At the end of August…

Since another month is fading into that strange and distant land called the past, I declare it time for another book round-up post! Woo, and a mighty hoo.

I’ll start with The Screwtape Letters (although not really, as you’ll see). Let me preface this by pointing out two things: I absolutely adore The Chronicles of Narnia, and I have a deep and abiding distrust of religion. Add to that the fact that I actually rather enjoyed The Screwtape Letters and you have a situation which appears a little contradictory. I feel like a sort of Narnia apologist (in both senses of the word) sometimes, because whilst I can see (and indeed saw as a child too) the Christian symbolism and clear religious message which is both implicit and explicit in the series, it does little to dull my pleasure in reading the books again and again. I suppose it’s partly because Lewis’ portrayal of Aslan-as-Christ represents a very specific (and almost odd) version of ‘muscular’ Christianity which doesn’t necessarily call up all of the things which I normally associate with religion/Christianity, simply because its somewhat out of the ordinary. Mostly though I think that although Lewis obviously became a devout Christian in later life, he was influenced by his long period of, if not quite agnosticism, indifference. He treats Christian theology as he treats other mythologies (Greek and Mesopotamian, for example)- something full of beautiful ideas and images which are ripe for the plundering when creating a fantastic and fantastical world.

I have far more problem with the blatant racism and lack of religious tolerance in the books, especially The Horse and his Boy and The Last Battle. The sexism actually isn’t as rife as you’d expect (although a clear distinction is made between male and female roles especially in the earlier books), but something that does really irk me is the random unexplained dismissal of Susan in The Last Battle. It’s declared that she’s no longer a friend of Narnia because she likes nylons and lipstick, and whilst this snarkiness is kind of likable (especially when you’re a solemn six year old) it doesn’t really seem fair to her. Susan could be a slightly annoying character (and she’s been even more castrated in the screen adaptations) but she wasn’t by any means portrayed as a bad person. I think that if Lewis wanted to narrow the number of these ‘friends’ down to the magical number seven he could have at least had the decency to include a scene in which Susan rejected Narnia rather than just shoehorning the point in. Perhaps she also ought to have been given a chance to redeem herself too, after all Edmund and Eustace are both given that opportunity and their crimes seem worse than developing a taste for make-up (although that certainly would have made an interesting sub-plot).

All in all I do still really enjoy the series (The Magician’s Nephew and The Voyage of the Dawn Treader are special favourites), which is why I had an urge to investigate some of Lewis’ other writing. The Screwtape Letters, letters from a senior demon to a junior one giving advice on how to secure a man’s soul, seemed like a good place to start. It’s a fun, satirical read- and Lewis created a really interesting ‘Lowerarchy’ of Hell, as well as elucidating the existence of ‘The Enemy’ outside of linear time. There’s a lot of wonderful detail- I loved Screwtape detailing how the friction that exists between people who live together and end up grating on each other’s nerves constantly can be taken advantage of. I feel almost guilty for reading it “wrong” however, giggling delightedly at Screwtape’s tale of dragging a man in the British Library away from potential religious salvation by making him focus on his grumbling stomach. I also like that Lewis stuck to the idea of having demons (or often an individual demon) scrabbling for an individual’s soul, rather than giving in to some Apocalyptic vision of people en masse being corrupted incredibly simply (although Screwtape does suggest that this could be an achievable aim).

The book does contain some important points which I broadly agree with too. Firstly it mocks religious people who focus on the wrong things- on being disgusted by the irreligious nature of others, for example. That’s a point I can get behind. Secondly it points to the dangers of over-subscribing the Historical Point of View, and basically the consequences of trying to destroy the concept of morality. Thirdly, the really bitter tirade against the stupidity and problems of the world (most prominently contained in ‘Screwtape Proposes a Toast’ but also evident in the letters itself) is brilliant. Lewis eloquently rails against the way political ideology and religion are misused, and his rant about how the term ‘democracy’ is used incorrectly, and could in fact be abused to perhaps bring about the demise of human excellence, is truly fantastic. Screwtape’s parody, ‘If they were the right sort of chaps they’d be like me. They’ve no business being different. It’s undemocratic’ and the argument about intelligent pupils being fettered by the ‘democratic’ education system read like they could have come straight out of Atlas Shrugged. In fact since The Screwtape Letters is essentially a monologue advocating a viewpoint that I don’t wholeheartedly agree with makes me think that they might have more on common than the surface, and the mere fact that I enjoyed them both, suggests.

