Atonement was first published in 2001, making this year the 20th anniversary of its release. This is the novel for which Ian McEwan is best known (by me, anyway). It was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in the year of its release, TIME named it one of the 100 greatest English-language novels since 1923, and it was made into a remarkably successful film starring Keira Knightley. I went in blind, though, having never seen the movie and knowing nothing more about it than I read on the back cover.
Atonement is set across three time periods: England just before the Second World War, France during it, and back to England in the present day. That should’ve been my first red flag; I’m still quite tired of WWII historical fiction (as though there’s not any other conflicts or time periods we could write and read about), but I persisted on the promise that it wasn’t really about-about the war, it was about the domestic drama playing out in one tiny corner of it.
It starts off with Briony Tallis, a 13-year-old girl, kicking up a big stink. She had planned to put on a play to celebrate her much older brother’s return to the family’s country estate, but her young cousins lack the acting chops to bring her vision to life. Her point of view alternates with that of Cecilia, her older sister, who recently graduated from Cambridge (with a “humiliating third”), and Robbie Turner, the housekeeper’s son (who got a first from Cambridge, despite his humble beginnings).
McEwan seems hell-bent on making mountains out of molehills in this first part, but I’ll try and sum it up as best I can. Basically, Cecilia and Robbie have a few moments of heady flirtation, followed by a passionate – ahem – embrace in the library room. Briony, being a nosy parker with a tendency to the dramatic, witnesses all of this and decides that Robbie is some kind of sexual predator hell-bent on devouring every virgin in his path.
Of course, he’s nothing of the sort. He’s just a young bloke with a hard-on for the rich girl in the pretty green dress. There’s a dinner party, and he spends most of it trying to pretend he’s not staring. Mid-way through, the two youngest children – cousins of Cecilia and Briony – decide to “run away”, and the family sets out to search for them. Lola – another cousin – is attacked in the dark, by a man Briony decides must have been Robbie.
This is the key moment, the pivotal point of the whole novel. Lola is unable, or unwilling, to identify her attacker, but Briony declares with some certainty that it was Robbie (“knowing”, as she does, that he’s a sexual predator). She identifies him to the police as the rapist, and any time she wavers, the adults bully her back into certainty. They are, after all, eager to solve the crime – and Robbie is, after all, just the housekeeper’s son.
Naturally, everything turns to shit after that. Robbie is convicted and sent to prison. He gets out early, on the condition that he serve in the military, and World War II promptly breaks out. The second part of the novel follows him as he tries to bid retreat from France, thinking all the while of Cecilia. She stood by him through the accusation and the trial and the imprisonment, becoming completely estranged from her family in the process.
Eventually, Robbie makes it back to England, and back to Cecilia – not exactly unscathed, but in one piece, at least. The third part takes us to Briony as a young woman, training to become a nurse and still musing over her lie(?), mistake(?), total fuck up(?) that ruined Robbie’s life. She tries again and again to get in touch with Cecilia, eventually showing up on her doorstep. There, Briony and Robbie meet for the first time since that fateful night, and pretty much nothing is resolved. Briony is finally ready to confess, admit that she was wrong in a court of law if it comes to it, and Cecilia and Robbie are all “Well, that’s great and everything, but you still fucked up our lives, so thanks.”
Atonement ends with what can be called either a short fourth part, or a long epilogue. It’s set in London, 1999, and narrated by Briony in the form of a diary entry. In the intervening years, she’s forged a successful career as a writer. However, she has recently been diagnosed with dementia, and knows her mental decline is imminent. So, she’s written her story, to atone (see? you geddit?) for destroying two lives. She also reveals one final clanger: Robbie and Cecilia are dead, both killed a short time after she went to see them.
McEwan’s writing is very Literary(TM). Atonement actually has an interesting story, and I can see how it would make for a good movie, but it’s just buried underneath McEwan’s turgid prose. It was so overwrought at times I burst out laughing; weed isn’t just weed, it’s a “cigarette that drives young men of a bohemian inclination across the borders of insanity”. Briony being an aspiring writer also gave McEwan ample opportunity to slip into annoyingly meta territory. He may as well have left notes in the margin for the reader: “SEE WHAT I’M DOING HERE, AREN’T I CLEVER?”.
I can easily imagine that, had a woman written Atonement, it would have been called sentimental, or wistful, and shelved as “women’s fiction”. The centrality of women in the narrative, and how much time they spent Thinking About Their Choices And Their Roles led me to the conclusion that McEwan was trying way too hard to prove that he wasn’t one of “those” male writers. He went above and beyond to show us that he “understands women” and can write from their perspective. Doing so with a novel about a false rape allegation is a truly bizarre choice – I know it was pre-#MeToo, but sheesh. The military stuff from Robbie’s point of view was marginally more compelling, as though it came to McEwan more naturally. Of course, that could be purely my own bias, but that’s how it seemed to me…
I also can’t ignore the controversy around Atonement‘s origins and “inspiration”. In 2006, Lucilla Andrews came forward and accused McEwan of borrowing too heavily from her 1977 wartime nursing autobiography, No Time For Romance. McEwan, of course, protested his innocence (and continues to do so, to this day), and a bunch of other authors – Martin Amis, Margaret Atwood, Zadie Smith, and even Thomas Pynchon – came to his defense. As far as I know, the matter remains unresolved, and Andrews got nothing more out of it than a line in the acknowledgements.
