Friday, 28 November 2014

Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín: A Novel About Transforming Ourselves That's Inspired by Austen

Colm Tóibín is a writer I know a fair bit about yet have never properly read. Until now, that is (one of the great benefits of taught literature modules being that you must read writers you'd otherwise skate around).

When researching my blog article about novels set in Barcelona before moving there, Tóibín was right at the top of every Goodreads list or Guardian top-ten article. His non-fiction guide to Barcelona, Homage to Barcelona, is a book that I've meant to read (much like Orwell's Homage to Catalonia that the title nods to) but never got round to, despite some encouraging flicking through pages and browsing contents.

Perhaps this explains why I didn't make the link between the Tóibín who celebrates Catalan culture, and the Irish-born Tóibín who plays an integral part in my Irish literature studies. These two sides of the author seemed to be so different - such unlikely parallels in a way - yet finally drawing a line between the two has been fascinating. Reading Brooklyn (Tóibín's 2009 novel) was a wonderful experience to kick this off, and I'm enjoying all there is to learn about the author's multi-faceted, complex body of work.

But more about Brooklyn.

Brooklyn: A Novel About Transformation

The novel centres on Eilis Lacey, a young woman living in small-town Ireland in the 1950s - a space in history where opportunities were few, particularly for women. Eilis is quiet and completely lacks all assertion, particularly when standing against Rose: her confident, fashionable and sociable sister. However, with the help of an Irish priest from Brooklyn, Eilis is the one to make the transatlantic journey to America, not Rose. What follows is a beautiful story of self-transformation, the complexities of romance, and the realities of homesickness.

If you're often reserved and a little shy, or you struggle escaping your comfort zone, you will probably see something of yourself in Eilis. She is frustratingly passive at times, and all readers are likely to shout at her to just do something at one stage or another, but there's something very relatable about her. Having been accustomed to living in the shadow of her confident sister, Eilis's relocation to Brooklyn changes everything. She becomes the centre of attention (albeit a very foreign one), and after a period of homesickness and displacement, she starts to shape her own identity.

Eilis takes up an evening class in accounting, and retreats to her books at the end of the day. She also meets Tony, a loveable Italian who distances her character even further from the 'old Eilis'. However, her family ties pull her back to Ireland and we're left to see if her life in Brooklyn - and her new identity - can sustain itself. The plot is directly influenced by Tóibín's own time living in Barcelona during his twenties - a direct parallel with my own life that must have coloured my reading of Brooklyn in more ways than one.

Pride and Prejudice of the 1950s?

In the early stages of the novel, we come across a scene that alerts the intertextual senses of every keen reader. Eilis is at an evening dance, standing with a female friend, and they approach two men. George is warm and friendly, but his friend, Jim, is decidedly not: he is rude, dismisses her offer to dance, and creates a lasting impression as a character to avoid. That is, if you haven't read Pride and Prejudice. This is a Mr Darcy figure if ever there was one.

Connections to Pride and Prejudice can be picked up on throughout the book, although it's worth considering if Eilis really fits the bill as an Elizabeth Bennett figure. I'd like to think so, but it just doesn't seem like a comfortable fit. Do, however, look out for the Lady Catherine de Bourgh and the Bennett sisters.

Deciding to read more Tóibín: The South and The Master

Perhaps my newfound interest in Tóibín's writing will be confined to Brooklyn, although it won't hurt to read a few of his other novels before I make up my mind.

I'm currently reading The South (Tóibín's first novel that's set in Barcelona), which doesn't quite seem to have the same magic, but I haven't given up just yet. The Master - a fictionalised biography of sorts of Henry James - seems fascinating. Surely one of the most rewarding elements of reading is coming across a new author and delving into their body of work.

