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Sunday, 29 April 2012

Verruca Music


Verruca Music

of course i could have used the traditional ovine sleep induction method but frankly the sheer effort required to imagine two thousand five hundred and eighty four sheep shambling over a rickety old gate was beyond the poor old bonce and enough to make the heart sink

and god knows the heart did sink

Stuart Estell, Verruca Music



There are a lot of new books appearing at the moment. A lot. I don’t think people are writing more. People have always written and will continue to write long after typing has completely replaced handwriting. It’s just there are more people and, with the advent of print on demand and current popularity of the ebook, publishing has become a whole lot easier. I spend a lot of time looking at what people are writing, especially those writers who—for a variety of reasons—have chosen to publish their work in electronic formats, and most of the time I’m disappointed by what I see being written as it’s populist, one step above fan fiction, tailored to specific demographics, e.g. pubescent girls who’ve read all the The Southern Vampire Mysteries, Twilight novels and Vampire Diaries. And that’s fine: pubescent girls have as much right to read as anyone else.

But what if you want to read something different? You scan the predictable list of genres—horror, check; sci-fi, check; romance, check; thriller, check—but there’s no entry for ‘different’ or ‘quirky’ or ‘wait till you read this folks’ and that’s a shame because I find that most people are generally attracted to things that are out of the ordinary, once their attention is drawn to them, if the person who’s trying to catch your eye can find some way to shout louder than all the other people out there who are clamouring for your attention.

The thing is people have been writing ‘different’ and ‘quirky’ books for decades but mostly no one hears about them, which is a shame because some of them are quite good. I imagine when James Joyce published Finnegans Wake there were quite a few people who said to their mates, “Wait till you read this,” in perhaps not an entirely complimentary tone but, love it or loathe it, one thing you can’t say about Finnegans Wake is that it followed in the footsteps of others. As more writers blaze trails it gets harder and harder to read anything that you couldn’t say is in some way derivative. This brings me to Stuart Estell’s novelette Verruca Music which is available now in both print and ebook format from eight cut gallery press. This is how they describe the book:

It is absurdist comedy of the very blackest kind, informed by a love of James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, Peter Cook and The Goon Show. Featuring the Fibonacci sequence, floors that open up without warning, a powerful laxative, and a duvet that periodically changes colour, Verruca Music charts the narrator’s emergence from a state of fearful near-immobility assisted only by entertainments of his own devising.

I’m sure that blurb would be enough to put most people off and that’s a terrible shame. In an interview Dan Holloway, a founding member of Year Zero Writers and curator of eight cuts gallery press, had this to say about why he decided to, as he puts it, throw his hat into the ring and set up the press:

The goal is simple – to get people excited about great writing. The philosophy is equally simple – there’s great writing out there you don’t know exists, and you should. Not by making it conform to the traditional preconceptions of what stories and books are, but by putting it out there in whatever shape it wants to take and selling the public a ringside seat.

So, okay, let’s say that you read that paragraph before you read the blurb; might you be persuaded to put aside any preconceptions you had and maybe have a look at the book? If you’re still reading, let’s pretend you have. Here’s the opening:

suppose one fallen morning i failed to arise from beneath the frayed blue duvet that was my shelter

arms charged and electric with the needly shakiness of it all

the mattress on the floor constituted resting place domicile and protector all in one to whit the floor felt as though it might open up but the mattress did not

well and how do you suppose that the mattress prevented the floor from opening up

the mattress prevented the floor from opening up by providing a squashy surface into which the heart might sink

and god knows the heart did sink

the heart sank the arms felt all needly and the restless feet went swish swish swish swish back and forth back and forth back and forth

the feet went swish and the heart sank

the heart sank and the feet went swish

back and forth

Okay so you’ll have noticed a couple of things. There is no punctuation and the grammar is a bit iffy too and not because it needs a decent editor to take charge of it. I can imagine that a great many people will read that first page—if, indeed, they manage to get through the first page—and read no further and there will be nothing I or anyone else will be able to say to persuade them to turn the page and that’s okay; it’s a shame but it is okay. There will be others—and I was one—who, after reading the first page found myself captivated by the voice and, line by line, found myself with a growing list of questions, basically your five Ws. There was something not unfamiliar about this though.

