On Brian Moore’s The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne (1955)

I finished Brian Moore’s The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne two weeks ago, but am still not sure how to write about it. My reaction to it was very strong; it even gave me nightmares. I wonder if I can do it justice as there’s so much to discuss. It’s excellent and multifaceted and has a lot to say about religion, spinsterhood, family duty, shattered dreams and the woes of being an unattractive woman.

It’s peculiar that after having written two reviews about women who were punished for being too beautiful (Asking For It and Little Deaths), I’m now writing about a book in which the main character suffers, among other things, from being unattractive. Clearly, it’s hard to be a woman.

Judith Hearne is a 40-something spinster who has lived a rather dull and lonely life. Out of a sense of family duty and fuelled by her religious beliefs, she has cared for an ailing aunt until her death. The aunt in question was a rather formidable person and Judith lived under her thumb. Caring for her took up all of Judith’s time. It made it impossible to find love and friendship and now, at 40, she thinks it’s over. Even in her youth she wasn’t good-looking and sadly, age hasn’t made her look interesting. Not yet.

Here’s what she thinks about herself:

She watched the glass, a plain woman, changing all to the delightful illusion of beauty. There was still time: for her ugliness was destined to bloom late, hidden first by the unformed gawkiness of youth, budding to plainness in young womanhood and now flowering to slow maturity in her early forties, it still awaited the subtle garishness which only decay could bring to fruition: a garishness which, when arrived at, would preclude all efforts at the mirror game.

At the beginning of the novel, Judith Hearne has just moved into new lodgings in a shabby boarding house in Belfast. Here’s how the novel begins:

The first thing Miss Judith Hearne unpacked in her new lodging was the silver-framed photograph of her aunt. The place for her aunt, ever since the sad day of the funeral, was on the mantel piece of whatever bed-sitting-room Miss Hearne happened to be living in. And as she put her up now, the photograph eyes were stern and questioning, sharing Miss Hearne’s own misgivings about the condition of the bed-springs, the shabbiness of the furniture and the run-down part of Belfast in which the room was situated.

After she has found a place for her aunt’s picture, she needs to find another one for the Sacred Heart. This beginning shows exactly what kind of person Judith Hearne is. She’s poor and single and the two only things that give her solace are the memory of her aunt and her religion. And a few possessions of value like a watch and pretty shoes with buttons that look like winking eyes.

Judith Hearne is a piano teacher with only a few pupils left. One of the reasons she’s losing pupils is only discovered later in the novel—when things get too stressful, she drinks. Her good education and valuable belongings, catch the eye of one of the other boarders, Mr Madden, the brother of her landlady. Unfortunately, poor Judith thinks he’s really interested. She knows her time is running out and seeing how kind Mr Madden is with her and how he likes to talk to her, gives her hope.

And maybe, although it was a thing you could hardly bear to think about, like death or your last judgment, maybe he would be the last one ever and he would walk away now and it would only be a question of waiting for it all to end and hoping for better things in the next world. But that was silly, it was never too late.

It soon becomes clear that Mr Madden is looking for a business partner, not for a wife. He’s returned from America where he has lived for a long time. According to Miss Hearne, he’s more American than Irish. He lacks manners and dresses differently. If she was honest to herself and not so desperate, she would have to admit that he’s not her type.

Being single might not have been as bad for Judith Hearne if she had friends and family but she doesn’t. There’s only one family she calls her friends, the O’Neill’s. Judith pays them a visit every Sunday. It’s the highlight of her week. She tells herself that they are like family, that the O’Neill kids are like her grandchildren. And she’s sure that they look forward to seeing her too, after all, she goes there well prepared.

For it was important to have things to tell which interested your friends. And Miss Hearne had always been able to find interesting happenings where other people would find only dullness. It was, she often felt, a gift which was one of the great rewards of a solitary life. And a necessary gift. Because, when you were a single girl, you had to find interesting things to talk about. Other women always had their children and shopping and running a house to chat about. Besides which, their husbands often told them interesting stories. But a single girl was in a different position. People simply didn’t want to hear how she managed things like accommodation and budgets. She had to find other subjects and other subjects were mostly other people. So people she knew, people she had heard of, people she saw in the street, people she had read about, they all had to be collected and gone through like a basket of sewing so that the most interesting bits about them could be picked out and fitted together to make conversation.

