Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: Modernist

Ulysses – James Joyce

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!

Publication History

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.

Plot Summary

(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”.

Verdict

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.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Ulysses:

  • “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


Lolly Willowes – Sylvia Townsend Warner

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.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Lolly Willowes:

  • “Lolly moves in with relatives. Lolly seeks independence. Lolly gets mixed up with the Devil. I must have missed something.” – J. Rodeck
  • “Help. I did not order this. Have been hacked!” – Martha R Zimiles

The Heat Of The Day – Elizabeth Bowen

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.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Heat Of The Day:

  • “A hard slog to get to an interesting story.” – Granny
  • “Can not recommend. Book is stated as a thrilling story. Not! Verbose.” – Phyllis

Party Going – Henry Green

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.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Party Going:

  • “Short on wit.” – uncle tom
  • “John Updike is one of my favorite writers, but I found reading Henry Green like reading Upstairs, Downstairs in ultra-slow motion.” – J.M. Walker



Nineteen Nineteen – John Dos Passos

Nineteen Nineteen is the second book of a trilogy, now called the U.S.A. trilogy, by American writer John Dos Passos. The first book of the trilogy (The 42nd Parallel) was published in 1930, followed by Nineteen Nineteen in 1932, and the finale (The Big Money) in 1936. They were all published together in a single volume for the first time in 1938. They are widely considered the peak of Dos Passos’s career, and it was off the back of these books that Jean Paul Sartre said he considered Dos Passos to be “the greatest writer of our time”. I think all of this begs an obvious question…

… why have so few people heard of Nineteen Ninteen, or John Dos Passos?

Well, here we have yet another 20th century writer who lives in the inconceivably-large shadows of Fitzgerald and Hemingway. Indeed, they were all good friends, the three of them (at least initially, but more on that in a second). Alas, in the intervening decades, Dos Passos has receded from view while the other two have continued to loom large.

Nineteen Nineteen was Dos Passos’s response to the Great War, in which – like Hemingway – he served as an ambulance driver. He had always had communist leanings, but after the conflict he travelled with Hemingway to Spain, and that’s where things got hairy. Dos Passos found the viciousness of some of the communist revolutionaries confronting (to say the least), and his reaction led to a falling out with Hemingway, who didn’t find their approach as bothersome. Thus began another great literary feud: Dos Passos headed home to write about the everyday lives of characters affected by WWI (with special attention to the social and economic forces that shaped their lives) while Hemingway wrote letters to Fitzgerald, saying that Dos Passos was a “second-rate writer with no ear” and “also a terrible snob”. As best I can tell, they never made up.



Though he found the situation in Spain pretty challenging ethically, Dos Passos never entirely gave up his communist cause. He found new conviction when he saw the widening gulf between the rich and the poor in his home country. By the time he got back, the glittery days of the Jazz Age were long gone, and the combined forces of the crash, the Great Depression, and the rise of fascism were tearing his world apart. Depicting the truth of this state of affairs in literature became Dos Passos’s passion, and you can see that in the way he wrote Nineteen Nineteen.

It’s hardly a straight-foward novel, in that it’s a highly experimental fusion of fiction and journalism. There are four different narrative “modes”. The first is the most recognisable to contemporary readers, narrative fiction that follows the lives of a few key characters (twelve across the trilogy as a whole, but they’re not linked in any significant way). Then, there are the “Newsreel” sections; these contain collages of newspaper clippings, song lyrics, and front-page headlines (drawn almost entirely from the real-life Chicago Tribune). There are also, in the third mode, short biographies of public figures. I only recognised the names of a couple of former Presidents, but there are plenty of others, including “The Body Of An American”, which tells the story of an unknown soldier killed in WWI. And I’ve saved the weirdest mode for last, the “Camera Eye”: autobiographical stream-of-consciousness passages, which seem to be Dos Passos’s way of inserting himself and his own personal perspective into the story.

The alternative and experimental modes can be discombobulating, but at least they’re all really distinct in style. You never wonder what it is exactly you’re reading, because Dos Passos has signposted it really clearly for you. I read later that his “Newsreel” and “Camera Eye” sections were inspired by modernist innovation and the emergence of “mass communication” through television and the telegraph. Can you imagine if he’d lived to see Twitter?



Dos Passos was clearly trying to Do Something Different(TM). Nineteen Nineteen, with all these different modes, isn’t cohesive or continuous at all. It’s a series of fragments, more like a creative writing class notebook than a complete novel (and this edition came complete with doodled illustrations, too). At a guess, I’d say I was able to properly comprehend maybe half of it. I struggled to follow what was going on in the narrative sections, because it was broken up by all the other stuff, so I’m not confident in giving you a complete plot summary here.

What I will say, content-wise, is that there’s a lot of sex and violence, and Dos Passos isn’t shy. I don’t mind graphic books, but I figured I’d mention it as a heads up if you do. What did bother me, though, was the recurring motif of men trying to convince their lovers to get abortions, and blaming the women for getting pregnant in the first place. Ugh!

