“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.

“Our Ancestors” by Italo Calvino

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This triptych of stories, in which Calvino coalesces fantasy, folk-tale and pastiche into a set of wonderful, irreverent and beautiful stories and represents one of the high points in Calvino’s oeuvre. ‘The Cloven Viscount’ is the story of a viscount whose body is split into two by virtue of jumping in front of a cannonball. In a kind of macabre re-working of the double theme-and in particular Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde-one side is evil and the other good and the viscount is able to terrorize his subjects in turns via both his piety and malevolence. Calvino explores the duality of human nature, upending the traditional ‘double’ theme by having his the “good” side of the viscount be as harmful as the bad with his constant hectoring and sermonizing and of the importance of having a variety of facets to your personality-the sense of incompleteness haunts both the good and bad halves of the count and it is only be joining together the both that he is able to re-enter the human world.

The best story, however, is ‘Baron In The Trees’, the story of a young aristocrat who decides, in a fit if pique over having to eat snails, to spend the rest of his life in trees. Not only does the story explore the lost landscape of Ligurian Italy-as Calvino said most Italian Literature is regional by nature and Calvino is able to recreate the Baron’s arboreal kingdom wonderfully well, but it also expands the ideas in ‘The Cloven Viscount’ on nature of the self, but also of individuality and the importance of living life against ones own principles and ideals and not bowing down to societal norms and pressures. A character in a novel by another writer who explored similar themes-Tolstoy-make an appearance, as the Viscount encounters a lachrymose Russian soldier named Pierre. Despite-or perhaps because of-his unusual lifestyle, the Baron is able to live a rich and meaningful life, a life full of joy, pain, heart-break, violence, wisdom and madness and which is resplendent with beauty.

‘The Non-Existent Knight’ is a light-hearted pastiche of the pastoral novel, in which a knight who solely exists externally as a suit of armour, is attended to by a squire who has no concept of his inner existence and who constantly mistakes himself for a duck, or becomes confused at to whether he should be eating his food or his food should be eating him. Exploring notions of existence and sentience, ‘The Non-Existence Knight’ is the funniest story in the collection and acts as a kind of loving rejoinder of the clichés and tropes of stories of knight errantry.

A truly beautiful collection of stories which are well worth a re-visit.

“In the Mood for Love” by Wong-Kar Wai

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Wong-Kar Wai’s opus, ‘In the Mood for Love’ is a masterpiece of romance, of urban loneliness and isolation, a film which shimmers with iridescent beauty and bathos. Chow and Su are neighbours who gradually realise that their spouses are probably having an affair-the viewer never actually meets either spouse, instead they remain off-screen, like so many of the most important elements of the film-in fact it is this sense of obscurity and ambiguity, of leaving things to the viewer’s imagination, of the inexpressibility of the protagonist’s deepest emotions and feelings which is the key to unlocking the meaning behind the film.

Wai constantly frames his shots to emphasise the emotional isolation and fragility of the characters-from the tracking shot of Chow and Su sitting despondently on opposite sides of the wall to the slow-motion shots of Su against the hauntingly beautiful score of Shigeru Umebayashi, the viewer is constantly reminded of the emotional emptiness of the character’s lives, an emptiness disguised by the superficial veneer Su’s beautiful dresses and immaculate coiffure. This feeling is emphasised by the claustrophobic camera-work, as the viewer feels trapped in trapped in the narrow confines of the protagonist’s emotional lives, constantly navigating a never-ending labyrinth of corridors, as perpetual rainfall seems to beat down on the characters in.

The funereal, almost sepulchral mood is punctuated by high-key lighting, particularity in the scenes in Room 2046, where the viewer is shut out of the Chow and Su’s conversation as, behind a backdrop of Nat King Cole, they gradually fall in love, as the scenes are resplendent with redness in contrast to the dark tones which dominate the majority of the film as Chow and Su are able to finally free themselves from the shadows they are forced to lurk in the outside world.

‘In the Mood for Love’ is a film of singular beauty and poetry.