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Saturday, 8 November 2014

Reasons to Read Anna Karenina, Part 1: The Authenticity of Levin

I shared some thoughts on the introduction to Rosamund Bartlett's translation of Anna Karenina at the start of October, happy to have found a new edition of Tolstoy's classic novel. War and Peace has always seemed to win more of my attention, but I think that's largely due to the diversity of translations available and the rereads I've enjoyed. As a result, I'm so glad there's a new, exciting and high-quality translation of Anna Karenina available as an alternative to the standard Pevear & Volokhonsky found in most bookshops.

I began the book impressed by the introduction, and I'm enjoying it more and more as it progresses. Although it was quite difficult to get used to, I'm appreciating Bartlett's dedication to the original Russian. It's not always pretty and it's often repetitive, but it's accurate, and Bartlett somehow manages to convey a wonderful sense of beauty at the same time. I'll write more about this as I get on with my reading.

Now that I'm in the midst of the novel, I'd like to share a series of posts - focused on the Bartlett translation - encouraging you to give it a go too. This week, let's celebrate one of the most-loved characters of the novel: Konstantin Levin.

Domnhall Gleeson as Konstantin Levin in Joe Wright's adaptation of Anna Karenina

What's so special about Levin?

1. He's innately good, as opposed to so many others in the novel

Levin strives to achieve worthy goals and be a good person, and on the whole he succeeds. He's an idealised figure for Tolstoy, as he becomes for many readers of Anna Karenina, and he's a wonderful character to watch develop.

Hypocrisy in whatever guise can deceive the cleverest and most perceptive person, but the dullest of children will recognise it, however artfully it may be concealed, and be repelled. Whatever Levin's faults, there was not a shred of hypocrisy in him, and so the children displayed to him the same friendliness they found reflected in their mother's face.

2. Yet he's not at all perfect

Levin's story of transformation is a central part of the plot, and we see him progress from an anxious, awkward and confused young man to a happy and settled husband and father. The first part of this story is perhaps the most interesting, and we realise that Levin, just like all of us, has flaws. As one example, we can consider his inner dilemma about how to deal with his troubled brother:

A battle was going on in his heart between the desire to forget now about his unfortunate brother and the recognition that this would be wrong.

3. He feels anxious and self-conscious, although we realise he has no reason to

Levin, like Pierre in War and Peace alongside Tolstoy himself, experiences nerves like the rest of us. In the early stages of the novel, we see him trying to cultivate calm in front of the beautiful and kindhearted Kitty Scherbatsky:

He walked along the path towards the skating-rink, saying to himself: ‘You mustn’t be nervous, you must calm down. What’s the matter with you? Be quiet, stupid!’ he told his heart. But the more he tried to calm down, the more breathless he became.

However, it's not just love that evokes anxiety and self-consciousness in the character:

‘Yes, there is something loathsome and repellent about me,’ thought Levin as he left the Shcherbatskys and set off on foot to see his brother. ‘And I don’t fit in with other people. Pride, they say. No, I don’t have any pride. If I did, I wouldn’t have put myself in such a position.’

4. Tolstoy shows us how he struggles in society

Levin is most at home in the countryside, mindfully turning the hay or roaming his estate with his hunting dog. City life, however, brings out a frantic and unsettled side to Levin:

Whenever he arrived in Moscow, Levin was always agitated, frantic, slightly awkward, and annoyed by this awkwardness and, more often than not, came with some completely new and unexpected way of looking at things.

5. He sees the good in others

Levin isn't just good in himself, he also has a positive outlook that allows him to appreciate the good in others. When Stiva laments that Levin has "everything ahead of [him]" while he feels hopeless, Levin responds, "Surely you don’t have everything behind you?" Levin is a good friend and quick to find a positive instead of a point to criticise: something I know I should remember.

This even extends to Vronsky, Levin's rival standing in the way of his affection for Kitty:

There are people who, when meeting their victorious rival in whatever arena it might be, are immediately ready to turn their back on all that is good about him and see only bad things; and then there are people who, on the contrary, take pains to locate in this victorious rival the qualities with which he defeated them, and who, with an aching heart, look only for good things about him. Levin belonged to the latter category.