Oh, and a passable knowledge of French would really come in handy reading this one, especially towards the end. Without it, you’re going to end up Google Translating a lot, like me.



Dos Passos does succeed in his primary objective, however, to hammer home his communist message. He has no sympathy at all for his “upwardly mobile” characters, but simultaneously he’s very kind and generous to his down-and-out victims of capitalist society.

In the end, I really felt nothing for this book. I could appreciate that Dos Passos was being really very clever and experimental and all of that, but perhaps just too much so for me to actually enjoy reading. I read later that Nineteen Nineteen has been adapted a number of times for radio and stage – don’t ask me how, holy Oprah, but I won’t be seeking them out. I’m a firm believer, as I’ve said before, that loving a book simply means that you’ve come to it at the right time in your reading life; maybe if I’d come to Nineteen Nineteen at some other time, I’d feel differently about it. As it stands, right now, I’m a bit sick of enduring 500+ pages of old white men telling me that war and capitalism are bad. Sorry, Dos Passos (if it’s any consolation, I wasn’t that big on your frenemies Fitzgerald and Hemingway, either).

My favourite Amazon reviews of Nineteen Nineteen:

  • “First book of the Trilogy was very good. This one just drones on and on and on with few interesting characters and interminable descriptions of the labor struggle. Can’t wait to finish because I want to get on to the last installment. I know now why Dos Passos played third fiddle to Hemingway and Fitzgerald.” – JB Haller
  • “I am not a fan of the camera eye. In addition, longsentenceswithallwordsattacheddonotworkwellforme. Well written prose and interesting narrative from an historical standpoint. I took a two-book pause between its predecessor 42nd Parallel and 1919. I may take a two-decade pause until I open The Big Money, well well after I’ve read Ragtime, Manhattan Transfer, and Berlin. Alexander Platz.” – Amazon Customer


Amongst Women – John McGahern

This slim, unassuming volume actually marks a very important discovery in my reading life: I purchased it on my first trip to a local charity shop’s book section. Before that fateful day, I’d almost exclusively haunted secondhand bookstores and book fairs. Discovering that charity shops also had amazing book selections – and so cheap! – was a revelation! I’d been looking for a copy of Amongst Women since I began the Keeping Up With The Penguins project a year and a half ago, so I was more than happy to hand over $3 for this pristine Faber edition.

Right, enough personal stories – this isn’t a recipe blog! Let’s get down to business. Amongst Women is the best-known novel of Irish writer John McGahern. It is widely considered to be his masterpiece, and it was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in the year of its release (1990). That was pretty much all I knew about it going in. From the blurb, I thought it might be similar to An Artist Of The Floating World, in that they’re both stories of aging men trying to outrun the fallout from their role in a war in the mid-20th Century. On the face of it, that assumption was technically correct, but the protagonists are very different, and as such their stories go in very different directions…

Michael Moran is an IRA veteran, a former officer and guerrilla fighter in the War Of Independence and the Irish Civil War of the 1920s. He’s known to his community as a respectable and devout Catholic, but behind closed doors it’s a different story. He’s super bitter about the “small minded gangsters” that now run his country, and he refuses to accept the government’s solider pension, because he feels they have betrayed the ideals he fought for (yeah, let ’em keep their money, that’ll show ’em!). Lacking any other outlet for his frustration, he exorcises his demons on those closest to him. He’s positively tyrannical in his personal life, cruel and brutal with his wife and children, and controlling in the extreme. So, consider this a trigger warning if those kinds of family dynamics don’t sit well with you: you’re going to want to give Amongst Women a miss.



Amongst Women begins in the Moran family home, in the rural midlands of Ireland. Moran is elderly, weakened by illness and age, and suffering a bout of depression his family fears will kill him. His adult daughters have decided to re-create an annual event of their childhood, Monaghan Day, in an effort to lift the old man’s spirits. From there, the family’s history is told through flashbacks as the Moran women remember their shared past, but it’s not a jumpy timeline (thank goodness!). It’s more like a chronological story that circles back around on itself. In fact, I’d say the opening scene really just serves as an unofficial prologue, setting up the story.

These grown daughters are: Maggie, who moves to London to become a nurse and marries a fashionable drunk; Mona, the family beauty who returns home most often, holds a civil service job in Dublin; and Shelia, who wanted to go to university but ol’ Daddy Moran talked her out of it (boo!). Shelia is the most defiant of the three, and a lot of her motivation comes from wanting to keep her own children away from the poisonous Moran patriarch. He’s a real bastard, no doubt about that. He lacks any sense of self-awareness, he has an explosive temper, he’s frustrated by his own obsolescence… it’s a deadly combination, one that makes him very unpredictable.

