Tuesday, 28 June 2016

Kew Gardens by Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf wrote Kew Gardens at the end of the First World War and published it privately in 1919.  The book I borrowed from my local library was a beautifully illustrated copy of a limited edition of 500.  The illustrations were done by Woolf’s sister, Vanessa Bell, and the book was published by the Hogarth Press in 1927.

The book begins with a description of an oval-shaped flower bed in Kew Gardens in London on a hot summer’s afternoon.  In the flower bed there is a snail which features throughout the story providing some continuity.

As the book progresses we overhear the conversations of four groups of people as they pass the flower bed.  A couple are the first to pass - the husband is thinking of a time some 15 years previously when he had proposed to another woman in the gardens and he remembered “how the dragon-fly kept circling round us; how clearly I see the dragon-fly and her shoe with the square silver buckle at the toe.  All the time I spoke I saw her shoe and when it moved impatiently I knew without looking up what she was going to say.”  And we know too that the woman turned him down. 

Two men pass by then – an older man who walked jerkily accompanied by a younger man.  The older man speaks of spirits – the spirits of the dead and of the war.  Perhaps he has been injured in the war which has just finished.  The old man sees a woman and goes towards her “muttering and gesticulating feverishly.”  His son diverts his attention to look at a flower.  Finally the old man “suffered himself to be moved on by William, upon whose face the look of stoical patience grew slowly deeper and deeper.”

Next to pass the flower bed are two elderly women, “of lower middle class”, who have noticed the old man and “like most people of their station they were frankly fascinated by any sign of eccentricity betokening a disordered brain, especially in the well-to-do.”  This, I think, is an example of Woolf’s snobbery.  Although the women are speaking, neither seems to be listening to the other. One of the women stops listening “letting the words fall over her”. 

Meanwhile, the snail is trying to decide how to reach his goal – whether to go round the dead leaf or to climb over it.  Finally he decides to creep under the leaf when two more people pass by – a young man and woman.  “They were both in the prime of youth, or even in that season which precedes the prime of youth, the season before the smooth pink folds of the flowers have burst their gummy case, when the wings of the butterfly, though fully grown, are motionless in the sun.” 

The structure of the story works well as the snail and the flower bed are constant while the people move on.  When sitting at airports I amuse myself by making up stories about the people around me.  Woolf has done just that in this story and provided an insight into other people’s lives – a snapshot in time and then they are gone and the reader is left wanting to know more about these people and their lives.  Another common thread in the story is the lack of communication between the couples – they are speaking but not really communicating.

I enjoyed this story and thought the language was beautiful – at times it was like poetry.  Her descriptions were excellent and you could really picture the garden and feel the stifling heat.  At the end of the story she writes, “But there was no silence; all the time the motor omnibuses were turning their wheels and changing their gear; like a vast nest of Chinese boxes all of wrought steel turning ceaselessly one within another the city murmured; on the top of which the voices cried aloud and the petals of myriads of flowers flashed their colours into the air.”

This short story was a very good introduction to her work and I am now looking forward to tackling some of her novels.


Wednesday, 22 June 2016

Black Skies by Arnaldur Indriðason

This is the ninth book in the Erlendur series of novels by the Icelandic author Arnaldur Indriðason.  This one is different from the others as Erlendur does not feature in the book - he is away on holiday.  Instead the main investigating officer is Sigurdur Oli who is asked by a friend to look into a case of blackmailing.  When he goes to speak to the female blackmailer he finds she has been murdered.

As usual with this series of books, there are two cases but as Erlendur is not present there is no missing person investigation.  The second story involves historical child abuse.

The book also deals with the breakdown of Sigurdur Oli's relationship and his relationship with his parents who divorced when he was quite young.  By the end of the book I felt that he had become more tolerant and had a better understanding of his faults and was keen to sort out his relationship with his partner but it was too late as she has found another man.

The book is also a social commentary on the greed and excesses found in Iceland before the banking crash. "It was the first time Sigurdur Oli had entered the headquarters of the bank and he was instantly impressed with the opulence of it all.  He might have stepped from the centre of Reykjavik into a whole other world."

By the end of the book I felt I understood Sigurdur Oli better and I was more sympathetic towards him.  I enjoyed this book and liked the way the author intertwines various themes which gradually come together at the end.

Wednesday, 15 June 2016

The Pickwick Papers chapters 6-8

I seem to be having some difficulty in keeping to the schedule of reading a few chapters of The Pickwick Papers every month.  I find I have lost the thread of the story by the time I read the next section and have to re-read some to remind myself what happened in the previous one. 

Chapter 6 finds Mr Pickwick and his friends enjoying the hospitality of Mr Wardle and his family.  After playing some games of cards, the assembled company is treated to the recitation of a poem "The Ivy Green" and the story of an escaped convict by the clergyman which highlights how hard conditions were for many people during the Victorian period. 

Chapter 7 was more humorous describing the attempts by Mr Winkle to shoot rooks - the end result was that the rooks escaped unharmed but Mr Tupman was shot in the arm.  As Dickens say,  "Mr Tupman had saved the lives of innumerable unoffending birds by receiving a portion of the charge in his left arm."  Mr Pickwick and his party go off to watch a cricket match leaving Mr Tupman to the tender ministrations of the spinster aunt. The stranger appears again introducing himself as "Alfred Jingle, Esq, of No Hall, Nowhere".  After the cricket match the party go off to the Blue Lion Inn where they enjoy a good meal and drinks. 

