriage falling apart.

“…opinion was greatly in favour of Brenda’s adventure. [She} was filling a want long felt by those whose simple, vicarious pleasure it was to discuss the subject in bed over the telephone. For them her circumstances shed peculiar glamour; for five years she had been a legendary, almost ghostly name, the imprisoned princess of fairy story, and now that she had emerged there was more enchantment in the occurrence, than in the mere change of habit of any other circumspect wife. Her very choice of partner gave the affair an appropriate touch of fantasy…the joke figure they had all known and despised, suddenly caught up to her among the luminous clouds of deity…”

If you asked most people when they were halfway through this book I imagine they would say they didn’t like and didn’t care about any of the characters. And yet when bad stuff happened to them, or threatened to, I found that I did care. (And according to my book group I was not alone in this.) I think Waugh’s real genius is in observing people so well, so minutely, that even his least appealing characters are genuinely believably real.

Which is not to say that there isn’t some element of send-up going on. Considering Waugh’s cleverness it can’t be accidental that the couple at the centre of it all are Mr and Mrs Last. But the last of what? At first, you might conclude that they are the last couple about who married for love rather than money/convenience. But actually there are other love matches in the background and Brenda’s love for Tony disappears so quickly you have to wonder whether it was ever really there.

Perhaps Tony is the last of his generation to care about his big country house; he is completely devoted to it where other families are all selling off their estates. But he’s not very good at being a country gentleman, so maybe that’s not it either.

Perhaps Tony is the last faithful man in high society. There are some painful sequences where various friends (including Brenda) try to throw women at Tony to make the break-up easier on him. And even when he tries to have an affair he just can’t do it. Which should be admirable but somehow makes him look pathetic. (I believe there are elements of Waugh’s own marriage break-up in this novel so it could be that his self-pity and self-hatred became part of Tony’s character. This might also explain the sudden switches in sympathy, sometimes abandoning a character mid-scene.)

There is a long section at the end set in South America that is markedly different from the rest. It was originally a short story, which explains some of the tonal difference, but it actually works well as a new way of looking at British society. It’s pretty racist, which is partly a product of its time but also, I suspect, a comment on the characters who are there for all the wrong reasons, as it’s through their eyes that the racism occurs.

Someone at book group pointed out that Waugh heavily references T S Eliot, and in particular The Waste Land in this novel, which I must admit I missed despite having studied (and enjoyed) The Waste Land at uni and a verse of the poem being the epigraph for it all (and indeed the origin of the novel’s title). Ah well; what was that conversation The Readers were having about not being literary enough…?

First published 1934 by Chapman & Hall.

A fragility to the space between them

The Woman Who Went to Bed for a Year
by Sue Townsend

There may be a certain symmetry in me reading this book in one day, a day when I was off work sick in bed. I certainly found myself sympathising with main character Eva more than I might have another day.

The day that Eva’s twins leave home for university she takes to her bed and declares that she will not be leaving it again for a year. She asks her husband to use another bedroom from now on. So begins Townsend’s latest comical exploration of modern life. Compared with her other books, this is slightly less about Britain and slightly more about people and coping. But it’s as ever an insightful study of society and humanity.

“Alexander said, ‘I would hate to be you, man. Your heart must look like them ugly pickled walnuts they sell at Christmas. Naasty tings!’
‘I’m one of the most compassionate men I know,’ said Brian…’And if you think that by affecting a West Indian patois I will be intimidated by you, you’re wrong. I’ve got a pal called Azizi – he’s African, but he’s a good chap.’
Alexander queried, ‘But he’s a good chap?'”

Eva is surprisingly sympathetic considering how incredibly self-indulgent her actions are. Even as she is demanding that her sick, elderly mother and mother-in-law take their turns bringing her food and drink, she is so astutely examining herself, asking “the big questions” and paying attention to the rest of the world (ironically, as she has now separated herself from it) that she is difficult to dislike.

Townsend combines the comic and the serious to great effect:

“Ruby said, ‘Look, I’m not getting into another argument about God. All I know is that he looks after me…’
Eva said gently, ‘But he didn’t save you from losing your purse, tickets and passport when you were at East Midlands Airport last year, did he?’
Ruby said, ‘He can’t be everywhere, and he’s bound to be busy at peak holiday time…Do you know, Eva, sometimes I can’t wait to get to heaven. I’m tired of living down here since everything went complicated.'”

Yes, there’s a lot of he said, she said, but there are also phrases that are beautifully formed:

“There was a fragility to the space between them, as though their breath had frozen and could easily shatter if the wrong word were said.”

Sadly, I must admit that Eva is the only character who isn’t a little bit of a caricature. When her astrophysicist husband is introduced he seems quiet and loving and I was hopeful that this would also be an acute examination of marriage/love but it is not. He turns out to be a bit of a joke figure and there is little love between them. Similarly the hyper-intelligent twin children are slightly cliched. But there are a lot of characters in this book who all have a role to play in Eva’s search for answers so perhaps it’s best that they are not all as complex and real as she is.

In some ways this books reminded me of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry – both books take an ordinary person who becomes a temporary celebrity for an odd reason, who becomes the unlikely focus of admirers and newspaper stories and Facebook groups and Twitter hashtags and is disconcerted by this. I suppose it’s a comment on modern life and celebrity and society, but I found it a little hard to believe that people would really get caught up by the story of a woman who decided to take to her bed (though there is a little more to it than that).

Of course, what this book does have in spades is humour. I laughed out loud time and again. It was a real tonic for a bad day and an interesting, perhaps not complete change but certainly slight deviation in focus for Townsend.

This book was kindly sent to me by the publisher in return for an honest review.

Published 2012 by Penguin.