Tag Archives: Wordsworth Classics

My Books of the Year – 2014

For me, 2014 was a year filled with great books, so much so that I’ve found it difficult to finalise a shortlist for this post. I read 101 books in 2014 – that’s probably too many although it does include several novellas – and very few turned out to be duds. My first pass at a shortlist came out at 24 books, but I’ve cut it down to thirteen, a baker’s dozen of favourites from my year of reading. These are the books I loved, the books that stayed with me, the ones I’m most likely to revisit one day.

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I’ve listed my picks in the order I read and reviewed them. I’ve summarised each one, but you can click on the links should you wish to read the full reviews.

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante (tr. by Ann Goldstein)

2014 was the year of #FerranteFever, and I ended up reading four books by this author: the first three in Ferrante’s series of Neapolitan novels and a standalone novel, The Days of Abandonment. It came down to a choice between the ferocity of Days and the breadth and scope of the Neapolitans. I’ve plumped for the latter and the first book in the series, My Brilliant Friend, which remains my favourite of the three. Set in Naples in the 1950s, it follows the friendship between two girls, Elena and Lila, and the different paths they take to escape the neighbourhood. A compelling story that captures the changing dynamics of the relationship between these two girls.

The Infatuations by Javier Marías (tr. by Margaret Jull Costa)

This was a reread for the 2014 IFFP-shadowing project chaired by Stu, and it’s the book that prompted me to start my own blog. (Stu published my review as a guest post at Winstonsdad’s.)

A man is stabbed to death in the street, but this novel offers much more than a conventional murder mystery. In Marías’s hands, the story becomes a meditation touching on questions of truth, chance, love and mortality. The writing is wonderful – philosophical, reflective, almost hypnotic in style. The Infatuations is my favourite novel from our IFFP-shadow shortlist, with Jón Kalman Stefánsson’s The Sorrow of Angels a close second.

Nada by Carmen Laforet (tr. by Edith Grossman)

Carmen Laforet was twenty-three when Nada, her debut novel, was published. It’s an amazing book, dark and twisted with a distinctive first-person narrative. A portrayal of a family bruised by bitterness and suspicion, struggling to survive in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War. A wonderfully evocative novel, a mood-piece that captures the passion and intensity of its time and setting.

Never Any End to Paris by Enrique Vila-Matas (tr. by Anne McLean)

An account of the two years Vila-Matas spent in Paris as a young and aspiring writer trying to emulate his idol, Ernest Hemingway. This is a smart, playful and utterly engaging piece of meta-fiction, full of self-deprecating humour and charm. Marguerite Duras makes an appearance too as Vila-Matas ends up lodging in a filthy garret at the top of her house. Huge fun and a favourite read from Spanish Lit Month.

Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner

This novel charts a deep friendship between two American couples over forty years. The story explores how these four friends cope with the challenges and setbacks they face during their lives; their struggles are the stuff of our everyday existence, but no less important or significant as a result. It’s an exceptional book – eloquent, graceful, wise and deeply moving. Stegner’s prose is simply wonderful.

The Slaves of Solitude by Patrick Hamilton

I loved this novel of life in a seedy English boarding house set in the grim winter of 1943. A spinster in her late thirties is trapped in a ‘death-in-life’ existence and subjected to petty bullying by the ghastly Mr Thwaites. The characters are pin-sharp, and Hamilton has a brilliant for dialogue. A dark tragicomedy of manners, I can’t recommend this book highly enough.

Cassandra at the Wedding by Dorothy Baker

Cassandra, a graduate student at Berkeley, drives home to her family’s ranch for the wedding of her identical twin sister, Judith, where she seems all set to derail the proceedings. This is a brilliant novel featuring one of my favourite women in literature. If you like complex characters with plenty of light and shade, this is the novel for you. Cassandra is intelligent, precise and at times witty, charming and loving. But she can also be manipulative, reckless, domineering, self-absorbed and cruel.  She’s a bundle of contradictions and behaves abominably at times, and yet she has my sympathies.

Where There’s Love, There’s Hate by Adolfo Bioy Casares and Silvina Ocampo (tr. by Suzanne Jill Levine and Jessica Ernst Powell)

This delightful novella is a playful take on the traditional country-house murder mystery where everyone’s a suspect. There is much to enjoy: the wit and charm of the writing; the eccentricities of the rather pedantic narrator; the playful nature of the narrative; the murder mystery at its heart. This is a book that never takes itself too seriously as it gently pokes fun at the mystery genre. A favourite read for Richard’s celebration of Argentinian lit.