Now I’m not a great fan of Joyce but I am an aficionado of Beckett even if I’m not so fond of his earlier works which he wrote while he was enthralled with all things Joycean. This is how Wikipedia defines ‘Joycean’:

A text is deemed Joycean when it is reminiscent of the writings of James Joyce, particularly Ulysses or Finnegans Wake. Joycean fiction exhibits a high degree of verbal play, usually within the framework of stream of consciousness. Works that are "Joycean" may also be technically eclectic, employing multiple technical shifts as a form of thematic or subject development. In this latter respect, it is not merely an opaque or evident technique, such as is characteristic of avant garde prose, but technical shifts that are meant to be recognized by the reader and considered as part of the narrative itself. More than anything, however, Joycean has come to denote a form of extreme verbal inventiveness which tends to push the English language towards multi-lingual polysemy or impenetrability. Joycean word play frequently seeks to imply linguistic and literary history on a single plane of communication. It therefore denies readers the simple denotative message traditional in prose in favour of the ambiguity and equivocal signification of poetry.

How It IsAnd although I can see some of that coming through in Verruca Music it was not Joyce that I thought of when I read that opening page, but Beckett, and late-period Beckett at that, once he had become his own man. This is how his novel How It Is opens:

how it was I quote before Pim with Pim after Pim how it is three parts I say it as I hear it

voice once without quaqua on all sides then in me when the panting stops tell me again finish telling me invocation

past moments old dreams back again or fresh like those that pass or things always and memories I say them as I hear them murmur them in the mud

in me that were without when the panting stops scraps of an ancient voice in me not mine

my life last state last version ill-said ill-heard ill-recaptured ill-murmured in the mud brief movements of the lower face losses everywhere

The writing is dense, poetic and not an easy read even if, like me, you are well-versed in his œuvre. It features, though, some common threads that appear throughout many of Beckett’s works, especially his prose pieces, the main one being a character trying to come to terms with the nature of his existence. In this case we have someone crawling through mud dragging a sack with them and, whilst making painfully slow progress, they encounter an other (in this case Pim), another common feature. Sometimes the other is real but mostly imagined (or possibly ghostly) like the voice that harangues Joe in Eh Joe or the voice of the mother in Footfalls. This is what the old woman in Rockaby hopes to see as she stares out of her window:

another creature there
somewhere there
behind the pane
another living soul
one other living soul
till the end came
in the end came
close of a long day

In Molloy’s case it is a literal voice he hears in his head:

I have spoken of a voice giving me orders, or rather advice. It was on the way home I heard it for the first time. I paid no attention to it.

In Verruca Music the other is also a voice that engages in a dialogue with the body in the bed, correcting him (e.g. when he gets the colour of the duvet wrong) or challenging him in other ways. This is a very typical Beckettian trope. As is the body in the bed (or the mud) or contained in some other way. In the novella The End it’s a boat the narrator covers with boards to form a lid:

It completely covered the boat, I’m referring to the lid. I pushed it a little towards the stern, climbed into the boat by the bow, crawled to the stern, raised my feet and pushed the lid back towards the bow till it covered me completely. […] The lid fitted so well I had to pierce a hole. It’s no good closing your eyes, you must learn to leave them open in the dark, that is my opinion. I am not speaking of sleep, I am speaking of what I believe is called waking. In any case, I slept very little at this period, I wasn’t sleepy, or I was too sleepy, I don’t know, or I was afraid, I don’t know. […] I let farts to be sure, but hardly ever a real crack, they oozed out with a sucking noise, melted in the mighty never. I don’t know how long I stayed there. I was very snug in my box, I must say.

