Tuesday, 21 February 2012

The Awakening by Kate Chopin

The Awakening is very close to perfection.  In each paragraph, there is much to be pondered.  Kate Chopin's s subtle use of symbolism, the interweaving of themes, the deeper issues so deftly approached make me want to delve into this story for a very long time.

Mrs. Pontellier is such an appealing protagonist.  I liked her.  She married a man who keeps her as a trophy but does not value her for more than her status as his possession.  He even pushes her into the companionship of Robert LeBrun, the man who flirts with all the women at the summer resort.  His foil, Arobin, really is a scoundrel who does not, as Robert does, leave to protect everyone's honour, but presses on with his entanglements.

This story has an ambiguous ending - and rightly so.  We are left to draw our own conclusions.  But whether it is actual or symbolic, a death has indeed occured.  Edna has completely separated from her old life.  She can never return to the way things were.  She has no problem with leaving her husband, or lovers, or friends; she is only torn about her children.  All that is left at the end for her are her children.  They are part of who she is, part of her own body and they are the last things she thinks of as she departs that life, truly or symbolically.

Kate Chopin

There is so much to enjoy about his story.  Like many of the books I encountered in my university women writer's classes, I didn't have the maturity or experience to appreciate them as I now do.

Saturday, 18 February 2012

The View from Castle Rock by Alice Munro

Included as the first story in Jane Urquhart's Penquin Book of Canadian Short Stories (2007), it is also the title story from Alice Munro's collection of short stories by the same name.  Somewhere (cottage? packed?) I have the collection, but am only able to read this story on it's own at the moment.  Munro is a master, truly the finest, wordsmith.  She can write a sentence to bring you to your knees with it's perfection, and create a scene with slight of hand.

The family leaves Scotland for the new world and the vividness of live aboard fills all the senses.  When the son is cheeky to the father, Munro describes:
Barely on board the vessel and this seventeen-year-old whelp has taken on knowing airs, he has taken to contradicting his father.  Fatique, astonishement and the weight of the great coat he is wearing prevent Old James from cuffing him.
Agnes comes from a large Hawick family of weavers, who work in the mills now but worked for generations at home.  And working there they learned all the arts of cutting each other down to size, of squabbling and surviving in close quarters.

Alice Munro paints such vivid images, often just on the verge an extreme of comedy or surrealism.  But, we can feel what she expresses happening in the minds of each of the characters as, for instance, the view of the homeland recedes and the tears and sadness turn to boredom and loss of interest.  Each of the characters has a different reaction and Munro honours each: Agnes does not want to move herself, she has different pain to consider; Old James is loyal to his town but not a nationalist, his loyalties are parochial; it is a solemn and majestic moment for Walter, the narrator.  Munro can paint a picture, and the images endure because they are not merely physical, but emotional descriptions.

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

At a Loss for Words by Diane Schoemperlen


At a Loss for Words by Diane Schoemperlen is a very fast and fun read.  Written as a letter to a man who has broken her heart, we see and understand long before the narrator does that he is not only "leading her on" but he is incapable of being truly and honestly there for her on any level.  As she pushes closer toward him he backs off.  She so cleverly leads us through the deception that it isn't till the end of the book that we have the realization of what is really happening and then it all becomes clear.

Written as a "he said/she said" letter as a history of their relationship, it is more accurately a "you said/I said" recounting for his benefit.  The most damning contrasts are when "I said" emotionally effusive comments that beg for a response paired with "you said nothing," or worse, you didn't respond about anything I said, but merely commented on a triviality in your day.  He is obviously not even reading her emails.  Ouch!  The decline in the sanity of the narrator is clear as her obsession increases, and love continues to make a fool of her.  While she continues to interact with him makes good, if frustrating reading, the only explanation for her tenacity is the madnss that comes with romantic obsession.

But this is not just a fluffy piece of "Chick Lit" about a relationship that went wrong, Diane Schoemperlen has created a revealing work of imagination and writing.  Although we have no reason to doubt that the narrator is an accomplished writer, when she is writing about love, all the skill goes out of her words.  They are trite and cliche and syrupy.  The theme of the novel is stated early (p.45) and is something she quotes from one of her (the narrator's) own earlier works:
It is only in retrospect that I understand that obsession has nothing to do with love and everything to do with anxiety, insecurity, uncertainty and fear.

Look what love does to language.  Either it sends you straight into breathless, shameless, hyperbolic logorrhea (like then) or it leaves you wordless altogether (like later).
The (unnamed) narrator starts off the book unable to write fiction, but concludes by writing her truth, which in a literary twist is actually fiction that feels as though it must be the author's truth.  Highly recommended!
(Also, Diane Schoemperlen is a fascinating collage artist!)