So, in case you can’t tell, Atonement wasn’t to my taste. I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to fans of Richard Flanagan, stylistically and thematically they feel really similar and I’m sure they’d enjoy it, but it was not for me at all. I’ll give McEwan a couple more chances – I’ve got copies of Machines Like Me and The Children Act waiting for me on my to-be-read shelf, and they sound really good. I just hope they’re not buried under the same avalanche of bullshit as this one.
If you’d asked me a couple of years ago whether I thought I’d ever read 109 well-known books and publish a review of each and every one on a blog of my own creation, I would’ve said I seriously doubted it. If you’d told me the hundred-and-ninth book would be James Joyce’s Ulysses, I would’ve straight-up laughed in your face. This is the book that has scared and intimidated me more than any other, on any shelf in all the world. I’d heard that it was practically unreadable for the recreational bookworm, best left to the ivory-tower types, so I figured it was Not For Me. That’s why I left it ’til last. It sat on my to-be-read shelf for so long that the pages literally gathered cobwebs. But guess what, Keeper Upperers? “Last” finally came. It’s time to review Ulysses.
I want to say a couple of things right at the outset: firstly, thank you for all of your encouragement and tips on my Bloomsday Instagram post last year. I referred back to it before I began, and your support made all the difference! I also got lots of background information and guidance as I read from the Ulysses Guide. Unfortunately, it was still a work in progress at the time, so I could only follow it up to about the half-way point, then I had to switch to another online guide that wasn’t quite as good. Still, it served me well, and I highly recommend it!
Joyce was born in Dublin in 1882, one of “a large family described by his father as ‘sixteen or seventeen children'”, according to the author bio. It should come as no surprise, then, that Joyce was deeply Irish, and his books are steeped in that literary tradition. Reading some Oscar Wilde, Samuel Beckett, and John McGahern first was a good idea, a way of easing myself into this way of seeing the world and writing about it.
Joyce started writing Ulysses in 1914, and had the early chapters ready to go by the end of 1917 (yes, he was a slow writer, among other things). He offered them to Harriet Shaw Weaver, then editor of The Egotist, thinking that she might want to serialise them as she had done with A Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man. She was happy to do so, but she couldn’t find a printer willing to do the job. Ulysses, by the standards of the day, was so smutty that any printer or publisher who touched it risked imprisonment.
Joyce convinced an American paper to print the chapters in 1918, but he was immediately subjected to extensive legal action for doing so. The US publishers were fined, and further installments were suppressed for a long time. It was a long row to hoe, but eventually Ulysses was published in full by Sylvia Beach, of the ever-popular Parisian bookstore Shakespeare & Co, in 1922. There have been at least eighteen editions published since then, and each one has introduced new errors and variations. The first alone was said to contain up to two thousand errors, but it is still widely considered to be the “most accurate” to Joyce’s authorial intent. The publication history of Ulysses is long and complex, but for the most salient parts, I highly recommend this episode of the podcast Annotated from Book Riot.
Ulysses is now generally considered to be one of the (if not, the) most important works of modernist literature. (For beginners: “modernism” was a post-WWI literary movement that tried to rebel against traditional forms of creative expression and representation – I’m sorry, I can’t be any more specific than that, because academics are still arguing over what constitutes a “modernist” book). When readers call it one of the greatest books in history, they usually refer to a few key things: Joyce’s stream-of-consciousness technique, the structure, the experimental prose, the puns and parodies, the allusions, and the rich characterisation. Yes, Ulysses is a hot mix of very literary stuff.
One thing I wish I’d known before I started is that most editions don’t mark the sections or “episodes” clearly. I don’t quite understand why, and it means it’s a little tricky to read Ulysses alongside an external guide, given that there are no markers to make sure you start/stop in the equivalent spots. So, if you’re going to pick up a copy, make sure you’ve got one that’s marked up clearly, if you need it, or an annotated edition with the reference text built-in.
Being able to follow the structure matters. Joyce very deliberately split the book into eighteen episodes, across three “books” or sections, in a way that roughly corresponds with the 24 episodes of Homer’s Odyssey. And that’s just the start of the parallels with the classic poem: Ulysses is, among other things, pretty much a direct adaptation, mapping the journey of Odysseus onto a day in the life of a man living in Dublin.
(I’ll try to keep this as brief as I can, but I won’t blame you if you skip. ahead to the end for my final verdict…)
The story begins at 8AM on 16 June 1904, when Stephen Dedalus wakes up (yes, we don’t begin with the protagonist, but if that’s enough to irk you, you’re in for a rough ride – strap in). Stephen’s come back to Ireland after some time abroad, to be with his mother when she passed away. He now lives in Martello Tower with Buck Mulligan (an ambitious, blasphemous medical student), and Haines (a well-meaning Brit). Mulligan has been talking shit about Stephen’s dead Mum, so things are a bit tense in the share-house. They all chat and snipe at one another over breakfast, and perform the morning ablutions. Mulligan hits Stephen up for a loan, causing Stephen to throw a tanty. He says he won’t come home tonight, as Mulligan – “the usurper” – has taken over the tower. He has a flair for the dramatic, ol’ Stephen, and he storms out.
