Dedicated to classics and hits.

Saturday, December 03, 2016

The Virgin in the Garden (1978) by A.S. Byatt


Book Revie
The Virgin in the Garden (1978)
by A.S. Byatt

    Possession: A Romance, was published in 1990 and won the Booker Prize the following year.  This win instantly catapulted Byatt to the first tier of world fiction writers, and so it is only natural to go back and look at her earlier books (she published her first novel in 1964) to look for inklings of the combination of elements that proved such a roaring success in Possession.    I'm not sure if anyone took much notice of The Virgin in the Garden upon it's initial publication.  The copy I checked out from the library is a paperback edition published in the aftermath of the Possession win, from which I can infer that it was out of print when she won the Booker Prize.

   Byatt's reputation is as a master of the post-modern historical novel, one of the early practitioners of this form, one which almost dominates the intersection of "serious" and "popular" fiction.   From the perspective of the mastery demonstrated by Byatt in Possession, The Virgin in the Garden is early days.   What The Virgin in the Garden most resembles is an updated take by a woman author of the world of D.H. Lawrence circa the publication of Women in Love.   Set in the aftermath of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth, in a small English town so familiar to any serious reader of fiction, The Virgin in the Garden is about two sisters and a brother, the children of an eccentric, anti-clerical scholar who teaches at the local school.  The Potter family consist of the eccentric father, Bill, Stephanie, the oldest sister, back from Cambridge and teaching elementary school children, Frederica, clearly the focus of the novel and indeed three others, which are known as the Frederica quartet and chart most of her adult life.  Finally there is Marcus, the youngest, a pale, sickly boy with nary a friend in the world.

  The plot mechanics involve Marcus finding a friend, Stephanie finding a husband, and Frederica losing her virginity.  To tell more would spoil the delights of the book, but I would mention that The Virgin in the Garden is not only 420 plus pages, it is also stuffed full of classical allusions that will either force you to your phone (or not I suppose.)   It did lead to me searching, and finding, different records referenced by the text, including a 1944 recording of Ezra Pound reading his poems that I found on Spotify.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

W or The Memory of Childhood (1975) by George Perec


Book Review
W or The Memory of Childhood (1975)
by George Perec

   The Oulipo movement, a loose association of (mostly) French writers and academics who were the vanguard for experimental French fiction in the mid 20th century, is largely unknown outside of the academic specialty audience in English.   The major formal innovation of the Oulipo writers was to impose constraints on their fiction writing.   That is an approach which has found disciples outside of fiction, you can think of the Dogme movement spear headed by Lars Von Trier (mid career Harmony Korine was an adherent) and the career of American artist Matthew Barney, who literally built his career on a performance art series called "Drawing Restraint" where he physically restrained himself in different ways and then struggled for the Audience.

  It's natural to think that experimental fiction written in French would lose "something in the translation," since it is written to be difficult to understand in the original French.   From this perspective, W or The Memory of Childhood is an accesible entry point for readers exploring the works of Perec and the Oulipo school.  It is both a straight forward narrative written from the perspective of the author, who is a Jewish child in Nazi occupied France, and an equally easy to understand parable about a fictional island nation off the coast of Chile, where everyone is engaged in an endless athletic struggle.

  The details of the fictional athletics obsessed society are part Thomas More's Utopia, part Gulliver's Travels and part 1984/Brave New World, and of course, directly inspired by Nazi Germany and would I presume are the Author's dim memories of the so-called Nazi Olympics.  I'm not sure if, by 1975, Perec was still operating under the voluntary restraints of the Oulipo movement.

  By comparison, Things: A Story of the 60's, is obvious the product of  conscious restraint, with first-name only protagonists who lack any sort of inner life.   Although the stylistic restrictions are absent, there is still an obsession with rule in order, manifesting in the detailed descriptions of the horrific rituals of the fictional athletics-obsessed society of the parable half of the book.

  There's also an interesting overlap with another 1001 Books title, V by Thomas Pynchon.  In V, Pynchon writes a plot that hops back and forth, combining at a point, the V of the title (who is also a mysterious character in the book.)   In the version of W or The Memory of Childhood that I read, the author includes a foreward where he explains that the proper English translation of the title is, "Double V" not the English letter W, and this is because the inclusion of two parallel but related stories.  2 V's, in other words.

  This approach is also echoed by the common film grammar of creating narrative tension in action sequences by moving between two separate locations without making clear the temporal relationship of the two sequences. 

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