So, the flashback takes us back to when Moran – then a widower – re-married a local woman called Rose. His children were already teenagers, but she still became a mother figure to them, and she was often called upon to mediate disputes. She’s disturbingly tolerant of Moran’s mood swings and abuse. In fact, all of the Moran women are. Like many victims of such cruelty, they become extremely grateful for any expression of tenderness or goodwill, and they wind up willing to overlook his behaviour and his unapologetic attitude. This is, really, the crux of the story; there’s not a lot of plot, just the normal highs and lows of family life, and trying to work out why on earth all these women are so gentle with such an arsehole.



As the children leave home, one by one, Moran grows increasingly panicked. He can’t handle no longer being the center of their worlds, so what does he do? He devolves into a clingy, needy, hot mess, demanding their attention (and thus drawing them back to him), even when it disturbs the lives they’re trying to build for themselves. He finds his sons particularly threatening, as they “need” him the least (i.e., they’re less inclined to indulge his every whim).

Ah, yes, the sons! There’s two of them: Luke, the eldest, who escapes to London early on, unable to cope with his father’s overbearing authority; and Michael, the youngest, who hides in Rose’s skirts until he’s old enough to escape, too. It’s a dynamic that plays out with every single one of the Moran children, boys and girls alike: the only power they can exert in their relationship with their father is to leave him. Moran talks a lot of smack about how blood-is-thicker-than-water and family solidarity is the most important value and all of that, so the act of leaving him for the Big Smoke is the ultimate kick in the guts. And, yet, they all find themselves suckered back in to his vortex of manipulation and cruelty – all except Luke, who returns to Ireland only once, to attend Sheila’s wedding.

Moran dies in the end, of course. He’s buried under a yew tree and everyone grieves, but McGahern goes out of his way to make it abundantly clear that this is not the end of that bastard’s influence in their lives:

“… now, as they left him under the yew, it was as if each of them in their different ways had become Daddy.”

Amongst Women, pg. 183

I kept waiting for the “clang” that never really came. Perhaps McGahern intended for Moran’s death to be that moment, but it seemed a foregone conclusion: what other ending could he give such a terrible person? Amongst Women was, in short, the story of a traumatised veteran abusing and manipulating his whole family until the day he died. All the women he was amongst just made excuses for him and cleaned up after him, keeping the peace instead of calling him out on his bullshit. It’s a heart-breakingly familiar and relatable narrative, but in that sense it’s also really frustrating. What good is mirroring these unhealthy family relationships back at us through fiction, if the story doesn’t teach us anything other than… these families exist? I mean, we knew that. Arseholes die but people remember their arseholery? We knew that, too. Trauma is passed down through generations? Yep, we’re all across it. Amongst Women is not a satisfactory story, it’s just a depressing window into a dysfunctional family in a small Irish town.



Perhaps McGahern was trying to make some greater point about why the women in Moran’s life remained so devoted to him, even after they established independent lives of their own, but I couldn’t see it. I read later, in other reviews, that McGahern “asks whether exile offers the only hope for freedom and individuality” in post-colonial Catholic rural Ireland, and “exposes the insecurities and inexpressiveness of Irish masculinity”. I guess I can kind-of see both of those elements, but only after they were pointed out for me in a For-Dummies kind of way, so I don’t blame you if you missed them too.

I do like the title, though, and it has a clever dual meaning. Firstly, the Moran household is mostly female, so Moran is literally “amongst women”. Secondly, it refers to a line from the Hail Mary prayer (which I only learned reading this book, I’m a big ol’ heathen) – “blessed art thou amongst women”. The Moran family says a lot of Hail Marys, it’s a daily ritual for them, so it’s repeated often enough that you get the point.

Given the level of detail McGahern gave about the emotional brutality of these relationships, it came as no surprise to me that Amongst Women is (at least somewhat) autobiographical. These pages were clearly written by someone with inside knowledge of what a Moran-type household is like. McGahern’s beloved mother, Susan, died when he was a child, leaving he and his siblings in the care of his authoritarian IRA-veteran father. My heart breaks for McGahern; it must have been a deeply traumatic childhood (and adulthood, if his relationship with his real-life father bore out the way the fictional ones did), but I found myself frustrated on that point, too. When Louisa May Alcott mined her own childhood and family life for a novel, it was called “sentimental” and “schmaltzy” and excluded from the canon for years. When McGahern did it, it was heralded as a literary triumph, and the Booker Prize came a’knocking. Hardly seems fair, eh?

But I can see how I’m perhaps being a little hard on McGahern here, so I’ll let him have the last word of this review. He said of his novel: “The whole country is made up of families, each family a kind of independent republic. In Amongst Women, the family is a kind of half-way house between the individual and society.” And I think he’s spot on, there.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Amongst Women:

  • “I didn’t care about anyone in this family.” – Jayfred
  • “For some reason I expected the book. Instead I rec the literary review which was actually better tha the actual book.” – Lisa L Smith


Murphy – Samuel Beckett

I’m getting closer and closer to the pointy end of my reading list, which makes it harder and harder to pick my next read! I decided to do something different this time, and let my husband pick for me. He chose Murphy, by Samuel Beckett, because (in his exact words): “It’s exceptionally weird, and he was mates with [James] Joyce, so it’s the next best thing to forcing you to read Ulysses.” Isn’t that sweet? *eye roll*

The inscription in this pre-loved edition reads: “To Dad, Fathers’ Day 1973, from No. 1 Son”. Whoever Dad is, he apparently enjoyed Murphy, because it’s very well worn – I had to tape the back cover on to hold it together as I read.