He heads over to a school in Dalkey, where he teaches a class, but he doesn’t have a real good time doing it. When he goes to pick up his pay cheque, the headmaster lectures him about not pissing it all away. He then asks Stephen for a favour (seriously! these people!), to get a letter published in the local paper. Stephen’s all “yeah, okay”, and leaves to catch his tram.
Here’s where we first encounter some real Ulysses weirdness: Stephen starts monologuing about all kinds of weird shit, to no one in particular. He decides he can’t be bothered dropping by his aunt’s place like he’d planned, he picks his nose, he writes some poetry. In the end, he gives up, and finds a nice rock to sit on and has a good mope (he can’t go home, after his tantrum – besides, Mulligan has the keys).
These three episodes make up the first “section”. After reading them, I was thinking: hey, Ulysses doesn’t seem so bad! Even with some funky punctuation and grammatical choices, I could still follow the dialogue and the movements of the characters. The third episode, the monologue-y one, read more like poetry than prose, but it wasn’t as impenetrable as I was expecting. I managed to take in at least some of it (not the bits that were in French), so I was feeling confident. Full steam ahead!
In the fourth episode, the day starts again, at 8AM (yep, Ulysses is very non-linear, but at least we stay within a single day for the most part). This time, we see the story from Leopold Bloom’s perspective – finally, our protagonist emerges! He talks to his cat, buys a kidney from the butcher, fries it up and eats it for breakfast (the kidney, not the cat). He also makes tea and toast for his wife, all the while musing about how they’re both having affairs. Molly – the wife – gets a bad rap in a lot of the criticism of this book, but I’m going to say here and now that she’s my girl. I love her. She calls Leopold “Poldy”, which I thought was just fucking adorable (especially after I learned from the reading guide that this was Joyce’s way of showing us how she “delionises” her husband, reminding him who’s boss). I liked Poldy, too, even though he was a bit of a perv – his episodes were, generally speaking, a lot more readable than Stephen’s. Anyway, after a bit of a chat with the missus, Leopold gets dressed and heads off to a funeral.
The next thirty pages or so are very fragmentary and kind of disjointed. Each paragraph is preceded by a news headline, which my guide said “simultaneously interrupted and framed the prose”. Um, okay? I did manage to piece together that Leopold is 38 years old, works as a newspaper canvasser, and after the funeral he heads over to place an advertisement for the House Of Keys Tea Shop in the Evening Telegraph. There’s a bit of wheeling and dealing, then he’s sent off in search of an image to use for the ad. Throughout these professional and social encounters, people treat poor Leopold pretty badly – they’ll flat out ignore him, bully him, and speak carelessly in front of him. A lot of it seems to have to do with the fact that he’s Jewish (yikes).
Leopold goes from the newspaper office down to Grafton Street, the posh shopping district, and stops for a light lunch at Davy Byrne’s Pub. His mind wanders, so we wander with it: he goes from thinking about how much it stinks that Catholics can’t use contraception (forcing them to have large families, which keeps them in poverty), to thinking about how Molly’s probably going to be meeting her lover at 4PM. It’s only 1PM by this point, but Poldy’s trying not to watch the clock. He runs into an ex-girlfriend as he leaves the pub, and he muses on how smooth he is with women (told you he’s a perv!). Then, when he heads to the library to get the image for the ad logo, he spots Molly’s lover – Boylan, we’ll talk more about him soon – and looks the other way to avoid him.
Joyce then switches back to Stephen’s POV at this point: he’s delivering a lecture on Hamlet in the library, which was pretty much just an excuse for Joyce to show off how many Shakespeare references he could cram into every page. Leopold drops in briefly, looking for his logo thing. When all is said and doneth, Stephen and Buck Mulligan head down to the pub. The animosity from the morning show-down still simmers, but Buck knows Stephen has just been paid, so he’ll be good to shout a few beers.
The next episode is written as a series of vignettes and – if I understood them correctly – they all take place at the exact same time, in different parts of Dublin. Kind of like taking a panoramic photo, then looking at it inch by inch. The most notable ones include Leopold buying Molly. a book (a good, smutty one), and Boylan being infuriatingly charming, a real dapper rogue.
Once we slide back into a narrative (or what passes for a narrative in Joyce’s writing, anyway), things start to turn all musical and lyrical. There’s a lot of onomatopoeia, refrains, funny syntax. Leopold is back in the pub (he’s Irish!), flirting with some barmaids, when Boylan walks in. This causes Leopold to check the time, and he notices it’s 4PM – which means Boylan is late for his bonk appointment with Molly (awkward!). Bloom concludes: “Too late. She longed to go. That’s why. Woman. As easy stop the sea. Yes: all is lost.”