Can you relate to Levin and feel inspired by his transformation, as I do? Alternatively, does his character frustrate you slightly?

To all fellow fans of Anna Karenina, what do you love most about the novel: character, theme, or otherwise?

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Saturday, 1 November 2014

Family Life and Karen Joy Fowler's We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves

I wanted you to have an extraordinary life.

- Rosemary's mother, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

Often when I find myself in a reading slump, reading too many academic, heavy books is to blame. When it comes to my favourite authors (ahem, Tolstoy), reading is still a joy, but when it comes to books I need to read for some reason or another, I often end up struggling (the Spanish plays from the 1800s I'm reading for university come to mind). The remedy? An exciting novel I can immerse myself in for a few days.

After I kept seeing the bright yellow cover of Karen Joy Fowler's (Man Booker shortlisted) novel We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, I wanted to see if this was the book for me to be reading. Although it took me a few weeks to start, when I did, it didn't take long to finish, and it successfully got me back into reading again - for fun.

However, rather surprisingly, the novel was nothing like I thought it would be. I picked up the book because I'd been seeing it everywhere, and I like to give a few novels selected for The Man Booker longlist and shortlist a go. I didn't know that the author wrote The Jane Austen Book Club, or that she often wrote science fiction or fantasy.

I'd worked out that the novel was about sibling rivalry - an exciting prospect - from a few glances at the back cover, but I had no idea about the book's central theme. I didn't even give the epigraph from Franz Kafka's "A Report for an Academy" a second thought (although I'll admit I haven't read the short story!) Here's the summary I'd read:

As a child, Rosemary used to talk all the time. So much so that her parents used to tell her to start in the middle if she wanted to tell a story. Now Rosemary has just started college and she barely talks at all. And she definitely doesn’t talk about her family. So we're not going to tell you too much either: you'll have to find out for yourself what it is that makes her unhappy family unlike any other. Rosemary is now an only child, but she used to have a sister the same age as her, and an older brother. Both are now gone - vanished from her life. But there's something unique about Rosemary's sister, Fern. So now she's telling her story; a looping narrative that begins towards the end, and then goes back to the beginning. Twice.

Now, if at this stage you are planning to read the novel, and have not read any detailed reviews (as I had not), I'd recommend you approach it blindly. Pick up the book when you have a few hours of uninterrupted reading time, and see what you think of it. You may be put off slightly by the revelation that arises perhaps a third of the way through the book (I must check the accuracy of this), or you might be intrigued.

For me it was a mixture of both. The novel quickly became something I could relate to (haven't most of us with siblings experienced rivalry at some point?), and I could see some of my own awkwardness yet love for learning in the protagonist, Rosemary. I was keen for this to develop further, but the revelation put a bit of a stop to it.

However, the plot turn did make for very interesting reading. I was grappling to understand the implications on the wider plot, which Rosemary in fact decides to start "at the middle", and my reading pace must have at least doubled at this point. How could the novel possibly end? Regardless of the unexpected big reveal, the central theme I was expected remained: family.

There are countless relationships and friendships at work in this novel, and none remain static. The oft-quoted first lines from Anna Karenina (more on Bartlett's new translation next week) that "All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way" comes to mind here, and Tolstoy surfaces at various stages in the novel. Keep a look out for these! However, it's a very individual, yet relatable, depiction of family life. Rosemary struggles to find her place in her family, but does reach a sense of clarity, identity and purpose in the novel's closing pages.
Read it and have a think about your own life and ties to others.

That's all I'm going to say about We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves. Give it a go, allow Rosemary to tell her story in the way she chooses, and keep your mind open. If I could only give one reason to read this book, this quote would be it:

One day I found a note he'd left for me inside The Fellowship of the Ring. He knew I reread that trilogy often; he knew that the day would come when I'd need the consolation of the Shire, which was as much like Bloomington, Indiana, as any place else in the world.

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