Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad

August 3, 2013 at 19:00 (Book Reviews, Classic Literature, Fiction, Highly Rated Books, Literature, Magic Realism) (, , , , )




This is as difficult a book to review as it is to read. It has been mentioned elsewhere on this weblog what a rare pleasure it is to finish reading a book, and only recollect afterwards that one has been forced to overlook no clumsy grammar or contrived plotline, and forgive the author for no grave errors. We can talk about a willing suspension of disbelief: perhaps the time has come to talk about a willing suspension of criticism. Conrad is another of these talented authors for whom this willing suspension of criticism is unnecessary. His novel is brisk and rich in language and in detail. Heart of Darkness reads like a stone plunged into a calm pool: sudden, abrupt, harsh, and without apology. It is delightful to read, simply for the eloquent lavishness of the author’s pen. On that account, it is a very good book indeed.

“‘And this also,’ said Marlow suddenly, ‘has been one of the darkest places of the earth.'”

-Heart of Darkness

The structural conceit of the unlikely narrator regaling a boat full of dozy sailors with his tale is an uncertain prospect, and can seem like a vague annoyance when it crops up for a sentence or two at rare intervals; nothing else in the manner in which the book is laid out can possibly cause dismay. It is the story itself that seems a little unsatisfying, after a while. There is a heavy atmosphere of leaden inevitability, borne out stolidly and without much in the way of relief. Almost everything in this short story happens as if it were predestined, and happens very quickly at that.

“The horror! The horror!”

-Heart of Darkness

If the darkness is in a hurry to gobble the narrator and all his accomplices up, then it is in a greater hurry to belch them all up at the end. While there is a certain amount of dramatic tension, it all takes place so rapidly that there is really no time for the reader to either digest what has happened, or adapt to it. This is an important book, and deserving of its place in literary history. It is a pleasure to read, but not necessarily a pleasure to reflect upon.

Permalink Leave a Comment

The Quantity Theory of Insanity, by Will Self

October 27, 2012 at 08:15 (Book Reviews, Fiction, Magic Realism, Mediocre Books) (, , )


Patience is always required when reading compendia of short stories, especially when the author makes little effort to include closure or symmetry in his writing. This collection by Will Self is meandering and self-indulgent, dreary and dripping with a little too much pathos to be taken entirely seriously. Readers will often suspect that Self is trying to be funny, and will grow rather tired of constantly waiting for a punchline that never comes. The forced limitation of a short story is that the author must decide either to condense a story arc into an immensely tight space, or else simply dispense with traditional things like story arcs and characters, and lean closer to a stream of consciousness style, or at the very least a brief and uncontextualised snapshot of a scene. Privately, readers could be forgiven for wondering if choosing the latter again and again might not be a form of laziness.

Her face had the clingfilm-stretched-over-cold-chicken look of an ageing woman who kept herself relentlessly in trim.”

-The Quantity Theory of Insanity

This early offering is less gratuitously grotesque than some of Self’s other works, which makes it at the very least readable. Some of the stories contained here are paltry things that might be offered up at amateur fiction readings: Mono Cellular certainly fits into this category, being a short and superficially “insane” exploration into the mind of some housebound imbecile, and displaying none of the subtlety or intelligence that a writer like Will Self owes his readers as a matter of course. Others are markedly improved, such as The North London Book of the Dead and Waiting, both of which are written with strong elements of magic realism, ably carried off and the closest he comes here to writing something that does not sound terminally bored.

Therein lies the fatal problem with this book as a whole, in fact: boredom and ugliness. Self spends altogether too much time unleashing his formidable vocabulary in order to viscerally describe things that are as hideous and unnatural and contorted as possible, and things that are so utterly meaningless and nihilistic and starkly tragic, that it becomes difficult for the reader to avoid feelings of discomfort, and the sensation that the author is sneering at them, caricaturing them, and painting them with the same smutty brush he uses on his world. Possibly worth riffling through, but unfortunately its brevity is one of the things that recommend it.

Permalink Leave a Comment

The Once and Future King, by T.H. White

September 29, 2012 at 14:31 (Adventure, Book Reviews, Classic Literature, Fantasy, Fiction, Historical Fiction, Literature, Magic Realism, Mediocre Books) (, , , , )


An infuriating and disjointed recasting of the Arthur legend, yet one that has its own wisdom and its own profundity. The four books that make up The Once and Future King are strikingly different from each other, and narrative threads are picked up and dropped without any regard for the sanity of the reader. T.H. White has a habit of telling a character’s story avidly and with deep interest for a hundred pages, and then offhandedly remarking that so-and-so was killed in such-and-such an indistinguished manner. He jarringly veers between whimsical lyricism and darkly savage tragicomedy without warning, and he has a habit of inserting lengthy lists and parades of commas quite purposefully and utterly shamelessly into his prose, obfuscating honest attempts to snuggle into his story.