Brian Moore uses stream-of-consciousness and various points of view to give us an insight into most of his characters thinking. That’s why we know that nobody in this novel thinks kindly about Judith Hearne. Seeing the O’Neill’s before Judith’s arrival on one Sunday is enlightening. Moore is brilliant at unmasking his characters’ feelings and thoughts and knowing what they think and comparing it to what she thinks they think is chilling.

Before moving into this boarding house, Judith Hearne isn’t happy but once things go wrong with Mr Madden, she heads for a crisis. A crisis that unhinges her, because she pretty much loses everything including her faith. The end of the novel, which I won’t describe, tells us how she moves on, after having lost her faith and her illusions.

Different readers will find different things interesting in this book. As someone who was born into a Catholic family, I found the religious aspects especially perturbing.

Just before starting the book, I saw the title of an article about the pope saying he thought it was better to be an atheist than a hypocritical Christian. I couldn’t help but think of this while reading The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, a book that is, among other things, very much about just that – religious hypocrisy.

Being rejected by a man, is painful but being let down by her religion and its representative, a priest, is far worse for Judith Hearne.

It’s not often that a title is so well-chosen or that it does double duty like in the case of Moore’s eponymous title. Yes, the book is about loneliness, and it’s about the last hope to find love. But it’s also a description of utter despair and suffering and that’s alluded to in the title as well. After all, “passion” is also a reference to the “passion of the Christ” or his final suffering and martyrdom. We find in this book the same doubts, the same “why have you forsaken me feeling”, only Judith Hearne, being human, has another fate awaiting her.

Before ending, I’d like to say a few words about confession. There’s a heartbreaking scene in this novel, in which Judith Hearne goes to confession. She goes to confess her sin – drinking – but also because she hopes for spiritual help. The scene reminded me of one of Frank O’Connor’s amazing short stories First Confession.

This is a bit of a hodgepodge review and I’m sorry for that. It’s an excellent novel but it reminded me of so much, that it was hard to write about it coherently and I didn’t want to turn this into a memoir piece, telling you all about me and why I left the church. Maybe I’ll do that in another post some day.

The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne is an excellent novel because Moore is astute. The characters are brilliantly drawn and explored. We see all of their foibles which, at times, is quite funny. The ending however was heartbreaking.

This post is a contribution to  Cathy’s and Raging Fluff’s Reading Ireland Month

 

 

Louise O’Neill: Asking For It (2015)

They are all innocent until proven guilty. But not me. I am a liar until I am proven honest.

What a book! I finished it a while ago but I’m still stunned. Sometimes you read a book and the topic shocks you. Then you read a book and the topic and your reaction shock you. This is what happened when I read Louise O’Neill’s brilliant novel Asking For It.

Asking For It is set in a small Irish town where everyone knows everyone. Eighteen-year-old Emma O’Donovan is the local beauty and most popular girl. There’s hardly a boy who can resist her and many girls want to be her friend. She loves to party, drinks, takes drugs and hooks up with random boys. You could say she’s pretty wild. One evening, like so often, she does drugs and has casual sex with a guy and then things get out of hands. The next afternoon, her parents find her asleep on the verandah with a serious sunburn and no idea what happened before and after she passed out. She’ll find out soon enough. Because someone filmed it and posted it on Facebook. Now she’s not popular anymore, she’s just a slut.

Emma’s first reaction is to suck it up and forget all about it but people tell her she has to report what happened as rape. From the moment, the word is said and charges are made, things go even further downhill for Emma. The ending was a real shocker but realistic.

It’s a sad and sobering story and the way it is told is so powerful and eye-opening because of Louise O’Neill’s choice of main protagonist. If Emma was just a beautiful, wild girl, it wouldn’t have had such an impact on me. I would have felt sorry for her and sided with her but Emma isn’t a likable character. On the contrary. She’s possibly the most obnoxious character I’ve ever come across. She’s narcissistic and has to be the center of attention all the time. She loves to steal other girls’ boyfriends or seduce the boys they fancy. She’s also jealous and downright nasty, mean, and offensive. Since she’s the first person narrator we get to know her very well. She’s a real piece of work.

