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Review: The Trial by Franz Kafka

The Trial by Franz Kafka book cover
The Trial (1925), Der Proceß in the original German, is Franz Kafka’s claustrophobic story of one man fighting an unknown charge through a labyrinthine court system. On the morning of his thirtieth birthday, banker and bachelor Josef K. wakes to find his usual morning routine disrupted by two men who appear in his room and place him under arrest for an unspecified charge. It is a strange arrest not only for the lack of information but also for the lack of restraints it places on K.’s freedom, for he is allowed to go about his business without any obvious impediment while preparing to fight his case. As he embarks on a quest to identify the substance of the charge against him and to prove his innocence, K. is pulled through a court system whose processes are no less obscure than the nature of the charge laid against him and whose hearings take place in the attics of ordinary people. Unable either to contest or dispel his charge, K. becomes increasingly frustrated as he pursues one dead end after another, lawyers and advocates of the court repeatedly failing him and forcing his position into near stagnation. The reader follows K. as he flounders desperately in a world bereft of the crucial information that will shed light on his condition and shares his sense of hopeless inevitability as K.’s fate rolls slowly into view. Full of symbolism and laced with paranoia and helplessness, The Trial is a horror story of incontestable charges and the powerlessness of the individual.

There are, broadly speaking, too ways of approaching The Trial as a novel: either by assuming that the events and characters described are projections of K.’s mind, or that everything is as described and external to K. Most readings will fall into one of these two camps, the former being a smaller, more intimate portrait of a mind coming apart, and the latter a larger, more political reading. Both approaches offer fertile ground for discussion and that the novel can be read in various different ways only adds to its sustained appeal. Although impossible to encapsulate all potential readings in a review, I will attempt here to give a flavour of some of the more common ideas about the novel.

To take a literal approach firstly, The Trial can easily be read as a brilliant evocation of the totalitarian and authoritarian police states that scarred the twentieth century, before they had even come to prominence. In attempting to uncover the details of his crime, K. is shunted from one absurd bureaucratic process to another in a plot of circumlocution that exposes the power of self-sustaining organisations that have grown to serve little purpose other than to maintain their own existence. All information, all responsibility, is deferred and for K. it is impossible to get the centre of things, the substance at the heart of his case (also an indication of the metaphorical truth K. seeks). The complete power that the court system holds over K. while affording him no substantial information eerily foreshadows the totalitarian regimes that Orwell would later critique in Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Kafka challenges the idea of the law as being just, and as being more than an abstract ideal but something that has an effect on the daily lives of members of society. The court which administers the law is run by humans and thus the application of justice is perverted by human failings. In all, Kafka’s conception of the law is a grim picture of corruption and unfeeling bureaucracy. Just as K. is given little to no information about his charge, neither is the reader. One thing that does become apparent through K.’s attempts to find out more about his case and contest the charges, however, is that K. is fairly promiscuous, taking every opportunity to seduce the women he encounters. As one of the few things the reader learns about K. through the course of the novel it would appear that this is significant. Yet, if innate sexuality is frowned upon by society then condemnation is, in effect, for the masses. It is possible, then, that K.’s charge in some way relates to his conduct, which might, hypocritically, be looked down upon by ‘polite society’.

The novel paints, too, a rather dim view of city life and the modernising of society that, rather than improving life, has seen people grow apart, living in cramped spaces, their lives homogenised into a bland existence that appears to lack any significant measure of free will. For members of the society, policed by the court, a willingness to be absorbed into the whole is expected and any act of self-assertion is deemed unacceptable. K. therefore exists in a state of isolation from which he has no means of escape and is pulled increasingly into a state of inferiority and paranoia.

Moving onto a more metaphorical approach, this state of paranoia allows for a psychoanalytical reading of the novel. It is on this level that the novel becomes increasingly interesting as it takes on metaphysical questions and explores a race that has outgrown religion. Like the existential novels that would become popular in the mid-twentieth century, it is possible to read The Trial as a search for the authentic self, and K.’s inability to navigate to the heart of the court is a representation of his failure to get to the centre of his own essence. Indeed, K.’s search for some objective truth is, ultimately, futile and K.’s inability to locate any firm basis to the world he inhabits is representative of the human life lived in a world without transcendent forces, without any untouchable doctrine that makes sense of the mess of existence. If the novel appears an allegory for the futility of life, then it certainly approaches one of the key questions that theology has wrangled with over that years: that is, if death is a sentence which all humanity shares, what charge condemns us all equally, and how best to deal with this inherited, inescapable guilt?

Of course, the notion of guilt is an important aspect of K.’s story. For the reader, K.’s innocence cannot be assumed. For, while the charge is unknown, it can neither be accepted nor denied. In a godless world, there is no absolute measure of truth and so all guilt must be defined by laws created by human beings. This moral relativism may be part of the modern world sweeping across Kafka’s Europe, but the shackles of religion continued to ensure guilt was a more complex issue that for many people transcended the rule of Man. K.’s crime, one discovers, is in the nature of omissions rather than commissions. He has lived an isolated life with a heart that is cool and a soul that is unornamented by the pleasures of love, art, or a connection with nature. Even within the narrative, K. rejects opportunities to alleviate some of his suffering, a suggestion that he has not made the most of life. As his paranoia begins to riddle K. with self-doubt, he begins to assume the mantel of guilt, perhaps less deludedly than might first appear. Following the Calvanists’ conception of predestination, K. – like all humans – might be said to inherit a debt of guilt at birth (original sin), one from which the court process simply offers an opportunity for contrition. Similar to Job of the Old Testament, K.’s faith is put on trial but unlike Job, whose faith in God is unbroken, K. has no faith in the legal system that tries him. Calvanism, Protestantism, Catholicism, and Judaism all come under fire at different points in the story, and it becomes apparent that one can read The Trial as a parable for the development of Christianity in Europe.