Chapter 8 describes how the friendship between Mr Tupman and Miss Wardle progresses swiftly to the stage where Mr Tupman declares his love for the lady by seizing her hand and saying "Oh, Rachael! say you love me." He then proceeds to kiss her - unfortunately being spotted by the fat boy who "for once, had not been fast asleep.  He was awake - wide awake - to what had been going forward."  The fat boy informs the old lady of this but unfortunately is overheard by Mr Jingle who suggests to Mr Tupman that he should pay all his attention to the niece instead of the spinster aunt thus disproving the fat boy's story. Mr Jingle assures Mr Tupman that he will explain everything to the spinster aunt.  At the end of the chapter Jingle borrows ten pounds from Mr Tupman promising to pay it back in 3 days.  I wonder what he needs the money for and whether Mr Tupman will ever be repaid? 

This chapter also describes the Pickwickians and Mr Jingle coming home from the cricket match.  The descriptions are funny as is the illustration which describes "Mr Wardle and his friends under the influence of the salmon."  As Mr Snodgrass says, "It wasn't the wine." 

I felt this section was good in parts - I still feel it is very disjointed compared to Dicken's other novels.  However this is probably due to the format of The Pickwick Papers as it consists of lots of episodes.  Robert L Patten explains in his introduction to my copy, after Part 3 Dickens assumed more control of Pickwick and the increase in the letterpress to 32 pages per section and a decrease in illustrations to two gave Dickens more scope to develop his situations.  I hope this change of format will increase my enjoyment of the book.

The illustrations are from Robert Perdue's Charles Dickens Page.

Saturday, 11 June 2016

Strange Shores by Arnaldar Indriðason

Strange Shores is the last book in the Erlendur series by the Icelandic author Arnaldar Indriðason and is set in the eastern fjord region of Iceland.  Detective Erlendur has returned to his old family home which is now a ruin and spends time walking in the hills looking for some evidence of what happened to his brother, Bergur, who disappeared in a snowstorm when he was a child.  After this Erlendur’s family moved from the area to live in Rekyavik but Erlendur has never felt at home in the city.

All the books I have read in this series contain two stories – a modern day one and a cold case featuring a missing person.  This book is slightly different in that both mysteries which Erlendur investigates are from the past – one features a woman called Matthildur who disappeared in a snowstorm 60 years ago and the other is Erlendur’s personal search to find out what happened to his brother.  Erlendur survived the snowstorm but has   been consumed with guilt since the event. 

Erlendur is obsessed with missing persons and “had an old theory that among the many and various incidents of people going missing in the Icelandic interior, more than one crime had gone undetected”. (chapter 9)

This book is a moving and melancholy story of love, revenge and guilt.  Through his persistent questioning of people who remembered Matthildur, Erlendur eventually solves the mystery of what happened to her and discovers her final resting place. 

I particularly liked

·        The descriptions of the Icelandic landscape which is an important part of this book adding to the sense of desolation and despair

·        The character of Erlendur – we now understand why the loss of his brother affected him so deeply.  As he says “all he knew was that somewhere on his journey through life time had come to a standstill, and he had never managed to wind the mechanism up again”.

·        The spiritual dimension of the story which harks back to the old Icelandic beliefs and tales

The pace of the story was slower than others in the series but deeper and very moving as we gradually learn what happened to Matthildur and to Bergur.



Wednesday, 8 June 2016

The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas

I have finally read one of the books from my list for the Classics Club Challenge!  The Three Musketeers was also one of the books I read recently at the "Lunch with Dickens" book group organised by the Shetland Library.  We usually read novels by 19th century British authors so a book by a foreign writer was a departure for us.  I knew very little about The Three Musketeers before reading the book never having seen any film or TV adaptation of the novel. 

Alexandre Dumas wrote The Three Musketeers in 1844 - this was serialized in Le Siecle from March to July of that year.  The book is set in France in 1625 during the reign of Louis XIII. 

I was unsure whether I would like this book as I felt it was a masculine book full of sword fighting and swash buckling heroes.  However the novel is much more than that - over the course of 600 pages we follow the exploits of d'Artagnan and his friends the Musketeers, Arthos, Porthos and Aramis. 

I read the Oxford World's Classics edition which was translated by William Barrow.  The book is not historically accurate as David Coward points out in the introduction to this copy where he states, "Dumas's habit of seeing historical issues in terms of personalities was not good history, of course, but it made history accessible and exciting."  The book is certainly fast moving and exciting so that the reader does not get bored despite the length of the novel.  The mood changes as the book progresses - from the humour at the beginning of the book to the drama at the end where Lady de Winter is imprisoned and uses all her powers to dominate her captor in order to escape.

The main characters are well drawn - d'Artagnan is the young, honest hero who comes to Paris from the country.  Despite being newly arrived in the city he copes well with the intrigues of the court.  During the story we also get to know the Musketeers and their servants.  Dumas is able to describe people and places in a few words as in this excerpt where the four officers escape from d'Artagnan.

"After a moment more, those who had looked from their windows to learn the cause of this surprising noise, might see the door open, and four men clothed in black, not merely go out, but fly like frightened crows, leaving on the ground, and at the corners of the house, their feathers and wings, that is to say, portions of their coats and fragments of their cloaks."

Dumas held a Romantic view of women - they were either angels or demons.  At one point Aramis says, "Woman was created for our destruction, and from her all our miseries arise."  Lady de Winter was certainly an evil, manipulative woman who schemed and plotted throughout the book.  However we must remember that life was not easy for any woman in the 19th century and whether they were rich or poor they depended on men.  Even the Queen was unhappy with her situation and did not know who to trust.

The first film of The Three Musketeers was made in 1908 and numerous film and TV adaptations have been made since then.  A new series is currently being shown on TV - evidence that Dumas' writing continues to appeal to audiences today.  As Coward says in the introduction "The King of Romance always has the last laugh for he is a man of all seasons, a natural evergreen, unlike his critics who invariably turn out to be deciduous."

I will certainly be adding the sequel Twenty Years After to my reading list.