At first I didn’t understand O’Neill’s choice of character but when I noticed my reaction, I got it. I’m ashamed to admit but my first thought was – she really had it coming. That gave me pause and I had to ask myself “seriously – because she’s unlikable she deserved what happened?” and that’s when I had to say – no, of course not. Nobody deserves something like this. And nobody is asking for it. And that’s when I began to admire Louise O’Neill’s choice because it shows what an explosive topic this is. What horrible reactions victims might have to face. It’s easy to feel empathy with a likable girl – wild or quiet – but obnoxious girls like Emma deserve understanding and support as well. Emma is a 21st century girl. In some ways she’s maybe an exaggeration, but in many other ways she’s not. Many teenage girls drink, party, do drugs, and have casual sex but that doesn’t mean they are asking for being abused and raped. And they certainly don’t deserve it.

Asking For It looks at important aspects of the discussion around rape. Just because a girl/boy, woman/man was drunk or unconscious that doesn’t mean it’s not rape. Dressing in a provocative way, doesn’t mean someone wants to be touched  . . . It’s appalling that these things still need to be said. The idea that they are punished for behaving the wrong way is so deep-rooted that some women don’t even dare calling what happened to them rape. The book also shows how easily society turns against the victim.

Asking For It is powerful. The writing is strong and tight. Emma’s voice is so distinct, I could still hear her after I finished the book. The bragging Emma and the one that was shamed and humiliated. Sadly, Asking For It is an important book. We need books like this. They raise awareness, offer food for thought and topics for discussions. Documentaries like The Hunting Ground show all too well how real “rape culture” is.

The review is my first contribution to  Cathy’s and Raging Fluff’s Reading Ireland Month

Literature and War Readalong March 2017: Closely Observed Trains – Ostře sledované vlak by Bohumil Hrabal

closely-observed-trains

Bohumil Hrabal, who is said to be the most important Czech writer of the 20th century, was born in 1914 in the city of Brno, then still part of Austria Hungary. He died in 1997 under somewhat mysterious circumstances. He fell from a window, feeding pigeons. Because he mentions suicide in several of his books, many believe he jumped deliberately.

Closely Observed Trains is possibly his most famous novel. It’s very short, just under 100 pages. It has been made into a movie.

Hrabal is famous for his use of very long sentences and expressive style.

Here are the first sentences:

By this year, the year “forty-five”, the Germans had already lost command of the air-space over our little town. Over the whole region, in fact, and for that matter, the whole country, the dive-bombers were disrupting communications to such an extent that the morning trains ran at noon, the noon trains in the evening, and the evening trains in the night, so that now and then it might happen that an afternoon train came in punctual to the minute, according to the time-table, but only because it was the morning passenger train running four hours late.

And some details and the blurb for those who want to join

March, Friday 31

Closely Observed Trains – Ostře sledované vlaky by Bohumil Hrabal, 96 pages, Czech Republic 1965, WWII

For gauche young apprentice Milos Hrma, life at the small but strategic railway station in Bohemia in 1945 is full of complex preoccupations. There is the exacting business of dispatching German troop trains to and from the toppling Eastern front; the problem of ridding himself of his burdensome innocence; and the awesome scandal of Dispatcher Hubicka’s gross misuse of the station’s official stamps upon the telegraphist’s anatomy. Beside these, Milos’s part in the plan for the ammunition train seems a simple affair.

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The discussion starts on Friday, 31 March 2017.

Further information on the Literature and War Readalong 2017, including all the book blurbs, can be found here.

Sylvie Germain: Magnus (2005) Literature and War Readalong February 2017

magnusmagnus-edition-francaise

Sylvie Germain is an author I’ve meant to read for ages. I own half a dozen of her books, but it needed the nudge of my readalong to finally get to her. I’m certainly glad I chose Magnus because I don’t think I’ve ever read anything quite like this. It’s unique in its approach, structure, and complexity.

