Hopkins’ Spring


Nothing is so beautiful as Spring––
When weeds, in wheels, shoot long and lovely and lush;
Thrush’s eggs look little low heavens, and thrush
Through the echoing of timber does so rinse and wring
The ear, it strikes like lightnings to hear him sing;
The glassy peartree leaves and blooms, they brush
The descending blue; that blue is all in a rush
With richness; the racing lambs too have fair their fling.

What is all this juice and all this joy?
A strain of the earth’s sweet being in the beginning
In Eden garden.––Have, get, before it cloy,
Before it cloud, Christ, lord, and sour with sinning,
Innocent mind and Mayday in girl and boy,
Most, O maid’s child, thy choice and worthy the winning.

In honour of spring, I let Hopkins do the talking. Continue reading

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Oh, Bolaño

Someone, subscribe to this on my behalf? The Paris Review intend to serialize Bolaño’s The Third Reich (a posthumous publication, allegedly abandoned to finish 2666).

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A Little Rustle, a Scurry, a Hop

This is the single most beautiful use of parentheses I have ever seen:

Josephine repeated, ‘Cyril says his father is very fond of meringues.’
‘Can’t hear,’ said old Colonel Pinner. And he waved Josephine away with his stick, then pointed his stick to Cyril. ‘Tell me what she’s trying to say’, he said.
(My God!) ‘Must I?’ said Cyril, blushing and staring at Aunt Josephine.
‘Do, dear,’ she smiled. ‘It will please him so much.’

From Katherine Mansfield’s short story ‘The Daughters of the Late Colonel’. It goes with the story that it is written mostly in free indirect style, which essentially means that the narrator refers both the dialogue and thoughts of the characters, filtered through his voice. (Wikipedia describes it this way: ‘It is as if the subordinate clause carrying the content of the indirect speech is taken out of the main clause which contains it, becoming the main clause itself.’ And people wonder why I am not a grammarian.)

Which is what makes this parenthesis – ‘(My God!)’ – so beautiful. It stands out as a break in the reported dialogue; the narrator breaks in to report what Cyrill thinks of the proceedings. The reader cannot rightly know whose outburst this is, but I imagine it is Cyril’s. And because it is the only break in the reported dialogue, it is all the more powerful. It is said that Mansfield was the only writer Woolf ever envied, and I do, as well.

On a related note, The Millions report that Paravion Press print post-card sized short stories, meant for mailing. They have a new edition of a Mansfield short story for Valentine’s Day.

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A Literary Love Story

I do not usually care for love stories, I prefer them tragic if at all and I cannot stand happy endings. But that of Amanda Palmer and Neil Gaiman is lovely. They mention it occasionally, both of them, but these two blog posts are my favourites so far: Gaiman talks about how his father died, schedules, tomatoes and bananas, and Amanda under cover of her new song ‘Map of Tasmania’, tying it to their story and mostly leaving out the song. I suppose I can pretend to love it under cover of interest in intertextuality.

Go read.

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Plot is the Novel’s Heartbeat

On Chesil Beach is so, so elegant. And terribly short, only 166 pages in my paperback copy. It is really only two scenes: Florence and Edward’s wedding night, and what follows.  The narrative is laced with flashbacks that explain how they ended up at a hotel in Dorset, newly married and very worried.

But the base – or centre – of it, is their hotel room, Florence and Edward sitting opposite each other, waiting to go to bed. Edward can’t wait, Florence dreads it.

I hesitate to call it a novella; the proper definition escapes me and I’ve misplaced my Dictionary of Literary Terms. But it is not a full novel, the scope is too limited.  It reads more like an experiment: a modernist’s take on a moment, expanded and heavily edited, the details polished till they gleam. An examination of how one moment permeates the rest of the main character’s life. Edward is the main character, really. Though we get insight into both their minds, he is the one we come closest to. It’s Edward’s story we are told.

