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February 25, 2007
There is no way I would have chosen to read this book were it not for the fact that this is the book that Benedict has picked for book group this month. I am only halfway through it (as Sarah Waters has been distracting me today!) and while I can’t say that I’m enjoying it in the slightest, much of the language and imagery really is quite stunning. Nevertheless, there is only so much apolocalyptic nihilism and violent scalpings I can take, especially on a “school night”. I’ll write a proper review of this once I finish it, hopefully before our book group meeting on Tuesday evening. In the meantime, I’d give this 1 out of 10 for enjoyment, but a 7 or 8 for literary merit (the technical way in which our book group rates the books we read!), giving it an average of 4 out of 10 or 2 stars.
I emerged from reading Sarah Waters’ latest offering, The Night Watch, desperate to read it again, and read it from back to front this time round.
The novel moves backwards in time from 1947 to 1944 and then back to 1941; the hollow, displaced positions its characters find themselves in at the beginning are gradually explained by the revelation of their history. Just as Kay, the wartime ambulance driver who desperately seeks distraction from the drag of her empty post-war hours, often watches the second half of a film first- “people’s pasts, you know, being so much more interesting than their futures” – so the back-to-front time scheme for this novel imbues seemingly insignificant events with dramatic irony in the light of what the reader knows is to follow.
Unlike Waters’ previous three novels, The Night Watch is set against the dramatic backdrop of the Second World War and its aftermath. The historical framework is as significant as the Victorian period in which her previous novels are set, for it offers rich opportunities for emotional upheavals, character transformations and moments of happenstance, as well as enabling boundaries of class, gender, sexuality and wealth to be transcended.
The post-war years with which the novel opens are a time of exhausted listlessness, a sort of clumsy reshuffling of a world that refuses to fit neatly back into the pre-war order. The wartime landscape appears disconnected from temporal and geographical ties, all conventional markers erased to create a nameless, displaced limbo state in which characters must exist and form connections with one another.
As the city landscape of London is transformed by the night time air raids into a dark, eerie place fraught with both danger and possibility, the characters themselves are transformed as “so many impossible things were becoming ordinary, just then.” As well as death and loss, there are new choices and opportunities available for heroic action, shifts in sexual identity and newfound freedoms.
The characterisation and interaction between characters is what really stands out for me – that and the power of Sarah Waters’ storytelling and the narrative connections that she makes between events and characters.
I found myself identifying with Helen and wishing desperately that there would be some reprise for her at the end of the novel, but ultimately knowing that the unhappy, insecure state of emotional neediness in which we witness her at the end of the first section of the novel is the way it is likely she will remain. The other characters are equally drained and disappointed, struggling to patch up their lives and continue their existence in the aftermath of wartime trauma. In this way the novel lacks what Americans might call “closure”, which is frustrating for the reader but ultimately has more integrity and interest than some neat, facile tying up of loose ends.
The only part of the novel that did not entirely ring true for me was Duncan’s relationship with Alec. Duncan’s character and awkward situation is portrayed beautifully throughout the novel and and anticipation builds throughout his time in prison, but in the end I felt that the dialogue between the two young men and the reason for Duncan’s imprisonment was both false and simplistic.
However, on the whole the weaving together of all these stories against the historical backdrop of wartime Britain works beautifully well, and as such The Night Watch is both astutely and compassionately observed and compelling to read – my favourite Sarah Waters’ novel to date.
June 04, 2005
Writing about web page http://enfantsduningxia.uk.over-blog.com/
Have just started reading 'Le Journal de Ma Yan: la vie quotidienne d'une écolière chinoise', a book my mum brought back from France. I'm trying to get my French reading skills back up to scratch, and starting with the writings of a 13 year old girl seemed like a good idea!
It's the journal of a young Chinese schoolgirl from a remote mountainous province in NW China called Ningxia. The journalist Pierre Haski, a correspondent for the newspaper 'Libération en Chine' was visiting her village, and just as he was leaving a woman handed him a letter written on the back of a seed packet, as well as some notebooks containing the writings of her daughter, Ma Yan. In the letter Ma Yan had written: 'Je n'irai plus à l'école cette année. Je viendrai labourer afin de payer les études de mon petit frère. A chaque fois que je pense aux rires et aux plaisirs du campus, c'est comme si je me retrouvais à l'école. J'ai tellement envie d'étudier, mais ma famille est si pauvre.' (No more school for me this year. I have to labour in order to pay for my little brother's schooling. When I think of the laughter and happy times at school, I can almost imagine myself there. How much I want to study! but my family is so poor.)