The prologue or “Ouverture” tells us that the book explores a man’s life. The life of a man with a faulty memory, a memory that has been fed wrong information and is full of gaps and holes. The narrator muses that no life is ever as chronological as we think it is and that all memory and stories are filled with holes and gaps. Because of this logic, the book isn’t divided into chapters but into numbered sections called “fragments”, which alternate with other sections called “Notes”, “Echoes”, “Sequences”. These sections add depth, give background information. They are accompanied by quotes from books and short biographies of real people like Dieter Bonhoeffer.

This might sound like it was a disjointed book but it wasn’t. It felt very organic and dynamic, like watching a puzzle take form. Most fragments were numbered chronologically, some earlier fragments however came later. This mirrored the protagonists way of remembering and let the reader take part in the experience of discovery.

The beginning of the book is set in Germany, during WWII. A little boy called Franz-Georg comes out of a severe illness that has erased the memory of his earlier life. His mother fills the gaps with stories. He cannot make sense of most of what happens around him or of the roles his parents play. He only knows his father is a famous doctor and that when the war ends, they have to flee. Since not only his memory but his consciousness seem to have been wiped out, he knows nothing of the atrocities that took place in Germany and, unlike the reader, never suspects that his father was a doctor in a concentration camp.

Like so many Nazis, his father flees to South America where he dies in an accident. His mother, who doesn’t want to live anymore, sends her son to her brother who lives in London. The two siblings were on opposing political sides before and during the war. Lothar, Franz’s uncle, fought with the resistance with the famous pastor Dieter Bonhoeffer.

By the time Franz comes to London, he knows what happened in Germany and what role his parents played. How do you live with this kind of truth? Franz is almost crushed by it but there are other things that make him restless, give him a feeling of not belonging.

The book follows him to South America where he retraces his dad’s journey. Exposed to the sun and extreme emotions he has a breakdown and fragments from his early childhood emerge and he finds out the truth about his so-called illness. I didn’t see this twist coming and it hit me with full force. In this early fragment we are with the child during the bombing of Hamburg and witness a horrific tragedy. I don’t think I’ve ever come across any scene that captures the horror of being bombed so vividly. Nor have I literally felt the gaps of a narrative closing like this. Because a lot of what we read before tells us just as much as Franz knows, we’re stunned when his memory returns and the gaps are filled.

Magnus is the story of a life but it’s also a meditation on memory, loss, and guilt and how we handle them. Just like our own minds add bits and pieces, memories, information and anecdotes, the book adds elements from various sources. There’s a richness of details and information here that function like small doors that one can enter to find out more. You could read it without looking up anything, or you can follow the many leads Sylvie Germain has added. It’s very much Sylvie Germain’s book but enriched by the many quotes taken from other novels (Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Páramo), nonfiction on war (Sebald On the Natural History of Destruction), plays (Shakespeare’s King Lear) and other sources.

The book also explores how postwar society dealt with Nazis. Many escaped and were never found, but some, like Eichmann, were brought to justice long after the war.

Dieter Bonhoeffer and his resistance group serve as a counterbalance to the stories of war criminals. I was familiar with his name but I didn’t know anything about his life. I will be reading more of and about him soon.

Sylvie Germain’s writing is at times almost scientific, then again it’s lyrical but it’s never warm. We’re always held at arm’s length, never get close to Franz.

Later in the book, when Franz has remembered what happened before the so-called illness, he takes the name Magnus. Magnus is the name of his teddy bear, who has been with him all of his life. The use of this bear is another arresting element of the book. He too, undergoes changes, not only physically but his meaning changes too. He’s a sort of guide for Magnus because as long as he hasn’t solved the meaning of certain elements – the name that sounds nordic, a ear that has burn marks – Magnus, the man, still doesn’t own his story. It’s no surprise then, that Fragment 1, which comes in the middle of the book, reveals the bear’s secret.

I’m afraid, I could only scrape the surface of this beautiful and complex novel. I’d say it’s one of the best books on war and memory and the importance to remember our own story and the history of our society. For such a sophisticated novel, Magnus is surprisingly captivating and suspenseful. There are two powerful twists that I didn’t see coming. Truly a tour de force.

