Sons and Lovers – mixed reviews

It should come as no surprise that our members occasionally read a book considered canonical that generates divergent opinions. Sons and Lovers by D. H. Lawrence had strong advocates and strong detractors at the Austin Athenaeum. I suppose this puts us in good company; from the first day the book was published opinions about it and about Lawrence himself have been widely varied.

One British reviewer gives the book the consolation of being “A bad book by a very good writer.” Readers can apparently become quite animated by the frequency with which Paul Morel is found smelling flowers. Ford Maddox Ford, an influential figure on the newer writers of Lawrence’s generation and a friend of Lawrence himself, famously said of Lawrence’s earlier novel The White Peacock that it had “every fault that the English novel can have,” although he believed Lawrence to possess true literary genius. But don’t take it too hard, Dave. Other writers of acknowledged genius such as Victor Hugo and Charles Dickens are nonetheless criticized for their literary flaws even while enjoying the highest acclaim and universal gratitude of their readers.

Let’s just get everything out on the table. Perhaps it is idiosyncratic to his Nottinghamshire, lower class coal miner upbringing, but more than a few readers have fretted about how characters profess to “hate” one person or another. More problematic, but nonetheless noticeable and dragging on the narrative, are the occasional segments where Lawrence falls to telling instead of showing, multi-paragraph sequences consisting of bland statements and explanations punctuated by non-sequiturs. These prosaic episodes are perhaps pardonable after the reader has enjoyed a longer segment displaying Lawrence’s more habitual brilliance with words.

His abilities may also compensate, in the minds of many readers, for the somewhat mystifying psychological quagmire of the main character Paul Morel that prevented him from finally being satisfied with the most amiable and seemingly obvious love interest at hand, Miriam, a wet dishrag of a person. To say nothing of Clara, his other sometime lover, the fiery, voluptuous, suffragette. Though it is perhaps not stated explicitly, there can be little doubt that his romantic pathology is the result of the unhealthy codependent relationship with his mother. His final complaint with Miriam was that she didn’t make him “spiritual”, that as he says, “you love me so much, you want to put me in your pocket. And I should die there smothered.” Why can’t Paul settle down, we wonder. Something of the plight of the artist I suppose is in Paul’s destiny: seeking transcendence, he is nearly paralyzed in almost every, and especially the traditional and romantic, relationship (except his mother, of course).

I’ll not linger on the dreary observation that Lawrence was vilified in his day for his pioneering depiction of sexual situations. Exploding contemporary mores, he was accused of being a “pornographer who had wasted his considerable talents.” I say dreary because we can find Lawrence’s use of sex somewhat tame by today’s standards. And then simultaneously one wants to say to the prudish critics of Lawrence’s day, Wait til you see the 21st century.

This review is tending strongly to the negative aspects of the book, it is true. It would be well to mention a few positive qualities appreciated by all. Lawrence truly does have a great skill with with the written word. His characters and setting are realistic and well-described, and interesting to read about. I appreciated how the presence of physical abuse by Walter against his wife Gertrude, while alarming, doesn’t overwhelm the story. And though its reputation for sexual trailblazing may have long since become quaint, I for one appreciate a writer who can write more openly of one of the most natural human functions in the world. And it was still done, by today’s standards, with considerable discretion, largely “off camera” as it were.

I’ll end by relating the observation of our reading group that there was not a single purely admirable major character in the book, including Paul Morel, a quality not unheard of, but still unusual, and perhaps in keeping with Lawrence’s realism. Just 30 years earlier, pessimistic writers like Thomas Hardy gave us stories such as Tess of the D’Ubervilles, an idealized, irreproachable and tragic character beset by the cruelties of fate. Mark Twain was delighting readers while making poignant cultural commentary with Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn. But Joseph Conrad was also starting to spin his dark tales of human failure and brokenness. The modern period was looming and by 1913 Lawrence could summon a story mired in coal dust, awkwardly haptic and hairy, unsatisfied, unfulfilled, a literary interruptus, with a cast of characters alternately violent, insolent, selfish, peevish, arrogant, overly meek, oblivious, or possessed of any number of other flaws, while speaking authentically to the growing generation of lost modern souls. Lawrence’s fiction spoke in the vernacular of the 20th century, and foreshadowed the decades to come. It unquestionably influenced the trajectory of literature. And that is a singular accolade on top of a great literary voice.

