Suspension of Embarrassment

‘Suspension of Disbelief’ is a phrase first introduced by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. According to Wikipedia, the phrase is now used as a state of mind required of the reader. In order to enter the world that is proposed by the author, the reader must leave behind their own concepts of ‘reality’ and accept the laws that govern the universe created by the author.

‘Suspension of Disbelief’ has never been an issue for me. I have enjoyed being swept away into different worlds. I especially admire novelists who are able to create a universe. And I often feel that although what happens in these novels may not actually be possible in real life, still the message that is given does apply to real life. For example, after reading ‘The handmaid’s tale’ by Margaret Atwood, I found myself scrutinizing my own values, the way I live my life. Even though ‘The handmaid’s tale’ is a work of speculative fiction.

What has for a long time been troubling me, as a reader, is embarrassment. Whenever I would read a novel in which a character did something that was clearly stupid, I, as the reader, would feel embarrassed and ashamed for this character. I wanted them to do the right thing. For example, the first time I started to read Franzen’s ‘The corrections’ I stalled around page 40. I could not continue because one of the main characters, a 39 year old college teacher, started an affair with one of his students. The story of the affair is told in flashback and we already know that things did not go well and he lost his job. Still, I felt so embarrassed I stopped reading it.

But why? And, who am I to judge? Why should these characters all behave in a way that does not embarrass me? Further still, I think without these embarrassments, the story would not move at all. As a reader one often knows more about what is going on than the character, so who says I would behave better if I had been in the same situation? In fact, it does not matter what I would do at all, since I am not of the world that the author created. My belief system does not apply. What matters is how well the author is able to construct their own.

So, ‘Suspension of Disbelief’ for me is okay if magical stuff happens, but not okay if one of the characters does something stupid. I guess this says a lot about me as a person. Afraid to make mistakes, me? Noooo. But I am trying to become a better reader, to simply accept that for the message to come across, some things I do not agree with have to happen. I have to suspend my embarrassment to fully enter the world created by the author. Failure to do so has caused me to give up on a lot of novels. But I am optimistic. The last book I wrote about, ‘Damage’ by Josephine Hart, contains a lot of things that I would not be okay with in real life. But I was not embarrassed, I was swept away, I was impressed. I have succeeded in suspending my embarrassment. And if I can do it once, I can do it again.

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Josephine Hart – Damage

I had never heard of this novel until I read about it on dovegreyreader’s blog here. She made it sound great so I added it to my little notebook of books to look out for. A week later I ran across a second-hand copy and immediately snatched it up. This never happens to me! Anyway, I did not wait too long with reading it (which does happen often with books I buy…). And it was as great as I had hoped it would be. I have thought a lot about the book since.

I do not want to give anything away of the plot, so in one paragraph, this is the premise. A middle-aged GP turned politician is introduced to his son Martyn’s fiancee Anna and begins an affair with her. Until now, his life has been very respectable and passion-less. Happily married to Ingrid, two grown children (Martyn and Sally), he is regarded by his colleagues and family members as the personification of solid reliability. The relationship with Anna is very unconventional and he soon finds that all he really cares about is when he can be with her again, as he explains in this rather ruthless way

my vision extended only to Anna. What had, as she said, been a life of singular blindness, now necessitated the ruthless obliteration from my vision of Martyn, Ingrid and Sally. They seemed but shadows.
Martyn’s reality had been most brutally stamped out. He was a figure in a canvas, over which another had been painted.

I do not want to say any more about what happens, you really need to find out for yourself. You will find it impossible to put this down, I promise you.

One of the questions I found myself wondering about after I had read this was: whose story is this? The first person narrator, our unnamed middle-aged politician, gives the impression that it is his story. But, one could also argue that it may just as well be regarded to be Anna’s story as we gradually find out what makes her submit to the affair. It made me wonder what the novel had been like if it had been told from her perspective. It would have been very different for sure.

What struck me in the end was that the tragic events that I will not talk about have made it possible for Anna to start a new, an ordinary, life. While at the same time, our unnamed male narrator shows us that clearly, his life is over. Great stuff indeed. ‘Damage’ by Josephine Hart was a great read for me. I highly recommend it.

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Thornton Wilder – The Bridge of San Luis Rey

‘The Bridge of San Luis Rey’ was published in 1927. It was Wilder’s second novel and it won the Pulitzer Prize in 1928. Set in Lima, Peru, in the year 1714, the novel starts with the collapse of an ancient bridge. Five people are thrust into the abyss and do not survive the accident. Father Juniper, a Franciscan monk, attempts to find out why these people died. He wants to uncover the bigger plan that he believes God must have had.

For me, some parts of this novel worked really well, but others did not. I will try to explain why. First of all, to me ‘The Bridge of San Luis Rey’ is really a study of love, in all its forms. In telling the stories of the five people who died in the accident, Wilder shares with us several stories of love; love between a mother and her child, between two twin brothers, the love of  a grown man for his pupil, etc. He does this very beautifully, as in this fragment, where he describes what happens between the twins Manuel and Esteban, when one of them falls in love with a woman

It was merely that in the heart of one of them there was left room for an elaborate imaginative attachment and in the heart of the other there was not.