The next book I read, Wide Sargasso Sea (which I’m going to attempt to discuss without recourse to words with ‘post’ prefixes) was also a choice inspired by a book that I’d loved as a child. I now feel that I may need to re-read Jane Eyre because I want to closely look at the portrayal of Bertha (beyond ‘crazy’). I find that re-examining childhood favourites can be a bit of a double edged sword. On the one hand I’m always intrigued by whatever insights I can glean, but sometimes these can be uncomfortable. For example, I found the suggestion that Alice in Wonderland was filled with drug references delightful and fun, but the idea that it was inspired by a paedophilic obsession seemed somewhat less pleasant. So whilst I was eager to read Wide Sargasso Sea I was also really hoping that it didn’t trash the original work too much. I love Jane Eyre as a romantic tale (and of course I adore the tempestuous Mr Rochester), but I also love it as a story about a strong female character surviving against the odds, having the courage of her convictions and not allowing any of the men in her life to control her.

I’m glad that Wide Sargasso Sea doesn’t detract from that, in fact it doesn’t really deal with Jane at all. Although it paints Rochester in a somewhat negative light, the book isn’t unfair to him- the main point is the sorrow caused by a lack of understanding. What Wide Sargasso Sea does is turn ‘Bertha’ (i.e. Antoinette Cosway) into a sympathetic, but also deeply troubled, composite character instead of just a caricature. This isn’t done with a dislike of Jane Eyre or Charlotte Brontë in mind, it’s merely addressing a perennial problem- the presentation of a one-sided view. I don’t think that Wide Sargasso Sea ought to be seen as an outright prequel to Jane Eyre, as others have pointed out the timelines don’t actually accurately meet up but I don’t think that that’s particularly important. Personally I just don’t think that Rhys intended Wide Sargasso Sea as a straight-up prequel, it’s a reimagining of the life of ‘Bertha’, and as such it’s a the tragic tale of a woman. That woman could have been the deranged one in Mr Rochester’s attic, but I don’t think that’s the most interesting part of the story- in fact it’s probably the least important. I only really had one gripe with this book in the end, it was too short.

I said I was swearing off stories told in the first person, but I think I’m going to have to retract that because On The Road was awesome. I was feeling a bit wary about reading it after my disappointment with The Catcher in the Rye (they’re somehow tied together in my head), but I loved pretty much every second of it. Obviously the character of Dean Moriarty is a big draw, so brilliant that he achieved legendary status for Sal before they even met (thanks to his amusing letters). I was a little bit in love, along with Sal, with this hyperbolic, bullshitting, constantly sweaty maniac who apparently split his youth equally between the pool hall, prison and the library. The story wasn’t quite what I expected- yes they do spend quite a lot of time actually on the road, but not in the way that I envisaged. I thought that it really was a road book and that most of it would involve Dean and Sal’s roadtrip(s). Whilst that does become a large part of the story, these trips come in varied forms (the first consists of Sal hitchhiking solo) and form a chain of journeys which are interrupted by periods of semi-settling in various cities. I think I had misconceptions about the drug use in On The Road too. Yes, drugs are certainly there, but that’s just how they’re treated- as something which happened to exist, not as something to be glorified excessively.

Although Dean is this wonderful, vibrant character he’s also a bit of a cunt. You can completely appreciate why he is, but I think that in many ways Sal is actually a much more interesting character- he’s not merely passionate but compassionate too. The narrative style is excellent, switching between relatively straightforward descriptions (which somehow manage to sound frantic most of the time even when they’re about the most banal things) and reality filtered through beautiful, poetic language which casually tosses in literary and philosophical references. Maybe it’s because of Sal’s compassionate nature that he becomes so obsessed with Dean, there’s this brilliant moment in the book when he realises that he’s let slip something terrible: that he thinks about him. Dean fascinates him; fills his thoughts. It’s not a one-sided thing, they have a real friendship and often it’s Dean who makes plans for them or turns up on Sal’s door step (indeed he’s really shocked when the tables are finally turned and Sal appears at his door in the middle of the night). However, Dean is filled with a burning passion for just about everything, and although Sal shares this to an extent (or perhaps he just attempts to?) he is somehow more grounded.

