Virginia has a bachelor's degree in Spanish and English literature.
The End of the Affair by Graham Greene
Published in 1951, The End of the Affair, sits on the fence between modernism and postmodernism. Greene is still concerned with the characters’ interiority, but the use of multiple points of view, intertextuality, and self-reflexivity gestures towards the postmodern.
The End of the Affair tells the story of an extramarital love affair between Maurice and Sarah in non-linear fashion; the novel starts off after Maurice and Sarah have split. But when one affair ends, another begins—this time with God. The novel touches on the issues of finding faith after World War II, even when religion appears to be incompatible with postmodern life.
As an atheist, I didn’t find the religious aspect of the book too obnoxious. On the contrary, it was approached from a deeply humanist perspective with a compassionate attitude towards human flaws and questioning mind. Even the miracles in the novel are downplayed and open to rational interpretation.
I would recommend this book to any religious person struggling to come to terms with their faith but also to non-religious people looking for a deeply moving tale of human love and hatred.
The main character, Maurice, is an anti-hero. He harbours petty resentment towards his ex-lover and most other characters. Although we don’t want to identify with him, his feelings and flaws make him profoundly human and believable. The book asserts that love and hatred are two sides of the same coin:
‘So this is a record of hate far more than of love.’
Greene is a masterful storyteller. He manages to rivet the reader’s attention from the start without resorting to flowery language or spectacular literary techniques. I loved this economic, forceful, and painfully honest way of writing, which made me swallow The End of the Affair in one go.
The Lonely Londoners by Sam Selvon
The Lonely Londoners, published in 1956, registers the beginnings of post-war mass immigration in Great Britain. It is concerned with the experiences of black people arriving in London in search of jobs and better conditions. Although London is idealised by some characters, the reality proves to be harsh and alienating.
The streets aren’t ‘paved with gold’ as the British press keeps pointing out. Accessing basic services such as housing and jobs is difficult in an era of institutional racism.
Similarly to The End of the Affair, the book exhibits both modern (stream of consciousness) and postmodern (multiplicity of voices, marginalised narratives, challenging British imperialism) literary tendencies. The book is written in a creolised version of English, but I didn’t find it overly challenging to read. Almost all of the slang words can be guessed from the context.
The only difficult bit is the stream of consciousness episode written without any punctuation, which comes quite unexpectedly. Fortunately, it is not very long.
The book doesn’t have a conventional plot. It is structured around anecdotes about different black people going about their business in London. The narratives are linked through the character of Moses, an old trouper who helps newcomers out. The narration is a celebration of oral story telling typically associated with non-Western societies.
Sam Selvon engages with and challenges racial stereotypes present in London at the time by providing context and exposing the harsh realities facing black immigrants: job insecurity, poor housing, hunger, and prejudice. Yet, The Lonely Londoners is far from bleak; characters face their existence with laughter, courage, and defiance.
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The Homecoming by Harold Pinter
The homecoming is a 1964 play by Nobel laureate Harold Pinter. The first time I saw it, I didn’t really get it. Some scenes are very disturbing, such as male characters casually bragging about beating or raping women. Other scenes are downright bizarre, such as the famous exchange about a glass of water.
But after re-watching and discussing the play at university, I fell in love with Harold Pinter.
The Homecoming is a story of an all-male working-class family (the mother has died) who live in London. One day, the oldest son (Teddy) and his wife (Ruth) arrive unannounced in the family house from America after nine years of estrangement. Ruth becomes the centre of attention and power struggles, which results in some disconcerting and weird scenes.
The Homecoming exposes the toxicity of the so-called hegemonic masculinity. This type of masculinity is predicated on the conquest of women, violent and risk-taking behaviour, and taking control. When you read or watch the play, you can sense electrifying violence lurking from beneath the surface of everyday piece of dialogue.
Harold Pinter also examines the ambiguity of power. When you read The Homecoming, it’s worth thinking about who is in control in every scene. Power struggles are heavily gendered, oftentimes taking place between Ruth and the male characters.
The Homecoming - Glass of Water Scene
The Passion of New Eve by Angela Carter
The Passion of New Eve is like nothing I’ve ever read before. Disturbing insights delivered in Carter’s eerie and haunting style make this novel particularly memorable. Despite the fact that the action takes place in real locations, very little about them is recognisable.
The novel starts with the arrival of an Englishman, Eveleyn in New York. The city is portrayed as a dystopian space where gigantic rats are capable of tearing a dog apart. People grew indifferent to ubiquitous death and violent civil disorder. The political situation, although only hinted at, is extremely volatile. The New York of Angela Carter gives the impression a world in crisis.
