Even Zelda Fitzgerald Thought Joyce, Lawrence, and Woolf Were a Bit Much

Over the weekend, I picked up a copy of Dear Scott, Dearest Zelda: The Love Letters of F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald at my local library. And while I wouldn’t always call them “love” letters, exactly, the correspondence that makes up the greater part of the book is engaging, well-crafted, and endlessly surprising.

Zelda Fitzgerald initially rose to fame by setting the pace of the ’20s as the consummate Jazz Age socialite, but by the 1930s her talents and ambitions were overtaken by mental illness. Doctors diagnosed her psychiatric struggles as schizophrenia, and she spent years in and out of treatment facilities across France, Switzerland, and the States.

As friends of Hemingway, John Dos Passos, H. L. Mencken, and other celebrated literary figures of the era—and, of course, as writers themselves—the Fitzgeralds naturally expressed some intriguing opinions on their peers and competitors. I laughed out loud reading the following request from Zelda during the spring of 1931, sent to Scott from Prangins Clinic in Nyon, Switzerland:

I have been reading Joyce and find it a night-mare in my present condition, and since my head evaporates in a book-store it would be much easier if you would send something to me. Not in French, since I have enough difficulty with English for the moment and not Lawrence and not Virginia Wo[o]lf or anybody who writes by dipping the broken threads of their heads into the ink of literary history, please—

My takeaway from this solitary letter: Zelda Fitzgerald may have been much saner than we thought. Joyce, Lawrence, and (sometimes) Woolf still write the plot of my own literary nightmares, and I never had to meet any of them in person.

 

Quick Reviews, Part III

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#72 Sons and Lovers, D. H. Lawrence

On the back cover of my Signet Classics edition of Sons and Lovers, E. M. Forster declares D. H. Lawrence to be “the greatest imaginative novelist of our generation.”

This is ironic for two reasons:

  1. There is nothing imaginative at all in Sons and Lovers. The book is known, in fact, to be largely autobiographical.
  2. E. M. Forster himself—a fellow member of Lawrence’s generation—is more imaginative. And even that isn’t saying much.

Sons and Lovers is no more than a protracted look at the Oedipus complex—and not a very insightful one, IMHO. At the head of the Morel family stand an alcoholic miner hated by his children and an anguished housewife adored by them. Eventually, the sons grow up and fall in love/lust, and the shit hits the fam. All of them spew a steady stream of verbal abuse at each other—father and mother and sons and lovers—from start to finish.

Apparently the “sex scenes”—by which I mean vaguely sensual forest romps—were considered obscene back in 1913. To the modern reader, they are too ambiguous to be sexy and too boring to advertise.

I am pleased to say Lawrence and I can call it quits now that I’ve put Sons and Lovers and Women in Love behind me. I fail to see how his work is in any way outstanding, well-crafted, or entertaining.

And that’s putting it nicely.

Is It One of the Greatest Books of All Time?

May I quote Bart Simpson? “I didn’t think it was physically possible, but this both sucks and blows.”

Favorite Quotes:

She could not be content with the little he might be; she would have him the much that he ought to be.

Then Dawes made a remark which caused Paul to throw half a glass of beer in his face.
“Oh, Mr. Morel!” cried the barmaid, and she rang the bell for the “chucker-out.”
Dawes spat and rushed for the young man. At that minute a brawny fellow with his shirt-sleeves rolled up and his trousers tight over his haunches intervened.

He loved her. There was a big tenderness, as after a strong emotion they had known together, but it was not she who could keep his soul steady.

Read: 2015


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#28 Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf

She had a sense of comedy that was really exquisite, but she needed people, always people, to bring it out, with the inevitable result that she frittered her time away, lunching, dining, giving these incessant parties of hers, talking nonsense, sayings things she didn’t mean…

writes Virginia Woolf of her genteel heroine. That, and PTSD, provide the outline for this modernist masterpiece.

Modernism describes the literary period from around 1900 to the end of World War II—a period marked by dramatic experimentation with traditional narrative forms. Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Franz Kafka’s The Trial, Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, and pretty much everything written by Joyce and Faulkner fall squarely into this category.

Woolf toys with both style and substance in Mrs. Dalloway (1925). The novel takes place over a single day, largely inside the minds of its two protagonists (the eponymous Clarissa Dalloway and a World War I veteran by the name of Septimus Warren Smith). Major themes include isolation and oppression, memory and madness, and the trauma inflicted on an entire generation by war and its aftermath.

I say give it a chance. Mrs. Dalloway will walk you through the streets of Westminster, buy you flowers, and throw you a party. And even if you hate London, and flowers, and parties, hey-o… this book is super short.

Is It One of the Greatest Books of All Time?

It’s hard to pull off a meaningful “day in the life” portrait, but Woolf manages it with seeming ease.

Favorite Quotes:

The world wavered and quivered and threatened to burst into flames.

She had come to feel that it was the only thing worth saying — what one felt.