Murphy was first published in 1938, the third work of fiction by Beckett (but the first one to be released). He wrote it painstakingly, by hand, in six small exercise books over the course of 1935 and 1936. He had a devil of a time getting it published; no one wanted in Europe wanted a bar of him, and he got no love in America either. Now and then, a publisher would offer to take it on if Beckett was willing to undergo a rigorous editing process, to make the book more marketable, but the smug prick turned them down every time, insisting the book was perfect as it was. In the end, he had to get his mate – the painter Jack Butler Yeates – to put it on the desk of a publisher friend at Routeledge. That’s how Murphy came to be another story in the file of Magical Nepotism.

Between the time of Routeledge accepting his manuscript as-is, and Murphy hitting the stores, Beckett was stabbed in the chest and nearly killed while wandering the streets of Paris. Apparently, he’d refused a kind offer of companionship from a notorious local pimp, who had much the same attitude towards rejection that Beckett had himself. Beckett nearly died, and had to call on another friend, this time James Joyce (yep, the same one), to oversee (and pay for!) his medical treatment. He made the final amendments and approvals to the manuscript proofs from a French hospital bed. This is a very on-brand story for Beckett, which tells you everything you need to know about the man, really.



It’s got a cracker opening line, perhaps my favourite part of the whole book:

“The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new.”

Murphy (Pg. 1)

Normally I’m not a fan of opening with the weather, but for a line so delightfully snarky, I can make an exception. Anyway, Murphy follows the story of a solipsist named (you guessed it) Murphy, who lives in a condemned apartment in West Brompton and later moves to London. Funnily enough, shortly before putting pen to paper, Beckett himself had moved from Dublin to London – the advice to “write what you know” pays off, once again! If we’re to believe, as has been reported, that Murphy draws heavily on Beckett’s real-life experiences, geographically and otherwise, then you’ll soon see that Beckett must have lived a very strange life indeed…

See, the story opens with Murphy sitting naked, tied to a chair, rocking back and forth in the dark, apparently having placed himself in that position. It’s his attempt to enter “a nonexistent state of being” (something akin to sensory deprivation, or deep meditation perhaps), and he finds this state particularly pleasurable. He has withdrawn from the world in gradual but increasing increments, in pursuit of these (shall we say) unconventional desires. Now, bear with me, I’m going to have trouble explaining what happens from then on because this book is, as my husband so eloquently described it, exceptionally weird. Just trust me: if you’re finding this hard to follow, you’re not the only one.



Even though he’s off his trolley, Murphy has at least one friend: Neary, whose party trick is stopping his own heart, a phenomenon he calls “apmonia”. Basically, he can induce cardiac arrest at will. WTAF? And Neary and Murphy sit around talking about their heart attacks and special-naked-rocking-chair-time, until the conversation eventually shifts around to their love lives. Murphy is engaged to one Miss Counihan, but in conversation with Neary, he decides – to hell with her – he’ll escape to London where he can have all the special-naked-rocking-chair-time he pleases, without her nagging him. Of course, he tells his wife-to-be that he’s taking off to find a respectable job, and she… just… believes him? Smh.

It’s not until after he’s been gone quite a while, without a word of correspondence, that Miss Counihan starts getting suss. She’s now shagging Neary (who has no qualms about cutting his mate’s grass), and they decide together to hire a bloke to track Murphy down. Miss Counihan is hoping that the dick, named Cooper (who, it must be said, is also a few pickles short of a party), will prove that Murphy is either dead or sleeping around, so that she can move on with her life guilt-free. Yeah, she’s a real peach; they deserved each other, to be honest.

That’s when the character of Celia Kelly is introduced: a sex worker, and Murphy’s concerned Friend-With-Benefits. I think Beckett invented her character purely for the opportunity to dig his elbow into the ribs of the censors. In describing her profession, he says: “This phrase is chosen with care; lest the filthy censors should lack an occasion to commit their filthy synecdoche”. Ha! But even so, you really feel for this girl, perhaps more than anyone else in Murphy, because she’s hopelessly in love with him even though he’s bonkers. He’s only slightly more than indifferent towards her, and yet she has enough powers of logical persuasion to convince him to get a job.



And what a job it is: Murphy begins working as a nurse at the Magdalen Mental Mercyseat, finding a refuge from the strains and pains of the real world in a literal asylum. He befriends the long-institutionalised patients there, and figures if he hangs out with them long enough, he’ll find a way to send himself insane and escape reality altogether. He’s so happy in his new work that he ditches Celia, and promptly forgets all about her. What a guy!