Next, we shift perspective (again!), this time to an anonymous working-class Dubliner who tells stories to “earn” his drinks. Sounds like a good gig if you can get it, sign me up! This episode bounces around a lot, and gets interrupted countless times – just like (you guessed it!) stories told in a pub. No shame in getting a bit lost in this part, I know I did! Basically, through this storyteller (drunk and unreliable as he may be), we see Leopold turn down the offer of a drink, because he knows he can’t afford to stand his round, and get into an argument with an Irish nationalist. It seems there’s a lot of rumours about Leopold around town, and he’s none too popular (which explains why everyone acts so shittily towards him). Unfortunately, this is where all the really dark anti-Semitism rears its head, and my heart really broke for the poor man. He leaves, under the guise of going to look for his friend, who (of course) shows up moments later, looking for Leopold in turn. Everyone talks shit about Leopold after he leaves. When he doubles back around, he and his mate finally get together and take off, just as another argument erupts.
Later, Leopold decides to have a bit of a sit-down at the beach, and just so happens to pick a spot near three teenage girls. Gerty is the “beautiful one”, and she is described in intimate detail. She has her eye on Leopold too, apparently (ugh). And here’s where our darling Poldy hits peak perv: he has a wank, right there on the beach, while everyone (including Gerty) watches some fireworks. Ick!
Let’s not linger on that nasty visual. Shortly thereafter, Leopold realises that his watch has stopped, and he starts to wonder whether Molly has finished bonking Boylan yet. He lays down to have a little nap before heading home.
Now, here’s where Joyce starts really showing off: the next episode is pretty much unintelligible. This was the first time while reading Ulysses that I truly had no idea what the fuck was going on, even with my trusty reading guide. If not for Keeping Up With The Penguins, and my dirty completionist heart, I would’ve given up right here. Example:
““For who is there who anything of some significance has apprehended but is conscious that that exterior splendour may be the surface of a downwardtrending lutulent reality or on the contrary anyone so is there illuminated as to not perceive that as no nature’s boon can contend against the bounty of increase so it behoves ever most just citizen to become the exhortatory and admonisher of his semblables and to tremble lest what had in the past been by the nation excellently commenced might be in the future not with similar excellence accomplished if an inverecund habit shall have gradually traduced the honourable by ancestors transmitted customs to that tither of profundity that that one was audacious excessively who would have the hardihood to rise affirming that no more odious offence can for anyone be than to oblivious neglect to consign that evangel simultaneously command and promise which on all mortals with prophecy of abundance or with diminution’s menace that exalted of reiteratedly procreating function ever irrevocably enjoined?”
Page 381 (I know they’re english words, but what the fuck does this “sentence” even mean???)
Apparently, throughout this episode, Joyce was trying to represent “the gestation of the English language”, by replicating and parodying the prose styles of different time periods in chronological order. Ugh, whatever.
Moving on: Leopold checks in on a woman who’s been in labour for a horrifyingly long time. He sits around and chats with a group of doctors and medical students, all of whom appear to be drinking on the job. Buck Mulligan and his mate show up looking for condoms. All these men get down to discussing birth and motherhood, every fathomable aspect of it (finally, a group of men offer their perspective! just what we’ve been missing!). Once the woman finally drops her shorty, they all head down to the pub to party on.
The next bit is written and formatted like a script, with stage directions, character labels on the dialogue, etc., but it depicts very little actual action. Most of it takes place in subconscious drunken hallucinations, and as far as trips go, this is a bad one. Leopold dreams of getting yelled at by his parents, interrogated by police, put on trial for being (among other things) a cuckold, leading his own country (Bloomusalem), being a woman, and giving birth to eight children. When he comes back to earth for a second, he follows Stephen and his mate into a brothel, then the hallucinations start a new, getting dirtier and more outlandish. Joyce deliberately blurs the lines between what is “really” happening and what is only happening in Pervy Poldy’s head, so – once again – no shame if you get a bit lost and confused. Oh, and Stephen has a few hallucinations of his own, and they all criss-cross over one another – it’s all very strange.
Leopold eventually comes to and straightens himself up, but Stephen is still drunk as all heck (give-all-my-money-to-strangers-on-the-street drunk). Leopold hustles him away and tries to sober him up. Stephen can’t go home (he’s still got beef with Buck Mulligan, and no keys!), so they stop at a diner to get some coffee and food into him. They meet a chatty sailor, and try not to indulge in gossip about how the innkeeper was involved in a local murder. But then, somehow, the conversation shifts to England and Ireland and Christianity and Judaism – all very safe topics among drunk Irishmen, and it all goes super well! Leopold ends up having to literally drag Stephen out of the bar and half-carry him home. What a day, I tell ya…
But Joyce isn’t done! He switches things up again, this time narrating an entire episode in the form of a Q&A. There are 309 questions, all with detailed answers that depict the action. Stephen sobers up enough to carry on a conversation about music and politics, as he and Leopold walk the rest of the way home. Leopold has to break into his own house because he forgot to put his keys in his funeral pants. Inside, they find a bunch of Boylan’s stuff lying around (awkward!), and this makes Leopold understandably cranky. He and Stephen sit down, drink some cocoa, swap stories, and argue about religion. Leopold offers to let Stephen stay the night, but he politely declines. They do a wee together in the front yard, Stephen heads off, and Leopold climbs into bed with Molly. He gives her a kiss on the bum, and she starts thinking about the fact that they haven’t had sex in ten years (no wonder she’s taken a lover, get yours girl!).
