“Molloy” by Samuel Beckett

Degradation and vagrancy vacillate within the strange, surreal and at times ghastly world of Samuel Beckett’s novels-Proust once wrote that writers are in essence translators of their own inner consciousness and whereas Proust’s writing is inherent incandescent and poetic, Beckett’s is moribund and morbid, yet unique and captivating. Proust’s world is one of madelines and hawthorns, whereas Beckett’s is of tramps and turpitude.

‘Molloy’ follows two principal characters-the vagrant Molloy and his travails as he traverses around a narrow piece of land which he lugubriously inhabits. During the course of Molloy’s perambulations, the reader is treated to both some weird and disturbing images (his pebble sucking habits, or his relationship with his mother) but also to strangely poetic passages, such as;

From there he must have seen it all, the plain, the sea and those self-same hills that some call mountains, indigo in places in the evening light, their serried ranges crowding the sky-line, cloven with hidden valleys that the eye divines from sudden shifts of colour and then from other signs for which there are no words, only thoughts.”

Yes, the great cloud was ravelling, discovering here and there a pale and dying sky, and the sun, already down, was manifest in the livid tongues of fire darting towards the zenith, falling and darting again, ever more pale and languid, and doomed to be no sooner lit than to be extinguished.”

A sense of negativity and cynicism pervades the narrative, as Molloy is on a kind of existential search for something (or nothing), whether eulogizing about bicycles or rubbing against his erstwhile captor Louse, Molloy exists as a kind of force of nature, juxtaposing questions about human excrement which profound questions on human existence, whilst puntcuated with self-doubted.

On the other hand, Moran, a private detective who is searching for Molloy. He is no less cynical than Molloy, yet at the start of the novel seems inordinately proud of his intelligence-however, this thing veil of self-assurance gradually disintegrates as his narrative continues, until gradually, both physically and mentally, he begins to resemble Molly, as the two characters and narrative streams coalesce into one, as the reader is caught in the hypnotic web of Beckett’s prose.

“Cries and Whispers” by Ingmar Bergman

God, death, love, existential angst and the conflicts of the human heart-these are the themes which permeate the films of Ingmar Bergman, imbuing them with a kind of religious fervour, a depth of emotion which few other directors are able to replicate-whereas Bergman’s films lack any physical action, they are rich in emotional action, in fact that characters often seem paralysed by their spiritual or emotional crises, unable to over-come the incomprehensible shadow of loneliness and emptiness which hangs over them. As with any director, sometimes it works better than others, however ‘Cries and Whispers’ represents one of the high points in Bergman’s career.

The film principally follows the lives of four women-three sisters; Agnes, Maria and Karin and Agnes’s servant, Anna and depicts the final days of Agnes who is suffering from cancer. All of the characters are going through some form of suffering-Agnes’s is primarily physical, as her body is both racked with the pain of cancer (Harriet Anderson’s performance is both harrowing and mesmerising). She seems possessed by her illness, yet, of all the characters in the films, is the only one who is able to find some meaning in life, via the gentle rock of the swing on a Autumn afternoon with the people she loves-her epiphany is one of the few positive and hopeful moments on the film, the equivalent to Antonius Blok’s realisation that life’s meaning can just as much be found in a bowl of milk as it can in endless self-absorption and pontificating about god. However, the characters around her are too absorbed in their own emotional angst to care or notice deeply about others-the coldness of the character’s emotions contrasts with the vibrancy of the cinematography. The frigid and repressed Karin, the vivacious but ultimately shallow Maria and their oafish husbands, all represent a kind of emotional sterility and selfishness which contrasts with the servant Anna, whose Maddona-like demeanour casts her as the Mary to the Christ like Agnes, an idea which is further re-inforced by her staying with Agnes after her ephemeral resurrection, after she is abandoned by her sisters.

Bergman’s use of colour in the film is astonishing; he uses a triptych of black, white and red and the deep, vibrant hue of russet which dominates the film is, in Berman’s own words, symbolic of how he views the human soul-the virginal white, especially in the clothes of Agnes acts as a contrast to this, yet few directors were able to use colour as a central crux of their story-in fact, the director who came closest to Bergman was, ironically (due to Bergman disdaining his works) Antonioni, especially in ‘Red Desert’ in which colour forms an even more formative part of the story than in ‘Cries and Whispers’. (Perhaps part of the reason for Bergman’s dislike is how Antonioni represents the polar opposite of Bergman in terms of depicting emotions-Bergmans characters are rich in emotion, whereas Antonioni’s are almost emotion-less. However, thematically, they share many of he same obsessions.)