Other Review

Danielle (A Work in Progress)

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Magnus is the second book in the Literature and War Readalong 2017. The next book is the Czech WWII novel Closely Observed Trains by Bohumil Hrabal. Discussion starts on Friday 31 March, 2017. You can  find further information on the Literature and War Readalong 2017, including the book blurbs here.

Fuminori Nakamura: The Thief – Suri (2009)

the-thief

I’ve seen people call Japanese author Fuminori Nakamura’s novel The Thief crime or thriller but I don’t think that’s doing it any justice. What The Thief really is, is a Japanese noir. I think that’s important to know because there are big differences between these genres and frustrated expectations have a tendency to spoil books. Of course, expecting a traditional noir, in the vein of some US or European authors, could lead to a similar frustration.

The protagonist of this story is a talented thief. So talented in fact that he can steal wallets from inside pockets with zippers. At the beginning of the novel, he introduces us to his art and to his code of honour. He only steals from the rich and often gives to the poor. He’s just returned to Tokyo. Where he’s been and why he was gone, will only be explained later. Coming back proves to be a very bad idea as one of the reasons why he left was that he had to go into hiding after a robbery with a Yakuza gang. Those gangs are notorious for getting rid of people who helped them.

The thief is a loner. He had a lover and a friend but both are gone. He doesn’t have a family. When he meets a small kid whose mother uses him to steal things in shops, he takes pity on the boy and shows him some tricks. The kid who is as lonely as the thief, soon begins to follow him and wait in front of his apartment. The thief tries to shake him off but the kid keeps on returning and finally the thief decides to help him. The readers senses that the kid must remind the thief of his own childhood.

Unfortunately, our hero bumps into someone from his past who wants him to steal several things for him in exchange of his and the boy’s life.

Large parts of the story are told chronologically, but there are many flashbacks that tell us a lot about the thief’s past.

I called this a noir as the book contains a lot of typical noir themes. It explores loneliness, fate, and angst. The main protagonist is a loner with a pessimistic outlook on life. The similarities to other noir novels I’ve read stop there. What I missed most was the typical atmosphere of  traditional US/European noir. This book was so cold. Like a polished chrome surface. Never melancholy or moody. Unfortunately, those are some of the elements that make me love noir and their absence prevented me from loving this.

I’ve seen a few reviews in which people complained about the ambiguous ending. I didn’t mind it because I felt it worked.

What I liked a great deal was the way the theme of freedom was explored. Freedom of choice and action. I’m afraid to spoil the book, so I’ll only say there’s a sinister character in this story who likes to play with people tricking them into believing the choices they make are their own. The results are chilling.

The Thief was fascinating and readable and offers a unique look at Japanese gangs. I didn’t love it but I enjoyed it a lot.

 

Elizabeth Taylor: A Wreath of Roses (1949)

a-wreath-of-roses

Published in 1949, A Wreath of Roses was Elizabeth Taylor’s fourth novel and the sixth I’ve read. Usually, when I decide to read everything by an author, I try to read in chronological order, not so in Elizabeth Taylor’s case. I seem to jump back and forth in time. I can’t say it minimizes my enjoyment but I might be less aware of her development as an author.

Every summer, Camilla, Liz and Frances meet for a month at Frances’ house in the country. Camilla and Liz have been friends for years. The much older Frances, who is now a painter, was Liz’s governess. For years, the month in the country was the highlight of their year, but this year things have changed. Liz who is newly married and wonders if she’s made a mistake, has brought her baby and is constantly afraid something might happen to him. Frances is getting very old and can hardly paint anymore. And Camilla, the main point of view character, is scared of old age as a spinster. All three of them are aware that things are not like they used to be. They still talk openly but they aren’t lighthearted anymore. While they still enjoy each other’s company, the changes and differences also bring out their darker sides.

The novel begins with Camilla waiting for a train. Richard, a very handsome man, is waiting next to her. He’s the kind of man she would never be interested in normally but the two witness a horrible tragedy and when they meet again, later at the local pub, they talk and she’s suddenly attracted. Liz who is there as well warns her. She has a bad feeling about this man. She is not the only one. Frances has invited an admirer of her paintings, Mr Morland, who stays at the same hotel as Richard. He finds him sneaky and dishonest. Richard is that and much worse. He’s a notorious liar and, as Camilla will find out, very dangerous.