This image of one of the twins falling in love and the other not knowing how this could have happened was very powerful, I thought. Similarly, the Marquesa de Montemayor and her devotion for her daughter really moved me.

The whole overarching plot with Father Juniper seeking God’s design seemed unnecessary scaffolding to me. The stories of the five people are told by an omniscient narrator and we do not hear Father Juniper’s words. We only find out later that things did not end well for the Father and that his manuscript is hidden somewhere. I found that the novel could do without this device.

I also did not much care for a second device, used by Wilder to give weight to his story of the Marquesa de Montemayor. The Marquesa dotes on her daughter, but her relationship with her daughter is troublesome and the daughter escapes to a marriage in Spain. The Marquesa is from then on forced to express her devotion in letters and not being surrounded by people who love her, she becomes a local oddity. She dresses and behaves in a funny way and people laugh at her behind her back. To make sure that the reader does take the Marquesa seriously, Wilder from the start emphasizes that after the Marquesa’s death, her letters became very famous literary works, studied in schools etc. Every time she writes a letter, he reminds us of this, which became to me at least, rather odious. The point is that for me, the fame of the Marquesa’s letters did not matter. Her story itself is sufficiently heart-breaking to make it of interest and importance to the reader.

Overall, this was a good read. There were some things I liked, some things I disliked, but on the whole the portrait of love is well done. I really sympathized with some of the characters and I do love the motto of this book as it is given on the last page

Even memory is not necessary for love. There is a land of the living and a land of the dead, and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.

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Virginia Woolf – Jacob’s Room

Published in 1922, ‘Jacob’s Room’ (JR) is Virginia Woolf’s third novel. Her first two novels had a more conventional form, but JR is a modernist novel. According to a quote from Woolf’s diary, mentioned in the introduction, JR is the work in which she ‘found out how to begin (at 40) to say something in my own voice’. ‘Jacob’s Room’ is the story of Jacob Flanders. The novel begins when he is a small boy and we follow him on his journey toward adulthood. Jacob is described mainly via the impressions he makes on others, especially women.

As with everything I have read by Virginia Woolf so far, the writing is truly amazing. There are many sentences and sections that I would like to frame and hang on my wall. Just so that I could read them again, and again. VW’s writing has a unique quality, that I find hard to put into words. An example of what I loved is the following section

It must not be thought, though, that they ousted the flowers of nature. Roses, lilies, carnations, in particular, looked over the rims of vases and surveyed the bright lives and swift dooms of their artificial relations. Mr Stuart Ormond made this very observation; and charming it was thought; and Kitty Craster married him on the strength of it six months later.

The fact that this is a modernist novel makes the reading experience very different for me. Somehow the stream of loosely connected events that together form the story creates a distance between the characters and the reader. This means that I was not really emotionally involved in this novel. This might put off some readers. But I am not sure that VW intended for the reader to feel for Jacob or any of the other characters, her aim surely was different. Maybe this was meant to be aesthetically pleasing, maybe she wanted the reader to appreciate it more like a viewer would examine a painting. It is clear that I need to find out more about VW as a writer.

The modernist flow does enable VW to do some neat things with her characters. I particularly loved this section where Jacob and his friend Bonamy are brought close together in thought, even though Jacob is at that moment travelling in Greece and Bonamy is in London

‘But the Daily Mail isn’t to be trusted,’ Jacob said to himself, looking about for something else to read. And he sighed again, being indeed so profoundly gloomy that gloom must have been lodged in him to cloud him at any moment, which was odd in a man who enjoyed things so, was not much given to analysis, but was horribly romantic, of course, Bonamy thought, in his rooms in Lincoln’s Inn.
‘He will fall in love,’ thought Bonamy. ‘Some Greek woman with a straight nose.’

I read the Penguin Classics of ‘Jacob’s Room’ with an introduction by Sue Roe. I cannot compare it to other editions, but I can recommend this edition. I found the notes to be really helpful in catching some of the finer distinctions. I read the novel first and then the introduction and I found the introduction really helped me to understand the intentions of the novel better.

Overall, this was a very rewarding reading experience, but I would say this required more effort than a more conventional novel. I had to work hard to follow the flow of this work. I invested some time in understanding the introduction. In the end I am happy that I made the effort and I foresee more Virginia Woolf in my future.

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Winifred Holtby – South Riding

The world is what we make it, she would preach; take what you want. Take it – and pay for it.

This is the motto of Sarah Burton, one of the main characters of Winifred Holtby’s 1936 novel ‘South Riding’. Winifred Holtby wrote several other novels and was also a prolific journalist. She passed away before ‘South Riding’ was published. What follows here are my thoughts on ‘South Riding’. I would not call this a review simply because there is so much in this novel and I am not sure I can do it justice in this entry.

In ‘South Riding’ Winifred Holtby very convincingly creates a universe. A universe consisting of a small Yorkshire town in the second half of the 1930’s. Through various characters and their own struggles and triumphs in life she is able to portray an entire community. The storylines surrounding the characters meet, so a matter is often seen from different angles. This serves to show us that some of the social and administrative dilemma’s presented in the book do not have a single resolution. There is often no solution that benefits all parties involved.

