Tag Archives: Banned Books

Lady Chatterly’s Lover: Sex and Coal

        

I find great similarity between knowing nothing about a book before reading it, and thinking I know everything about a book before reading it: in both cases I’m surprised, though in the latter case, perhaps less pleasantly so. I approached D H Lawrence’s Lady Chatterly’s Lover with the conviction that it was a sexy book. Not just gleaned from the title, but from years of being told by those I know personally, and by the wider literary world, I felt sure when I first sat down with the book that I would be reading in the vein of erotica.

To be fair the novel does narrate some steamy, and deeply arousing, sex scenes. But if I were made to describe what this book is “about,” I’d find myself pressed to say “sex” or even “an affair.” Instead I might have to say that it is about class conflict, industrialization, the animality of humans, and the alienation of the post-war period. Hardly the stuff of sexy drama.

How then does Lawrence succeed in making coal something sexy? Well, the illicit cross-class affair between Lady Chatterly and her plebeian lover – the gamekeeper of all people! – ground the thematic questions in their respective characters and I suppose trick the reader into suffering through long passages on the plight of colliers with the promise of wet thighs. I shouldn’t say ‘trick,’ because the affair stands as synecdoche for the post-war, industrial age, and we’re likely meant to be as titillated by the violation of class strictures as we are by the descriptions of variously flaccid and erect penises.

And perhaps I would have been, had I not been expecting a book banned and talked up for its sexiness. Rather, when confronted with long passages on the utility of coal I found myself wondering whether everyone else had been reading a different version of the text, or were perhaps better at skimming, or whether I might have, in my terrible expectation, done the book a terrible injustice. And this, I think, is most likely the case. Had I not been turning each page waiting for the affair to begin, and then waiting for the affair to get steamier, and then waiting for the affair to be over, I might have better appreciated the rich and provocative descriptions of class conflict and a society coming to terms with loss and bewilderment. In the few moments when I put aside my adolescent preoccupations, I was moved by the clarity with which Lawrence captures suffering and loneliness. It’s my suggestion then, that if you do decide to read, or re-read, Lady Chatterly’s Lover that you do so draped in a cold, wet towel after watching scenes from a factory farm documentary. For the book isn’t (only) sexy, and you’ll spoil it something awful if, like me, you try to read it that way.

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Filed under 100 Books of 2011, British literature, Fiction, Prize Winner

Tropic of Cancer and Angels and Demons: A Tale of Two Plots Divided

     

Suppose you had to justify to someone why you read. Asked to account for the hours you spend sitting still with words, how might you respond?

I read to take the offer of the author to follow a narrative and witness the experiences of characters. Whether I then use those experiences to inform my own understanding of the world seems to have more to do with the narrative itself than with the reading as an activity, but the best books do seem to demand this kind of reinterpretation of my own existence. I read because I love the startling surprise of an expression I’ve never encountered before, the abundant and obvious beauty of great writing. I read, too, for the solitude and quiet afforded by the activity, the temporary vacuum that seals me within a narrative. 

Out of peculiar circumstances I find myself writing about Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer and Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons in the same blog post. The two seem strange bedfellows – Miller routinely held up as a master of literature, Brown decried by the literary folk for terrible writing – and were it merely a measure of writing quality, I’d agree, the two are most dissimilar. However different, the two books arrived for me at a moment in time when I needed to read: I needed a plot that could distract me, and I needed writing that might inspire a belief in possibility. By a measure of need both Miller and Brown’s books are “good,” in that they provided, in their very different ways, exactly what this reader required.

That my momentarily uncertain mind could be captivated by Miller’s narrative that holds at least a diffident view of plot and chronology, speaks to the punch of paragraphs that demand recognition as utterly beautiful.

For necessary relief from my own thoughts I turned to Brown who unapologetically burdens his text with cliches, mixed metaphors, conventional and predictable characters, but nevertheless manages to offer a plot that allows the dulling of introspection. That this should be viewed as a “good” may strike you as immoderate (or perhaps immoral), but it is, nevertheless, a function of reading I occasionally crave and which Brown delivers.

In terms of writing quality its something of a crime to compare Miller and Brown. So I won’t. I’ll instead give snippets from each to make clear that while both are “books” they are not, in some sense, the same kinds of texts (oh yes, I’m invoking a ‘high’ and ‘low’ art paradigm, and if this comparison does not bear out the validity of such a distinction, we’re different people).

Miller:

“the monstrous thing is not that men have created roses out of this dung heap, but that, for some reason or other, they should want roses. For some reason or other man looks for the miracle, and to accomplish it he will wade through blood. He will debauch himself with ideas, he will reduce himself to a shadow if for only one second of his life he can close his eyes to the hideousness of reality. Everything is endured – disgrace, humiliation, poverty, war, crime, ennui – in the belief that overnight something will occur, a miracle, which will render life tolerable. And all the while a meter is running inside and there is no hand that can reach in there and shut it off. All the while someone is eating the bread of life and drinking the wine, some dirty fat cockroach of a priest who hides a way in the cellar guzzling it, while up above in the light of the street a phantom host touches the lips and the blood is pale as water. And out of the endless torment and misery no miracle comes forth, no microscopic vestige of relief. Only ideas, pale, attenuated ideas which have to be fattened by slaughter, ideas which come forth like bile, like the guts of a pig when the carcass is ripped open. And so I think what a miracle it would be if this miracle which man attends eternally should turn out to be nothing more than these two enormous turds.”