Now, here we go, the big crescendo: Ulysses ends with an episode consisting of eight whopping great long un-punctuated sentences, all from Molly’s perspective. She thinks about their respective affairs, and their courtship. She worries about money, wishing she had more of it so she could buy pretty things. She reminisces about her youth in Gibraltar, old friends and so forth. She decides she likes love letters, and hates “silly” girl singers. She thinks about her daughter. She gets her period. She decides it’d be great if we overthrew the patriarchy and let women run things (preach!). All these thoughts lead her back to her memory of Leopold’s proposal, and her enthusiastic response – thus, the immortal closing line, “yes I said yes I will Yes”.
Ulysses was probably never going to be my favourite book of all time. I don’t think that’ll be any great shock to anyone. But, I must say… it wasn’t as bad as I thought it was going to be. Like, nowhere near as bad. It’s got a hell of a reputation, and sure, some parts drove me up the wall, but I got so much more out of it than I would have dreamed possible.
Joyce’s writing doesn’t read like the writing that most contemporary recreational readers expect and enjoy, but don’t confuse unfamiliarity with dislike. I don’t think we talk enough about what Joyce was trying to do: represent the natural flow of human thought, feeling, mood, and memory. He did such a good job of it that the rhythm of Ulysses feels natural, like letting yourself drift along the currents of a river.
Even for all his faults, I really liked Leopold. He was relatable in a way that most writers hope their flawed protagonists will be. But the real star of the show, the one who won my heart, was Molly. I can’t think of any of Joyce’s contemporaries who crafted a female character as wonderfully nuanced and intriguing as she. Of course, her complexity and authenticity meant that most early (*cough*sexist*cough*) readers thought she was a “whore”. Their word, not mine. She was uneducated, opinionated, sexual – all things that women weren’t (and still aren’t) “allowed” to be. My favourite characters in literature are almost always women who do things they “shouldn’t”, so Molly had it in the bag.
What surprised me most of all was that I *whispers* liked it better than Mrs Dalloway. I’m deeply concerned that this makes me a bad feminist, but so be it. Virginia Woolf famously declined to publish Ulysses through her own Hogarth Press, saying that “Ulysses was a memorable catastrophe – immense in daring, terrific in disaster”, and Mrs Dalloway was written largely in an attempt to one-up Joyce and show him how it should be done. I’d really like to re-visit them both in a few years, and see if my opinion changes over time. But, for now, Joyce is the winner in my own personal Ulysses v Dalloway show-down.
I’m not going to call Ulysses a recommended read here on the blog. It’s not for everyone, and I respect that. I’m not even sure that I’d say I “liked” it. What I would say is that, once again, it proved to me that a book’s reputation means sweet fuck-all. Crime And Punishment was a pleasant surprise in much the same way. If you’ve decided not to try and read Ulysses on the basis that everyone says it’s unreadable, maybe you should reconsider. It might be better than you think, it might not, but the only way to know for sure is to give it a go. Be sure to hurry back here and tell me what you think… 😉
Keeper Upperers, you might be worried that finishing my original reading list with Ulysses means that this will be the end of my book reviews – it most certainly is not! I’ve cooked up a whole new reading list, and I’ll be reviewing them one-by-one each week as I have done for the last 109. Take a sneak peek at what’s to come here, and thank you for all of your continued support.
“Good condition except there was a bad smell to the book” – Tiffany Thai
“did not read bored in 10 sec” – David G Johnston
“This book does not need a review.” – KB
“For psychological masochists only.” – Robert Belilovsky
“the worst book you’ll ever read, if you ever finish it.” – Amazon Customer
“ulysses sucks. hence, this book sucks.” – Amaon Customer
“Nice guide to Dublin. A bit brief.” – Charmaine Babineau
“I enjoyed this. It’s long but if it starts to drag you can skip over parts and not lose much. It’s more a narrative of life than, say, a detective story where you can’t miss a trick. The best part is the ending soliloquy by the girl, ten pages without a punctuation mark. I’d buy the book for that. yes I will yes” – William J. Fallon
“Could not get through it. Forced myself to stay with it, but gave up after 50 pagers or so. I would rather read a tech manual, at least that has a purpose.” – Mags Dad
“Dear lord, this nonsense is supposed to be great literature? Simply horrid. A book should be able to communicate the clarity of its prose and not try to impress others by obscurity.
This sucker has no clothes. There, I said it.” – Kevin M. Fries
I had a really tough time getting my hands on a copy of Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner. I ended up having my local independent bookstore special-order a copy from the UK for me, which makes it officially the furthest I’ve ever gone to track down a book for this project. That said, I can kind of see why, having read it, there aren’t many copies in circulation. The premise and the writing are… shall we say, esoteric. But Sarah Waters, who wrote the introduction to this edition, insists that Townsend Warner is “certainly one of the most shamefully under-read great British authors of the past hundred years”. How could I resist?