The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton

Set in New York in the later 19th Century, this novel features Lily Bart, who at the age of twenty-nine remains unmarried despite her beauty. Lilly knows she must net a wealthy husband to safeguard her place in society and the lifestyle to which she has become accustomed, but she wants to marry for love and money. Lily is a fascinating character: complex, nuanced and fully realised. A great novel, fully deserving of its status as a classic.

All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque (tr. by Brian Murdoch)

Narrated by an eighteen-year-old German soldier fighting in WWI, this is a searing portrait of the suffering, desolation and futility of war. There is, however, a sense of universality to this story. The narrator could be any one of the terrified young soldiers sent to the front, desperately trying to get from one day to the next, never knowing what the future might bring. A deeply affecting novel, beautifully written; I wish I had read it many years ago.

Transit by Anna Seghers (tr. by Margot Bettauer Dembo)

A novel inspired by Seghers’ own experience as a refugee fleeing from Europe following the German invasion of France in 1940. Transit gives an insight into the bureaucratic maze and red tape involved in securing a safe passage from Marseille. It’s a haunting and unforgettable story with questions of shifting identity and destiny at its heart. Another standout read from Caroline and Lizzy’s German Literature Month.

H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald

On one level, H is for Hawk is the story of how Macdonald attempts to deal with grief by training a goshawk following the death of her father. On another, it captures a biography of the novelist T.H White and his misguided attempts to train his own hawk. The writing is excellent: vivid and evocative in its description of landscape and nature, informative and engaging on falconry and White. This is an intelligent, multi-layered and humane book. An emotional but thoroughly rewarding read for me, I had to pick the right time for this one.

The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford

A great novel featuring two mismatched couples, the Ashburnhams and the Dowells, The Good Soldier is a story of intrigues, betrayals and duplicity. It tells of the consequences of reigning in desires and of the damage caused when these desires are unleashed. As the narrator, John Dowell, tries to make sense of events, we’re left questioning his reliability. A fascinating book, superbly written. Each of the main characters is flawed or damaged in some way, and my impressions changed as I continued to read. One to revisit at some stage.

Also noteworthy (these are the books I agonised over): Bullfight by Yasushi Inoue; Speedboat by Renata Adler; The Beginning of Spring by Penelope Fitzgerald; Severina by Rodrigo Rey Rosa and Moon in a Dead Eye by Pascal Garnier.

So there we go, my favourite books from a year of reading and eight months of blogging – better late than never. Wishing you all the best for 2015, may it be filled with many wonderful books.

The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford (book review)

Ford Madox Ford opens The Good Soldier with the words: ‘This is the saddest story I have ever heard.’ The novel, written between 1913 and 1914, was originally called The Saddest Story, but given the political situation at the time, Ford’s publisher pressed for an alternative title (which came with its own problems). The original title might have been more fitting for a novel that features two mismatched couples, the Ashburnhams and the Dowells, for it is a very sad story indeed. It tells of the consequences of reigning in desires, of the damage caused when these desires are unleashed. It’s a story of intrigues, betrayals and duplicity.

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The Good Soldier is narrated by Dowell, who, as the novel opens, is looking back over the previous nine years. Dowell and his wife Florence are ‘leisured Americans’ living in Europe and spending the summer seasons in Nauheim, a German spa town. Here they meet and befriend Edward and Leonora Ashburnham, an English couple of a certain class. To all intents and purposes the Ashburnhams appear quiet and well-mannered; they are what Dowell believes the British would call ‘quite good people.’

By the time we reach the end of the novel’s first page, we learn that Florence Dowell is now dead, and there are hints of an affair having taken place between her and Edward Ashburnham – both are referred to as having ‘had a heart’ (this organ is an important recurring symbol in this book). What we don’t know is when or why Florence died. We can also assume Ashburnham is dead – use of the term had a heart’ indicates that he too is no longer alive.

Over the remainder of the novel, Dowell tries to relate the story of the two couples, but in so doing, he does not begin at the beginning. Instead, he imagines himself relaying the tale to a silent listener, going backwards and forwards in time over the previous nine or so years as one does when ‘one discusses an affair – a long, sad affair’:

One remembers points that one has forgotten and one explains them all the more minutely since one recognises that one has forgotten to mention them in their proper places and that one may have given, by omitting them, a false impression. (pg. 134)

As a consequence of this approach and shifting timeline, particular events (or characters) are introduced briefly or alluded to but not necessarily developed at the time. We assume these things are significant, but as our impressions are incomplete, we are left anticipating a return to the scenes in question. As the novel moves forward, our perceptions of events and the characters themselves shift as new information is revealed. We are constantly reflecting and updating our impressions.

