3

Great Books Under 250 Pages

Like all readers, I am sure, I love discovering new authors. What better way to do that than to pick up something relatively short which they have previously written? I find sitting down and reading a book from cover to cover extremely satisfying, and it often gives an excellent idea into what you can expect from other, perhaps longer, works from the same author. With this in mind, I wanted to gather together eight books, all of which are under 250 pages, and which can be read in one go – provided you’re happy to forego other activities, of course!

1. Princes in the Land by Joanna Cannan (208 pages)

‘Princes in the Land by Joanna Cannan is about a woman bringing up a family who is left at the end, when the children are on the verge of adulthood, asking herself not only what it was all for but what was her own life for? Yet the questions are asked subtly and readably.

Having shown us how everything is made bearable for Patricia if her children can be at the centre of her life and, more important (because she is not a selfish woman) if they grow up to fulfil her ideals, Joanna Cannan proceeds to show us her happiness being slowly destroyed. In Princes in the Land the tragedy of the book is that not only do none of the three children live up to their mother’s expectations, she has to watch as each of them takes a path that is anathema to her. Yet of course, she can do nothing about it; nor, sensibly, does she try.

Joanna Cannan began writing early, and her first novel was published when she was 26. From 1922 onwards she published a book a year for nearly forty years – novels; detective novels, including the very successful Death at The Dog; and the first ‘pony’ book (first in the sense that the focus was on a pony-mad girl rather than a horse or pony), a genre that her daughters Josephine, Diana and Christine Pullein-Thompson were to make very much their own. Princes in the Land is about an interesting and rarely-discussed theme; it is also evocative about Oxford.’

2. The Faces by Tove Ditlevsen (130 pages)

‘It’s Copenhagen, 1968. Lise, a children’s book writer and married mother of three, is becoming increasingly haunted by disembodied faces and taunting voices. Convinced that her housekeeper and husband are plotting against her, she descends into a terrifying world of sickness, pills and institutionalisation. But is sanity in fact a kind of sickness? And might mental illness itself lead to enlightenment?

Brief, intense and haunting, Ditlevsen’s novel recreates the experience of madness from the inside, with all the vividness of lived experience.’

3. Thérèse Raquin by Émile Zola (201 pages)

‘One of Zola’s most famous realist novels, Therese Raquin is a clinically observed, sinister tale of adultery and murder among the lower classes in nineteenth-century Parisian society.

Set in the claustrophobic atmosphere of a dingy haberdasher’s shop in the passage du Pont-Neuf in Paris, this powerful novel tells how the heroine and her lover, Laurent, kill her husband, Camille, but are subsequently haunted by visions of the dead man, and prevented from enjoying the fruits of their crime.

Zola’s shocking tale dispassionately dissects the motivations of his characters–mere “human beasts”, who kill in order to satisfy their lust–and stands as a key manifesto of the French Naturalist movement, of which the author was the founding father. Published in 1867, this is Zola’s most important work before the Rougon-Macquart series and introduces many of the themes that can be traced through the later novel cycle.’

4. The Violent Bear It Away by Flannery O’Connor (256 pages, but I still wanted to include it)

‘First published in 1960, The Violent Bear It Away is now a landmark in American literature. It is a dark and absorbing example of the Gothic sensibility and bracing satirical voice that are united in Flannery O’Conner’s work. In it, the orphaned Francis Marion Tarwater and his cousins, the schoolteacher Rayber, defy the prophecy of their dead uncle–that Tarwater will become a prophet and will baptize Rayber’s young son, Bishop. A series of struggles ensues: Tarwater fights an internal battle against his innate faith and the voices calling him to be a prophet while Rayber tries to draw Tarwater into a more “reasonable” modern world. Both wrestle with the legacy of their dead relatives and lay claim to Bishop’s soul.

O’Connor observes all this with an astonishing combination of irony and compassion, humor and pathos. The result is a novel whose range and depth reveal a brilliant and innovative writers acutely alert to where the sacred lives and to where it does not.’