Lolly Willowes (alternative title: The Loving Huntsman) was Townsend Warner’s first novel. It was published in 1926 and billed as an “early feminist classic”. Even by today’s standards, it’s a leftie book. The author was open and frank about her commitment to radical left-wing causes (like, y’know, social justice and women having rights and stuff like that). She gets an A+ from me for the way she translated her political leanings into a plot. Lolly Willowes is the story of a mild-mannered spinster who moves to a country village to escape her pain-in-the-arse family; there, she turns to witchcraft, and sells her soul to the devil.
Now, don’t even TELL me you don’t find that at least a LITTLE bit relatable! I mean, who among us hasn’t, on some occasion, been just slightly tempted…
Meet our titular protagonist: Laura Willowes, “Lolly” being the affectionate nickname given by her family (one she secretly hates). After her father dies, she moves to London to live with her brother Henry and his family. Her own home (Lady Place – Townsend wasn’t mucking around with these feminist symbols) is passed to her other brother, James… only James kicks the bucket pretty quickly thereafter, too, and the house ends up rented out to strangers. There’s a lot of family politicking going on for the first half of the novel. The part I found most infuriating was the fact that they owned a brewery – i.e., they were living the dream! – but they just kind of let it fall by the wayside. I mean, come on! Where are their priorities?
The most important thing to bear in mind if you’re thinking of picking up Lolly Willowes is that there’s very little dialogue. Almost all of this plays out in the narrative. So, if you’re one of the “show, don’t tell” types, this is definitely not the book for you.
Anyway, meek and mild Lolly spends twenty-odd years just kind of… hanging around. She never marries, and never causes any trouble. She just raises Henry’s kids for him, and (understandably) gets pretty bored.
Once she finally decides she’s had a gut-full, she declares her intention to move to the charmingly-named town of Great Mop. If she were a man, she would’ve just married a twenty-two-year-old blonde and bought it a sports car and called it a day, but here we are. She then learns that Henry, who has been “managing her affairs” while she lived under his roof, has lost all her money. He tells her this in the hopes that she’ll stick around (she is, after all, his unpaid househould help), but she gives not a single fuck. She forges ahead with her move to Great Mop, and figures she’ll just live more frugally than she originally envisaged. Lolly Willowes is meek and mild no more, y’all!
Once she’s settled, she gets really into hiking. Lolly becomes obsessed with the views of the chalk hills and the beech wood trees. At times, these passages read more like nature writing than fictional prose. When she’s not traipsing around the woods, she makes friends with her landlady, hangs out with a poultry farmer, and tries not to wonder about the weird noises she hears at night…
Then, terrible news: Titus, her nephew (son of James, the brother who died), takes it into his head that he should move to Great Mop, too. He’s going to live with Lolly and “be a writer”. She doesn’t even get a chance to object; he just storms in and takes over. That means she’s back to a life of darning someone else’s socks and cooking someone else’s meals and all the other crap that comes with a privileged white man’s presence. Hmph!
Lolly has really had it now, guys. On her next wilderness walk, she calls upon Satan – yes, the same one – to ask that he release her from the shackles of domestic duty. For freminism!
When she gets home, she finds a kitten (aw!), whom she believes to be Satan’s emissary (oh…). She names him Vinegar, and adopts him as her familiar. That’s when shit gets witchy. I mean, it’s unlike any witchcraft with which I’m familiar, but that’s not saying much. And it’s around this time that Lolly starts calling Satan her “loving huntsman” (thus, the subtitle).
To seal the deal with the devil, Lolly tags along with her landlady to a local Witches’ Sabbath, attended by just about every woman in Great Mop. Apparently, this “normal” town is populated exclusively by women who want to dismantle the patriarchy. They work some magic, and that’s when things start going south for Titus. He’s plagued by all kinds of bad luck: his milk always curdles, he falls into a wasp’s nest, the usual. He winds up proposing to the woman who treats his wasp stings, and they fuck off back to London together to escape the curse – good riddance!
Lolly is relieved of her duties, and so glad to be finally free of them. She calls up her new buddy Satan, and (this is my favourite bit) tells him that women are like sticks of dynamite, ready to explode. They’re all witches, apparently, “even if they never do anything with their witchcraft, they know it’s there – ready!” (PREACH). The book ends with Lolly making peace with the fact that she sold her soul to the devil for a bit of peace and quiet. She’s okay with it.
Now, as I alluded to earlier, I don’t know dick about witchcraft… but from what I do know, I’m fairly confident that most of the women who identify as witches would be horrified/disgusted/angry at yet another literary representation linking their identities to “Satan”. Various witchcraft-based religions are ancient and have nothing to do with Christian representations of good, evil, or anything else. So, let’s just make that clear: this isn’t an accurate representation of real-world witchcraft, and to claim it is would be highly offensive.
That said, I don’t think Lolly Willowes was meant to be representative or accurate. Townsend Warner was Doing A Thing(TM). I think she deliberately invoked the image of Satan to symbolically fuck with the power structures (including religion) that oppress women. This is a fantastical novel in many ways, and a satirical one; I don’t think Townsend Warner wanted to sign on to represent any particular group. She just wanted to shit on whiny entitled white dudes, sucks to be them.