Unavoidably, there have been various biographical readings of the text too, prompted not least by the withholding of K.’s surname, which many have suggested is simply a stand in for Kafka’s own name. Certainly, if one were looking for autobiographical facts that would link Kafka and K. in a struggle against the opinions of society, it would not be difficult to turn some up. There are numerous reasons Kafka himself may have felt ostracised from society: his reclusive life as a writer, his position as a Jew in a society rife with anti-Semitism, the unconventional relationship he shared with Felice Bauer (for whom Fräulein Bürstner, a neighbour of K.’s is, apparently, a stand-in).

In the novel, art is a way of organising reality that it makes sense. By extension, The Trial itself should be considered a piece of art that makes otherwise inaccessible truths clear to the reader. K.’s paranoia leads one into a mind suffering from a schizophrenic unreality, and K.’s own perception begins to confound. K.’s dream world seems almost to have seeped into his reality and everything is somehow off-kilter, the mundane transformed into something uncanny. In this way, Kafka makes the world unfamiliar and thus forces the reader to engage with it more fully. Yet, for a situation that sounds remarkably surreal in summary, The Trial actually has a texture far more realistic than one might expect. The ‘shady’ members of the court all seem but normal people going about their business with no inkling of being part of such an absurd plot. This aesthetic is a clear nod to more realistic concerns, specifically the unthinking complicity many people have in huge mechanisms of futility or cruelty.

Similar to much of Kafka’s fiction, the novel starts with an unexpected and unwanted incursion into the life of its protagonist by a force or circumstance that will not be thrown off by the novel’s close. For Kafka, the moments when one wakes represent a volatile space between the dream world and reality – without the structures used to give reality its form it is a particularly dangerous space. Like K., the reader is thrown into a world of half-knowledge from the novel’s first line and never has the burden of ignorance alleviated. Kafka’s prose, while simple, brilliantly obfuscates the obvious. Information is carefully controlled and the reader is never allowed to get ahead of Josef K. in the investigation. The sheer lack of information given to K. or the reader means that The Trial resists interpretation using any familiar hermeneutic techniques. This again creates a mirror between the reader’s experience and the protagonist’s: K. studies the language of the court system fastidiously but cannot truly understand it, just as he fails to interpret artworks and others’ words at different times throughout the narrative. Certainly the gap between perception and knowledge is important and The Trial is a novel about the failure of narrative and as such the reader’s response to the text represents a part of its comment on the nature of language and reality.

By necessity the plot is rather circular, with no real progress made. Dialogue can be frustratingly obtuse – again an exercise in obfuscation – which, while important to Kafka’s theme, can grate on the reader after a while. As K. finds new routes to discover the crime he has committed and how he might contest the charges only to be disappointed by one dead-end after another, so too the reader’s interest is maintained through these peaks and troughs of hope ignited only to be extinguished. However, when it becomes apparent that the frustration of K.’s position is never to be relieved, the reader may consider the repetitiveness of the story to become a little tedious. This is unavoidable in developing Kafka’s theme but it nonetheless becomes a little predictable on the story level.

Unfinished at Kafka’s death, The Trial was later edited and readied for publication by his friend Max Brod, against the wishes of the author, who wanted the manuscript destroyed. As it was published posthumously from Kafka’s papers there is some debate about the order in which the chapters should appear and this only adds to the sense of things being out of kilter in the story. Taken as a whole, The Trial can be a disorienting read that realises the claustrophobia of both a society and a mind pressing in upon an individual. Kafka’s style owes a debt to Flaubert and Dostoevsky and equally foreshadows both the politics of totalitarianism and the philosophy of existentialism that would both rise to prominence in the mid-twentieth century. While not an entirely pleasing experience as a purely literary work, The Trial is undoubtedly a prescient and complex look at the individual in the twentieth century.

Kafka's stories can be a little hard to get along with on some levels, and I don't think this is any different. K. somehow feels sub-human and the stories grinds a little, but on the level one should read The Trial it is richly satisfying.  

Useful Links
Reviews of The Trial on Amazon (UK)
Reviews of The Trial on Amazon (US)

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Reading Plan: September 2015

The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James book cover
There goes summer – woof, watch it fly by – onto Autumn and cosy night with books, etc. I’ve felt quite out of the loop with the Big Summer Reads while I’ve been embarking on my reading of a selection of classics. Of course, I’ve rarely got my finger on the pulse of society anyway, but my recent reading has definitely transported me a good century from the present. If I start talking like a jolly spiffing old boy from the 1920s, you will forgive me won’t you, old sport? Strange how your perception of the present can alter if you immerse yourself too heavily in literature that transports you to a different time or space. It’s alright when you flit about various different unrealities but I seem to have been locked in the early twentieth century for a while. And let me tell you, this Great Depression is a right bother – and the politicians aren’t much better, left and right coming apart. At least the English cricket team has given those Aussies a ruddy good spanking now they’re back on British soil (if only they could do the same over in Oz). Ah, how life has changed – economic turmoil, political in-fighting, England winning the cricket – unimaginable in the halcyon days of this magnificent twenty-first century. Spiffing.

Hmm, I’m not quite sure why I went off on that tangent, although it is interesting what happens inside the old brainbox when you’re stuck in a particular reading period. But enough of that, we’re all thoroughly modern people, we can’t be caught up in all this backward looking nostalgia (like boats pushed back against the current, to slip another Gatsby reference in). To the future and Henry James – oh, wait, that doesn’t work. Nevertheless, I have manfully been soldiering through The Portrait of a Lady, appreciating more than enjoying, so I expect to write something about this in September so you too can share in this most gruelling of reading experiences. Lovely though James’s writing can be, in sum it can be slightly tiring – for me, anyway (slightly how I feel about Austen too, as it happens).

Talking of Austen, I meant to read Persuasion in August but got rather bogged down in James. A pity, as that would have rounded off a good summer of Austen for me. But never the mind, I’m a good two hundred years behind the trend on that one so a few more months won’t hurt. I really need to get on with reading something a little more modern anyway, before I quite lose my mind and am trapped permanently in a strange state of faux-Edwardian discourse.