Celia joins forces with Miss Counihan, Neary, Cooper, and some other blow-in called Wiley. They all hurry-up-and-wait for Murphy to snap out of it. I can’t even begin to fathom the delusion that went into deciding on this course of action, because Murphy has never done anything not weird. And just as you think the story is approaching some big confrontation or resolution, Murphy dies. Yep! He’s burned to death in his room due to some whoopsy-daisy with the gas line (or maybe he died by suicide and that was his chosen method, Beckett didn’t really make it clear). Either way, he’s dead, and his friends don’t waste a lot of time mourning. They charge Cooper with putting Murphy’s remains to rest, which he does by spilling the ashes during a bar-room brawl and just leaving them there, among “the sand, the beer, the butts, the glass, the matches, the spits, the vomit”. So, a happy ending for all involved!

Reviews of Murphy were (very) mixed, and sales were (predictably) poor. Just 568 copies were sold upon its release in 1938. A further 23 were sold in 1939, 20 in 1940, and just 7 in 1941. By 1943, Murphy was out of print altogether. Beckett didn’t see any success or find any substantial audience until the release of Waiting For Godot, and since then Murphy has lived entirely in its shadows. I felt, reading Murphy, that Beckett was naturally more inclined towards being a playwright than a novelist, because his prose (bizarre as it was) read very theatrically – I could picture it being performed on a stage.



I’m sure there’s a lot of brilliant stuff in here – Beckett was obsessed with chess, for instance, and even I (a relative dummy) can see some of the ways he exploited the artistic possibilities of the game in Murphy – but damn, it’s a tough row to hoe. Normally I’m a fan of nihilistic black humour, but the way Beckett stewed it in absurdist existentialist ramblings just wasn’t to my taste. Luckily, there are plenty of people far smarter than me who are able to get more out of it, like the folks who awarded him the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1969.

Murphy is a hard book to read, even being as short as it is (just 158 pages). I had to keep convincing myself to pick it back up; this is one I definitely would have abandoned if not for Keeping Up With The Penguins. It’s neither character-driven, nor plot-driven – in fact, I’d say it’s not “driven” at all. It’s just a weird meander in the dark through some dodgy parts of town. My ears picked up a bit when Murphy started working in the asylum, but my interest waned very quickly. On the whole, I was rather underwhelmed. Luckily, my husband anticipated this reaction, and laughed heartily when I told him what I thought. I think I’ll stick to picking my own reads from now on…

My favourite Amazon reviews of Murphy:

  • “I had to read this for class. The plot is all over the place and it is really boring. There is nothing memorable about this book and it as mundane as watching a squirrel collect nuts for the winter…on second thought, watching a squirrel collect nuts for the winter is like going to Disney World when you are 4 years old compared to reading this book. I had to read this for English 196 and I can’t wait to sell this back to the book store even though I got it on ebay…so in essence, selling it to the bookstore…..good riddance!!!” – M. R. Randall


The Sun Also Rises – Ernest Hemingway

A little while back, I conned my mate Andrew into visiting a secondhand bookstore with me (my friends know that I’m prone to this kind of maneuver). While were were there, another patron overheard me (loudly) bitching about how difficult it was to find a well-preserved copy of Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. She tapped me on the shoulder, pulled this copy off the shelf, and handed it to me so sweetly I almost cried. Well, of course, all of this happened on the very day that I had no cash on me – so Andrew swooped in and bought it for me. What a champion!

I was eager to read more Hemingway. I first encountered his short story Hills Like White Elephants at uni, and I’ve re-read it a thousands times since; it was very formative for me. Other than that, my only real exposure to Hemingway was Kat’s succinct analysis in 10 Things I Hate About You (of course).

Kat on Hemingway - 10 Things I Hate About You - Keeping Up With The Penguins

The Sun Also Rises, Hemingway’s first novel, was published in 1926. He actually pulled a sneaky trick to make sure he got the publisher that he wanted for it. While under contract to Boni & Liveright (with whom he was unhappy for some reason), he submitted a hastily-written satirical novella that he knew they would reject, effectively terminating his contract on the spot. This allowed him to submit The Sun Also Rises to Scribner’s, and the rest is history.

The story follows a group of American and British migrants who travel to Pamplona to watch the running of the bulls and the bullfights. Of course, Hemingway was the king of “write what you know”, so the story is very closely based on his own trip to Spain in 1925. The characters were real people in Hemingway’s circle, and the action is based on real events. Apparently, he had originally intended to write a non-fiction book about bullfighting, but he decided that his experiences had given him plenty of content for a novel – and the result was The Sun Also Rises.

So, what’s it like? Well, it seems to confirm the worst of what people say about Hemingway. It’s all brooding white guys, drinking a lot, and butting bruised masculine egos. The women are either shrill harpies or desirable floozies. Nothing much seems to happen in the first part, and you’ve got to keep a weather eye out for the details that make the actual story. A boy likes an unattainable girl, who shags all of his rich friends but sticks him in the friendzone. The boy goes fishing with those friends, and the girl tags along. Everybody drinks.