I don’t think that I need to point out the barely submerged homoerotic subtext of this book. What makes the book even more interesting for me however is that it is loosely autobiographical. I don’t think that Kerouac fell into the trap of just writing his own life (possibly since he was rebelling so hard against that idea), and this isn’t just a series of amusing anecdotes. It’s a full-fledged, compelling novel. It just so happens that he created a narrator with a voice not unlike his own (and really, who doesn’t?) and, like everyone else, he wrote what he knew. In this case that was mostly Neal Cassady (but also Allen Ginsberg, William S Burroughs and so on). It’s the kind of thing that makes me never want to attempt to publish fiction, because like Brennan in Bones or Jack in Desolation Angels (detailing Cassady’s unexpected visit on the day that the advance copies of On The Road arrived) you’d eventually have to face those people you used as your inspiration, and just have to hope that you could look them in the eye.

My copy included possibly the best and most useful introduction I’ve ever read (although I didn’t read it until after finishing the main text of course). It included excerpts from some of Cassady’s letters, and you can understand why Kerouac was so delighted with him. He had this fresh (and incredibly funny) writing style, which Kerouac either shared or emulated to an extent. I can completely understand why Kerouac shifted from trying to invent characters and situations to mould his idea of a ‘road book’ around, here was a wonderful character complete with plenty of hilarious happenings ripe for the plucking. On The Road definitely encapsulates something very different to (the also enjoyable) The Great Gatsby. Fitzgerald’s writing belongs to a completely different world and time, and whilst The Great Gatsby is full of jazz and liquor it seems really stilted compared to the novels of the Beat generation. I can understand why Kerouac was rather dismissive of writers like ‘Fitz’ and Hemingway.

I’ve always liked the word ‘beat’, it’s one of those wonderful words that conjures up a whole host of associations. It can mean: literally to hit or strike, to completely batter (or beat up), to punish, to defeat, to have been defeated, the rhythm of music, to tap out that rhythm, the flapping of wings, to be better than, to throb, a moment of time, someone’s usual section, to retreat… etc. One word which I never directly associated with the word ‘beat’ however, was beatific. Kerouac imbued his idea of Beat with this joyous, religious concept. This is why one should probably beware of religious types (and can we please all take a minute to enjoy the fact that the Great American Novel was written by not only a Catholic but the child of French-Canadian immigrants whose first language wasn’t English?), they’ll sneak God in whenever they find an opening. Here, with Dean as the holy man and later holy ‘goof’, it does work well however.

Some commentators have complained about the racial sentimentality expressed in the book, but it actually didn’t annoy me that much. I took it as a depiction of Sal (and Dean’s) loneliness, and longing to belong to something larger. I felt that most of the time this sentimentalism was a little tongue in cheek. What I did have a problem with was the fact that the novel was a little too comprehensible. I know that that sounds like an insane criticism, but it’s just that the book often seemed to be threatening to go off onto completely mad tangents, but then never quite achieved it. I think that if Kerouac had been allowed to publish the book that he really wanted to (i.e. madder, with the characters displaying their proper real life names and the sexual relationship between ‘Carlo’ (Allen Ginsberg) and ‘Dean’ (Neal Cassady) being explicit) it could have been even more brilliant.

I hear that there’s to be a film adaptation (although I think that this is once more in the safe “one day” way, rather than “to be released in 2009!”), and I have to say I’m very dubious. Whilst a screen version could perhaps capture the characters and their interaction as well as the energy of the book, much of what I truly loved was Sal’s introspection which I really doubt that a movie could properly show. Instead of a straight adaptation I think that most fans of the book can honestly enjoy something which was in part inspired by it and self-consciously borrows from it (occasionallyeven with the sexual tension between the ‘brother’ characters). Yes I am talking about Supernatural. Alright the characters’ respective ages are reversed, but there’s still Dean being beautiful, sex-obsessed and constantly hungry- followed by his descent into self-destruction. There’s still Sam hero-worshiping Dean, occasionally being a pissy bitch but mostly just radiating love and compassion. There’s still a gorgeous car which is basically the third character (certainly in the beginning of the show), although there’s a few moments of hitchhiking or Sam renting weird ugly cars too. I wouldn’t be too surprised if someone out there has done the maths, but I’d bet that an analysis of the show would find that minus time spent in motels, the Impala or engaged in fights the Winchester brothers actually split their time pretty equally between playing pool in bars, being intimidated by (or impersonating) officers of the law/prisoners/prison guards and researching (mostly in libraries).

Even though On The Road left me with a desire to immerse myself in Supernatural I plowed on with reading instead (after all lugging my laptop to work is too much effort, and anyway I’m worried that if I re-watch season one it’ll start feeling dirtybadwrong to be perving on baby Jared Padalecki).