Of course, there is Go Set a Watchman waiting tantalisingly for me. I must admit, after all of the press around it, I am inclined to hold off on reading it until I have had a chance to read To Kill a Mockingbird for one more time before my reading experience is inevitably and irrevocably altered by the shift in perceptions that Go Set a Watchman will bring about. I have been eyeing up The Watchmaker of Filigree Street by Natasha Pulley for a while so that might be my next port of call for something more modern (in terms of when it was written, at least).

I’m flirting with some Philip Roth too – either Portnoy’s Complaint or The Human Stain – but I suppose we will have to see how September shapes up. Not least as I seem to be overflowing with things I want to write about at the moment and can’t wait to get started on a few of the ideas for short stories or potential novels to see how they take shape.

Ah well, to be a busy Bibliofreak… have a lovely September all.

Notable Posts from August
Review: The Color Purple by Alice Walker

Review: The Color Purple by Alice Walker

The Color Purple by Alice Walker book cover
The Color Purple (1982) is Alice Walker’s famous womanist novel which, spanning decades, looks at the lives of black women in the early twentieth century and the forces of oppression that govern their lives. The protagonist, Celie, narrates the novel through a series of letters addressed to God as she attempts to make it through the life she has been dealt. Growing up in poverty, Celie is molested by her step-father and only escapes the cycle of abuse and pregnancy that marks her teenage years by being married off to a local man named Albert. He is little better than Celie’s step-father but when she meets her new husband’s mistress, Shug Avery, Celie’s education in life truly begins. Shug is vibrant – a singer, sexually confident, and smart to the world. The pair become more than friends and Shug gives Celie the skills she needs to shake off the passivity that keeps her in her old life, and seek reconciliation with her estranged sister, Nettie, who has ended up living with an African tribe as a missionary by a strange series of events. When Celie eventually learns of her sister’s fate, she begins to dream of being reunited and living amongst her family once more. Throwing off all the patriarchal shackles that have impoverished her life (including the white, male god to whom she writes) Celie puts her faith instead in the women around her and the relationships she has built. There are definite links with the myth of Philomela, which intertwines rape, the silencing of the female voice, and feminine subjectivity. A story of oppression, the strength of female bonds, and a consideration of one’s spiritual place in the world, The Color Purple is a novel that faces the reality of life lived under numerous oppressive forces.

As an intersectional discussion of some of the issues faced by black women in the twentieth century, The Color Purple is important. Walker demonstrates a strength similar to her characters in choosing not to wallow in the oppression and cruelty suffered by her characters, to avoid looking always back to a troubled past. Celie’s solution is an accepting passivity that is finally rewarded with a sense of cosmic justice when she breaks her own shackles, whereas Walker as the author is the complete opposite of passive, digging into the societal issues that allow the lives of her characters to be abused in various different ways from the first page. She challenges ideas of femininity and shows a vast array of modes of femininity. If Ralph Ellison’s invisible man had no voice thirty years before the publication of The Color Purple, then Walker has located in Celie a person whose presence is even less acknowledged by society: the black, poor lesbian.

Critics have questioned whether the broadly negative portrait of black men in the novel is helpful, or whether it perpetuates the racist myth that black men are savages who are not fit to exist in civil society. Undeniably, Walker takes a hard line with her male characters, but all of her characters exist in a framework where oppression is a complex concept, and where black men are both oppressed and oppressors. The lack of a straight-forward dynamic makes the novel a more thought-provoking experience, and blame (remarkably) is rarely thrown about. Walker goes beyond challenging the traditional positions of male and female further by queering the heteronormative family unit through Celie and Shug’s relationship. The missionary trip to Africa of Celie’s sister Nettie also offers an opportunity to compare gender roles in the Olinka tribe that she serves – a group that might be considered ‘savages’ by traditional Western standard – and those in the American South. It’s an interesting discussion and certainly challenges ideas of whom exactly is progressive – while the Olinka have less rigid ideas about gender, they maintain certain archaic traditions like the mutilation of young members of the tribe as a rite of passage, again allowing for few easy conclusions. Though many of the men in the novel are frequently set in a tyrannical stance towards their women, however, The Color Purple is less about the terror of living under patriarchal oppression and more a celebration of the resilience of women, their ability to solve their own problems, and the potentiality of a gender that has been badly stunted by social structures. In short, The Color Purple is a womanist novel, a term coined by Walker in her 1979 short story ‘Coming Apart’.

Celie’s redemption is very much one of the individual succeeding over societal forces. However, through running a small business making pants as well as inheriting property, Celie is tied to the capitalist world where redemption is, in some way, linked to money. This may be a realistic reading of the world, but it both implicates Celie in an economic structure that has endorsed and profited from the suppression and enslavement of black people, and also champions the myth of individualism (despite Celie requiring Shug’s assistance to assert her own individuality). Also problematic is the issue of what Celie does with her freedom when she gets it: unlike Shug, she opts for domesticity and the simple pleasures of family life. Again, this may be realistic to the world but it still leaves Celie having chosen domesticity, an unradical view of femininity.

Celie’s relationship with Shug shows the power of redemptive love as some of Shug’s confidence and self-assurance is passed to Celie, but Walker’s discussion in the novel is larger than human beings. Celie’s move away from a monotheistic view of god and towards a more pantheistic view not only parallels her breaking from traditional patriarchal oppression but is in itself a very important aspect of the novel. There is a danger when reading a book about black characters or written by a black author, because of their sparsity in mainstream publishing, that one assumes the book is intended to somehow speak for the broader “black experience”, whatever that might mean. That is an almighty weight to place on the shoulders of any one author and invariably leads to a perversion of the author’s intentions when reading a work, or simply acts as a prism through which to criticise a work, meaning the author inherits a fight that they have not (necessarily) asked for. The Color Purple is one of those books that has been pulled apart from all kinds of direction and somewhere between the varying critical approaches, the simple human story is somehow subordinated. It’s notable that the colour of the title is discussed far less than the colour of the main character, and that is a shame, as the prominence of the colour purple should highlight to the reader its importance in the text. Purple comes to stand for hope and the wonder of the human spirit, it is a miraculous burst of colour when it appears in nature and indicates the triumph of hope in the face of misery. For Celie it becomes symbolic of the thrown off Christian god and her move towards understanding and interpreting her (spiritual) world not through man-made models of religiosity, but through a more general wonder at the natural world. Spiritual freedom is a concept common to all human life, and whatever else one reads in The Color Purple, one should not forget the importance of the spiritual discussion.