The compensation of growing old, Peter Walsh thought, coming out of Regent’s Park, and holding his hat in his hand, was simply this; that the passions remain as strong as ever, but one has gained — at last! — the power which adds the supreme flavour to existence — the power of taking hold of experience, of turning it round, slowly, in the light.

Read: 2013


#95 King Lear, William Shakespeare

Like I always say (or said, at least, that one time): If you’re going to write a tragedy, make it the TRAGEDY TO END ALL TRAGEDIES.

The problem with this advice is that only Shakespeare can write a truly sensational tragedy. And only Shakespeare can top Shakespeare.

So… yeah. Good luck with your tragedies, and all.

Here we go:

King Lear wants to retire. But first, he has to divide up his kingdom. Easy, he thinks. I’ll just slice it into thirds and pass one wedge to each daughter. I’ll even put a little whipped cream on top. That’ll be easy, too, because it comes in this handy aerosol can.

But it’s not easy. Nothing is easy for idiots. King Lear decides to give the largest share of land to the daughter who loves him the most.

The ass-kissing that follows is exquisite.

But, soon, everything starts to suck. Daughters are disowned. Earls are fired. Kings run naked across stormy heaths. Eyeballs get torn out. And then everyone dies.

In other words: King Lear is your family Thanksgiving.

Here’s hoping y’all skip the pie.

Is It One of the Greatest Books of All Time?

Duh.

Favorite Quotes:

The rain it raineth every day.

But his flawed heart—/Alack, too weak the conflict to support—/’Twixt two extremes of passion, joy and grief/Burst smilingly. 

If Fortune brag of two she loved and hated/One of them we behold. 

Read: 2015


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#35 Brave New World, Aldous Huxley

Noteworthy features of the so-called “World State” in Aldous Huxley’s famous (and infamous) 1932 novel include:

With this in mind, we get to know Bernard Marx. Bernard is an Alpha but feels like an outcast, which is hardly fair. So on his trip to a “Savage Reservation” (similar to the Native American reservations of today), he picks up a souvenir that will catapult him to celebrity: his boss’s son, John, raised by his mother and Shakespeare’s collected works among the villagers there.

Bernard decides to take John back to London as a kind of social experiment. The experiment, as you could probably guess, is a disaster, rife with shame, drug abuse, self-flagellation, and exile (in that order, or almost).

Thirty years after the publication of Brave New World, Huxley revisited his vision of the future to assess its accuracy. In what was hardly a class act, he gave a smirk and announced, “Haha, told you so.” But he probably wasn’t referring to the public orgies… unless he caught a glimpse of MTV.

Is It One of the Greatest Books of All Time?

It’s got something—I’m just not sure if it has enough of that something.

Favorite Quotes:

Wouldn’t you like to be free to be happy in some other way, Lenina? In your own way, for example; not in everybody else’s way. 

But I don’t want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin.

Crying: My baby, my mother, my only, only love; groaning: My sin, my terrible God; screaming with pain, muttering with fever, bemoaning old age and poverty — how can they tend the wheels? And if they cannot tend the wheels… The corpses of a thousand thousand thousand men and women would be hard to bury or burn.

Lying in bed, he would think of Heaven and London.

Read: 2014


#55 Malone Dies, Samuel Beckett

WTF, Beckett.

WTF.

Like, what is this? I can’t even.

In the words of the great Wikipedia Britannica:

One does not get a sense of plot, character development, or even setting in this novel.

Oh no—no, of course not, because that would be preposterous. That would result in a book, whereas this is meant to be…

Well, I don’t know, really. You’d have to ask Samuel Beckett, if he’s not too busy listening to Fleetwood Mac. All we’ve been able to make of this postmodernist mess (yes, we’re into post-modernism now) is that it largely records the rambling interior monologue of Malone, an old man lying naked in a hospital OR insane asylum (we can’t be sure, because Malone isn’t). Highlights of this meditation include a nurse with a crucifix carved into her tooth, a bearded giant (aren’t they all?), a boat and a picnic, a dropped pencil, and a boy named Sapo, who is later renamed Macmann because Malone can’t “stomach” the name Sapo anymore.

Beckett translated Malone Dies from French to English himself and won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1969…

…which just goes to show how easy it is to confuse lunacy with genius.

I kid, I kid! Although now that I mention it, history is teeming with examples. Hmm.

Is It One of the Greatest Books of All Time?

Your guess is as good as mine. EVEN IF YOU’VE NEVER READ IT.

Favorite Quotes:

There is naturally another possibility that does not escape me, though it would be a great disappointment to have it confirmed, and that is that I am dead already and that all continues more or less as when I was not.

It is because it is no longer I, I must have said so long ago, but another whose life is just beginning. It is right that he too should have his little chronicle, his memories, his reason, and be able to recognize the good in the bad, the bad in the worst, and so grow gently old all down the unchanging days and die one day like any other day, only shorter.

Let me say before I go that I forgive nobody. I wish them all an atrocious life and then the fires and ice of hell.

Read: 2015

If you missed Quick Reviews, Part I, or Quick Reviews, Part II, you can find them here and here.