5. Hour of the Star by Clarice Lispector (96 pages)

‘Living in the slums of Rio and eking out a living as a typist, Macabéa loves movies, Coca-Cola and her philandering rat of a boyfriend; she would like to be like Marilyn Monroe, but she is ugly and unloved. Yet telling her story is the narrator Rodrigo S.M., who tries to direct Macabéa’s fate but comes to realize that, for all her outward misery, she is inwardly free. Slyly subverting ideas of poverty, identity, love, and the art of writing itself, Clarice Lispector’s audacious last novel, arguably her best, is a haunting portrayal of innocence in a bad world.’

6. The Fox by D.H. Lawrence (84 pages)

‘Sharply observed and expertly crafted, D.H. Lawrence’s The Fox is a captivating work exploring the dual themes of power and supremacy in the aftermath of the First World War. Banford and March live and work together on their meager farm, surviving hardship only by sheer determination and dedicated labor. The farm is their world, a place of safety—that is, until a young soldier walks in and upsets the women’s delicate status quo. None could have predicted the effect his presence would have on their lives.’

7. Some Thoughts on the Common Toad by George Orwell (115 pages)

‘A collection of essays that looks at, among others, the joys of spring (even in London), the picture of humanity painted by Gulliver and his travels, and the strange benefit of the doubt that the public permit Salvador Dali. It also includes an essay on the delights of English Cooking and an account of killing an elephant in Burma.’

8. David Golder by Irène Némirovsky (176 pages)

‘Golder is a superb creation. Born into poverty on the Black Sea, he has clawed his way to fabulous wealth by speculating on gold and oil. When the novel opens, he is at work in his magnificent Parisian apartment while his wife and beloved daughter, Joy, spend his money at their villa in Biarritz. But Golder’s security is fragile. For years he has defended his business interests from cut-throat competitors. Now his health is beginning to show the strain. As his body betrays him, so too do his wife and child, leaving him to decide which to pursue: revenge or altruism?

Available for the first time since 1930, David Golder is a page-turningly chilling and brilliant portrait of the frenzied capitalism of the 1920s and a universal parable about the mirage of wealth.’

Have you read any of these books? Which is your favourite short book?

2

‘Zennor in Darkness’ by Helen Dunmore *****

Helen Dunmore’s Zennor in Darkness proved the perfect tome to pick up over a relaxed and warm bank holiday weekend.  I first read the novel some years ago, but did not remember much about it, save for D.H. Lawrence featuring as one of the protagonists, and the sweeping Cornish setting.  First published in 1993, John le Carre calls this ‘a beautiful and inspired novel’, and the Sunday Telegraph deems it ‘highly original and beautifully written’.

9780141033600Zennor in Darkness opens in May 1917, when war has come to haunt ‘the coastal village of Zennor; ships are being sunk by U-boats, strangers are treated with suspicion, and newspapers are full of spy stories.’  It is into this environment that D.H. Lawrence and his German wife, Frieda, move, seeking a cheaper existence away from the controversy which his writing has caused in London.  Also resident in the village, and living with her widowed father, is a young woman named Clare Coyne.  She is a young artist, whom Lawrence and Frieda soon befriend.

When Lawrence arrives in Cornwall, it is almost directly after the publication and scandal of his novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover.  In Zennor, he is ‘growing vegetables to eke out his tiny income.  He earns his living by his writing, and it has shrunk close to nothing since his novel was seized by the police in November 1915 and prosecuted for obscenity.  The book is shameful, say reviewers and prosecution.  It is a thing which creeps and crawls…  He does not know when he will be able to publish another novel.  But with a remote cottage rented at five pounds a year, and cheap rural living, he hopes that he and his wife may get through the war.’  Controversy follows the Lawrences wherever they go, however; local residents are highly suspicious of Frieda’s German accent, and the couples’ penchant for singing Hibernian lullabies to one another.  ‘This brazen couple,’ writes Dunmore, ‘ignores the crossed, tight webs, the drystone walls, the small signals of kinship, the spider-fine apprehensions of those who’ve lived there for ever once they feel a fly strumming somewhere on their web.’