The dialogue is so sparse and hard to follow that I almost missed what seems to be the focal point of the novel: Jake (the protagonist) is literally impotent, thanks to a nasty war wound. Once I cottoned onto that, I couldn’t decide whether it made The Sun Also Rises better or worse. I know that his injury symbolises the disillusionment and frustration of his entire cohort, not to mention Jake’s own metaphorical impotence in navigating friendships and politics in post-war Europe, but… it’s just a little obvious, isn’t it? A little too neat? I mean, a man gets his dick blown off and starts questioning the meaning of the world without his masculinity in it: pfft.

As much as Hemingway is the darling of the American literary canon, not everybody loved The Sun Also Rises, so I know I’m not alone here. A reviewer at the Cincinnati Enquirer wrote at the time that The Sun Also Rises “begins nowhere and ends in nothing”, which I thought was particularly pithy. Even Hemingway’s own mother wasn’t a fan: she hung shit on him for wasting his talents on such filth, writing to him “Surely you have other words in your vocabulary than ‘damn’ and ‘bitch’ – every page fills me with a sick loathing”. You can’t please everyone…

Anyway, Jake’s love interest is Brett – and wherever she goes, trouble follows. Men fall over themselves for her: they drink too much, and fight one another. I liked Brett in so much as she was unashamed about enjoying sex and chasing good times – there’s not enough of that in female characters, even today – but I certainly didn’t idolise her the way that Grown Up Literary Critics seem to. To me, she was a mere receptacle for all of the projections, hopes and frustrations of men. She lacked any true independence or self-determination. It’s all well and good to commit yourself to the ho-life, but damn girl – have a sense of who you are!





Jake’s defective junk is the primary obstacle to their having a relationship – which seems kind of quaint and ridiculous to a post-Sexual Revolution reader. If Brett and Jake had heard of cunnilingus, The Sun Also Rises would have played out differently. Of course, that would depend on Hemingway opening his mind to the sexual agency of a woman. You can be damn sure that if the situation were reversed, and Brett had had her lady parts blown off in the war, Hemingway would have been writing a life of endless blow jobs for Jake – a “happy ending” as it were (ha!).

This is yet another book from my Keeping Up With The Penguins reading list that makes it abundantly clear to me how little humanity has changed over time (see also: Dante’s The Divine Comedy). Nearly a century after its publication, I still recognise Hemingway’s descriptions of pre-gaming for the fiesta (akin to skulling Vodka Cruisers at home before jumping in the Uber to the club). All the men around Brett are just bitching about how they’ve been “friendzoned”, the way that angry young men do on the internet today. Technology might progress exponentially, and the new cycle might move ever-faster, but those same base urges come forth one way or another.

I think I’ll need to give The Sun Also Rises another read or two before I write it off completely. Another friend (who loves it) asked me what I thought after I’d finished, and (very gently) pointed out all the ways in which I was wrong. It has been critiqued to death, along with all of Hemingway’s other works, and a spot of Googling reveals all kinds of readings that I overlooked. Spoilers actually save the day with this one – it’s actually better if you know the history and the themes going in. The Sun Also Rises should really be appreciated as art, moreso than as a story in and of itself.

My tl;dr summary would be this: it’s a self-indulgent story about drunk Americans and Brits trying to fuck one another and ignore their existential crises in Spain, whinging and bruised male egos galore. Proceed with caution.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Sun Also Rises:

  • “Of course I’m missing the point. Literary scholars be damned. This one was just a lot of drinking and yapping away about seemingly insignificant things. The title, I can only surmise, refers to those drinking nights that extend until, you guessed it, the sun rises.” – 3MAT3
  • “I tried to like it. I was in Pamplona and San Sebastian. 20 years ago, and 15 years ago, and 10 years ago, and 2 weeks ago, I started it. I couldn’t stand it. Nothing is worse than a writer penning a story about writing. The book is a cliche. And, Hemingway was a wimp. He drank wimpy drinks. Mojito? Bellini?” – Duff
  • “good writing, no use of pointless big words, not all of us went to harvard, hemingway gets that.” – Lucas Rascon
  • “Easy to read. Mostly pointless – but I guess that’s the point.” – Stanley Townsend
  • “It’s a masterpiece. If you can handle all the drinking, the bitch called Brett, and a pain in the as s named Cohn. But, it’s a classic and Hemingway will at least teach you how to drink absinthe, if you’re too scared to learn his powerful and dangerous approach to descriptive prose, which I highly recommend, as it beats bullfighting for a living, or looking for a male meal ticket, at which Brett excels. Five obligatory stars. If you hated it, you have no soul.” – Pyrata