There are many characters to be liked and disliked in this novel, but they are all very real. Some immediately capture your sympathies, like Alderman Mrs Beddows or Robert Carne. Others I wasn’t so sure about. Midge Carne, for example, made me feel very sorry for her on the one hand, but on the other hand I found her insufferable in some parts of the book.

Now I know I am not in a position to judge on what is a classic, but for me personally I feel this will become one of the greats. One of those novels that I will pick up again and again, like works by Jane Austen, Edith Wharton, Henry James, the Bronte sisters, etc. This truly is a book you want to live in. A lot of novels offer great characters and overpowering stories, but it is rare that an author is able to create a whole universe. Winifred Holtby did so with ‘South Riding’ and I am happy to have been able to inhabit this world while I was reading.

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Anne Tyler – Back When We Were Grownups

I had never heard of Anne Tyler, until she was mentioned on Episode 14 of ‘The Readers’ podcast, since she has a new book coming out in 2012. A couple of days after listening to the podcast I found two of her novels in a second-hand bookstore. One of them I immediately started reading, and finished in three days. I thought ‘Back When We Were Grownups’ (BWWWG, for short) was great. And now I am very happy that I have a copy of Anne Tyler’s ‘Breathing Lessons’ to look forward to.

Main character of BWWWG is Rebecca Holmes Davitch. Aged 53, Rebecca finds herself the upbeat, outgoing centre of an extended family that contains three stepdaughters, a daughter, (who all have partners and children), a brother-in law and a soon-to-be 100-years-old uncle-in-law Poppy. Her husband died a long time ago and Rebecca suddenly starts to wonder what happened to the shy, bookish 19-year-old she once was. Can it be that she somewhere took a wrong turn and lost her true self? Has she been playing a part without being aware of it all these years? What follows is Rebecca’s examination of her current and past life. She attempts to reconnect with the girl who dropped out of college to marry a much older man with three young daughters. She tries to find out if it is possible to go back to her old self and carry on where she left off.

I fear I am not making this sound very appealing, but you really have to believe me when I say that this is great reading! The characters are so alive, it is sometimes very funny, no melodrama whatsoever and it makes you think about life.

Rebecca gets in touch with her high school boyfriend Will Allenby, to whom she says

it seems to me that I’ve been travelling in reverse. I know less now than I did when I was in high school. I’m trying to remedy that. I hope it’s not too late.

Rebecca refers to the fact that after dropping out of college, she dedicated her life to her husband, children and the family business, whereas Will has gone on to do a doctorate in physics and has become head of the department at their old college. But I found that Rebecca is being too hard on herself. Clearly, she has learnt much more about life than Will Allenby, whose social skills are still as rudimentary as they were when they were 19.

In the end, unle-in-law Poppy, on his 100th birthday, answered the book’s central question for me

‘Look,’ I said. ‘Face it,’ I said. ‘There is no true life. Your true life is the one you end up with, whatever it may be. You just do the best you can with what you’ve got,’ I said.”

I highly recommend this novel.

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Paul Gallico – Mrs Harris goes to Paris

‘Mrs Harris goes to Paris’ is a novel published by American writer Paul Gallico in 1958. It was published in the UK under the title ‘Flowers for Mrs Harris’. I read the reissue as part of the Bloomsbury Group by Bloomsbury publishing, which also includes ‘Mrs Harris goes to New York’.

Mrs Harris is a London char lady, who comes across a Dior dress in one of her clients’ wardrobes. From then on, she has her heart set on owning a Dior dress. After a couple of years of saving, she is able to fly to Paris to fulfill her dreams. Whilst in Paris, Mrs Harris meets new friends and not only her own life is changed by these new friendships. In ‘Mrs Harris goes to New York’ we follow her on a quest to find the father of an abused boy in New York.

For me, this was the book-shaped equivalent of a feel-good-movie. The Mrs Harris stories are comforting and funny without becoming kitschy. The characters are very real, yet at the same time the stories are magical. I was reminded by, and made cheerful in the same way as when I read, ‘Miss Pettigrew lives for a day’ by Winifred Watson, or ‘Cold comfort farm’ by Stella Gibbons.

I have here a small extract from ‘Mrs Harris goes to New York’ that will give you an idea of the writing style and the type of stories these are

A key rattled in the door, it swung open and in marched Mrs Harris carrying her usual rexine bag full of goodness-only knows-what that she always brought with her on her rounds, and wearing a too-long, last year’s coat that someone had given her, with a truly ancient flowerpot hat, relic of a long-dead client, but which now by the rotation of styles had suddenly become fashionable again.
‘Good morning, ma’am,’ she cried cheerily. ‘I’m a bit early this morning, but since you said you was ‘aving some friends for dinner tonight, I thought I’d do a real good tidying up and ‘ave the plyce lookin’ like apple pie.’

I am very happy that I picked this up and look forward to reading more of the Bloomsbury Group series.

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