Lolly Willowes was published a year after Mrs Dalloway, and it’s got a very similar vibe: the search for a room of one’s own, women’s post-war liberation, the roles and responsibilities of widows and spinsters… If you liked Woolf, chances are you’ll dig this one, too.
Upon publication, Lolly Willowes was critically acclaimed in the UK, but didn’t make much of a splash with the general public. Townsend Warner eventually found her audience in the US, where Lolly Willowes was selected as the inaugural Book Of The Month title. Her affinity with American readers continued until her death; she was a regular contributor to The New Yorker and other American publications.
So, what did I think of it? Well, it’s hard to say. If I was asked for a brief description of Lolly Willowes, I think all I could say is “it’s weird”. Good weird, yes, but weird nonetheless. It’s a book of interest, a book worth reading, but not a gripping page-turner for most people. It’s unlikely to show up in any “best classic books” lists, but I’m glad I read it all the same.
The Heat Of The Day, by Irish writer Elizabeth Bowen, was first published in 1948. It focuses on the interwoven lives and relationships of three main characters, and their political roles, in the years following The Blitz. I know I’ve told you all that I’m a bit “over” fictionalised accounts of WWII, but I’ve had a bit of a break from them now, so I can come at this one with a fresh eye. Plus, The Heat Of The Day was written so close to the conflict, I suspected it might have a different approach (and I was right, as always).
My edition doesn’t have an introduction, or any prefatory material; even the blurb and the author bio are surprisingly bland. I only mention this because Penguin editions almost always offer up some delicious tid-bit that I faithfully relay back to you. I’m not sure why they didn’t bother in this case?
So, straight to the story, then: our female lead is Stella, a divorced middle-aged woman (though she is “young looking”, readers are repeatedly assured). She lives alone in London, and holds – shall we say – some deeply ingrained class prejudice. She has a lover, Robert, who was wounded in Dunkirk, but he basically only limps when he feels like it so everyone knows he’s having them on. Stella also has a son, Roderick, who’s off at some soldier training school, or whatever they call it. He signed up for the Army purely because it seemed to be the “done thing”, so he’s pretty loosey-goosey with his patriotism. He also seems to be in love with his comrade Fred, but no one says that out loud.
There’s also Harrison, a British intelligence agent, and let’s just go ahead and call him the source of all conflict in this novel (aside from, y’know, the war). He’s got a huge boner for Stella, and also – conveniently enough – believes her lover Robert to be a German spy. Harrison takes any chance he gets to worm his way between them. He tells Stella outright of his suspicions. When she doesn’t believe him (and fall instantly into his arms), he says he’ll hold off on reporting Robert to the authorities if she ends their relationship (and, he implies, gets her kit off). She declines that kind offer… but she thinks about it for a minute first.
Roderick comes home to visit Stella on leave, and finds out that he’s inherited Mount Morris – an Irish estate that formerly belonged to his father’s cousin. He’s got his hands full with this army business, though, so he sends Stella over there to take care of affairs for him (good on you, Mum). Her time in the Isle gets her all nostalgic, reminiscing about her youth and her first marriage, to Roderick’s father. She decides that when she gets home, she’ll just ask Robert straight to his face whether he’s a German spy. Good plan!
Naturally, Robert vehemently denies the accusation, and he throws her plan all off-kilter with a proposal of marriage. I think it was around that time that The Heat Of The Day devolved into a super-weird side plot, an argument where Roderick demands to know the truth of his parents’ divorce. For years, Stella has let everyone believe that she was cheating on Roderick’s father, because she found it less shameful than the fact that he actually left her, for an army nurse. Roderick seems satisfied with that new explanation, and then… we just return to the regularly scheduled programming? Weird!
Anyway, Harrison tells Stella off for giving Robert the heads up. She offers herself up as a bribe, in exchange for Robert’s life and freedom, but Harrison’s over her (or he just puts his love for Queen and country first, whatever). He tells Stella to bugger off.
Things are looking pretty bad for Robert by this point. He goes ahead and makes things worse for himself by confessing to Stella that he did spy for the Germans, at some point. After she offered herself up like a leg of Christmas ham, and everything! She’s (rightly) cranky, and kicks Robert out of the house. He sure shows her, though: he proceeds immediately to her roof, and jumps off of it, killing himself.
Now that the action has come to a head, Bowen seems to get bored of her own story. She gives us a rushed overview of what happens for each of the characters over the next few years, just to wrap things up neatly. Roderick moves to Mount Morris after the war, and decides not to look for his father. Harrison visits Stella and starts hitting on her again, but she knocks him back – still, the reader can’t be sure whether they wind up together or not. And, finally, a side character that was barely mentioned throughout the book has a love-child and runs away to the country. The end!
I feel like The Heat Of The Day would quote beautifully. Pluck any random sentence from any random page, and it would sound fucking profound. At a sentence level, Bowen’s writing craft was exquisite. But the book, as a whole, was a little Henry James-y. In fact, Raymond Chandler once said that The Heat Of The Day was a “screaming parody” of James. I’m not sure what that means, exactly, but the story was really hard to follow. For me, James represents the epitome of getting high off your own fumes, thinking more about what you can do with language than the story you’re trying to tell – anything that resembles that is going to get me off-side, guaranteed.