If you missed the premise behind the Quick Reviews series, you can find it here.

#77 Women in Love, D. H. Lawrence

Photo by Jan Kameníček

If only man was swept off the face of the earth, creation would go on so marvellously, with a new start, non-human. Man is one of the mistakes of creation—like the ichthyosauri.

OUCH. D. H. Lawrence holds back his criticism of neither man nor dinosaur in Women in Love, so I’m not going to bother with reverence either. Lawrence liked ichthyosauri about as much as I liked his book.

We’ll start with the protagonists. Lawrence isn’t the effusive type, and his characters are his favorite victims. Rupert Birkin is described as pale and sickly, while Gerald Crich wears a “sharp impersonal face” and carries himself with “mechanical relentlessness.” Gudrun is said to be “beautiful, passive, soft-skinned, soft-limbed” with a confidence that contrasts with her sister Ursula’s “sensitive expectancy”—but both apparently have the “remote, virgin look of modern girls” (whatever the hell that means). Minor characters include assorted hateful family members, Londoners of the Bohemian variety, an Italian contessa, and a one-time lover of Gerald’s most often referred to as “The Pussum.”

Next up: plot. Women in Love would feel more like a love story if any of the central characters were less frequently disgusted with each other, and the reader with them. The blueprint for romance is, for Ursula and Birkin, classroom tension (they’re both teachers), long-term illness, and sexy forest romps. For Gudrun and Gerald, it’s rowboat flirtations (at least until Gerald’s sister drowns), animal cruelty, and secret nocturnal bedroom visits. High points of the novel are when Birkin’s ex-lover, Hermione, tries to crack Birkin’s head open with a paperweight, and when Birkin and Gerald engage in a naked wrestling match.

Things take a dark turn in the Tyrolean Alps. The couples ski, sled, and toboggan until Gudrun and Gerald pull the “self-destruct” lever on their relationship. Gerald repeatedly fantasizes about killing Gudrun, rather than simply breaking up with her like a sane person. A failed attempt to strangle her at a frosty picnic prompts him to wander off into the snow, and death. (No one is sad, except Birkin, a little.)

Moderate psychosis aside, what best characterizes Women in Love is rambling philosophy and comma splices. The novel is full of characters who initially seem capable of normal conversation, then rapidly spiral into abstract nonsense. Here’s Birkin describing why he decided to copy a Chinese drawing of geese (or was it was a drawing of Chinese geese?):

I know what centres they live from—what they perceive and feel—the hot, stinging centrality of a goose in the flux of cold water and mud—the curious bitter stinging heat of a goose’s blood, entering their own blood like an inoculation of corruptive fire—fire of the cold-burning mud—the lotus mystery.

I have to wonder: Did this actually pass for dialogue in 20th century England—even in the countryside, where people wrestled naked for no reason?

Also: Did the graceless, wooden Birkin, in 1969, become a real boy in the form of Matthew McConaughey?

Probably not, at least to the second question. It’s a well-known fact, anyway, that much of Birkin’s personality and ideology were based on his own author. The only surprise, then, is why Lawrence did not sue himself for libel. Here are his (apparent) thoughts on the human-animal hierarchy:

Nothing is so detestable as the maudlin attributing of human feelings and consciousness to animals.

That is some startling hyperbole right there. Nothing is so detestable? World War I is coming, Birkin. You’re going to feel really silly really soon.

Here are Birkin’s/Lawrence’s thoughts on love (a response to Ursula’s totally accurate accusation that their relationship is one-sided):

The two kinds of service are so different. I serve you in another way—not through yourself—somewhere else. But I want us to be together without bothering about ourselves—to be really together because we are together, as if it were a phenomenon, not a thing we have to maintain by our own effort.

Ah, the British, always confusing romance with snoot.

Here’s what happens when Ursula mocks Birkin for using tedious rhetoric to avoid his real feelings:

“All right,” he said, looking up with sudden exasperation. “Now go away then, and leave me alone. I don’t want any more of your meretricious persiflage.”

This is possibly the best thing anyone has ever said in reality or fiction. Unfortunately, laugh-out-loud moments are few and far between in Women in Love. Lawrence’s primary goal was to examine social conventions, the nature of desire, industrial transformation, and the truth of art.

He also attempted a Christian impossibility: reconciling the erotic and the sacred, going so far as to draw parallels between Birkin/Ursula and Adam/Eve. This plan failed, if the novel’s reception was any indication. An early reviewer famously called it “dirt in heaps—festering, putrid heaps which smell to high Heaven.”

I’d have to agree, but not because I found it offensive. Just overblown and self-important, like Henry VIII or Kanye.

Is It One of the Greatest Books of All Time?

So there is such a thing as a dumb question.

Favorite Quote:

Do come back and draw the ferrets, they are the most lovely noble darlings in the world.

Least Favorite Quote:

Besides she had a full mystic knowledge of his suave loins of darkness, dark-clad and suave, and in this knowledge there was some of the inevitability and the beauty of fate, fate which one asks for, which one accepts in full.

Read: 2014