Camilla’s affair with Richard stands in stark contrast to the rest of the novel, which explores the friendship of the three women and their characters. The book is filled with wonderful, psychologically astute character descriptions. The three women are very honest with each other and accept each other in spite of their differences and the many changes they have undergone. Some of their exchanges are wonderfully outspoken. Camilla doesn’t even shy away from telling Liz she hates her husband.

Loneliness is a theme in almost all of Elizabeth Taylor’s novels. In A Wreath of Roses, she excels at exploring it from different angles. All of the characters are to some extent afraid of loneliness and try to combat or prevent it in different ways. Liz has married, almost out of the blue, a very pompous man, whom Camilla dislikes. Camilla has begun the affair with Richard because she dreads the idea of another lonely, uneventful year as a secretary in a school. And Frances, the most independent of the three, not only accepts Morland’s friendship but Liz’s offer to possibly live with her and her husband in the future.

Of the three women, Camilla is the one the reader gets to know best. She’s in many ways the most tragic because she’s alone although she’d like to be in a relationship. Only she hasn’t found the right man. Richard is only a distraction. In their discussions, the women speak openly about marriage and gender roles. They don’t seem to think that there could be camaraderie between a husband and a wife, but they know there is companionship, which might be preferable to loneliness. This view of marriage is quite pessimistic but what struck me even more is that the life of a single woman is portrayed in an equally pessimistic way. Unless a woman has a vocation that fulfils her completely, like Frances has her art, she will end up sad and lonely. On the other hand, marriage might stifle her development.

A Wreath of Roses caught me by surprise for many reasons. I didn’t expect to like it as much as I did and certainly wasn’t prepared for something as sinister. But there was also a small disappointment. I didn’t appreciate the somewhat circular structure and the way it ended. Those who have read it will now what I’m talking about. But don’t get me wrong, it’s a minor reservation. Otherwise, this is one of Elizabeth Taylor’s richest and most nuanced novels. It combines a wonderful cast of characters with a tone and mood that is at times acerbic but mostly bitter-sweet and melancholic. An interesting combination, for sure. In spite of the somewhat puzzling ending, A Wreath of Roses has become one of my favourites, together with Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont and A Game of Hide and Seek.

Literature and War Readalong February 28 2017: Magnus by Sylvie Germain

magnus

Sylvie Germain is a highly acclaimed French author of fiction and nonfiction. She earned a PhD in philosophy and studied with the famous French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas. Most of her novels have won multiple prizes. The most famous ones are Le livre des nuitsThe Book of Nights, Nuit d’ambreNight of Amber, Jours de colèreDays of Anger and Magnus. 

 

Here are the first sentences of Magnus:

Prologue

A meteorite explosion may yield a few small secrets about the origin of the universe. From a fragment of bone we can deduce the structure and appearance of a prehistoric animal; from a vegetal fossil, the presence long ago in a now desert region of luxuriant flora. Infinitesimal and enduring a plethora of traces survive time out of mind.

A scrap of papyrus or a shard of pottery can take us back to a civilisation that disappeared thousands of years ago. The root of a word can illuminate for us a constellation of derivations and meanings. Remains, pit-stones always retain an indestructible kernel of vitality.

In every instance, imagination and intuition are needed to help interpret the enigmas.

And some details and the blurb for those who want to join

Magnus by Sylvie Germain, 190 pages, France 2005, WWII

Magnus is a deeply moving and enigmatic novel about the Holocaust and its ramifications. It is Sylvie Germain’s most commercially successful novel in France. It was awarded The Goncourt Lyceen Prize. Magnus’s story emerges in fragments, with the elements of his past appearing in a different light as he grows older. He discovers the voices of the deceased do not fall silent. He learns to listen to them and becomes attuned to the echoes of memory.

 

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The discussion starts on Tuesday, 28 February 2017.

Further information on the Literature and War Readalong 2017, including all the book blurbs, can be found here.