The next book which I read (and enjoyed) was Camus’ The Stranger (I’d still rather listen to The Lovecats than Killing an Arab though). I have a vague recollection of reading… something or other by Camus for one of those interminable theory courses, but I’d never read any of his fiction. The Stranger (or The Outsider) is a short but interesting book, following the narrator, Mersault, from the point of his mother’s death. I found Mersault to be a fairly likable character, he doesn’t quite know how to properly interact with people yet he’s honest and pleasant. He’s not emotionless about the death of his mother, he just isn’t a wailing mess either. However his honesty and stoicism are later used against him when he’s in court after killing a man ‘because of the sun’. Instead of being tried for the murder, he’s basically punished for the crime of being terrible enough to place his mother in a home (where he seems to have genuinely thought she’d be happier) and for not showing appropriate sadness at her funeral. The judge and others are also appalled by Mersault’s lack of remorse for the murder, and for shooting the body after death, but as he points out, do these apparently terrible things actually matter? They don’t have an effect on the main outcome: Mersault killed the man.

My copy is a more recent ‘American’ translation of the French novella. I understand what Ward means when he says that Camus was influenced by the American style (especially Hemingway’s), and that short, stacatto sentences suit said story (as alliteration always applies à Anne apparently). I can also see that, especially for an opening sentence, ‘Maman died today’ and ‘Mother died today’ have slightly different resonances (although I do think that replacing ‘Maman’ with something like ‘Momma’ would be an acceptable alternative). However I really do think that the point can be stretched too far, although slightly different translations of the same sentence or paragraph can create subtly different meanings in the end (as long as they are translated reasonably well) they will convey the same idea. I certainly wouldn’t argue against the point that American and British English are different (as are other regional variations) since I seem to spend half my time translating back and forth between the two, so of course translations done by a Brit and an American would end up being somewhat different. So too would translations done by people of different ages though, or those from disparate regions within the same country. If you want an incredibly precise understanding of what the author intended to say there’s really no alternative to reading the work in the original language, especially as there are bound to be concepts which have no direct translation.

I do believe that I mentioned Hemingway somewhere in that. How fortuitous. The Old Man and the Sea was the first Hemingway I’ve ever read, and I have to say that I wasn’t overly impressed. Maybe it’s partly because the title reminded me of a brilliant short story by Daphne du Maurier called ‘The Old Man’ which I’d have preferred to re-read instead. I don’t think that The Old Man and the Sea is a bad book, and it does actually have flashes of entertaining brilliance, it’s just that if I’m in the mood to read a detailed account of fishing I’d much rather read Coming Up For Air. I also found the random Spanish interjections to be incredibly annoying. I don’t need it to be pointed out to me that a Cuban fisherman thinks in Spanish, that he thinks of ‘the sea’ as ‘la mer’ and ‘bone’ as ‘hueso’ rather than as their English names. Either write the whole thing in Spanish or shut up. To be fair I did find the distinction between thinking of the sea as la mer and el mer vaguely interesting, and it gives a neat little example of concepts which can’t be translated well into English. I didn’t particularly dislike Hemingway’s style the way that a lot of people (including Jack Kerouac) have, neither was I particularly enamored with it though. I’m willing to give him another try and am quite interested in reading For Whom The Bell Tolls because I have a special place in my heart for anthing pertaining to the Spanish Civil War. If it’s dull I’m going to be very unimpressed however.

I was honestly surprised by how much I enjoyed The Jane Austen Book Club since I wasn’t all that impressed with the film. Most of the book was written in the first person plural which was a little jarring to start with especially since the narrator wasn’t identified. Somehow it did work though, and gives the reader a sense of being intimately placed at the meetings along with all these characters. The characters in the book are much better than in the movie- they’re more interesting, older and (wonderfully!) much more realistic. Instead of just being annoying, they’re annoyed by each other all the time- aware of, and mostly forgiving, each other’s faults and quirks the way that real friends do. The character whom I found most irritating in the film, Bernadette, got on the other characters’ nerves all the time, yet she did have some honestly shining moments. I really liked the fact that everyone was more likable (and Grigg was instantly more acceptable) when everyone was slightly fuzzy and drunk, I think it’s a fairly realistic portrayal of much social interaction!

There was certainly more in-depth analysis of Austen’s work in the book than the screen adaptation, although I could always go for more. The parallels between Fowler’s and Austen’s characters weren’t drawn so explicitly (or perhaps not so crudely), and when they were it was often pointed out self-consciously by the characters, but not in a way that beat the reader over the head with the point. There were some truly wonderful observations that just wouldn’t have translated well on film, such as the tiny paranoia that Bernadette could be an alien in the wake of the Northanger Abbey discussion. That being said I do think that the film did include a couple of good scenes that weren’t in the book- such as pushing Prudie’s almost-affair with her (gorgeous) student, especially because her blurring of reality and fantasy echoed her mother’s lies to her, and Grigg’s gothic decorations for the Northanger Abbey discussion.