Celie’s search for spiritual identity is part of a wider discussion about identity in The Color Purple. The epistolary form of the novel comes about as Celie is forced into silence by her abusive step-father (a silence reinforced by Albert and the wider society), and so the letters she writes to God are her only means of expression. Indeed, the novel is in no small way about finding a voice, a means of expression. The turning point of the narrative is when Celie asserts her right to existence: “I'm pore, I'm black, I may be ugly, and can't cook. . . But I'm here.” It is a courageous act of self-assertion and a moment when Celie’s voice is truly heard by others. Similar to that classic epistolary novel, Pamela, here there is the withholding of a character’s, an abuser’s, surname. For Celie’s husband, Albert, is referred to only as Mr. _____ for the majority of the novel. Names are an important symbol of identity and a constant battleground in the war of oppression. By withholding Albert’s surname (he being the most prominent example of this in the novel – although Celie’s surname is never revealed either), Walker both subverts the patriarchal model that sees married women’s identity subsumed by their husband’s, but also sets Albert up, like Richardson’s Mr. B-, as someone whose identity is too dangerous to reveal.

The Color Purple is arguably as well-known as it is due to the Steven Spielberg film adaptation and thus there are a multitude of opinions voiced on the book, many of which are based more on the film than the original text. Also skewing critical opinion is the fact that if one attempts to read the novel through the lens of Western realism, the contrivances involved in the ending become problematic. Indeed, critics have often pointed to the novel’s rather loose structure, shallow characterisation, and slightly clunky dialogue as faults in Walker’s prose. It would be a mistake to too heavily enforce a realist aesthetic onto a novel that clearly sets itself up as something less rigid, and more clearly rooted in less formal storytelling cultures. The novel is ultimately one of hope – of the belief that amongst all the awful things in life, redemption is possible, that happiness is never an impossible dream. Celie is able to reclaim her own spirituality and her own sexuality, and this is no small thing for a girl who starts life with the world seemingly stacked against her. Innumerable readings are possible, but it is the spiritual and personal journey that Celie goes on which is at the centre of The Color Purple for Alice Walker.

When I picked this up, I was warned it would make me cry. It didn't. But then I am heartless. I enjoyed it enough, with some reservations. Not a great book, but a good one.

Useful Links
Reviews of The Color Purple on Amazon (UK)
Reviews of The Color Purple on Amazon (US)
Film Adaptation of The Color Purple on Amazon (UK)
Film Adaptation of The Color Purple on Amazon (US)

Reading Plan: August 2015

The Trial by Franz Kafka book cover
This month Harper Lee’s second ever novel knocked that queen of kink E. L. James off the top of the bestsellers chart – is this some kind of magical utopia where order is restored to the reading world? I think it must be… oh wait, good ol’ Atticus is a card-carrying racist these days? What’s next revivify Peter Rabbit and turn him into a horny little sex pest? That’s it, #TeamChristian all the way – sex perverts > racists any day. (To my shame, or possibly my credit, I just had to google that to check Christian had an ‘h’ in it.) In all seriousness, Go Set a Watchman is an intriguing prospect and I’m glad to hear we’ve not been served up a formulaic bit of nostalgia – who would have expected Harper Lee not to ruffle some feathers anyway?

Putting the publishing event of the century aside, or whatever glib label marketing departments have slapped on the return of old Finchy, how’s everyone’s summer been so far? I hope you’ve all noticed that I have, for once, been motoring through the books I planned to read this month. In truth, so much so that I now seem to be a bit reading-fatigued – I’m not sure that’s a thing that bibliophiles are supposed to admit to, but sometimes you wind up with too many stories whizzing around your head at once and they kind of crash into each other. For instance, I keep thinking a particular passage from Nausea about the worthlessness of memories is from Kafka’s The Trial, or The Good Soldier. Not a big thing, but it muddles my impressionable brain – am I the only one who can’t keep his stories straight?

Speaking of The Trial, that’ll be my book of the month for August. I haven’t reviewed any Kafka on here as yet and it would be good to hear all of your opinions on the man who gave his name to one of the most irritating words you’ll ever read in a review, namely ‘Kafkaesque’, as in ‘doesn’t the frequent employment of the word Kafkaesque to illustrate a slightly otherworldly charm to a novel strike you as the sort of thing a character of Kafkaesque mindlessness is likely to trot out in a seemingly never-ending, one might say Kafkaesque, cycle of reviews that make up the rather futile fodder that passes for intellectualism in the Kafkaesque world of newspeak?’ Anyway, according to reviews The Trial is apparently quite Kafkaesque, which is reassuring.

Next up is The Color Purple, which is a rather strange, even Kafkaesque – ok, I’ll stop now – story by Alice Walker, which was, of course, famously made into a film by Steven Spielberg. Spanning nearly half a century, the novel tells the story of an African-American woman growing up in the South, who has to contend with all manner of disadvantage in her life. It’s a story a lot of you will probably already know, but it is quite new to me.

I’m also planning to read The Catcher in the Rye as someone likened my book to it months ago (in style, I hasten to add, not quality). That intrigued me, and it seems that just about everyone has read Salinger’s classic apart from me, so I’d better get on and go through it before someone else tells me there is an obvious literary link there and I look like a fool for being quite clueless on the subject (or the kind of terribly evasive creep who doesn’t acknowledge his influences).

That’s my August all stacked up and ready to roll then – what will you all be enjoying over summer while you’re holidaying about the world like the bunch of decadent jetsetters we all know bibliophiles are?