I’ll return to how my impressions of the main characters changed in a little while, but Ford’s approach to the novel also conveys the feeling that Dowell is trying to make sense of both the story and the nature of relationships between men and woman in general:

And there is nothing to guide us. And if everything is so nebulous about a matter so elementary as the morals of sex, what is there to guide us in the more subtle morality of all other personal contacts, associations and activities? Or are meant to act on impulse alone? It is all a darkness. (pg. 32)

Dowell’s initial impression of Edward Ashburnham is that of an upright and honourable man, ‘exactly the sort of chap that you could have trusted your wife with.’ At various points in the nine years in question, Ashburnham serves in the army, is a county magistrate and landowner – he believes in the good of the community. But Ashburnham is also a sentimentalist – much is made of this description, it recurs repeatedly. And this, together with his naivety, leads to his undoing in two critical areas: affairs of the heart and affairs of a financial nature.

Ashburnham is attractive and having fallen out of love with Leonora within a year or two of their marriage, he embarks upon a string of affairs:

I had forgotten about his eyes. They were as blue as the sides of a certain type of box of matches. When you looked at them carefully you saw that they were perfectly honest, perfectly straightforward, perfectly, perfectly stupid. But the brick pink of his complexion, running perfectly level to the brick pink of his inner eyelids, gave them a curious, sinister expression – like a mosaic of blue porcelain set in pink china. And that chap, coming into a room, snapped up the gaze of every woman in it, as dexterously as a conjurer pockets billiard balls. It was most amazing. (pg. 42)

A short-lived dalliance with the ruthless mistress of a Russian Grand Duke, coupled with a brief gambling spree at Monte Carlo, results in near financial ruin for Ashburnham. As a consequence, Leonora takes control of the couple’s finances.

At first, Leonora appears patient, principled and outwardly loyal to Edward. But as the story unravels, we learn more of her character – a different side is revealed, and we understand how mismatched she and Edward are as a couple. Edward is a Protestant, Leonora a Catholic. He is too sentimental for his own good, rather foolish, a sucker for a poor cause and a pretty woman. Beneath her exterior image, Leonora is cold, unsympathetic and controlling. She is an individualist whereas Edward is more democratic, a collectivist.

Alongside her control of the purse strings, Leonora also attempts to dictate Edward’s amorous affairs. The way Leonora sees it, if Edward has to play away, he may as well do so with someone she approves of, someone relatively stable – if nothing else it prevents him from running loose. There are times when she hopes Edward will return to her, but she would rather keep him occupied with an acceptable mistress than have him behave promiscuously.

However, once the Dowells arrive on the scene, it’s not long before Leonora realises that an affair between her husband and Florence is inevitable. And she knows this will create trouble for the two couples because when Edward embarks on an affair, he falls long and hard:

With Edward it was fatal. For, such was his honourable nature, that for him to enjoy a woman’s favours made him feel that she has a bond on him for life. That was the way it worked out in practice. Psychologically it meant that he could not have a mistress without falling violently in love with her. (pg. 120)

Turning our attention to the Dowells for a few moments, they have marital troubles of their own. Dowell is a man of ‘solid and serious virtues,’ and after a year or two of marriage to Florence, he falls out of love with her:

She became for me a rare and fragile object, something burdensome, but very frail. […] Yes, she became for me, as it were, the subject of a bet – the trophy of an athlete’s achievement, a parsley crown that is the symbol of his chastity, his soberness, his abstentions, and of his inflexible will. Of intrinsic value as a wife, I think she had none at all for me. I fancy I was not even proud of the way she dressed. (pg. 79)

At first, Florence is portrayed as a fragile creature with a weak heart, but as with other characters, we learn more about her as Dowell continues his story. There is little she would like more than to take her place as a lady of the English county society, and she harbours hopes of installing herself at Bramshaw, the Ashburnham’s residence. Dowell readily admits that Florence is a riddle to him, and he remains ignorant of Florence’s affair with Edward for quite some time – she is a flirt and a good actress with it.

That’s as much as I’m going to reveal about the plot save to say that there are further indiscretions and intrigues along the way. The Ashburnhams young ward, Nancy, also plays a significant role in the story. (It’s quite difficult to discuss the key events without revealing spoilers.)

The Good Soldier is a truly great novel. Ford’s prose is superb, and his descriptions of characters and their gestures are simply wonderful. It’s a very controlled piece of writing. The novel’s structure and shifting timeline requires the reader to play close attention to the text as the story is revealed in waves. There is much for the reader to process and assemble, and it’s a book I’d like to reread to gain a better understanding of the different layers and connections in the story.