It is clearly a ‘pomo’ novel, but not in a way that’s jarring or unpleasant (it takes care not to upset the sensibilities of its characters as much as anyone else). It’s kind of hard to understand how a novel which is mostly about six other (relatively similar) novels works, and I doubt that it would be all that interesting to someone who doesn’t already love Austen. It’s hard to explain what’s so good about Austen’s writing, especially if people already have preconceived notions that she mostly wrote about dancing and houses. Certainly she did write great romances, but I think what I really appreciate about her is her creation of strong, interesting characters who tend to play breathtaking verbal tennis, as well as her creation of ridiculous, bumbling characters who fail to understand what’s happening around them and get satirised so completely but often so subtly that it can easily be missed. Austen’s wry style is wonderful, and can really leave you guessing as to her actual meaning. Mansfield Park is an odd one too, I really enjoy it but it’s hard to put my finger on why. On the surface it’s a fairly stuffy, moralising tale about a Puritanical heroine winning out against the rest, but truly it is so much more. Maybe I just love it for the ridiculous characterisation of the aunts and Mary Crawford’s sarcasm.

I wasn’t aware that Karen Jay Fowler was also a science-fiction writer, but it does certainly make sense. I need to read more sci-fi written by women, I think I’m going to end up re-reading some Ursula le Guin stuff… Fowler included a list of questions from the perspective of the six main characters at the end of the book, some of which are a little dull but some of which are truly brilliant, for example Allegra “asks”,

“In The Jane Austen Book Club, I take two falls and visit two hospitals. Did you stop to wonder how a woman who supports herself making jewelery affords health insurance? Do you think we will ever have universal health coverage in this country?”

Not only does this raise an interesting point (setting aside the irritating use of the phrase ‘this country’) it points to how ready we are to suspend our belief for the sake of the plot. Being alerted to this oversight doesn’t make me like the book any less, but it does make me like the author more. She also included the responses of various people (including Austen’s family) to the novels, many of these were interesting but often, frustratingly, included only a glib phrase or amusing comment about a small point rather than a real commentary. At least it’s provided me with a long, long list if I feel like reading more on Jane (and indeed her Janes).

The next book that I read, Dune, was rather different to the previous six, although there is of course room for a tenuous segue since Fowler is indeed a writer of science-fiction too. What united these first six books I read post-Atlas Shrugged was that they were all very easy to read, my eyes were gleefully skipping along the page as I devoured the material. Most of them I read very quickly, the last three in a day each (squished in around working and living). Dune wasn’t really the same, it’s not the kind of book that you can absorb quickly all at once. It’s a wonderfully crafted story and certainly a brilliant work of science fiction (even I, who has never seen a Star Wars movie can see where Lucas stole some of his ideas), but to me it has that slightly draining association that most sci-fi has for me. If I close my eyes and think of Dune or The Day of the Triffids I see drab, rusty colours, whereas if I think of fantasy I either see something bright and vibrant or glowing hints amidst darkness.

Dune seems that it might falls into that annoying trap of science-fiction right from the beginning, creating an interesting world but not providing enough explanation to avoid confusing all but the most alert and avid reader. This could easily be worsened by the fact that at the beginning of the novel the Atreides and their retinue are in the process of leaving their home world of Caladan for the mysterious planet Arrakis. However Herbert somehow gives suficient detail to give an understandable explanation of these circumstances (and much more), whilst maintaining a sense of mystery as well as dropping some subtle hints and clues of what’s to come along the way. I was gratified to find that when I read through the appendices and glossary I actually had a good understanding of everything. I have to admit that I was cheating a little since I have already seen the original film. It’s a wonderful, confusing mess though and doesn’t necessarily provide the clearest path to understanding the novel of the same name.

The book provides some very interesting ideas about politics and ecology, as well as incorporating elements from various religious and mythological sources to construct its own unique belief system. The idea of the Bene Gesserit breeding program is chilling but enthralling, as is their use of the Missionaria Protectiva to manipulate people’s religious beliefs to fit their purpose whenever it may be useful. I do find the idea that the majority of people are too stupid to, for example, even posit a connection between the spice and the worms a little ridiculous I have to say. Some of Paul’s (and Jessica’s) apparently “amazing” knowledge and insight is shown to be a careful construction. Paul and Jessica constantly take advantage of their knowledge and abilities to almost ‘dupe’ people, including their friends and allies.