Converting a boat is, unusual it has to be said—Beckett’s protagonists being inclined to indolence—but it’s a good example of taking extreme measures to withdraw from society. Mostly his characters are content to stay, as does the narrator in Verruca Music, in bed and have someone fetch and carry for them. This is how Estell describes his benefactor:

are you listening young man

what

make sure you are listening young man for i will be testing you later

something about being in your mid-30s

that is exactly so and moreover thinning of hair portly of paunch steadfast of political opinions and floundering of career due to circumstances beyond the control of himself myself yourself or indeed anyself at all and henceforth domiciled atop a pleasantly squashy blanket that prevented the floor from opening up and swallowing the nutrition left by a generous hand

what was that come again i thought it was a mattress and that the heart was sinking into the floor or something similar

something similar yes for listen you must agree must you not that a squashy blanket is not a million miles away from a squashy mattress and the floor opening up and swallowing our beloved protagonist is scarcely a few hundred yards at a walking pace away from the floor opening up and swallowing the nutrition left by a generous hand which in any case it never did

what

open up and swallow the nutrition

CompanyThis section opens with the voice of the other who insinuates himself into the text from early on, a voice in the darkness under the duvet whose existence is never explained or questioned. The setting is very like the opening to Beckett’s Company:

A voice comes to one in the dark. Imagine.

To one on his back in the dark. This he can tell by the pressure on his hind parts and by how the dark changes when he shuts his eyes again and when he opens them again.

The “generous hand” is another feature that crops up in Beckett. In First Love the male narrator, having moved in with the prostitute Anna, settles down to a life of being taken care of:

She brought me my meals at the appointed hours, looked in now and then to see if all was well and make sure I needed nothing, emptied the stewpan once a day and did out the room once a month. She could not always resist the temptation to speak to me, but on the whole gave me no cause to complain.

We have, of course, similar scenes in Molloy and especially Malone Dies:

One day I found myself here, in the bed. Having probably lost consciousness somewhere, I benefit by a hiatus in my recollections, not to be resumed until I recovered my senses, in this bed. […] I am naked in this bed, in the blankets, whose numbers I increase and diminish as the seasons come and go. I am never hot, never cold. I don’t wash, but I don’t get dirty. If I get dirty somewhere I rub the part with my finger wet with spittle. What matters is to eat and excrete. Dish and pot, dish and pot, these are the poles. In the beginning the woman came right into the room, bustled about, enquired about my needs, my wants. I succeeded in the end in getting them into her head, my needs and my wants. It was not easy. She did not understand. […] She is an old woman. I don’t know why she is good to me. Yes, let us call it goodness, without quibbling.

Estell’s protagonist is slightly more creative, however, when it comes to sanitation:

calling the sounds of the feet to mind also had the great advantage that it was no longer necessary to attempt to maintain a level of hygiene by washing the fingers one by one in the large mug of tea which was a great relief as it had nearly gone over more than once

The main problem each faces, both Beckett’s characters and Estell’s, is how to wile away the hours. Thinking is the most obvious, and easiest, choice and much of this is done: wallowing in the past, contemplating the present and considering what the future might hold; I list them in order of ease.

One of the voices in Beckett’s That Time remembers the folly where he hid as a child of between ten and twelve looking at a “picture book” and talking to himself for company, making up “imaginary conversations” while his family were out in the dark looking for him. The protagonist in Company reminisces about being a small boy coming out of Connolly’s Stores and other of Beckett’s characters try to gain some comfort in looking back to, if not the good times exactly, then the not so bad times. The protagonist in Verruca Music recalls being fifteen:

o suppose for a moment i am fifteen years old and the composer of a fine musical work but spotty of face uncertain of mien septic of toenail and covered in eczema although nowhere obvious thank the lord or whoever it is best to thank these days and anyway i roll into school one morning to discover that i am unable to

what

to breathe

Malone prefers to makes up stories:

What tedium. And I call that playing.