Haski was moved by this letter and returned to the village to help Ma Yan and to listen to her story. He published an article in Libération in September 2001 entitled 'Je veux étudier' (I want to study), which attracted the attention of many French people, who sent Ma Yan letters and money. Haski established a foundation called 'Enfants du Ningxia' to raise money to help the children in Ma Yan's village and province, which allowed her to return to school and become the first girl from her village to go to college.
The diaries were initially translated into French and became a bestseller in France, and have since been translated into German, Japanese, Italian, Spanish, Czech and English. As Haski writes on the foundation's website, 'La bouteille à la mer est arrivée à bon port!' (The message in a bottle arrived at the right port).
Anyway, it looks like an interesting read, and it will certainly get the French cogs whirring in my brain again…
May 08, 2005
Proust shows perception to consist of a multiplicity of layers, some of which only become salient retrospectively. The importance of the past as an unseen dimension of perception, separated from the present by a gulf of time and forgetfulness, is illustrated by his depiction of the Combray church and the young Marcel's sensitivity to its history. He appears able to apprehend the unseen fourth dimension, celle du Temps, suggesting that time and memory serve as a filter to colour perception. Voluntary perception results in only partial representations of memory, recalling the essential features of a situation for dramatic or practical purposes. Thus the narrator's initial perception of Combray is that of deux étages reliés par un mince escalier gives way to involuntary memory as illustrated by the Madeleine episode. Yet this involuntary memory is dependent on a sensory evocation or stimulus (e.g. the limestalks, the madeleine cake dipped in the tea), and its release is an arbitrary, fleeting sensation, both ephemeral and immortal, difficult to capture and futile to seek deliberately.
Our perception of time throughout Combray is a fluid, flexible one, rather than a fixed state where past and present remain firmly divided and one event clearly succeeds another. The fragmented narrative itself reflects this disjointed nature of experience and subverts the linear temporality of the traditional narrative discourse. This is symbolised by the jerky projection of the magic lantern in the child narrator's bedroom, depicting legends comme un vitrail vacillant et momentané. This image forms a key illustration of the complex and disconnected nature of perception, suggesting a Cubist combining of several perspectives, angles and times within the same work of art and implying a multilayering of perception, a fluidity often transferred to Proust's imagery. One of my favourite images from Combray is that of the old church steps, as that which is initially perceived as solid is worn away in an impressionistic dissolution of lines, from the cloaks of the generations of peasants sweeping in and out the doors:
comme si le doux effleurement des mantes des paysannes entrant à l'église (...) pouvait, répété pendant des siècles, acquérir une force destructrive, infléchir la pierre et l'entailler de sillons comme en trace la roue des carrioles dans la borne contre laquelle elle bute tous les jours.'
Proust questions our means of expressing experience and perception. While the child narrator's instinctive response to the reflection of light on the rooftops is a cry of 'Zut zut zut zut' the adult narrator is able to push the experience further and acknowledge the discrepancy between the initial feeling experienced and a more sophisticated mode of expression. Cultural background is shown to be an inhibiting factor in terms of achieving accurate perception, but it is also an enriching one. The world of the mind is depicted as being like un corps incandescent, which sheds its own heat and light as a means of judging reality (c.f. Abrams - the Mirror and the Lamp). The difficult of perceiving the material world 'accurately' is stressed, since narrative techniques (e.g. use of simile or metaphor) actually colour and distort reality. Poetic transformation of the narrator's initial perception occurs through simile and personification, such as the Martinville steeples that are alternatively depicted comme trois oiseaux posés sur la plaine, comme trois fleurs peintes sur le ciel and comme trois jeunes filles d'une légende. This determination to seek equivalents for the pleasure derived from the fluctuating reality of the steeples could be seen as superior to the actual perception because it is art. In this way Proust introduces us to a viable and colourful alternative to the problem of accurate representation, perception and memory – mere sensory perception is not enough, but rather extra effort is required to extract the hidden secret of memory and represent it using stylistic features, artificial in their very nature.
Writing this has been like my very own madeleine moment – Oxford in the summer term, mmm… I've only just come to the realisation that I actually quite enjoyed my BA. Writing this was also a good way to avoid doing the work that I should be doing for my MA :(