Evelyn quickly leaves the city behind and goes on a lonely road trip. He gets lost in the desert, abducted by a mysterious woman, and carried to an underground city inhabited solely by women. There, he undergoes a forced sex change operation and has to learn to navigate the world as a woman.
Reading The Passion of New Eve was a disturbing experience. I found the sexual violence particularly unsettling. There are very few sexual or bodily taboos that aren’t broken. But Carter’s prose also has a magnetic quality about it, and you will want to keep on reading despite, or maybe precisely because of, all the violence.
Carter’s novel is a scathing criticism of both patriarchy and Second Wave feminism, which was heavily focused on essentialism and the superiority of women.
If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino
Calvino once said that his fiction is like a diamond; fragmented and multifaceted but with crystal-clear language. Published in 1979, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler is an embodiment of these principles. The book consists of ten beginnings of ten different novels interlaced with chapters describing the adventures of the Reader and the Other Reader written in the second person.
I particularly liked the book’s playfulness and clever structure. Calvino’s tongue-in-cheek self-reflexive comments about reading and creating fiction made me rethink the traditional roles of writer and reader as well as the nature of fiction.
Is a book a finished product? Or does it only come to life when it’s read? How many versions of a book are there? How autonomous is the reader? How authoritative is the writer? These are some of the questions that might pop into your head when reading Calvino’s masterpiece.
Calvino’s book also challenges the boundaries between fiction and reality by fictionalising both readers and writers. Already the first sentence hints at the book’s postmodern status:
‘You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a winter’s night a traveler.’
If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler is a pure joy to read. Calvino proves himself master of a variety of genres—detective, spy, war, erotic fiction—who at the same time challenges and parodies the narrative conventions he’s making use of. The self-reflexive remarks on the art of writing fiction and the notorious breaking off of the stories when they get interesting make it impossible to lose yourself in the plot.
But this fragmentation is also the greatest strength of If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler; at the end, you feel as if you’d read a dozen books in one.
The Fourth World by Diamela Eltit
The Fourth World is a book by Chilean writer Diamela Eltit published in 1988 (a year before the end of the Pinochet dictatorship). Diamela Eltit is an intellectual who was engaged in the resistance movement during the dictatorship; in fact, The Fourth World is a veiled critique of the Pinochet dictatorship.
The oblique nature of the novel is partly the result of the fact that Diamela Eltit decided to stay and write in Chile instead of fleeing the country like so many her fellow artists did.
The novel tells the story of a very dysfunctional family. It starts off with a rape of the ill mother by the father, which results in the conception of twins. Later on, it gets even more disturbing.
I found that the narrative structure and devices were extremely inventive: the first part is narrated by the male twin from the womb from the day he’s conceived. The embryo describes things that he can have no knowledge of – the mother’s dreams and the relationship between the parents.
In the second part of the novel, the female twin takes over. At the end, there is also a one-page passage in third-person narration, which reveals the surprising identity of the female twin who is never before addressed by her name.
The Fourth World is definitely not for the squeamish. There were times when I felt physically sick. The novel deals with every possible sexual taboo, including rape and incest. It also focuses heavily on the female body with its bodily discharges and violent transformations during pregnancy. All this is part of Eltit’s agenda to subvert traditional gender power relations.
The Fourth World is not an easy read but definitely worth a try, especially for people who are interested in Latin American history and literature.
East, West by Salman Rushdie
East, West is a collection of stories by a British Indian writer. The stories address such issues as religious essentialism, the boundary between realism and fiction, and the migrant condition. Rushdie’s prose seems simple, but this is deceptive; on closer examination, it explodes with meaning.
My favourite story from the collection was ‘At the Auction of the Ruby Slippers’, which makes an allusion to a real auction of Dorothy’s rubber slippers from The Wizard of Oz film that took place in 1970. The story criticises state violence implicit in Western societies.
The neo-liberal capitalist system is also condemned; the yearning for the slippers is cast in terms of commodity fetish and fanatic devotion. Rushdie re-writes the colonial metropolis by representing it as irrational and primitive. The slippers in the story symbolise yearning for an innocent, uncomplicated notion of home, which proves impossible to achieve in our multi-cultural society.
The first time I read East, West, I wasn’t impressed. It appeared to be a collection of pleasant but rather bland stories. However, on the second reading, I absolutely fell in love with Rushdie and his ability to incorporate both European and Indian narrative traditions. The West and East are never too far apart, as Rushdie wants to show that these two worlds are interdependent.
What is more, Rushdie tackles topics that are relevant and current in today’s debates, especially belonging, immigration, and multiculturalism.
© 2018 Virginia Matteo