Estell’s protagonist plays by devising entertainments, in much the same way as Molloy occupied himself with his sucking stones:

having established that entertainment was required it became obvious that entertainment could take the form of tasks set by way of a things to do list to keep focus diverted away from the floor opening up mattress frayed duvet et cetera and that structured entertainment might reduce the amount of

what

swish swish backwards and forwards and the sinking of the heart

One of the tasks involves the titular verruca:

suppose for a moment that the first entertainment was THE PICKING OF THE FEET

let us enumerate the potential paths avenues and vistas of satisfaction to be derived

the feet both with slightly knobbly big toes from an early onset of arthritis rheumatism deformity or general inherited knobbliness and crooked middle toes from goodness knows what seemed to provide several means of keeping occupied to whit a verruca on the underside of the right foot slightly sore to the touch could be investigated and poked and prodded to provide interesting sensations and in the hopes that it might go away

the depth of the verruca was revealed to be somewhat alarming

well and could you not have had the verruca treated

o do be quiet and listen

the width of the verruca was equally revealed to be somewhat alarming engendering the fear that the entire toe to which it belonged might be eaten through by the fibrous consuming warty mass

picking at the edges of the crater of the verruca with the right hand holding the foot steady and the left hand at the business end of things made a pleasant clicking sound due to the hardened skin from the days and years spent wandering around with nary a thread or clog between the soles of the feet and the hardness of the earth

different sounds proved possible depending upon the manner in which the picking was done to whit picking eastwards towards the arch gave the lowest pitch which one could almost persuade oneself was something approaching a dull thud

picking southwards towards the heel yielded not a click but a rasp of bitten fingernail upon hardened skin as the south edge of the verruca was not as well-defined while picking westwards was entirely the opposite with a satisfying crisp crack

north gave the highest-pitched sound

a sweet gentle sound

or as sweet and gentle a sound as one can make by picking at a verruca with the fingernails

Hence the title of the book. And the need to wash the fingers in the large mug of tea. The voice too is a form of entertainment, as Beckett puts it in Company:

Yet a certain activity of mind however slight is a necessary complement of company. That is why the voice does not say, You are on your back in the dark and have no mental activity of any kind. The voice alone is company but not enough.

In ‘Heard in the Dark 2’ Beckett’s protagonist does calculations to pass the time:

You close your eyes and try to calculate the volume. Simple sums you find a help in times of trouble. A haven.

Estell’s protagonist is somewhat more adventurous:

counting provided relief in the middle of the dark and tremulous night but not of the ordinary kind no no not that in fact the fibonacci sequence was used to great effect although it became difficult to keep track once past the first few handfuls of steps one one two three five eight is all easy enough but god knows the trouble i had with getting as far as two thousand five hundred and eighty four in fact i venture to suggest that i may never have got there although i would like to think

what

god knows the number of times that the jolly old fibonacci got restarted you would think that i would get the hang of it but it was like something new each time this due to the generous intervention of the non-anaesthetic chemical sedation several hours previously one one two three five eight et cetera

of course i could have used the traditional ovine sleep induction method but frankly the sheer effort required to imagine two thousand five hundred and eighty four sheep shambling over a rickety old gate was beyond the poor old bonce and enough to make the heart sink

and god knows the heart did sink

mercierandcamierBut where is all this headed? Beckett’s characters notoriously fail to reach an end, whether it be Mercier and Camier winding up exactly where they started off from or Vladimir and Estragon who never even leave their starting spot. The question here is: Will the guy in the bed ever get out of it? As the work progresses we start to figure out what he’s doing there and who “the kindly hands that brought nutrition” belong to and it’s really not that complex. But I won’t spoil it.

The influence of Beckett and Joyce is unmistakable. In a short interview the author says:

I’ve been enormously affected by Finnegans Wake and the questions it poses about literature in general. If we all form part of the same narrative, then any individual experience can be generalised and vice versa. I find Finnegans Wake an extraordinarily human book for that reason – to quote our Beloved Chancellor, “we’re all in this together.”

The most obvious models for the narrator of Verruca Music, in terms of narrators who don’t really do a great deal and are in some sort of state of dilapidation, are the three in Beckett’s Trilogy – Molloy, Malone [Dies] and The Unnamable. I’m sure the reason why some readers find Beckett thoroughly depressing is that he holds a totally unforgiving mirror up to the absurdity of life. As a hoary old existentialist I find the pointlessness of his characters’ situations both absolutely hilarious and deeply moving.

I can see why his publisher might have mentioned the Goons and Peter Cook but, for me, they’re a bit of a stretch; the book is neither silly enough to evoke the Goons not satirical enough to suggest Peter Cook at his best but if you appreciate both of these then you’ve clearly got the right mindset to give Verruca Music a go.