‘They were young, educated and both virgins on this, their wedding night, and they lived in a time when a conversation about sexual difficulties was plainly impossible. But it is never easy. They had just sat down to supper in a tiny sitting room on the first floor of a Georgian inn.’ (p.3)

McEwan described plot as the novel’s heartbeat at a reading. There is no plot here, not really. But he uses tension very cleverly to create the need to turn pages. And he breaks off at crucial moments to torture his readers with digressions. When Florence and Edward move into the bedroom, we get to the edge of the bed before we are cut off. Part two starts with a statement much like the one that opens the novel: The narrator breaks out and speaks directly to the reader. ‘How did they meet? And why where these lovers in a modern age so timid and innocent?’ (p.37)

He also said that he would like to create the perfect first page, the page that no reader over the age of 16 could fail to turn. He doesn’t do that here, I’m sure it is possible to put down. The opening page, however, draws you in, and foreshadows the outcome, as well as mirror McEwan’s style throughout.

The most elegant thing, beside the structure, is his transitions. By way of an emotion, he jumps off into a memory from an action. While it is a digression, it doesn’t feel forced or unneccessary. And it contributes to the building tension.

This is written in free indirect style, which means that a narrator recounts for the reader what happens, from the point of view of the characters. It gives the narrative a duality: we are privy to the characters’ reflections, through the narrator’s account. The reader is presented each scenario twice, from both Florence and Edward’s point of view. Free indirect style is one of my favourite things to read. I love the distance between the narrator and the subject, the opportunities it grants the writer to summarise, and break into the narrative. I love the complicity of the narrator and the reader. McEwan’s free indirect style is always beautiful.

I see McEwan’s fiction as a continuation of the modernist tradition, like most current literary fiction. I’ve seen him called postmodernist repeatedly, and I disagree. But I will get into my thoughts on modernism and postmodernism later, it deserves a post of its own.

On Chesil Beach reminds me of Atonement; the moments leading up to the point of no return, the crucial point delayed, the examination of events in retrospection and finally the confession, or rather, in this case, the realisation that he regrets it. It ebbs out into a hasty summary following the events of the book, and quits on a very Atonement-esque note of regret.

I have to include the author’s note in the back:

‘The characters in this novel are inventions and bear no resemblance to people living or dead. Edward and Florence’s hotel – just over a mile south of Abbotsbury, Dorset, occupying an elevated position in a field behind the beach car park – does not exist.


In conclusion, On Chesil Beach is good, but not superb. It is elegant, enchanting, even, but not challenging. Read it and enjoy it for what it is: a well-written story.

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The Very Long of It

Some sort of introduction or explanation is, probably, in order. The short variety is that I am a literature student who needs somewhere to clear her head. I read a lot, and think far too much.

Part of the of the purpose of this blog, is to articulate my reading. Why do I dislike formalism? Why do I think ‘theme’ is a useless construction? How do I read? Why is it fruitless to call a narrator ‘unreliable’?

I study English literature, and that is really what I’m best at. Modern English literature – primarily literary fiction –, some current Norwegian and the occasional classic. I like the Russians for their emotions. And read mostly that elusive genre, literary fiction. And I like to read exhaustively, exploring an author’s ouevre. Bolaño, McEwan, Nabokov, DeLillo.

As for critical theory, or school, I dislike structuralism, and all the branches that stem from it. Am fascinated by modernism, postmodernism, decadence and fin de siècle, intertextuality, experiments.

I have something of an intuitive approach to literature. I enjoy complex sentences, long words and difficult novels. I am fond of narratology, if anything. But gave up reading books for their plots long ago. I appreciate beautiful writing.

There are, however, at least to varieties of imagination in the reader’s case. […] First, there is the comparatively lowly kind which turns for support to the simple emotions and is of a definitely personal nature. […] Or, and this is the worst thing a reader can do, he identifies himself with the character in the book. This lowly variety is not the kind of imagination I would like readers to use.  (From Vladimir Nabokov’s essay “Good Readers and Good Writers”, in Lectures on Literature)

I largely agree with Nabokov’s views on literature. In particular that good readers do not read to identify with the characters, but to appreciate them. I do not read to like, or fall in love with, the characters, but to be fascinated by them.

This is what I set out to do, I look forward to seeing what it turns into.

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