Due to their training and experiences Jessica, Paul and Alia (as well as other characters to greater and lesser extents) tend to not show or explore their emotions. I don’t consider this to be a flaw since it makes sense within the context, however it can make them difficult to identify with and care about all that much. So whilst it is certainly a very interesting, inventive story it doesn’t necessarily have the resonance that it could have. I’m interested to read the next book in the series, and if I enjoy that I’ll aim to carry on.

I don’t have an extremely big problem with the depiction of women in this book and Jessica, Chani, Harra and Alia are all certainly portrayed positively (and Irulan is to an extent too). Even Paul is considered to be so powerful because he embraces his feminine side in a way that other men cannot. The use of Bene Gesserit women as brood mares of the state isn’t treated as an acceptable or desirable thing (Paul is repulsed by it), it’s an illustration of the tactics that these high-powered groups are prepared to use. However I could have happily done without the dull gender norms; men take and women give and blah blah blah. Also if there’s going to be a cliché evil Baron with a taste for pretty young boys (including Paul who is, unbeknownst to him, actually his grandson- because what’s sci-fi without some wacky space incest?), I think there ought to some positive representation/s of homosexuality too. If I’m going to insist on reading books written by men between the 1920s and 1960s I probably shouldn’t complain too much though.

The book that I’m currently reading, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, is shockingly modern in contrast having been written in 1982 and published two years later. It’s the first book by Milan Kundera I’ve read because I’m terribly behind the times and I hardly ever read best sellers/’modern classics’ (that aren’t by authors that I already adore anyway) unless the book happens to be pressed into my hand, or comes highly recommended. I’ve also got the excuse that it was actually published two years before my birth in this case, so I can’t really have been expected to have been paying attention.

I have to say that I almost gave up on this book after the first page (which is something I very rarely do, in fact I don’t think that I’ve ever actually done it, I almost always pursue a book to the end unless it happens to be Adam Bede). The first thing that bothered me was the Nietzsche reference in the very first sentence. I don’t have a problem with Nietzsche, but university has equipped me with a healthy distrust of people who are overly-fond of quoting him, and starting a novel with the idea of eternal return seemed beyond pretentious. The second thing that irritated me was the ambigous tone in the statement,

“We need take no more note of it than of a war between two African kindgdoms in the fourteenth century, a war that altered nothing in the destiny of the world, even if a hundred thousand blacks perished in excrutiating torment.”

I’m glad that I stuck with the book though because I’ve actually been really enjoying it, and although I’ve been eyeing it suspiciously I haven’t seen any evidence of racism. Not only does it tell an interesting story in an inventive way (jumping around in terms of point of view and the timeline) it uses some techniques which I really adore. The use of dream sequences is powerful, and the breaking of the fourth wall (if the phrase can appropriately be applied to novels?) is playful but also allows some serious topics to be discussed. I find Kundera’s asides about language interesting, particularly his comparison of ‘compassion’ in Romance languages (and English) with the subtly different meaning that it has in Slavic and Germanic tongues. I also like the frank, and yet somehow sweet, examination of the sex lives of his characters.

Although I am enjoying it, I do sometimes find it to be a little patronising and know-it-all. I often get irritated with books that purport to tell me philosophical ‘facts’. Kundera also uses techniques that I find common in DH Lawrence, but they’re somehow more irritating here- perhaps it’s because Lawrence has a more whimsical style? For example, it’s fairly common for Lawrence to make a statement such as ‘He loved the grass’ (although probably somewhat more eloquently) in a way that suggests that the character loved the grass in general and always. This will then be followed by a lengthy explanation of how the character loved the grass in that moment fully and extremely, and is fairly likely to be contradicted a few chapters later when said character realises that he actually hates the grass for convoluted reasons that relate to his mother. I don’t usually mind the way that Lawrence presents contradictory statements in the form of absolutes because he makes clear that the characters feel these things to honestly be absolutes at that time, and may not even be aware of the existence of any contradiction. I think that that’s an accurate portrayal of something that real people do. However when Kundera does a similar thing it doesn’t quite work, perhaps because he does seem to be dealing with philosophical absolutes, and also because he mocks his characters a little too much.

I am certainly enjoying the book very much, and am quite certain that this bowler hat thang is a reference to Magritte. And a sign that I need one.

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