Another common theme which-with the exception of ‘The Seventh Seal’ is Bergman’s focus on female characters-although each female character in in some way symbolic of some female archetype, they are painted with an emotionally richness and depth which few directors were, or are, able to match. ‘Cries and Whispers’ is a harrowing and yet beautiful film and is certainly one of Bergman’s best films.

“Vivre Sa Vie” by Jean-Luc Godard

Irreverent, experimental and original-in many ways Godard’s strengths as a director are also the root cause of his weaknesses-whereas early Godard was able to channel the incorrigible inventiveness of his style via a series of stylish vignettes, scenes and characters and witty, if slightly polished, dialogue, his latter films stretch his style to the point of self-parody, the themes and dialogue being too sententious and self-important to take seriously.

‘Vivre Sa Vie’ , along with ‘Breathless’ and ‘Bande e Part’ forms part of the central triptych of Godard’s oeuvre which Godard at his very best-no director was able to emphasise the importance of the camera for telling a story quite like Godard, whether it is Nana’s vacous gazes into the camera, the juxtaposition of Nana with the inquisition scene of Joan of Arc in the cinema scene or the soundless scene between Nana and Luigi-the only scene in the film in which Nana is able to form an emotional bond with another character and reminiscent in style with ‘Joan of Arc’, Godard uses the camera to involve and even make the viewer complicit in Nana’s misery and desolation.

The story is starkly unsentimental in it’s depiction of Nana and her descent into prostitution-there is no wasted or superfluous dialogue, no artificially beautiful shots; instead ‘Vivre Sa Vie’, with it’s many disorientating and slightly and provocative shots is Godard’s homage to Cinéma vérité, interspersed with the themes which dominate Godard’s movies; B-Movie gangsters, consumerism, philosophy, art and literature. Yet, beneath all this, and unusually for Godard, is a deeply human story of a woman who chooses to live her life as she wants to, but who ends up paying the ultimate price for doing so.

“Ulysses” by James Joyce

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A lyrical patchwork of pastiches, ‘Ulysses’ is one of the most startlingly original novels of the 20th century, the essentially quotidian nature of the story belies the poetry of the language, the incandescence of the imagery, the beauty which shimmers beneath the pages of the novel.

The story essentially follows the live of two men-the good-natured, yet slightly forlorn Leopold Bloom and the prodigious genius, Stephen Dedalus. Despite the differences in their characters, the characters are linked by a shared sense of grief-Leopold for his dead son Rudy and Stephen for his refusal to comply with his mother’s request for him to pray at her deathbed. Grief-for the irrecoverablity of the past and the inadequacy of the present is a theme which permeates the novel; both characters feel isolated from a society which does not accept them, Leopold for his Jewish heritage and Stephen for the originality of his opinions and intransigence of his personality- “ “You behold in me a horrible example of free though” he states to the English lodger, Haines.

Stephen’s genius mind, weird as it is, is awash with iridescence, aphorisms and turns of phrase. The sea, the night-sky, coins, the evening air; all burst forth beautifully in Stephen’s mind;

“Woodshadows floated silently by through the morning peace from the stairhead seaward from where he gazed. Inshore and farther out the mirror of water whitened, spurned by light-shod hurrying feet. White breast of the dim sea. The twinning stresses, two by two. A hand plucking the harpstrings merging their twining chords. Wavewhite wedded words shimmering on the dim tide. A cloud began to cover the sun, shadowing the bay in a deeper green.”

“Stephen’s embarrassed hand moved over the shells heaped in the cold stone mortar: whelks and money, cowries and leopard shells, and this, whorled as an emir’s turban, and this, scallop of Saint James. An old pilgrim’s hoard, dead treasure, hollow shells.”