“It is generally the trusting and optimistic people who can afford to retreat. The loveless and faithless ones are compelled by their pessimism to attack.

-The Once and Future King

This is one of those books whose excellence is found principally in single-line quotations in which White demonstrates his keen intellect and fascinating insight, and also in the grand scope of tragedy as a whole. It is not a book that is enjoyable to read as a story, nor is it easy. Irrelevant tangents abound, crucial characters slip in and out of view, and White seems much more interested in slipping in philosophic observations than in structuring a novel.

Readers of fantasy looking for a comfortable world of sugarspun hamlets and parochial squires had better look elsewhere. Likewise, fantasy readers searching for dragons and wizards and knightly quests will not find satisfaction here. This is a grown-up fantasy book, which is to say it is bleak and merciless, and contains jewels of cleverness (though not always wisdom) sprinkled sparingly throughout. There are passages which show off T.H. White as a master writer, and passages which show him off as needlessly convoluted, or stylistically hamstrung. Appreciate it for its merits, and by all means underline passages; but to devote oneself to this book–to absolutely fall in love with it–seems to be a difficult task indeed.

Permalink Leave a Comment

The Metamorphosis, by Franz Kafka

May 16, 2012 at 11:34 (Book Reviews, Classic Literature, Fiction, Horror, Literature, Magic Realism, Mediocre Books) (, , , )


Whatever creature or vermin Gregor Samsa was truly transformed into in this dark and dragging novel, the stamina demonstrated by Kafka in pinning the entire story so claustrophobically inside the one location, in stolidly sticking with his sole absurd obsession and subject, was both an impressive feat and also a painful conceit. Just as Samsa’s nameless father dreads the room, so the reader grows to dread the pages of the book that offers little relief from the initial terrific premise.

It is a curious thing that when reading works of literature like this, even novice readers are expected to glean some meaning from the story (in contrast to the scorn that would be readily available for any reader trying to analyse a pulp novel, for instance). This sort of expectation can easily grow tiresome, and distracting. A first question ought not be “what was it about”, but “was it any good”. After all, newspapers are about some very interesting things, but are seldom any good. And The Metamorphosis? Certainly it had little of the breadth that The Trial offered, nor did it even offer the reader as much in the way of sympathy or false hope; but authors should hardly be compared only to themselves, and it would not be wise to compare this book too closely with any of his other books.

“Must the manager himself come, and in the process must it be demonstrated to the entire innocent family that the investigation of this suspicious circumstance could be entrusted only to the intelligence of the manager?”

-The Metamorphosis

Perhaps the real triumph of this book is that it is truly never dull, in spite of its inertia. Although it is not long, it is darkly brooding and fixed in one place, and the characters flow through the story like sand through an hourglass, once gone never to return. There is little that is familiar or gripping, except for the pen of Kafka himself (and of course his capable translators). This book is filled with entertaining and delightful interior monologues, which act beautifully as a showcase for Kafka’s poetic side, as well as his true acquaintance with the hopes and private turmoil of his hero. It might be said that this is a very good book, if not a very good story. Certainly worth reading, and fortunately not very difficult to manage. Kafka’s prose is its own reward, and his bleakness its own punishment.

Permalink 2 Comments

The Autumn of the Patriarch, by Gabriel García Márquez

March 24, 2012 at 22:41 (Book Reviews, Fiction, Highly Rated Books, Historical Fiction, Literature, Magic Realism) (, , )


Experimental literature is all very impressive, but seldom is it quite this good. If any readers doubted the abilities of Gabriel García Márquez to stretch himself further than the limits explored in his opuses, to revisit the brave and elaborate narrative structure of One Hundred Years of Solitude, with the constant and overlapping shifts in time and reality, this book will be more than sufficient as an answer. The Patriarch might be dead, to begin with, but Márquez thrusts himself deeply into the old man’s past and tangles himself so far into his life that when his death is reiterated at the end, it comes with a real pang of nostalgia and even surprise.

“…and then he half-opened the bedroom door and peeped into the audience room and saw himself laid out more dead and more decorated than all the dead popes of Christendom, wounded by the horror and the shame of his own body of a military stud lying among the flowers, his face pale with powder, his lips painted, the hard hands of a dauntless young lady crossed over the chest armored with military decorations, the showy dress uniform with the ten pips of general of the universe, a rank someone had invented for him after death, the king-of-spades saber he never used…”

-The Autumn of the Patriarch

The experimental sentence structure must be mentioned, if only to acknowledge its overwhelming success. Some of the sentences in this book stretch on for more than three or four pages, piling on commas (or ignoring them entirely) in a decidedly stream-of-consciousness style that still manages to move the narrative along, and still envelopes the reader in the storyline. Márquez is writing expansively, and probably even showing off a little, but he remains aware of his reader and never bloats his work with self-indulgent piffle.