Gary Varga, one of the reviewers on Smashwords—who gave the book five stars incidentally—had this to say:

Part of the charm is this being kept in the dark with regards to superfluous information which would weigh down such a light hearted read. By light hearted I mean exactly that. This is easy to read but has a dark malevolence always in the shadows. For me the scenario eludes to a far darker situation than the one admitted to.

And I have to agree with him, especially with regards to the light heartedness of the book. Beckett can be funny, yes, but it’s a certain kind of humour and it often goes over the heads of people. Perhaps because his protagonists are often octogenarians (if they can even remember their ages) and seem to exist outwith a time and place that most of us can relate to. There’s not one of us who hasn’t been sick in bed and that’s a very familiar place to start off with. This book is not Beckett-lite or even Joyce-lite; it is its own thing even if it’s not ashamed of its influences.

The book is available as an ebook from Amazon or Smashwords for pennies or as a paperback from Lulu for £8.00. I was delighted when a friend on Facebook directed me to it which is how I ran across it. Makes one wonder how much other good stuff there is out there that none of us know anything about.

***

EstellHailing from Birmingham in the West Midlands, singer, composer and multi-instrumentalist Stuart Estell performs on more instruments than is healthy—mainly concertina and dulcimer, but nothing's off-limits really. Except woodwind. He doesn't get on with woodwind. He likes loose-leaf tea, Morton Feldman, cheese and Land Rovers apparently; he currently runs a 1993 Defender 110 County. He’s also so passionate about cacti he blogs about them at Blossfeldiana.

Verruca Music is his first long prose work as far as I can tell—he calls it a ‘novel’ although I’m a bit of a purist when it comes to word counts—but he really says very little about his writing on his website. He has, apparently, been writing a small amount of verse for the first time in years and several of his poems are up on the Year Zero Writers website: These Days, Sphaeroid, two poems and an untitled poem from the Higgs Boson Anthology. You can hear samples of his music on his myspace page too.

12 comments:

Jessica Bell said...

Interesting review, Jim. I'm glad you got around to reading it!

Jim Murdoch said...

Thank you for highlighting it, Jessica.

akandrewwriter said...

Really great post Jim. I am not a Joyce nor Beckett scholar, but as you gave me plenty to look at here I can totally see the Beckett connection with Verucca Music.
It really does seem an interesting read.
Now what get's published? That's a giant ball of wax seemingly driven more by money than quality these days. And I completely agree about what category would you put a work like this under. Personally I would call it literary fiction, but then that has it's own elitist connotations and restrictions to close the writer off from any number of publishers.
it's great that more people are writing and being able to get their work out there, but it seems that creates a need for even more genre's or categories, for as you say, this particular work does not fit 'any of the above' on the usual radar.
Thanks for such an in-depth review. It definitely made me want to read the novel.
It must have been incredibly hard to write, but perhaps once the author was in the style perhaps he found it no harder than another work.
I look forward to reading more of your blogs. Thank you.

Dave King said...

I thoroughly enjoyed this post, in fact, haven't enjoyed a book review so much in quite a while! But oh, if only I could think of our chancellor getting his inspiration from Finnegan's Wake!

It's interesting you say that there are more books then ever out there just now, because several rather pessimistic views I've read of late suggest that there are far fewer being read.

Methinks I must mend my ways and visit you more often!

Jim Murdoch said...

I’m glad you appreciated the review, A.K.. You really don’t need to know anything about anyone to enjoy this book and it might be a more enjoyable read for those who don’t. My trouble is that I know too much about Beckett to be able to do that and once my head has gone a certain way there’s no going back. There is so much literature out there that’s it’s virtually impossible to not feel that everything we read is derivative in some way. I personally don’t think it’s a bad thing; we all stand on the shoulders of giants.

As for how you would categorise this book…? Without a doubt it’s literary fiction. And, as you suggest, labelling a book as such does it no favours unless you’re like me and get all excited about writing that isn’t content just to tell stories. People like different. Different sells. It’s just a word but if you described this book as ‘different’ then people will check it out but call it ‘literary’ and I think more will prejudge it and not give it a chance. Their loss.