Save

Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde – Robert Louis Stevenson

I’m on a bit of a roll now, with books that have been turned into films, and – as it turns out – novellas written by dead white guys. This week, it’s Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde was published in 1886 (and, yes, the original publication intentionally and infuriatingly left out the definite article that would have made the title grammatically correct, ugh). Stevenson wrote the first draft in under three days, but then – the story goes – his wife told him it was shit, so he burned it and started again. He was (allegedly) coked up during the re-write, which probably wasn’t such a wise idea for a guy with a history of hemorrhages. In sum, Stevenson conceptualised and completed the work in less than ten weeks; it sold 250k copies in the U.S. by 1901, and achieved far greater commercial and critical success than the novel he spent five years perfecting, which just goes to show. Stevenson’s popularity declined hard after his death – his wife and son apparently went around publishing every half-finished scrap of work that they could find to keep the money coming in, which put a bit of a dent in his literary reputation – but that doesn’t seem to have deterred today’s fanboys and fangirls at all.

The fact that he pumped it out so quickly is not quite as impressive once you figure out that it’s only 66 pages long – closer to a short story than a novella. It’s the shortest undertaking on Keeping Up With The Penguins so far, and I’m pretty sure it’s the shortest book on my reading list for Keeping Up With The Penguins. I’m clearly a bit thick, because – even knowing how short it was – I was surprised that it was over so quickly!

That said, Stevenson managed to cram a lot into those 66 pages, and literary types continue to analyse Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde to death. The introduction to this edition (which is almost longer than the book itself) goes deep into a critical analysis. Apparently, a psychoanalytic reading of the text reveals that Stevenson had Daddy Issues. My eyes kind of glazed over once it started talking about his handling of metaphysical confusion… but then it turned to queer theory and the reading of Jekyll as a closet homosexual, and I was back on board! (Incidentally, I also learned that Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is the prototype of a sub-genre called “doppelgänger lit”, which is just so niche, I laugh every time I think of it).



So, the story: London lawyer Gabriel John Utterson hears a story about a creep named Hyde, who beat up a kid and paid the family off with a cheque drawn in the name of his mate Dr Jekyll. Utterson is a bit freaked out by that, because he knows that Jekyll recently rewrote his will to name Hyde the sole beneficiary. He figures Hyde is blackmailing Jekyll for reasons unknown; he asks a few nosy questions around town, but he doesn’t actually do all that much about it.

“‘If he be Mr Hyde,’ he had thought, ‘I shall be Mr Seek.'”

Hyde continues to stomp around London having a grand old time doing awful things, until he takes it too far and murders an actual member of parliament. Everyone is understandably upset. Utterson tries to get Jekyll to snitch on Hyde, but Jekyll tells him to fuck off. One of Jekyll’s doctor mates tells Utterson that he knows what Jekyll’s been up to, but it’s so bad that the poor prick literally dies of shock before he can spill the beans.

Jekyll starts acting really weird, and his servants freak out when they don’t see him for a few days; he’s apparently holed up in his mysterious laboratory, but they get it into their heads that Jekyll’s actually been murdered and an imposter is living there in his place. Utterson breaks in to Jekyll’s secret room… only to find Hyde dead on the floor, wearing Jekyll’s clothes. This seems strange, so Utterson finally gets around to reading the letter left behind by their dead doctor friend, and a letter-slash-suicide-note from Jekyll himself. Turns out, Jekyll had gone full mad scientist and found a way to temporarily transform himself into a degenerate alter ego so that he could indulge all of his sicko fantasies without besmirching his own good name… only he lost control, and couldn’t stop the transformations happening, so he offs himself in order to kill the monster. The End.



Unless you spent the 20th century (and then some) living under a rock, that “twist” ending won’t come as a shock to you. Still, I’d imagine at the time of publication it caused quite a stir. The biggest problem with a contemporary reading is that it’s really hard to enjoy organically when the “twist” has been part of the cultural zeitgeist for over a century. There have been at least 120 film and stage adaptations – I have seen exactly none of them, and yet I’ve still used “Jekyll and Hyde” as shorthand in conversation. Like Vader being Luke’s father, or Bruce Willis being a ghost, you end up reading this one as an academic exercise, picking apart the layers and metaphor rather than letting yourself get lost in the story.

That doesn’t mean there’s no fun to be had! I quite the queer reading of Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde – there’s lots of fodder in the imagery of Hyde standing over Jekyll’s bed, Jekyll having to atone for unspeakable sin, etc. When you look at it that way, you can see Hyde as a vehicle for the closet-homo Jekyll to indulge his vices without getting busted. (This was the end of the repressed Victorian era, after all.) Eventually, of course, Jekyll loses all control and his gay sex urge runs rampant – I love it!