Notable Posts from July
Review: Alice and the Fly by James Rice
Interview: James Rice
Review: The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Review: Emma by Jane Austen
Review: The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford
Review: Nausea by Jean-Paul Sartre

Review: Nausea by Jean-Paul Sartre

Nausea by Jean-Paul Sartre book cover
Nausea (1938), La Nausée in the original French, is Jean-Paul Sartre’s first novel and an exploration of his early thoughts on existentialism through the meandering existence of one man. Roquentin, a man on the brink of his thirtieth birthday, is undertaking a scholarly project in the small town of Bouville (modelled on Le Havre). Having travelled the world, he has settled on writing a biography of the Marquis de Rollebon, a minor figure in the French Revolution, in the hope that the book, once finished, will afford him some form of legacy that will transcend his mortal existence. Through Nausea’s narrative, written as Roquentin’s diary, it becomes clear that Roquentin leads an empty existence, spending his days working through papers in the local library, and his evenings in cafes and restaurants – all of this in suffocating isolation. He makes love without emotion to a local café owner occasionally, and, as he goes about his research, shares small pleasantries with a fellow library user who he has named ‘the Autodidact’ and who is reading his way through Bouville’s complete library alphabetically. This is the extent of Roquentin’s contact with other human life. In his isolation, Roquentin suffers from the nausea, as he calls it – a sense of overwhelming sickness at the knowledge that he exists in a world rife with other things and people existing. Little can stave off this nausea or the sense of meaninglessness in existence, except perhaps the creation of some form of art that will endure and transcend Roquentin’s life. A meditation on art and existence, politics and society, Nausea, which Iris Murdoch called the ‘Tour de Force of a young man,’ has become a staple novel in the existentialist reading list.

Roquentin’s purpose in starting the diary which presents the narrative is to understand and document the nausea that he suffers, detailing his small perceptions so as to ruminate on their deeper meanings, and how he exists in relation to the world. This process of self-reflection is important to the novel, and, while overwhelming at first, will eventually provide Roquentin with the knowledge he seeks, namely that the consciousness of his own being is what defines his existence, and that his personal reality is all that exists. Ultimately, the diary proves a record of his rebirth, or perhaps one might say metamorphosis, from hopelessness to a sense of purpose as Roquentin, inspired by Some of these Days (a ragtime tune), determines, at the novel’s close, on writing a novel himself. Whether this epiphany of salvation through creation is ironic or not, here the creation of art, follwing the consumption of art, is used to provide meaning to an otherwise meaningless existence completing Roquentin’s transformation, which has been hinted at by images of metamorphosis throughout the novel. In finding aesthetic solutions to the fundamental problems of its main character, Nausea has echoes of Rilke’s The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge. Indeed, the two books are strongly linked thematically, both featuring a male narrator on the cusp of his thirtieth birthday who struggles with an intensified perception of the world around him. This manifests itself in a fear that must be worked out through self-reflection in diary form.

A deep loneliness pervades the novel, not only Roquentin’s but others around him. The disconnect between different people paints the picture of a rather sad world in which lives rarely merge, and Roquentin learns that he cannot rely on anyone else for his salvation, that life must be faced alone. This loneliness is representative of a godless existence in which every individual is essentially alone in the universe, surrounded by, but not connected to, the individual experiences of existence of others. This idea of disparate existence is in sharp contrast to the type of humanism espoused by Jules Romains, and Sartre challenges arguments for the solidarity of man and any fraternal feeling towards others which could be taken as a shared existence. Though well-intentioned as the humanist ideas that Sartre attacks are, Sartre satirises and dismisses them by placing them in the mouth of the Autodidact who is a rather foolish character, and looked down upon (in some ways in an elitist sense because of the Autodidact’s self-taught status). According to Sartre’s form of existentialism, every individual experiences complete freedom to respond to the indifferent world in any way they see fit (this implies being for the sake of being, a state which Sartre calls être pour-soi). Paradoxically, this immense freedom is a remarkably heavy burden. Roquentin is aware of his freedom but unsure what to do with it and overwhelmed by the possibilities.

Sartre originally intended the novel to be title ‘Melancholia,’ which links it to an engraving of a disturbed and ponderous thinker by Albrecht Dürer named Melencolia I, which was important to Sartre’s creative process while developing the novel. If one were to read Nausea literally it seems clear that Roquentin is suffering from a form of melancholy, or depression as it would now be labelled. His sense of complete superfluity in the face of an indifferent world, his hopelessness and lack of pleasure in life, and his distortions of reality through small fantasies all point to a mind suffering from mental illness. In truth, Nausea can be read in a whole number of ways: as a look at how the bourgeoisie use conventions to hide from freedom, a theory of time, a discussion of the immediate present and the memory of the past, the use of language to form reality through narrative and how this compares to the lived experience, and a discussion of the human desire of immortality. There is also the potential for a very interesting LGBT reading.

Most, though, will read Nausea as an explication of Sartre’s existentialism. As an introduction to this, Nausea is perhaps a little too opaque to afford any deep understanding of the philosophy for the uninitiated reader and must be coupled with a reading of essays, particularly Being and Nothingness, on the subject to truly appreciate everything that Sartre does in the novel. Expressing existential ideas through fiction does, however, give them an immediacy that non-fiction cannot provide, as well as a sense of how theoretical ideas relate to the reality of everyday life.

This immediacy is compounded by the reading of time that informs the narrative, refusing the existence of anything but the present. As Roquentin writes: “The true nature of the present revealed itself: it was that which exists, and all that was not present did not exist. The past did not exist.” In this form of temporal negation, Roquentin finds life to be a series of present moments without a past, and his memories do little to console him from his current nausea. The biography of the Marquis de Rollebon that brought him to Bouville begins to seem an absurd task in light of this position, for, how can history exist with any authority in a world where only the present is real and all reality is subjective? However, when an old flame asks Roquentin to meet her in Paris, it becomes clear that the disconnect between the past and the present is somewhat illusory, or confined to the theoretical, as Roquentin is still guided and affected by his past.

One of the most difficult tricks of the philosophical novel is ensuring the work is successful as both a story and an explication of a particular philosophical theory. In exploring the aching vacuousness and tedium of existence, Sartre runs the risk of failing to construct a plot that works purely as fiction outside of his philosophical intent. Although necessary for his purpose, this lack of a compelling story will turn some readers off. The puncturing of the dramatic is well done, however, demonstrating the emptiness of existence. Events are allowed to pass by without any grandiose readings into them: they exist in the moment and then pass out of existence. In this way, the overriding story is subjugated in favour of creating the impression of existence that Sartre desires to represent. The details of Roquentin’s story are unimportant, it is the experience and ideas that matters.