And, Dave, I’m delighted that I’ve managed to raise the bar a little. It’s always easier to write a good article if you’re excited about the work. My wife can always tell which books I’ve really enjoyed and this was definitely one of them.

As for whether people are reading more or less what I learned at college is you can do a lot with statistics but getting to the truth is rarely one of those things. At the moment I expect there is a spike due to the ease of getting your work into print (especially as an ebook) but I don’t see this as a good thing because little gems like this, which were never going to sell a lot in the first place, get buried and it’s pure fluke that someone stumbles across it. I don’t actively look for books to read anymore. I couldn't cope if I did. It’s simple arithmetic through: the more books that are becoming available means that every book published now will get read less now than it would have done if it had been published even five years ago. There is too much choice.

Art Durkee said...

As you know I very much appreciate Beckeet, although you also know that your fandom goes deeper than mine. I read all of Joyce, including the Wake, before I was 25; despite my huge respect for Joyce, there is something adolescent about him, compared to Beckett. And Tom Waits, like Beckett, seems to have been an old man before he was a young one.

But I have to say, in all this I still far prefer Virginia Woolf. She straddles all those lines that circumscribe Beckett and Joyce, and can play either voice well. And to be honest, I far prefer most Woolf followers than I do most Beckett followers. It's just that Beckett's voice was so distiller and unique that most followers come across as merely imitators.

Jim Murdoch said...

I agree totally, Art, and that’s a great way to view Joyce I think; I’m glad Beckett grew out of his adoration of him. I know of a number of writers who are fans of Beckett but I rarely see him in their writings, just the odd nod as in Auster. When I wrote Milligan and Murphy I was obviously well aware that Beckett was peeking over my shoulder and so I went to some pains not to try and mimic him. Yes, the nods are there but we fans like to see them. It’s like watching out for Stan Lee’s cameo in the latest Marvel film. What I liked about this guy is that he does his own thing. It’s obvious—as I’ve shown—that he’s treading well-worn ground but just because there are twenty-gazillion love stories out there is no reason not to write another one. Had Beckett being writing this text then I can guarantee he would have trimmed out the reveal at the end. Not that we get to know everything but we do get more of a resolution than Beckett would ever have favoured us with. It’s like when I talk about Milligan and Murphy I describe it as a straight line compared to Beckett’s circle; my characters get somewhere; Beckett’s never do. I’ve possibly done this guy a bit of a disservice by showing how derivative his work appears and not highlighting how original his work is. He’s also managed to make ‘literary’ readable and entertaining; it’s quite the wee page-turner this even if there aren’t that many pages to turn. Last I looked it was free on Smashwords; if not it’ll only be pennies. I just wish there were more having a crack at stuff like this. I do get a bit tired of straightforward narratives at times.

Art Durkee said...

I get tired of straightforward linear narrative, too, especially where it's in that pervasive "no style" style that dominates not only the bestselling potboilers but also most of "literary" fiction.

(I think it's time that people in "literary" fiction realize that they too are writing in a genre, with expectations and norms, like any other genre. And I think it's definitely time for "literary fiction" writers to stop looking down their critical noses at "genre" fiction. Not that you do that, or anyone present here does that, but many still do.)

One of the reasons I'm a Woolf fan is because it's NOT straightforward narrative, yet the internal monologues and stream-of-consciousness is so real in terms of psychology and the way consciousness actually works, that it's very compelling. Woolf wasn't ever writing linear narrative, even in "Mrs. Dalloway." That's not to say that there's no plot, or no narrative, but it's neither straightforward nor linear. And that's one reason I appreciate it so much.

I'm sure you know the famous Woolf quote in which she openly stated her intentions for narrative, and for writing in general, which was to reflect consciousness rather than arrange it:

"Life is not a series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged; life is a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end."

Jim Murdoch said...

Actually, Art, I know little about Woolf and, to my embarrassment, when I think of her my first thought is usually of Nicole Kidman with that awful prosthetic clamped to her nose. The quote is new to me. I’ve never read her. Never avoided reading her just never got round to her. Planned to read her after watching The Hours. Even watched the film adaptation of Mrs Dalloway shortly afterwards and expected that might motivate me—Carrie has a copy of the book—but I still never got round to her.