“The House of Spirits” by Isabel Allende

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I remember going to a book club where we discussed Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “100 Years of Solitude”. The (largely) English book-club disliked the book intensely-its weird uneven narrative style, the synthesis of realism and fantasy, the allegorical nature of its political and social commentary and the whirlwind of increasingly eccentric and weird characters alienated their Anglo-Saxon literary palate, which has grown accustomed to the linear narrative styles and formulaic realism of American and British literature, was not able to swallow a story in which towns vanished and characters levitated in mid-air. ‘The House of Spirits’ may not be as deeply imbued with fantasy as “100 Years of Solitude” but it matches the verve, irreverence and beauty of the greatest Latin American novels.

The story follows the lives of the del Valle and Trueba families. From the ethereally beautiful Rosa to the medium Clara, or her taciturn son Jaime, the characters in “The House of Love” offer up a kaleidoscope of eccentricities and foibles. The two central characters are Esteban Trueba and his wife, Clara del Valle. Esteban is a self-made man, who successes and neuroses serve to corrupt and isolate him from his family and the world, yet who Allende manages to evince a degree of sympathy and even redemption from by the end of the novel, whereas Clara is an other-worldly character, who is able to maintain a veneer of indifference bordering on insouciance to her bellicose and domineering husband, who is consumed with a sense of uncontrollable jealousy to anybody who vies for Clara’s attention. Yet there is something magnetic about Clara which draws people in, from Esteban’s spinsterish sister to the clairvoyant Mora sisters, whereas Esteban is a man cast adrift from humanity beneath a sea of unfathomable arrogance and loneliness. The paraphernalia of characters who hover around them-from Clara’s eccentric and half-mad uncle Marcos to the chimerical Barrabas, or Pedro Tercero García, the lachrymose lover of Clara’s daughter Blanca, help flesh-out the tragic and beautiful world created by Allende in what is his masterpiece.

It perhaps lacks the genius of Marquez or Borges, but “The House of Spirits” is still one of the seminal novels of South American literature.

‘A Regicide’ by Alain Robbe-Grillet

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‘A Regicide’ is Robbe-Grillet’s long unpublished first novel. The novel follows two characters on an anonymous island-one is an unnamed character whose poetic musings imbue his narrative with a dream-like quality and the other is Boris, a statistician in a factory who one day for no real reason decides to murder the king.

Like most of Robbe-Grillet’s novels, the hypnotic prose style, in which even the most quotidian details are explored in granular detail, via the viewpoint of an unreliable narrator, so that a cloud of uncertainty hovers over the reader, raining down a series of beautiful and increasingly strange images;

“The clouds block the sky in violet bars, parallel to the horizon; nevertheless the air is dryer and lighter than usual, the faraway distance is lit with the slightly misleading clarity that one sees just before the rain.”

The whole novel is shrouded in uncertainty as the reader struggles to separate reality from fiction-with Boris’s passages increasingly reading like the mental meanderings of a madman, a man fixated with the murder of a monarch for whom he harbours a vague ambivalence and who he may (or may not) have murdered-shifting perspectives and the illusory nature of memory, reality and the narrative form are common themes in Robbe-Grillet;

“Looking closer he noticed that the camera seemed to be pointed, not at the bridge-although it was the subject of the photograph as the caption confirmed-but at the paving stones in the foreground; while everything else was unclear, the paving stones formed the quayside roadway at the bottom of the picture detached themselves with extraordinary clarity and seemed, so luminous were they, to be wet with rain, although the weather was absolutely fine.”

It may be worth touching on Robbe-Grillet’s unique prose and descriptive style-almost like a mechanical Proust, whose descriptions of light resemble Proust sans his rambling prose style. Robbe-Grillet is able to capture the quiddity of things-from the proliferation of insects to dawn on the shore-line;

“With dawn the shore could be seen again, large and flat, where the receding tide had left visible tufts of bladderwrack exposed; lower down the brown tresses were bathed in an undertow of discoloured water with the the slow rocking that follows love. A light odour of iodine floated in the wind”

Little is ever explained-instead much is lift to the reader to interpret as they see fit-which is made doubly difficult by the unreliability of the main narrator, Boris, whose mind is slowly descending into madness.