This is not to say Sartre’s prose does not engage the reader. He conjures images that stick in the mind, often reminiscent of surrealist paintings by artists like Dali, and he is able, through Roquentin, to make observations of people which turn them into grotesquely memorable portraits of humanity. This vividness comes in snatches and Sartre would later go on to write philosophical novels that proved more satisfying on the story level, but here there is still plenty to enjoy, and through the fragmented series of images, Sartre captures a somewhat abstract impression of twentieth century life.

As already mentioned, Sartre’s later work, Being and Nothingness, sets out his form of existentialism in far clearer detail and provides an excellent companion piece to Nausea. For Sartre, every individual has total freedom over life, the ability to choose different paths at different moments. The ultimate choice is to choose being – that is, existence – over nothingness. It is a choice that is common to all, and by determining on creating a redemptive piece of art at the close of Nausea, Roquentin asserts his choice for existence over nothingness. It appears almost a non-choice on first examination, but it is in fact the largest of choices and the one that binds all humans together in a shared complicity to exist, to repress the nausea.

I've always thought of this as a trendy wanker's book (possibly in no small part down to its appearance in the first ever episode of Skins - I know, legit reason, right?), that and it is one of the first books most budding (therefore, obnoxious) existentialists run into, so it has bad associations with the sweaty adolescent philosopher. It is, however, a better book than to be consigned to that status. I knew it when I was an obnoxious teenage philosopher and I know it now, when I am marginally less obnoxious. 

Useful Links
Reviews of Nausea on Amazon (UK)
Reviews of Nausea on Amazon (US)

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Review: The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford

The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford book cover
The Good Soldier (1915) by Ford Madox Ford is a modernist classic, an intricately worked novel that unpicks the downfall of two couples who meet by chance while travelling in Europe. John Dowell, a wealthy American and the narrator of the tale, cares for his wife Florence, who has been diagnosed with a weak heart, making sure that she does not fall victim to over-excitement. When the couple come across Edward and Leonora Ashburnham – a well-to-do English couple – the quartet hit it off. Edward is, according to Dowell, a great physical specimen and somewhat of a sentimentalist, while Leonora is more savvy than her husband, and feels her Catholic heritage keenly. Beneath the polished veneer of the affluent couples lurks real people with real failings, full of paradoxes and, ultimately, unable to match up to the idealistic front that they project. Over many years the couples come together around Europe, and their lives intertwine as they pull others into their collective story, which culminates in adultery, death, and suicide. Dowell relates all this after the final action has been taken, revising and revisiting events as he attempts to spin his story. Few of the ‘facts’ of the plot are obscured from the start – Dowell makes plain that Florence has had an affair with Edward, and that both the adulterous pair have since ended their own lives. Graham Greene called it “the finest French novel in the English language,” and with the delicacy of delivery and intimate tracking of the human consciousness and relationships it is easy to understand the assertion.

Much of the discussion about the novel revolves around the narrator, John Dowell. As he relates the events that shape the lives (and deaths, in some cases) of the characters, details of the story are subtly pulled apart, reimagined, and reinterpreted. In this way, the novel explores the relationship between truth and perspective, reality and appearance, and how truth is, always, in the eye of the beholder, no matter how he must contort the facts to reach his conclusion. Whether Dowell is reliable or not, and to what extent he was cognizant of his position as cuckold is absolutely crucial to the different readings of the novel. In truth, only a close reading can really begin to pick these questions apart, but suffice it to say for the purposes of this review, he appears a narrator prone to self-delusion, perhaps to protect himself from the grim reality of the facts, but certainly unreliable to some degree as his self-reflective statements throughout attest. Ford works the narrative beautifully, using paradoxical sentences frequently, Dowell obfuscating the truth, often through his own failings, while Ford reveals it.

When Dowell pre-empts the reader’s reaction to his tale in his opening line by declaring it “the saddest story I have ever heard,” he immediately announces both his pitch as a storyteller and his own passivity within the events themselves. For, at times, there is something decidedly melodramatic in Dowell’s telling of the story, he assuming the role of storyteller and ornamenting the facts with Gothic style images laced with pathos. That he chooses to spin his tale in this way marks it out very clearly as an artificial form of reality, like any story, and this draws the construction of the plot into a discussion of not just Dowell’s own perspective but of storytelling technique. Like Dowell, Ashburnham cannot spin a story: while the men who Dowell and he mix with on their trips in Europe tell lewd after-dinner stories Edward remains mute, unable or unwilling to participate. In the case of both men, the ability to formulate a narrative creates a barrier to knowledge – for Dowell this is the understanding of the facts he has available to him over the course of his wife’s affair and beyond, and for Edward it is purely self-knowledge, the rich interior life that might save him from his downfall.

As a player in his own story Dowell is an empty vessel who finds meaning only in relation to the other characters. By traditional measures of masculinity – dominance, sexual potency – he is a failure and somewhat in awe of Edward Ashburnham, or perhaps suppressing a closeted romantic love towards him. Dowell may claim to be a sentimentalist in the same mould as Ashburnham, but it takes some artistry with the facts to bring him to this conclusion. Indeed, throughout the shifting interpretation of his own narrative, Dowell exposes a beautifully-realised form of revisionism: a state in which memories are edited to fit the narrative one wishes them to have. Was Edward a hopeless sentimentalist, Florence a brazen adulteress, or Leonora an emotionally-detached Catholic? It is remarkably difficult to say, given Dowell’s version of the story, inherited from Leonora, is all that is presented.

Dowell’s seemingly credulous acceptance of the lies his wife sold him is clearly, to some extent, self-deceptive, but the jumbled order in which facts come to him or are appreciated is representative of a realist’s stance to storytelling on Ford’s part. It is Jamesian in its subtlety but much more chaotic than James’s style and places Dowell in a state of complete flux where the ideas that held his world together – of decency, etc. – are severely compromised and he is cut loose in a new world that he does his best not to acknowledge. Indeed, even by the novel’s close he is afforded no great revelation, nothing that can impose a sense of order on his tangled memories.