However, despite Stephen’s stream-of-genius, there is a coldness and arrogance about him, a kind of insouciance and indifference which separates him from other people and makes him hard to relate to. Bloom attempts to act as a bridge between Stephen and humanity, Bloom’s mind at times soars to pitches of genius to rival Stephen’s, yet Bloom, with his every-day concerns and low-brow interest in cheap, chicancerous pornography, his constant concerns over his wife’s infidelities, his innate kindness and strange perversions, is in many sense much more of a person than Stephen, yet in many ways he is as isolated as Stephen. Feelings of androgyny dominated the psyche of Bloom, feelings of alienation from his Jewish heritage and feelings of guilt over his father’s denunciation of his heritage, feelings of inadequacy over his wife’s affair with the vapid and vulgar Blazes Boylan-who fate (or Joyce) keeps on inadvertently putting in the path of Bloom-whilst Stephen’s concerns are cerebral and metaphysical, Bloom’s are far more human, yet the chain which links them together is this shared sense of sequestration.

Few novels use pastiche and parody with as much brilliance as ‘Ulysses’. Joyce apes and echoes the cadence, clichés and themes of a multitude of high and low brow literary genres. Not only that, but Joyce beautifies them, coalescing his sense of genius with the cloying clichés of each genres. The sense of beauty reaches its zenith in the masturbation scene in the ‘Gerty McDowell’ chapter, which is a parody of romance fiction;

“And then a rocket sprang and bang shot blind O! Then the Roman candle burst and it was like a scene of O! And everyone cried O! O! In raptures and it gushed out of it a stream of rain gold hair threads and they shed and ah! They were all greeny, dewy, stars falling with golden O, so lively! O, so soft, sweet, soft! Then all melted away dewily in the grey air”

In ‘Ulysses’ Joyce’s pen reaches a fever pitch of lyrical genius, which is rarely matched in literature, few novels blaze forth with as much beauty, originality and brilliance as Ulysses, few writers were able to transform and transmogrify reality and the narrative form with as much vibrancy and variety of ‘Ulysses’, which represents not only the pinnacle of Joyce’s art, but also the pinnacle of Western art and literature.

“Song of Solomon” by Toni Morrison

‘Song of Solomon’ is a coalescement of a variety of different literary styles; a pinch of magic realism with a dash of Faulkner, synthesised with African folklore and the Western narrative form, leaves us with a style which is both a synthesis of various influences and wholly original.

‘Song of Solomon’ follows the story of Milkman Dead, an insouciant and at times conceited young man, whose birth coincides with the suicidal attempt of flight by the lachrymose salesman, Mr. Smith, whose attempts to fly are captured in a wonderfully poetic vignette of images;

“When the dead doctor’s daughter saw Mr Smith emerge as promptly as he had promise from behind the cupola, his wide blue silk wings curved forward around his chest, she dropped her covered peck basket, spilling red velvet rose petals. The wind blew them up and down and into small mounds of snow”

The spectre of Mr. Smith’s suicide subconsciously follows Milkman around for the rest of his life-there is something weird and unconventional about him, something slightly unsettling, a feel which is exacerbated by the eccentricities of his family-from his authoritative and peremptory father Macon, whose sole concern is money and property and his long-suffering wife Ruth, for whom Macon harbours an insatiable malevolence due to the incestuous nature of her relationship with her father or Macon’s messianic sister Pilate and her bellicose grand-daughter Reba, whose love for and desire to possesses Milkman sends her into a murderous frenzy, the grandiose and Biblical undertones of the family story and dynamics underpins their difference to most of the other African-American characters who populate the novel.

Monied and well-educated, the interactions between the Dead family and other Black characters symbolises the growing divide between different sectors of African-American society as some groups were becoming closely assimilated within American society, other groups, who lacked their money and therefore status were being pushed further towards the fringes of society, dehumanised not only by the White population but by those from their own community who used their wealth and privilege to parrot the prejudices of the White population. Milkman’s journey to and around Pennsylvania is symbolic of this-he believes that the poor country-folk he meets are in awe of his wealth and status, reducing them to a collection of simplistic clichés and blind to the anger cause by his condescending and arrogant air. Morrison is exploring how the core values of American society-land, power and money, are at the core of the racial divide.

There is something Biblical about the story, from the characters, to the themes and prose style it’s mythical and magical undertones and is one of the seminal novel about the African-American experience in American literature.