Dunmore’s descriptions throughout are highly sensual.  At the outset of the novel, when Clare decides to swim with her cousins with nothing on, she writes: ‘Second in, she must be second out.  And she wants the sea to herself for a minute, the noise and swell of it, her bare flesh rocking in salt water.’  The rural scenery, as well as the current crisis and its effects, are set with such grace.  Dunmore is very understanding of the location against which the action of the novel plays out, as well as the wider political climate, and the links between the two.  When Clare and Lawrence survey the sea, for instance, she writes: ‘It is wonderful to have your back to the land, to the whole of England: to have your back to the darkness of it, its frenzy of bureaucratic bloodshed, its cries in the night…  To have your back to this madness which finds a reason for everything: a madness of telegrams, medical examinations and popular songs; a madness of girls making shells and ferocious sentimentality.’

Dunmore’s depictions of people, too, are vivid and memorable.  When Clare meets Lawrence for the first time, for instance, she finds that ‘his beard is astonishing.  It juts from his face, wiry and bright red, and then the sunlight catches it and it’s all the colours she’d never have thought human hair could be: threads of orange and purple like slim flames lapping at coals.’

Whilst the majority of the novel is told using the third person omniscient perspective, the use of diary entries written in Clare’s voice are effective.  Using this technique, Dunmore shows a more tender side of her, and it is also, of course, far more revealing than she is able to be in her public life.  Snippets of first person perspective, and thoughts of individual characters, have been woven throughout.  Sometimes asides are given, or reflections between snatches of dialogue.  Separate characters are focused upon in individual chapters, and we are thus able to see the rich tapestry of those who live within Zennor, some of whom are real historical figures, and others of which have been imagined by Dunmore.

Everything within Zennor in Darkness has been beautifully placed into what is a taut and tightly executed novel.  Throughout, Dunmore’s writing is measured and careful; she is understanding of her characters, and never resorts to melodrama.  Zennor in Darkness is a novel to really admire; it is slow, sensuous, incredibly human, and highly beautiful.

Purchase from The Book Depository

2

Novels of 1928

I have read several novels for class which were published in 1928, all of which are diverse, and the majority of which have made a great impression upon me.  I thought that I would draw your attention to the four most diverse books from this year, all of which I would recommend.

  1. Orlando by Virginia Woolf 9781853262395
    ”The longest and most charming love letter in literature’, playfully constructs the figure of Orlando as the fictional embodiment of Woolf’s close friend and lover, Vita Sackville-West. Spanning three centuries, the novel opens as Orlando, a young nobleman in Elizabeth’s England, awaits a visit from the Queen and traces his experience with first love as England under James I lies locked in the embrace of the Great Frost. At the midpoint of the novel, Orlando, now an ambassador in Costantinople, awakes to find that he is a woman, and the novel indulges in farce and irony to consider the roles of women in the 18th and 19th centuries. As the novel ends in 1928, a year consonant with full suffrage for women. Orlando, now a wife and mother, stands poised at the brink of a future that holds new hope and promise for women.’
  2. Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D.H. Lawrence
    ‘With its four-letter words and its explicit descriptions of sexual intercourse, Lady Chatterley’s Lover is the novel with which D.H. Lawrence is most often associated. First published privately in Florence in 1928, it only became a world-wide best-seller after Penguin Books had successfully resisted an attempt by the British Director of Public Prosecutions to prevent them offering an unexpurgated edition. The famous ‘Lady Chatterley trial’ heralded the sexual revolution of the coming decades and signalled the defeat of Establishment prudery. Yet Lawrence himself was hardly a liberationist and the conservativism of many aspects of his novel would later lay it open to attacks from the political avant-garde and from feminists. The story of how the wife of Sir Clifford Chatterley responds when her husband returns from the war paralysed from the waist down, and of the tender love which then develops between her and her husband’s gamekeeper, is a complex one open to a variety of conflicting interpretations. This edition of the novel offers an occasion for a new generation of readers to discover what all the fuss was about; to appraise Lawrence’s bitter indictment of modern industrial society, and to ask themselves what lessons there might be for the 21st century in his intense exploration of the complicated relations between love and sex.’
  3. 9780141187488Decline and Fall by Evelyn Waugh
    ‘Sent down from Oxford in outrageous circumstances, Paul Pennyfeather is oddly surprised to find himself qualifying for the position of schoolmaster at Llanabba Castle. His colleagues are an assortment of misfits, rascals and fools, including Prendy (plagued by doubts) and Captain Grimes, who is always in the soup (or just plain drunk). Then Sports Day arrives, and with it the delectable Margot Beste-Chetwynde, floating on a scented breeze. As the farce unfolds and the young run riot, no one is safe, least of all Paul.’
  4. The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall
    ‘A powerful novel of love between women, The Well of Loneliness brought about the most famous legal trial for obscenity in the history of British law. Banned on publication in 1928, it then went on to become a classic bestseller. Stephen Gordon (named by a father desperate for a son) is not like other girls: she hunts, she fences, she reads books, wears trousers and longs to cut her hair. As she grows up amidst the stifling grandeur of Morton Hall, the locals begin to draw away from her, aware of some indefinable thing that sets her apart. And when Stephen Gordon reaches maturity, she falls passionately in love – with another woman.’