While Dowell may not be in the same mould as Ashburnham, both are emasculated by their wives – Edward is forced to surrender control of his finances to Leonora after losing vast sums in an adulterous liaison, and Dowell is made a eunuch and cuckold by Florence, who diminishes his position as husband to mere servant to her everyday needs while others satisfy her sexual desires. The fact is, neither Edward nor Dowell know how to be ‘men’ – either through lack of education in intimacy or lack of strength and base passion, both fail to live up to the expectation of masculinity in the late-Victorian/Edwardian period and their marriages are irretrievably unbalanced as a consequence.

Ford originally wanted the novel to be called 'The Saddest Story' but his publisher objected. He then suggested they might prefer The Good Soldier, supposedly, with no small amount of irony and was rather shocked to find it taken up. The original title highlights the importance of sadness in the story, and it is from the lack of knowledge or self-knowledge that much of the pathos springs. Like Austen before him, Ford is concerned with the education of the heart. Whether with one’s own heart or the heart of another, intimacy is very important here and often conflated with knowledge. Edward and Leonora have not, Dowell reports, spoken in private for thirteen years. Theirs is an arranged marriage and Edward’s sentimental heart is melted not by his wife’s cold strength but by a vulnerability which he finds in others. To say the Ashburnhams’ marriage is loveless is not quite right – perhaps it would be better to call it hopeless. Edward’s heart is too full of sentimental feeling and his mind too empty, too lacking in self-knowledge, and Leonora’s conscience is too easily outsourced to her spiritual advisors who offer only platitudes where nuanced insight into humanity is needed.

As an extension of the intimacy issue, sexual passion is shown to be destructive both in its repression and its expression – repression by Dowell and Leonora, expression by Edward and Florence. It is just one of the rather fatalistic views of human nature expressed in the book. There are imperial undertones to Edward’s domineering approach to seduction that draw parallels with the imperial scramble for colonies. Indeed, there are a number of larger themes that recur in the novel, beyond imperialism. Edward and Leonora represent a class of people whose nature of existence was changing rapidly. The traditions and systems of Feudal Europe were being pulled apart by the Great War and Ford’s perfectly timed novel reflected the inevitability of this disintegration. In the century past, the landed gentry held an esteemed position, if one still open to criticism, but by the time The Good Soldier reached the reading public, the lives of the landed gentry had begun to look significantly emptier and less noble. This too adds to the burden of sadness felt within the story’s core.

Religion is the other major topic touch upon. Dowell locates Leonora’s secretive nature within her Catholic heritage, which must, he supposes, predispose her to concealment given the position of Catholics in English society historically. Indeed, Dowell appears considerably concerned with Leonora’s religion, tending to other her at times on the basis of it. For, being a non-Catholic he sees their worldviews as almost completely incompatibility despite having little evidence for this assertion.

As mentioned earlier on, there is no definitive reading of The Good Soldier (if, as the deconstructionalists doubt, such a thing can be said to exist for any novel) and so this review adds to a body of differing opinion but is very much one opinion in a multitude of alternatives. The one thing that most critics agree on is that The Good Soldier is a great book. Ford himself believed it to be his best work and, in its intricate and beautifully constructed form it is hard to disagree with this. As an example of literary impressionism, it is an essential part of the twentieth century canon, even if readers unpick the tangled web that Ford weaves in quite remarkably different ways. There are plenty of authors who have hailed The Good Soldier as a masterpiece, including Graham Greene and Julian Barnes whose own themes and styles echo Ford’s, to name but two. A hundred years since its publication and the novel remains immensely readable and emotionally-wrought while being intellectually challenging as a mystery and admirable as a literary achievement. Ford described The Good Soldier as his ‘great auk’s egg’ – his most complete, perfect creation, it remains a complex mystery that sits, one might say, at the point at which the twentieth century lost its sheen, fifteen years into the most changeful century in human history.

Technically a gorgeous book that you can't help but appreciate. It made me think of The Remains of the Day, Lolita, The Sense of an Ending, The Great Gatsby, and it sits comfortably in the company of books of that quality. Anyone who claims The Good Soldier is boring doesn't know a good book when they read one.

Useful Links
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Review: Emma by Jane Austen

Emma by Jane Austen book cover
Emma (1815), a rich comedy of manners is, arguably, Jane Austen’s finest novel – a blending of her serious literary intentions with the effervescent charm of her most readable novels. The eponymous heroine, Emma Woodhouse, is a young lady who has wanted for very little in her life, raised in Highbury to believe she has few imperfections and is superior to just about everyone about her – in short, she is a snob. After successfully finding a husband for her governess, she believes herself to be an excellent matchmaker and is soon bringing her powers to bear on the local community, attempting to arrange more couplings. She makes a particular friend of Harriet Smith whom she believes to be of high birth. She determines to find Harriet a suitable partner, rejecting in the process a perfectly good proposal from a gentleman-farmer. While Emma is engaged in rearranging her charge’s romantic life, a couple of visitors arrive at Highbury: Frank Churchill, a charming young man, and Jane Fairfax, a fairly reserved girl. Although Emma feels no real connection with Jane, she strikes up a rather flirtatious friendship with Frank Churchill. However, it is George Knightley – a neighbour who, being sixteen years her senior, has known Emma since her birth – who provides a voice of reason to all Emma’s attempts at matchmaking, a more sombre mentor figure who chastises where others turn a blind eye. Plenty of other characters are drawn into the romantic entanglements that Emma weaves and observes, and events play out through social minutiae as Emma is forced to learn a good deal about herself and her own heart while attempting to direct the hearts of others.