“Laughter in the Dark” by Vladimir Nabokov

Nabokov famously disowned “Laughter in the Dark” and one can see some of the reasons why-it lacks the vivacity and verve, the poetic cadence of Nabokov’s prose, however it contains most of the themes which dominate Nabokov’s works; the vicissitudes of reality, of cruelty, the burgeoning sexuality of adolescence, solipsism and unreliable narrators. Some of the descriptions can be cloyingly clichéd and it lacks perhaps the complexity of his great novels, however traces of his genius and lyricism are dotted throughout the novel;

“It really was blue; purple blue in the distance, peacock-blue coming nearer; diamond blue where the wave caught the light. The foam toppled over, ran, slowed down, then receded, leaving a smooth mirror on the wet sand, which the next wave flooded again.”

The narrative follows Albinus, a rich, artistic but slightly ineffectual man who fulfils a long-standing fantasy by falling in love with the capricious, captivating yet hopelessly cruel Margot, who seeks to manipulate and upend Albinus with her lover, Axel Rex. There are echoes of other Nabokovian characters in the novel-Axel is a kind of fore-runner of Humbert and especially Quilty, Margot is a crueller and vainer version of Lolits and Albinus resembles Martin, the hero of ‘Glory’, but an older Martin inflated with smug self-satisfaction and lacking his moral refinement.

It is by far the most film-like of Nabokov’s novels-indeed many of the passages, such as the mime performance given by Axel against the blind Albinus, would make for brilliant film scenes and although it lacks the prosaic brilliance of Nabokov’s latter novels, it forms an important bridge in Nabokov’s transition to an artistic genius which was to last until the publication of ‘Ada’.

“The Book of Flights” by J.M.G Le Clezio

The Book of Flights’ is a work of outstanding imagery, of incandescent imagery, variegated shades of luminous light radiate from the novel, creating an atmosphere of perpetual phosphorescence and bucolic brightness-take, for example, his description of sunlight;

Not a path of colour left anywhere, nothing but this unbearable whiteness that had penetrated each corner of the town. The giant searchlight held this circle of earth in its beam, and the light particles bombarded matter unceasingly. Each shape and object had been transformed into a tiny lamp whose incandescent filament glowed brightly in the centre of its crystal bubble. The whiteness was everywhere. Vision was blanked out.”

Clezio is able to bring his startlingly original powers of description to auditory as well as visual passages-sounds, sights and smells are all painted with a sense of irreverence and beauty until the world which Clezio describes becomes a succession of surreal images, a kind of sensory super-abundance washes over the reader;

The bus brushes the sidewalk as it passes…it scrapes the ground, spreading out a like a volley of sharp flints. It zigzags, it spits from the machine gun’s barrel, and it’s bullets ricochet explosively from the walls, smash into human flesh and open up little stars of blood. The heavy machine gun fires upon the world, while a peculiar grey-blue cloud spreads out, acrid, deadly the cloud of mortal dust, the dangerous fog which penetrates through the skin and disintegrates life”

The reader gradually drowns beneath a succession of images and impressions, although the narrative loosely follows Hogan’s journey around the world, the novel feels more like a series of impressions than a coherent story-at times this can become disjointed and jarring, especially in the latter half of the novel, where Clezio seeks to further experiment with different narrative forms and the novel can occasionally become worn-down in tendentious political and social commentaries which do not suit it. Nevertheless ‘The Book of Flights’ is a completely original and beautifully written story with many memorable passages and descriptions.

“The Bell Jar” by Sylvia Plath

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‘The Bell Jar’ is an autobiographical account of the narrator’s summer internship in New York and her eventual mental breakdown. The prose style vacillates between some pretty passages and a cumulus of clichés and the emotional life of the narrator drifts from a harrowing account of a person’s struggles with mental illness and a streak of WASP-ish self-absorption and privilege. Perhaps in many ways ‘The Bell Jar’ suffers from it’s reputation as a kind of female equivalent of ‘The Catcher in the Rye’-a kind of paean to the incipient discoveries of the self brought about by adolescence-however once the reader disentangles themselves from that at times juvenile emotions of the narrator, the passages which deal with Esther’s mental breakdown and her moments of self-reflection are powerful and, like Salinger does with Holden, there is a rawness and sincerity to Esther’s emotions which shines through-that they represent a stage in an individuals emotional life that they will later find embarrassing is irrelevant, the central point is that Plath is able to capture and articulate these emotions in a convincing manner.