Purchase from The Book Depository

7

Classics Club #36: ‘The Rainbow’ by D.H. Lawrence ****

Lawrence is an author whom I have wanted to read since my A-Level studies began, but I have always been put off from beginning his work due solely to the things Id heard about the smuttier (for want of a better word) elements present in some of his novels.  I decided to add one of his novels, The Rainbow, to my Classics Club list to get the ball rolling, as he is an author whom I certainly feel I ought to have read.

Published in 1915, The Rainbow opens with the characters of Tom Brangwen, a descendant of a long-established Derbyshire family: ‘The Brangwens had lived for generations on the Marsh Farm, in the meadows where the Erewash twisted sluggishly through alder trees, separating Derbyshire from Nottinghamshire.  Two miles away, a church-tower9780199553853 stood on a hill, the houses of the little country town climbing assiduously up to it.’  Lawrence goes on to beautifully describe the appearance of the family, building them immediately in the mind: ‘There was a look in the eyes of the Brangwens as if they were expecting something unknown, about which they were eager.  They had the air of readiness for what would come to them, a kind of surety, an expectancy, the look of an inheritor.  They were fresh, blond, slow-speaking people, revealing themselves plainly, but slowly, so that one could watch the change in their eyes from laughter to anger, blue, lit-up laughter, to a hard blue-staring anger; through all the irresolute stages of the sky when the weather is changing.’

Tom soon marries Lydia Lewsky, a Polish widow with a young daughter named Anna.  Lydia – or Mrs Lewsky, as she is known – is working as a housekeeper at the local vicarage.  The two soon find solace within one another.  The rest of The Rainbow is generational in its structure; it follows Anna and her siblings, and then Anna’s own children.  This particular aspect of the character study is fascinating, and each member of the Brangwen clan has been realistically built and wonderfully presented.  The character arcs, and the paths which each follows from early childhood to adulthood, are believable but not always obvious, which added another dimension to the novel.  The Rainbow is not overly plot heavy, and is more concerned with the family and the choices which they make, but it is all the stronger for it.

Lawrence’s grasp and understanding of the family is stunning, and I was put in mind of both Thomas Hardy and George Eliot at times.  His descriptions are beautiful, and I was absorbed from the very beginning.  The Rainbow is scintillatingly told, and one gets the impression that Lawrence has a piercing understanding for each and every one of his characters.  I feel so very foolish for leaving his work by the wayside for such a long time, but at least I have many more of his novels and short stories to enjoy in future.

Purchase from The Book Depository