I can’t say I don’t look down on some genres. I really don’t get why people would want to write about vampire unicorns. Or read about them. I try not to be a snob but in my heart of hearts I know I am. All the reviewing I’ve been doing over the last few years has introduced me to authors I would never have considered before but on the whole my feelings haven’t changed: storytelling bores me. I can tolerate straight narratives in films but in books it’s just pages to wade through. I read a lot about what people are writing and how they go about it and I have to say on the whole I can’t relate to most of them. I don’t think though that that’s me being a snob. I expect it’s just me acknowledging my own limitations as a writer.

Art Durkee said...

Well, it does strike me that you've been looking for Woolf in all the wrong places. What you say you don't like about boring storytelling is exactly what people turn to Woolf for.

At the very least, I'd recommend "To the Lighthouse" and "Mrs. Dalloway."

"The Hours" is problematic on several levels. I have a book called "The Mrs. Dalloway Reader," which contains the novel, all the short stories written just before the novel, originally published as "The Party," excerpts from Woolf's diaries about writing the book, and several essays by others about Woolf, focusing on "Mrs. Dalloway." This is one of the best critical editions of a novel I've ever encountered.

What I got from Daniel Mendelssohn's essay in this volume about "The Hours" both as novel and as movie was validation that there is a real problem there. "The Hours" was intended as a real hommage to "Mrs. Dalloway," but there is a lot of psychological baggage in the way, a lot of assumption and presumption. Of course, that's what fiction does. My initial response to the novel when it first came out was to think that it was a piece of crap; not because it's derivative but because it's ridden through with clichés about artists, about being gay, about AIDS, about lots of other things. I still think that, but Mendelssohn's essay at least convinced me to finally read the novel and watch the movie, which I'd avoided doing. I now am glad that I've read the novel, but I still think it's highly overrated.

My point here is that judging Virginia Woolf by what one encounters of her in "The Hours" is a serious misstep. The Woolf that one encounters in "The Hours" is pretty far off the mark, and gives one zero sense of what reading her novels is actually like. This is what I meant when I said earlier that the imitators usually fail to live up to the master. "The Hours," even though not it's not a bad book on its own terms, is not even mediocre imitation Woolf.

Yes, I do feel strongly about this. The one good thing that "The Hours" should have done is get people to read Woolf for themselves, but it didn't even seem to do that.

Jim Murdoch said...

I’ve not actually been looking for Woolf anywhere, Art. The main reason I watched The Hours was to hear how the music by Philip Glass worked with the film. I’m not saying I wouldn’t’ve got round to it some day but that was my main interest. As far as the music goes I felt it overpowered the film. I think it’s a superb score and I enjoy both versions I own (I have the piano transcription too) but I didn’t think it worked with the images I was seeing.

Carrie also has the novel of The Hours which I can’t remember if I’ve read or not and God alone what that says. I have read bits of Woolf, enough to know that she’s punctuation mad and I don’t mean that in a bad way. I will go and find her copy of Mrs. Dalloway and stick it on my to-read shelf. At least then it’ll be one step closer to being read.

As far as the film went probably the storyline I liked least was that concerning the gay guy. It wasn’t that he was gay—which was neither here nor there—but it was how his terminal illness was handled; I much preferred the film Wit in that regard. It felt like the kind of storyline a straight man whose knowledge of homosexuality was based on what he saw on TV would have written. It came as a great shock to learn that Michael Cunningham was gay himself. But I suppose there are gays who are clichés and gays who are not; just because you’re gay doesn’t make you Priscilla the Queen of the Desert, does it?

Art Durkee said...

Yeah, that's more or less exactly how I felt about "The Hiurs" myself. It is indeed a good film score. And the handling of the gay character's storyline is exactly what I hated, as it's full of cliches and stereotypes. I completely agree with everything said in your last paragraph. It frankly boggles my mind that a gay writer would handle a gay character in this way. Not to mention the discredited Freudian stuff about his mother.

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