Monday, 30 July 2007

The Curtain

The Curtain by Milan Kundera (2005)

‘…human life as such is a defeat. All we can do in the face of that ineluctable defeat called life is to try to understand it. That – that is the raison d’etre of the art of the novel.’

Described as An Essay in Seven Parts, this book is Kundera’s personal view of the history and value of the novel in Western civilization. ‘The curtain’ is the ready-made perception of the world which we all inherit – a pre-interpreted world. It is the function of the novelist to tear down this curtain to reveal to us something which we didn’t know. For anyone who reads as many novels as I do this book is salutary.

A novel which glorifies the conventional or the hackneyed ‘excludes itself from the history of the novel.’ Only by tearing through the curtain of pre-interpretation can a novel be worthy of its name – ‘It is the identifying sign of the art of the novel.’

‘For life is short, reading is long, and literature is in the process of killing itself off through an insane proliferation. Every novelist, starting with his own work, should eliminate whatever is secondary, lay out for himself and everyone else the ethic of the essential.’

‘It [the novel] refuses to exist as an illustration of a historical era, as description of society, as defense of an ideology, and instead puts itself exclusively at the service of what only the novel can say.’

Monday, 23 July 2007

Darkness and Day (1951)

Darkness and Day by Ivy Compton Burnett. (1884-1969)
Reading Ivy Compton Burnett is not easy. This is the first of her books which I’ve actually succeeded in getting right through. But persistence paid off and, finally, I think I see the point of ICB. There is no other writer remotely like her, either in style or in content. The ‘story’, in so far as there is one, is conveyed almost entirely through dialogue, and you have to read very carefully to pick up the multifarious threads and cross-currents of conversation. Once you get rid of the idea that this is meant to represent ‘real life’ in any literal sense, you begin to appreciate the razor-like skill with which she conveys the ghastly entanglements of bourgeois family life, at the same time revealing its inherent humour and melodrama.

The New York Herald Tribune said: "Her specialty is a kind of surgical operation upon family life. Through her, we see it startlingly stripped of its more amiable pretensions. Parents and children, servants and masters, engage in a queer kind of verbal warfare bristling with innuendo and even with a candor that slashes to the quick. Her revelation of character ... [is] built upon a searching yet serene anlysis of the egotisms, envies, irascibilities that are part of domestic intercourse. By reason of her accurate avoidance of all pretense or idealism, her people actually become ... almost heroic, and vividly if bitterly funny."

Raymond Mortimer, reviewing Darkness and Day in the Sunday Times, wrote:
"Everyone in it [Darkness and Day] is either protecting himself from the truth or unearthing it. 'What we ought to be is not what we are.' If all the characters blaze with wit, this is in order to illuminate the most unlovely recesses of the human heart; in none of the fashionable prophets of despair do we find a blacker view of human nature. Yet here the reader is exhilarated — by the author's iron courage and by her austere diction, which can rise to poetic grandeur ..."

Opinion on Ivy Compton Burnett’s work has been divided, some claiming that she is a literary genius, others that she is unreadably pretentious.

"The most original novelist now writing in English", said V.S Pritchett, and Philip Toynbee commented: "Miss Compton-Burnett is totally unlike any other novelist. Wit and melodrama have never been so combined before, and the combination is a brilliant success.... She is a unique figure in modern English literature."

On the other hand, John o' London's Weekly, reviewing More Women Than Men described it as: "Pompous falsity ... a pinnacle of unreality", and reviewing Men and Wives, the New Statesman said:
"There is something rather cruel, rather horrible in Miss Burnett's talent."

There’s a wealth of information about ICB on the Internet – you could start with Wikipedia:

Sunday, 22 July 2007

Slightly Foxed

The problem I have with Slightly Foxed, 'The Real Reader's Quarterly', is that I want to read ALL the books reviewed therein because all the writers make their book selections sound unmissable. Visit the Slightly Foxed website for full details: p://
In this issue, I particularly enjoyed Sue Gee's piece about Kathleen Hale, one of my favourite children's authors. The review of James Hamilton-Paterson's Griefwork (see my previous Blog on this book) by Tim Longville was as lively in tone and as original and perceptive in comment as I'd expect from him.