Emma provides a vivid picture of rural and village life in the early nineteenth century and the significant issues of growing up and picking a mate. As Emma manoeuvres men and women in her attempts to make good matches, the importance of status becomes clear. For Emma’s family is of very good standing in her community and she is acutely aware of where others sit in the grand scheme of things. Emma might see innate qualities in Harriet which suggest high-birth, but in a society so tightly structured around status, attempting to break from one class to another can be a hazardous thing as Emma learns. Interestingly, in making her matches, Emma gives far greater concern to status than any affection or suitability of temperament that there might be between two people. Unlike more romantically-imagined heroines, here is a character whose conception of the marriage market is based more firmly on economics than sentimentality (for others at least). It is perhaps not surprising then that Emma, so assured of her opinion on so many topics, cannot be said to know her own heart with any great intimacy. This makes for a delicious centre to the novel, and exposes the problem of social demands governing feelings.

As the young people go about arranging their romantic lives there is an evident struggle against expectation and the older generation. Although depicted in a particular time and space, it is a struggle for independence and autonomy that has universal interest. For Emma, who has inherited wealth in her favour, marriage is a choice – for the other female characters it is a financial necessity that will see them secure a safe future for themselves. Emma is aware of her own, privileged position of relative autonomy and so voices her feeling that marriage, for her if not for others, must only be undertaken on the basis of her being in love. Marriage creates an interesting conflict at the centre of the novel: Emma must be tamed and educated out of her less desirable habits by a (future-)husband. Entering a marriage contract (if on even terms), then, sees Emma relinquish some of her autonomy and accept the guidance of her mentor-lover. She is not the only woman in the novel who finds an identity through marriage and this raises interesting questions, particularly for feminist readers. While Emma plays with the literary conventions of the novel of instruction, it is also bound by class-consciousness and male instruction. This dynamic, between social forces and the individual, is a brilliantly subtle irony on Austen’s part, a way of exploring some pretty radical questions about how society is organised.

The mentor-lover is a common trope in Austen’s writing, but here the instructive nature of female friendships is more deeply explored too. Members of the leisure class to which Emma belongs have such an abundance of time on their hands that it is inevitable they should occupy themselves with constructed ideas of ‘work’, whether that be organising the romantic lives of others or enforcing the small social mores that make up polite society. In this sense, the novel acts as a warning about prescriptive advice and shows the messiness of attempting to enact ‘common wisdom’ in the real world. For Austen, self-knowledge and nuanced solutions are the key to navigating the various tests life throws in front of one.

The small community of Highbury offers an excellent setting for Austen to explore the intricacies of social hierarchy that interested her. The plotting is exquisitely controlled: through subtle misdirection Austen weaves the stories of each character into a rather bewildering mix for the reader, leaving clues to each character’s heart that are not easily spotted on first reading. It is artfully done, and it is in the unravelling of both the tangled plot threads and Emma’s own mind that the lasting enjoyment of Emma is assured.

A comedy of manners, Emma revolves around these rather tangled communications and affairs of the heart, with major scandal or tragedy never threatening to enter the small world of the novel. While not a fan of the genre, Austen does not banish all tropes of Romantic fiction but merely moves them from the centre of the story to the edges – in this way her fictional world allows romantic impulses while decidedly insisting that they must not be centre stage in a novel or a life. This creates a fictional world where realism and romanticism meet in a pleasing mesh of styles. Some of the finest pleasures of Emma is in the small details. Austen brilliantly exposes how seemingly trivial events – a broken boot lace, an afternoon’s picnic – can have far larger consequences than might be supposed. The dialogue, too, turns on the smallest minutiae: the delicate unfurling of detailed conversation, far from being dull as it might have been in another’s hands, shows Austen’s fine skill for dialogue and social intricacy.

In the fictional world of Highbury, it is the characters who are not seen to participate in the community and uphold their duties as a member of the small society that are invariably punished or looked down upon by the author: for Austen, participation and preservation of the fabric of society is of the utmost importance. With status comes responsibility, but there are more important things than appearance or artificial measures of merit. Austen may believe in a hierarchical society but such an arrangement is shown to rely on the quality of people (humility, wisdom, etc.) more than class distinctions (money, high-birth, etc.). The novel also addresses issues around the potential for female fulfilment in a society structured around wealth and status, and where women were often seen simply as the property of their husbands or fathers. There is an interesting discussion on the social construction of ideas of womanhood too.

Emma herself is an excellent character: opinionated, meddlesome if well-intentioned, and with a mind that subtly develops throughout the plot (a change which Austen’s prose reflects by small, nuanced shifts in tone as events unfold). She is one of Austen’s most complex characters and most satisfying reads for the arc and depth of her personal story: her psychological depth has been pointed to as a precursor for the psychological realism of George Eliot, Henry James, and Virginia Woolf amongst others. Emma’s own literary heritage can certainly be seen in her assuming a role similar to Puck’s in A Midsummer Night’s Dream in overseeing the course of true love, but a more interesting literary comparison is to be found in Austen’s own canon, for Emma is, in some ways, a mirror to Darcy of Pride and Prejudice. Wealthy and living in her own mansion she is not in need of a partner and has been raised to think rather a good deal of herself and less of others. Like Darcy, she is forced to undergo an educative process that allows her to find eventual happiness, and throughout the text there are various examples of her assuming the traditionally male role. This offers an opportunity to test readers’ reaction to similar behaviours when they are assumed by a male character or a female. Clearly, Emma is far more than a parody of Darcy, but it is an interesting side note to her character.

Published in 1815, Emma was written predominantly in the previous year (but finished as late as March 1815) in a period after Austen had seen success and while she was at the peak of her powers. A more mature novelist, Austen married the expectations of her growing readership (the book is, famously, dedicated to the Prince Regent who was a fan) with her own literary sensibilities to produce a novel that displays some of her finest talents as a novelist. Here she has mastered free indirect speech, which is so heavily associated with her writing, and developed a cast of characters that work excellently for her purpose. The novel, too, is wholly English in its setting, concerns, and humour – provincial yet worldly, amused and amusing, sparkling yet with a hint of pathos. It is Austen’s most complete and well-worked novel.

Really enjoyed this. There are times when I want to shake Austen out of her beautifully controlled writing and get to something more raw but Emma is the most perfect riposte to those sentiments, and probably Austen at her best.

Useful Links
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Reviews of Emma on Amazon (US)
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