Like Salinger, Plath also explores the banal conventions of middle class America in the 1950’s, however Plath is able to imbue the world of Esther with a kind of silvery sombriety, a sense of grayness and diffidence permeates the novel;

By nine in the morning the fake, country-wet freshness that seeped in overnight evaporated like the tail-end of a sweet dream. Mirage-grey at the bottom of their granite canyons, the hot streets wavered in the sun, the car tops sizzled and glittered and the dry, cindery dust blew into my eyes and down the street”

Plath has a talent for visual description which, if explored in greater detail, may have elevated the book. Whilst not one of the great works of 20th century American literature, ‘The Bell Jar’ is certainly a well-written account of the gradual mental disintegration of a young woman, which deserves neither its lofty reputation of being a lofty work of art or being nothing more than juvenile paraphernalia.

“The Moor’s Last Sigh” by Salman Rushdie

Amongst the pantheon of great Indian writers- Arundhati Roy, Kiran Desai, R.K Narayan, Vikram Seth and Rohinton Mistry, none of them explore the fantastical nature of Indian society like Rushdie-whereas the Indian narrative form is often too deeply-rooted in Anglo-Saxon realism, Rushdie’s imagination is far more febrile and free-wheeling, like Marquez, Rushdie’s stories focus on social and political commentary via the form of magical realism and no other Indian author’s novels are populated with as an eccentric (though not necessarily well-rounded) case of characters as Rushdie-perhaps the word ‘character’ is incorrect, rather Rushdie’s characters serve as caricatures by which he is able to explore the social dynamics of Indian society.

The story follows Moraes ‘Moor’ Zogoiby, scion of a wealthy Indian Jewish-Christian family; deformed and club-handed and left tumescent by story-telling, Moor’s metabolic rate causes him to age twice faster than normal and so the narrative races through the history of Moor’s family-from his great-grandparents the de Gamas, to his father, Abraham, a shadowy character with tenuous links to the Mumbai underworld and his mother, Aurora, a painter of macabre, Goya-esque paintings and whose belligerence and indifference to motherhood upend typical Indian conventions on motherhood. In fact most of the novel counteracts conventions on Indian women; the two avant-garde Indian artists, Aurora and Uma, are both female and the novel is dominated by matriarchal characters-however their form of matriarchy is domineering and selfish as much as it is protective or maternal-Abraham’s mother, Flory, forces him to sell his male heir to her in exchange for cash and the vindictive witch-like spectre of Epefania Menezes hovers over the early pages of the novel. Even the peripheral characters-from Moor’s gay great-uncle Aires, to the insouciant beauty queen Nadia Wadia, defy conventions and indeed as with many other Rushdie novels, the subject of post-colonialism and religious extremism are the dominant themes within the novel. In this case Hindu fundamentalism is castigated via the character of Raman Fielding, an erstwhile cartoonist transformed into a Hindu nationalist, Rushdie explores the seeds of the nationalistic fervour which is increasingly dominating Indian society, in the early stages of the independence movement and the affect their dogmatic and parochial views have on the minorities they persecuted-in this case the Jewish, Christian and Islamic communities of southern India.

The Moor’s Last Sigh’is probably Rushdie’s most well-rounded and profound book and one of the greatest works of modern Indian literature.

“Things Fall Apart” by Chinua Achebe

A strange, almost hypnotic cadence permeates Achebe’s prose, a kind of synthesis of Western literature of Nigeria oral folk tales, tales whose magic and uniqueness become diluted in the written form. The protagonist of the story-Okonkwo-is a character who uses his sense of masculinity to mask his own deep-set insecurities, who values violence and strength and considers emotions to render a man weak and effeminate; weakness is a thing to be despised in the mind of Okonkwo, the pitiful wailing of women, yet Okonkwo fails to realise that his masculinity and stoicism mask his own mental fragility and deep-rooted feelings of inferiority. Women exist on the periphery of a novel dominated by men and their masculinity and pride, which were broken by the spread of colonialism vis-a-vis Christianity, which broke the traditions and hierarchies which Okonkwo hold so dear. Achebe does not explore colonialism in an entirely black and white manner-after all some of the native tribal traditions and superstitions were backwards and harmful, but he was one of he first novelists to truly explore the barbarism at the heart of colonial attitudes and its desire to supplant and dominate the cultures it subjugate, cultures which were often fragmented and at times barbaric, but also cultures which were by-products of the ethos and beliefs, cultures which are forever lost via the Western concepts of civilization and what it means to be human.