Much like Wuthering Heights, there are so many layers to this story that the debate about Stevenson’s “true” meaning will probably rage on for another century yet. As I said, my preference is the queer reading, but I certainly wouldn’t begrudge anyone their own interpretation – there’s plenty to go around! I hear some folks read it as a commentary on Scottish nationalism versus union with Britain…

What I would say is this: if you assume you’re familiar with the Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and you don’t need to read the original, you’re really missing out. I’ll definitely read it again; I’m not sure it rises to the ranks of “recommended” here at Keeping Up With The Penguins, but it’s short and accessible and familiar enough to be enjoyed by almost anyone.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde:

  • “Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico. This is the best place” – mary gagliardo
  • “Not what I was hoping for. I was expecting less ‘Old English’ and more human struggle. Dr. Jekyll is trying to achieve something, but there’s no description of why. Mr Hyde was described as complete evil. Other than bumping into a kid and killing a man, what else has he done? I’m disappointed.” – Kevin Palmer
  • “Ending was abrupt, liked the musical more. Wish there was more detail in the murders and perhaps a love interest….” – Chanebradshaw
  • “Although it is fantasy, I couldn’t accept the physical change in size between Jekyll and Hyde, regardless of the symbolic intent.” – R. L. Riemer

Save

Save

Mrs Dalloway – Virginia Woolf

Ever-mindful of the gender imbalance on my reading list, I decided it was high time for a feminist writer to teach me some shit. My next selection was Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf.

The first edition of Mrs Dalloway was published in 1925 by Hogarth Press… which was (coincidentally, ha!) founded, owned and operated by Virginia Woolf and her husband. That’s one way to get published, fuck the haters!

Woolf was reportedly inspired by reading James Joyce’s Ulysses, though she wasn’t a fan. Writing Mrs Dalloway was really Woolf’s way of saying “Look, mate, here’s how you do it right!”. She mirrors the format of Ulysses, with both books taking place over the course of a single day, but in this case it’s a day in the life of Clarissa Dalloway, an aging Pommy socialite.

Having read the two introductions to Mrs Dalloway (two! plus a foreword!), going in I knew I could safely assume that (1) Virginia Woolf was brilliant, (2) Virginia Woolf was bonkers, and (3) this was going to be a really heavy read.



And holy smokes – “heavy” might not have been the right word, but it sure was something. I felt like a ping-pong ball bouncing around the inside of Woolf’s skull. It’s a “stream of consciousness” suitable for white water rafting. Woolf has us saying hello to a childhood frien-NOPE, we’re admiring a tree-NO WAIT, we’re reminiscing about a past lov-HANG ON, we’re buying flowers… on and on it goes.

I had no idea what the fuck was happening, not for a single moment. I re-read every sentence three times, and still couldn’t follow it at all. What I did manage to absorb I can summarise here in the form of a few Mrs Dalloway Fast Facts:

  • Mrs D is throwing a party
  • She feels old
  • She likes reading memoirs
  • She’s maybe a little bit queer…

That’s it.

There’s some peripheral guy she walks by in the park, Septimus. He’s shell shocked out the wazoo and it’s making his foreign wife miserable. He decides he loves life but hates doctors, so he throws himself out the window. Not a great end, all told. Septimus and Mrs D are the two primary characters, but they never actually meet – his suicide just features in the party gossip she hears later.



Yeah, it’s that kind of book – the kind that makes me feel extremely stupid. I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was Missing The Point the whole time I was reading it. The closest analogy I can come up with is that it’s like watching an episode of Seinfeld, but harder: you keep waiting for there to be a point or a plot, but none materialises. There’s no literal interpretation, it’s just layer upon layer of metaphor until you’re buried so deep you can’t breathe. And the best part is: according to the critiques I read online afterwards, Mrs Dalloway is a “much more accessible” version of Ulysses. So that’s the story of how Ulysses got demoted to the very bottom of my to-be-read list 😉

If I had to say what I got out Mrs Dalloway, it would probably boil down to the following: everyone is bonkers. You shouldn’t get married out of obligation. London is pretty. Women are brave to write letters without the help of a man. Teenaged daughters are annoying. Young women who wear party dresses that stop above the ankle will get called slutty behind their backs. Hosting a party is hard, especially when your girl crush shows up unexpectedly and the talk of the night is the shell-shocked veteran who topped himself. So, I guess, do with all of that what you will…

I would recommend Mrs Dalloway, wholeheartedly, to anyone who is far, far smarter than me.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Mrs Dalloway:

  • “This book was drier than a popcorn fart. What happened in it? It’s hard to say. A veteran killed himself and a bunch of stuffy old English people had a party. That’s the whole story in a nutshell…” – Harmony
  • “Self loathing non sense.” – Richard Gianelli
  • “Catcher In The Rye… as told by middle-aged English farts. The party! The party! Let us listen to an old farty woman stream her consciousness to us to hear, pointless thoughts that go nowhere. That’s pretty much this book in a nutshell. Very boring. Mrs Dalloway whines about not marrying Peter Clark, but Pete’s been in India for five years. I’m sure she would have been unhappy either way, marrying him or not, him leaving or not; all she does is party, chill with friends, and rinse & repeat. Ughhh.” – Allen

Save