Brown

“Through the tempest of emotions now coursing through her blood, a single word tolled like a distant bell. Pristine. Cruel.” or this one “She found an inexplicable refuge in his eyes…like the harmony of the oceans.”

Had I read Angels and Demons last year you’d be reading a very different review. So rather than recommend one book or the other, as is my custom, I’ll instead hope that whatever it is you might read next will fill the precise and present need you have as a reader, knowing as I do that the needs of readers change.

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Filed under 100 Books of 2011, Book I'll Forget I Read, Fiction

American Psycho: Impressive Point of View

     

American Psycho may be a lot of things – a remarkable exploration of the gap between self-perception and external recognition, a metaphor for the grotesque imbalance between rich and poor and the exploitative conditions that support such an imbalance, an exercise in reader self-reflection – but it is not a book that ought to be banned (have yet to encounter a book, really, in the banned books category that makes me seriously reconsider my stance on no-banning-of-books). Above all it is a book that thoughtfully explores the possibilities presented by narrative point of view.

With the notable exception of a half dozen pages in a climactic scene the novel is narrated in the first person point of view of Patrick Bateman a wall street worker (of some kind) and psychopathic killer (maybe). Whether or not Patrick actually kills anyone is a question I don’t have an easy answer for, though the novel certainly details the rape, torture and murder of many, many men, women and (one) child. How can it be that the novel could narrate these events but I still be unsure whether they actually took place? Such is the marvel of the untrustworthy and “mad” narration. Patrick interweaves his descriptions of torture with his obsessive (really obsessive) descriptions of what people wear, where he has eaten, when Les Miserable will be playing and how long he has worked out for. The imbalance among what Patrick thinks about, how he describes himself behaving, and how others react to his behaviour alert the reader to a consequential disconnect between the ways Patrick describes himself and “reality” as it is experienced by those around him. That this gap describes how every individual reader operates in the world should go without saying, but the novel does a spectacular job of highlighting in the extreme how detrimental and alienating this fissure must be. That we ought to spend more time listening to one another and more time trying to explain how we understand the world isn’t the solution offered by Ellis; rather, I think the book gets at the tragedy – the real horror – that we must all experience the world alone, from our particular (insane) point of view.

That the book includes scenes of extreme violence is interesting because these chapters precede exceptionally dull chapters recounting Patrick’s review of the body of work of artists like Whitney Housten. The result? This reader *skipped* the dull chapters on album reviews in order to return to the (truly) captivating narration of Patrick’s life. What does this desire to return to the horrific over the banal say about this reader? Well, it really is a most impressive point of view.

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Filed under 100 Books of 2011, American literature, Fiction, Mystery, Prize Winner

The Satanic Verses: A Better Book than I am Reader

    

Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses is the first book to fall victim to the time pressures of reading 100 books in a year. In my rush to read the book, and cross it off the list, and move on, I didn’t (at all) do justice to the richness of the text and found myself trying to skim sections that demanded close reading. I realize now that I will not (again) risk missing out on a brilliant book for the sake of a self-imposed list-making exercise. So be warned, there may be other two week hiatuses while I make my way through long and/or dense works.

So with the caveat that my sometimes confusion with plot sequencing probably had more to do with my inattention than with the book itself, I liked the book (I probably ought to love it, but again, my failure as a reader this go around). I enjoyed the interwoven narrative voices, temporal scopes and thematic questions: what does it mean to be a coherent and contiguous self? are relationships principally of convenience or of care? how much, or can we, take advantage of those we love and have them still love us? what does God have to do with any of these questions? That said, I didn’t necessarily enjoy the uneven introduction of metafictional techniques (it is only in the last, say, 100 pages that the ‘author’ begins to comment on these thematic questions and interrogate the action of his characters). Okay, so it’s a very small complaint.

The magic realism of Allie’s climb of Everest and the butterfly pilgrimage that then reverberate in the realist scenes are striking not for the “magic” (ooo aaa…. magical things integrated into reality) but for the reminder that magic isn’t someone surviving a fall from 30 000 feet, or the parting of an ocean, the real magic – the stuff that really ought to blow our minds – is the idea that a father can love a son after thirty years of not speaking; or that forgiveness is possible; or that a single person can hold within themselves competing feelings of love and hate and not be destroyed by those competing impulses. The magic, in other words, is reality.

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Filed under 100 Books of 2011, Book I'll Forget I Read, British literature, Fiction, Prize Winner