I guess what I liked about the book was that it seemed, for the most part, a lot more realistic than most contemporary WWII fiction. No one was trying to kill Hitler (ahem, Life After Life). No one was shielding a priceless jewel from the Nazis (ahem, All The Light We Cannot See). It wasn’t narrated by Death as he tried to bump children off the mortal coil (ahem, The Book Thief). The war was present in The Heat Of The Day, but in the background, while the regular romantic and familial dramas played out in the foreground. The violence of the conflict was mostly removed from the narration. It’s a circumstance of the story, not the focus of it. Bowen does describe the London bombings, but really only in passing. You can see and feel the effects of the war, in food rations and black-out curtains and the suspicion of strangers, but life goes on: real life, everyday life, as it did for many who lived through that era. Anthony Burgess was once quoted as saying that no other novel has better captured the true atmosphere of London in WWII, and I totally believe that. I commend Bowen for the way she depicted the gnawing desperation of those times, and the cruel irony of loving someone who (it turned out) was on the side of the fascists, without getting gimmicky or overblown. Stella is just trying to keep calm and carry on (ha!), while the men around her play their own ridiculous game of Spy Vs Spy.
Still, The Heat Of The Day was a slog to read. I didn’t really care all that much about any of the characters, truth be told. I even found it hard to keep them straight at times. I’d say it’s comparable to E.M. Forster and Henry Green (as well as James, as mentioned) – I didn’t particularly love either of them, either, so it makes sense that this one didn’t start my engines. If you’re a historical fiction devotee looking for something different, a more realistic take on WWII, give it a go. Otherwise, save your eyeballs.
I think we all know by now that if you take a handful of rich people and put them in a confined space, you’re going to get some good drama. It’s a formula that’s worked for reality TV for years, and before that, Henry Green used it as the premise for his 1939 novel Party Going.
Party Going, according to the blurb, is a “darkly comic valediction to what W.H. Auden famously described as the ‘low dishonest decade’ of the 1930s”. It’s a slim volume, closer to a novella in length than a novel. Most editions don’t actually publish it stand-alone; it’s usually packaged alongside two of Green’s other novels (Living, and Loving). The introduction to this copy was written by Amit Chaudhuri, and it’s full of name-drops. Henry Green was a contemporary of Graham Greene. He was an Oxford friend of Evelyn Waugh. John Updike called him a “saint of the mundane”. And Virginia Woolf’s imprint, the Hogarth Press, published Party Going. As to Green’s style, Chaudhuri says this book is a “masterpiece of literary impressionism”.
“Green in fact stands somewhere between James Joyce, in his tendency to be intolerant of ‘normal’ English syntax and punctuation, and Virginia Woolf, in his sense of how narrative can be shaped by things outside of event.”
Amit Chaudhuri, Introduction
There aren’t a whole lot of “events” in this plot, really, so it’s a good thing there’s other stuff to shape the narrative, otherwise I don’t know where we’d be. Six young, wealthy people – Max, Amabel, Angela, Julia, Evelyn, and Claire – all gather at a train station en route to a house party in France. They find that all the trains are delayed due to severe fog, so they take rooms in the adjacent railway hotel (rather than linger on the platform with the unwashed masses). That’s about all of the action, really; the rest of the story plays out in their relationships and gossiping, and Green tells different versions of it simultaneously.
The historical context for Party Going is important. Yes, they’re all idle rich bitches, and idle rich bitches are equally vapid and shallow, no matter where or when they are, but the reader should bear in mind that this all takes place in England right before the outbreak of WWII. It’s a dark contrast, really: the minutia of their sparkly lives and scandals, set against the backdrop of an emerging conflict that will devastate the world. These characters, oblivious and self-obsessed, are “waltzing blithely towards oblivion”. An English major might say that the train-delaying fog actually represents the cold, menacing threat of the future.
Party Going consists mostly of talk, which is mostly about nothing. Once the premise of the delayed train is established, the only real “action” to be found is a battle between Julia and Amabel for the affections of playboy Max. And there’s one strange woman, Miss Fellowes (Claire’s aunt): she falls subject to a mysterious “illness” (Green seems to imply drunkenness, but I could be wrong), and becomes obsessed with a dead pigeon she finds. While her aunt is flailing and wailing about the pigeon, Claire focuses on trying to convince everybody that she’s not heartless for wanting to leave to party with them instead of sticking around to care for the old biddy. Well, it seems important to Claire at least that everyone knows that; no one else really gives a shit. Suffice to say that all of these characters are spoiled, selfish, and horny. They treat their staff (maids and porters) like commodities, to be traded and summoned at will. All they think about is how best to fiddle the social abacus to benefit themselves.
There’s not much else to say about Party Going, really. If you didn’t enjoy Mrs Dalloway, then this is not the book for you. It’s more readable, yes, and less intensely modernist, but at the end of the day, it’s still a short book that takes a long time to read, about a bunch of privileged white people lolling about and preparing for a party.
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