Otherwise, what can be said? What can be expected? The story is as tragically sweet and delightful as anything else he has written. The focus does go beyond the Patriarch himself, but stays much closer to the one central character than in some of his other books that ostensibly centre around elderly men. Intricate character study, celebration of a villainous and heroic legend, deeply intriguing political commentary and sociological hypothesis, and most importantly, a thrilling and moving story. Its narrative scheme is obviously more pronounced than some of Márquez‘s other books, and has the potential to irritate, but considerably more potential to excite and delight. This book could be recommended to anybody, but certainly to anyone who has already fallen in love with the style of this master author.

Permalink 3 Comments

One Hundred Years of Solitude, by Gabriel García Márquez

October 18, 2011 at 15:01 (Book Reviews, Fiction, Highly Rated Books, Literature, Magic Realism, Romantic Fiction) (, , , , )


The worst news for writers in the world everywhere is that they almost certainly will never write a book as good as this one. One of the most marvellous things about One Hundred Years of Solitude is that after reading it, the world seems slightly grey and pale, like waking up from the most vivid of dreams. This is the sort of book that readers will stay up all night reading. This is the sort of book that will give readers the same dreams that the characters dream. This is the sort of book that readers will sit silently and think about after finishing. This is the sort of book that readers will begin all over again because of the wistfulness and the delight in memory and the staggering sense of a full and rich chronicle. This is the sort of book that readers will feel they have lived, and it will be a surprise to look up from the pages and realise that a hundred and twenty years have not, in fact, gone by since starting it.

“Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.”

-One Hundred Years of Solitude

It would be immature and churlish to say that this is the best book ever written, and certainly there are parts of it that are dimmer by comparison than the others. The story of Remedios the Beauty is somewhat palid compared to (for instance) the stories of Amaranta or Aureliano Buendia, and Gabriel García Márquez relies on sensuality a little too much (particularly with the story of José Arcadio), which is one of his enduring faults. The politics of the book are rather lofty, but readers do not need intimate familiarity with the Liberals and Conservatives and their bloody ravening of South America in order to enjoy this book.

García Márquez betrays himself as a mystic more in this story than in many of his other classic works, and it is this sense of a century- (or centuries-) long dream drifting past and ebbing and flowing back and forth in time itself that emerges as a principal flavour. He fixes upon certain words and motifs so regularly that they gradually become redefined according to his story (the eponymous “solitude”, for instance, or the cruel rains). His ability to subvert even the simple meaning of words, to take them and make them so intractably a part of his narrative, is astonishing. His characters are at once believable and multifaceted, even when they take the most fantastical and grotesque forms. Truly a master of the ensemble writing, there are at least a dozen characters who might be said to be the chief focus of this book, and two dozen more who will surely win fans, who will fight for them as personal favourites. As in the later work, Love in the Time of Cholera, his creations are shown aging and loving, dying and hating, evolving from young children to decaying patriarchs and matriarchs with a kind of graciousness and sweetness fascinating to behold. The author has utterly mastered the art of making a sad or even an unpleasant or devastating thing beautiful, and of making a lovely thing bittersweet.

This book ought to be recommended reading everywhere.

Permalink Leave a Comment

The Satanic Verses, by Salman Rushdie

May 8, 2011 at 21:49 (Book Reviews, Fantasy, Fiction, Magic Realism) (, , , )


Salman Rushdie may have a well-publicised issue remaining between himself and the Iranian government, but he has a deeper and an older controversy with an equally demanding institution: he happens to fall into that curious collection of writers who treat punctuation, formatting and other such conventions of English language as entirely optional. The words he writes are pots of paint, and it falls to him, the author, to decide in what configuration they ought to decorate the page. Certain writers who employ this method turn out unreadable classics that pain the eye; Rushdie manages to find a beautiful lyricism in his choice of words, turning them into phonetic sounds and a swelling chorus. If nothing else, this book is charmingly written, and both easy and compelling to read.

The various levels of the story, as it plunges between Gibreel’s dreams and past and present, is vividly appealing, and comic in the realism mixed with utter fantasy (allegory) and strange and mystical shapes. His characters are not so brightly coloured as to cause the reader’s heart to ache for them; they are perpetual players of the second fiddle to his convoluted and kaleidascope vision of gods and angels, and magical landscapes; and the book is not really about them so much as the motifs and questions that cocoon them.

These questions and ideas can be frustrating, offering as they do questions without answers, and few ready interpretations to the revelations that are unveiled. No simple morality tale, and few words of praise or censure to its fiercely dancing blend of protagonists and antagonists; but a remarkable story nonetheless, aesthetically told and with scarcely a dull page.

Permalink Leave a Comment