Morrison channels Faulkner – Song of Solomon

If some among us were lukewarm toward Toni Morrison before, having read only Beloved, virtually all became enthusiastic fans after reading Song of Solomon and the discussion last Saturday.

Our first book by Morrison had mixed reviews by our group, though still mostly positive. Nevertheless, I think some felt a little too much black-oppression-in-your-face about Beloved that compromised the pure enjoyment of the book. Song of Solomon, however, was free of ‘black angst’ as someone put it, and permitted us to simply relish the book, marvel at the similarities to Faulkner and gain a strong, new respect for Toni Morrison.morrison2

We quickly observed her use of names: Milkman, Pilate, First Corinthians, Magdelene called Lena, Guitar, Hagar, Hospital Tommy, Railroad Tommy, Empire State. The surname ‘Dead’. We also enjoyed the setting – an unknown Michigan city, and Morrison’s own home state.

Her ability to weave together multiple symbols we found purely magical. She took us through a common human journey, the quest to find one’s identity and history. In the case of Milkman Dead, it was a history that was lost as it is for many black people who were given new identities by institutions and careless white administrators. Events and dialogue had an unsettled, slightly vague and quirky feel at times, again in a vein similar to Faulkner or Flannery O’Connor. Artifacts such as the peacock, the bones in the bag, and the cave were delightful puzzles to try and solve.

We discussed in the most detail the scene with Circe in the old decrepit house, the love scene with Sweet, the nature of Guitar and the “Seven Days'” vengeance against injustice. And right out of the gate, we started wrestling over the meaning of the ending – did Milkman die? Jump off a cliff? Was he shot by Guitar? Did he really fly away? And why did Morrison end the book that way? The most obvious link is to the opening scene where Robert Smith is jumping from the roof of the Mercy Hospital. And of course, Milkman’s great grandfather Solomon is said to have flown to Africa, to an even earlier, richer history. But the question of the ending was never settled.

We agreed that Morrison’s talent as a writer is immense, her achievements are of the highest order (Nobel, Pulitzer, Presidential Medal of Freedom) and that she deserves all the accolades she has received.

The book for May is Peter the Great, by Robert Massie (link in last month’s post).

June’s book will be The War of the End of the World by Mario Vargas Llosa. Some will be surprised to learn that this book is not science fiction but historical fiction, about the War of the Canudos in late 19th Century Brazil. I’m guessing the title is the exaggerated description of the experience of those in midst of the conflict. And, its not a short book – over 500 pages – but online review describe it as highly interesting and hard to put down.

Percy goes dark

One way to describe the impressions of Walker Percy’s book Lancelot is to say that it seemed to be an example of how not to be, how not to conduct the search for meaning in the cosmos, how not to react to the craziness of the modern world.

Lance murders several people and burns down his house, and could be said to have been so reckless as to have has suicide in mind as well.

And he didn’t get the girl in the end, at least not to our knowledge. In fact, he seems to have offended her seriously enough by underestimating her mind that she refused him. But we are left with reason to hope that she will return and meet him wherever he plans to go (Virginia?) to start his new revolution.

Everyone loved the book. No nay-sayers this time. Although one potential nay-sayer was out of town for this meeting, so we don’t know.

Whoever’s book this was needs to send me their essay/notes or whatever you have so I can post it with the others. And if there are other members who have old essays that need to be put up for posterity, please send them to me. Thank you

Next book: Song of Solomon, by Toni Morrison

Last meeting of our 13th year

IMAG0330The reading for last night’s meeting was the oft-nominated “Camus Triptych” consisting of The Stranger, The Fall and The Myth of Sisyphus.

Close to record attendance with total count approximately 15 strout-hearted bibliophiles who endured soldiering on as the cold front blew in shortly after we began. Because it was the belated gift-exchange month one of our merry band brought a bottle of Knob Creek and some plastic cups. The bottle was emptied.

Discussion swirled around what Camus meant the reader to understand by the characters in his fiction. Only a little time was spent actually discussing Camus’ brand of Existentialism, and the spoken opinions about it ranged from fundamental disagreement to mild sympathy to the sense that it is a “dated” philosophical system. See Dr. Mack’s eloquent and informative essay in the sidebar.