I’ve talked a little about how my perceptions of the characters changed during the course of the book. In the beginning, I had Edward Ashburnham down as a cad and my sympathies were with Leonora. However, as I continued to read, I found some of my sympathy shifting from Leonora to Edward. Ultimately, I thought of Leonora as a rather cold and manipulative woman. She seemed well-equipped to deal with normality, but her behaviour became extreme when faced with the emotional dysfunction and duplicity of those around her. Despite Edward’s failings, his hopeless naivety and foolishness, he appeared powerless to quell his sentimental nature. Each character has their own flaws.

Dowell, the narrator, is left questioning it all and we’re left querying his reliability. There’s a wonderful passage in the opening pages where he questions the loss of permanence and stability in the couples’ lives. They appeared to be living their lives like a formal dance, a minuet, knowing exactly where they should go and what to do in every possible circumstance. All dancing together in perfect time with not a foot or hand out of place. This was how their lives appeared on the surface, but behind the façade all hell was breaking loose.

I’ll finish with a quote that for me seems to capture something of the feel of this novel:

I call this the Saddest Story, rather than ‘The Ashburnham Tragedy’, just because it is so sad, just because there was no current to draw things along to a swift and inevitable end. There is about it none of the elevation that accompanies tragedy; there is about it no nemesis, no destiny. Here were two noble people – for I am convinced that both Edward and Leonora had noble natures – here, then, were two natures, drifting down life, like fireships afloat on a lagoon and causing miseries, heartaches, agony of the mind and death. And they themselves steadily deteriorate. And why? For what purpose? To point what lesson? It is all a darkness. (pg 123)

I’ve been reading The Good Soldier alongside Emma at Book Around the Corner (Emma’s review is here) and Max at Pechorin’s Journal (Max’s review is here). Both bring different insights to the party.

My copy of The Good Soldier is published in the UK by Wordsworth Classics. Source: personal copy. Book 4/20 in my #TBR20.

The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton (book review)

Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth is such a brilliant classic, I wasn’t sure if I would have anything to add to the multitude of reviews already covering this book, but in the end I decided to capture a few thoughts in this post.

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The novel takes us back to New York in the late 19th century where we meet Lily Bart, who at the age of twenty-nine remains unmarried despite her beauty. Lily spends much of her time with a wealthy society set, namely Judy and Gus Trenor, Bertha and George Dorset and other assorted players in the same social sphere. However, Lily is a woman of very limited financial means; she enjoys the finer things in life, but is conscious of the need to rely on the generosity of her friends in return for gracing their social gatherings with her beauty and charm. Above all else though, she fears the threat of poverty:

No; she was not made for mean and shabby surroundings, for the squalid compromises of poverty. Her whole being dilated in an atmosphere of luxury; it was the background she required, the only climate she could breathe in. (pg. 23, Wordsworth Classics)

Between visits to the Trenors at their Bellomont estate, Lily (an orphan) finds herself dependent on her aunt, the somewhat mean-spirited and passive Mrs Peniston. In order to secure her future, Lily knows she must net a wealthy husband, but Lawrence Selden, the man to whom she is attracted, has insufficient funds to support her desired lifestyle. Nevertheless, Lily is smart enough to see a potential end to her financial worries; she believes she can marry the prosperous Percy Gryce whenever she chooses and although she doesn’t love or desire him, she knows this move would relieve her of a heavy burden:

She would be able to arrange her life as she pleased, to soar into that empyrean of security where creditors cannot penetrate. She would have smarter gowns than Judy Trenor, and far, far more jewels than Bertha Dorset. She would be free for ever from the shifts, the expedients, the humiliations of the relatively poor. Instead of having to flatter, she would be flattered; instead of being grateful, she would receive thanks. (pg. 43)

At a fairly early stage in the novel, Lily seems all set to allow Mr Gryce to offer his hand in marriage. However, the reappearance of Lawrence Selden throws Lily off course at a key moment, prompting her to see her situation (and possible future life with Gryce) in a new light, one in which she envisages a desperately dull and boring existence despite the financial security it offers:

How dreary and trivial these people were! Lily reviewed them with a scornful impatience:

[…]

How different they had seemed to her a few hours ago! Then they had symbolised what she was gaining, now they stood for what she was giving up. That very afternoon they had seemed full of brilliant qualities; now she saw that they were merely dull in a loud way. Under the glitter of their opportunities she saw the poverty of their achievement. […] She closed her eyes an instant, and the vacuous routine of the life she had chosen stretched before her like a long white road without dip or turning; (pg. 49)

A small spark was enough to kindle Lily’s imagination, and the sight of the grey dress and the borrowed prayer-book flashed a long light down the years. She would have to go to church with Percy Gryce every Sunday. […] There was nothing especially arduous in this round of religious obligations; but it stood for a fraction of that great bulk of boredom which loomed across her path. (pg. 51) 

For a variety of reasons Gryce’s proposal of marriage never materialises, and this seems indicative of a certain aspect of Lily’s character; over the years she had squandered a number of opportunities for marriage in the belief that she could do better for herself. As Mrs Fisher, another member of the society set, comments:

‘…An Italian prince, rich and the real thing, wanted to marry her; but just at the critical moment a good-looking stepson turned up, and Lily was silly enough to flirt with him while her marriage-settlements with the stepfather were being drawn up. […] That’s Lily all over, you know: she works like a slave preparing the ground and sowing her seed; but the day she ought to be reaping the harvest she oversleeps herself or goes off on a picnic.’ (pg. 164)

In The House of Mirth, Wharton gives use a fascinating insight into the workings of this sector of American society at the time, a society in which appearances and others’ perceptions of one’s character are crucial. In fact in many ways, perceptions are more important than the truth in this rather cruel and unforgiving world. At an early stage in the novel, we learn that Lily must be seen to maintain an honourable and unblemished reputation for her to be fully accepted by society. She commits the indiscretion of joining Selden for tea in his rooms and when she bumps into Mr Rosedale (another player in the society set) on leaving Selden’s building, she invents a story to cover her tracks, one that Rosedale suspects is a white lie:

Why must a girl pay so dearly for her least escape from routine? Why could one never do a natural thing without having to screen it behind a structure of artifice? She had yielded to a passing impulse in going to Lawrence Selden’s rooms, and it was so seldom that she could allow herself the luxury of an impulse! This one, at any rate, was going to cost her rather more than she could afford. She was vexed to see that, in spite of so many years of vigilance, she had blundered twice within five minutes. (pgs. 13-14)

And it is other society members’ perceptions of Lily that ultimately play a key role in the narrative. Lily is drawn into playing bridge at the Trenors’ Bellomont estate, and as her gambling debts and expenses mount, she asks Gus Trenor to invest her meagre finances in the stock market. At first Lily believes her ‘investment’ to be a wise move as Trenor passes on the profits, but this transaction is far from transparent and Trenor clearly expects more than a little something from Lily in return for his efforts. As the ramifications of this episode unravel, Lily – through no real fault of her own – is once again at the mercy of the perceptions of others; a victim of scandalous rumours, ostracised and virtually abandoned by the society that once embraced her, she finds it increasingly difficult to establish a foothold in life. Lily realises that ‘a woman’s dignity may cost more to keep than her carriage; and that the maintenance of a moral attribute should be dependent on dollars and cents made the world appear a more sordid place than she had conceived it.’

That’s about as much as I’m going to say about the plot, but it’s a brilliant story and Wharton executes it perfectly – her prose is magnificent. There are so many additional nuances to the narrative that I haven’t even touched upon here, and I can see myself rereading the novel to revisit Lily at some point.

Wharton has created a wonderful character in Lily Bart, one of my favourites this year (along with Cassandra from Dorothy Baker’s Cassandra at the Wedding). Lily is a beautiful and fascinating creature, yet she is also frivolous and a little naïve despite her intelligence and wit. There are times when she doesn’t always make the best choice in life, but she seems to emerge with her own scruples intact. Ultimately though, she falls prey to the politics and conventions of society at the time and Wharton dissects this rather harsh culture with great skill, precision and candour. Bertha Dorset, another fully-realised character, is also worthy of a brief mention at this point as it she who plays a key role in Lily’s fall from grace.

Finally, I loved the dynamics of the bond between Lily and Lawrence Selden: their obvious attraction to one another; their knowledge that they cannot marry as Lily must find a wealthy husband; the role of chance and missed opportunities in their relationship. Interestingly, Selden is the one character in the book who is permitted to circulate in society, but also observe it from a distance. Here’s Lily as she studies Selden (at a time when she is still considering marrying Gryce):

It was rather that he had preserved a certain social detachment, a happy air of viewing the show objectively, of having points of contact outside of the great gilt cage in which they were all huddled for the mob to gape at. How alluring the world outside the cage appeared to Lily, as she heard its door clang on her! In reality, as she knew, the door never clanged: it stood always open; but most of the captives were like flies in a bottle, and having once flown in, could never regain their freedom. It was Selden’s distinction that he had never forgotten the way out. (pg. 48)

So there we are; a few thoughts on The House of Mirth, another one for my end-of-year highlights. Cathy at 746 Books and My Book Strings have also recently reviewed this book.

My copy of The House of Mirth is published in the UK by Wordsworth Classics. Source: personal copy.