Monday, June 18, 2018

Virginia Woolf / 'Mrs. Dalloway' Review

Virginia Woolf

'Mrs. Dalloway' Review

by James Topham
Updated March 17, 2017
Mrs. Dalloway is a complex and compelling modernist novel by Virginia Woolf. It is a wonderful study of its principal characters. The novel enters into the consciousness of the people it takes as it subjects, creating a powerful, psychologically authentic effect. Although quite rightly numbered amongst the most famed modernist writers--such as Proust, ​​Joyce, and ​Lawrence--Woolf is often considered to be a much gentler artist, lacking the darkness of the male contingent of the movement.
With Mrs. Dalloway, though, Woolf created a visceral and unyielding vision of madness and a haunting descent into its depths.


Mrs. Dalloway follows a set of characters as they go about their lives on a normal day. The eponymous character, Clarissa Dalloway, does simple things: she buys some flowers, walks in a park, is visited by an old friend and throws a party. She speaks to a man who was once in love with her, and who still believes that she settled by marrying her politician husband. She talks to a female friend with whom she was once in love. Then, in the final pages of the book, she hears about a poor lost soul who threw himself from a doctor's window onto a line of railings.


This man is the second character central in Mrs. Dalloway. His name is Septimus Smith. Shell-shocked after his experiences in ​World War I, he is a so-called madman who hears voices. He was once in love with a fellow soldier named Evans--a ghost who haunts him throughout the novel.
His infirmity is rooted in his fear and his repression of this forbidden love. Finally, tired of a world that he believes is false and unreal, he commits suicide.
The two characters whose experiences form the core of the novel--Clarissa and Septimus--share a number of similarities. In fact, Woolf saw Clarissa and Septimus as more like two different aspects of the same person, and the linkage between the two is emphasized by a series of stylistic repetitions and mirrorings.
Unbeknownst to Clarissa and Septimus, their paths cross a number of times throughout the day--just as some of the situations in their lives followed similar paths.

Clarissa and Septimus were in love with a person of their own sex, and both repressed their loves because of their social situations. Even as their lives mirror, parallel, and cross--Clarissa and Septimus take different paths in the final moments of the novel. Both are existentially insecure in the worlds they inhabit--one chooses life, while the other commits suicide.

A Note on Style: Mrs. Dalloway

Woolf's style--she is one of the most foremost proponents of what has become known as "stream of consciousness"--allows readers into the minds and hearts of her characters. She also incorporates a level of psychological realism that Victorian novels were never able to achieve. The every day is seen in a new light: internal processes are opened up in her prose, memories compete for attention, thoughts arise unprompted, and the deeply significant and the utterly trivial are treated with equal importance. Woolf's prose is also enormously poetic. She has the very special ability to make the ordinary ebb and flow of the mind sing.

Mrs. Dalloway is linguistically inventive, but the novel also has an enormous amount to say about its characters.
Woolf handles their situations with dignity and respect. As she studies Septimus and his deterioration into madness, we see a portrait that draws considerably from Woolf's own experiences. Woolf's stream of consciousness-style leads us to experience madness. We hear the competing voices of sanity and insanity.
Woolf's vision of madness does not dismiss Septimus as a person with a biological defect. She treats the consciousness of the madman as something apart, valuable in itself, and something from which the wonderful tapestry of her novel could be woven.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Leïla Slimani on her shocking bestseller, Lullaby: 'Who can really say they know their nanny?'

Leïla Slimani: ‘Everyone asks me, “Why do you choose such subversive or shocking themes?”’ Photograph: Sarah Lee for the Guardian

Leïla Slimani on her shocking bestseller, Lullaby: 'Who can really say they know their nanny?'

Her murderous nanny thriller gripped France, winning its top literary prize and the attention of President Macron. With Lullaby now out in English, the author shares her thoughts on motherhood, #MeToo and being a Muslim in France

Fri 26 Jan 2018

he baby is dead. It only took a few seconds,” so begins Lullaby. First we had the murderous perfect wife, Gone Girlin 2012, then the murderous perfect husband, The Girl on the Train, in 2015, and now the murderous “perfect nanny” – the US title for the Goncourt-winning French bestseller, published in the States and the UK this month. Lullaby is ménage à trois as domestic noir; the relationship, as intimate and intense as any affair, between a couple and their nanny. It was “like love at first sight”, says Myriam, the mother, of their first meeting. Until, like a “wounded lover”, the nanny stabs the two children in the bath, before slitting her own throat. This is not a spoiler: it’s all there in the devastating opening pages.

“I tried to use all my deepest fears and all my nightmares: losing my children, living with someone I think I know, but actually I don’t know her at all,” says Leïla Slimani, who has a six-year-old son and a six-month-old daughter (and, yes, a nanny). “So at the same time as it was frightening it was also a relief because I could give all my anxiety to my reader, to you!” she laughs disarmingly.
A novel that skewers gender, class and racial stereotypes, but so gently we barely notice, Lullaby looks set to become a publishing sensation, having already sold 600,000 copies in France and with film versions in France and the US under way.
Petite and engagingly expressive, the 36-year-old Moroccan-born author has become something of a poster girl for a re-energised France: “Leïla Slimani Superstar” shouted French Elle beneath a striking photo on their cover (surely a first for a Goncourt winner), while giant pictures of her appeared on bus stops across Paris. President Emmanuel Macron lived up to his bookish reputation by signing her up as an ambassador for Francophone affairs (she reportedly turned down his offer of the role of culture minister). “Everyone was exhausted with these old men giving us lessons,” she says of the new political regime. “It is very refreshing to see this new generation: a lot of women, a lot of young people.”

Infanticide, female sex addiction (the subject of her 2014 first novel, Dans le Jardin de l’Ogre, inspired by the Dominique Strauss-Kahn scandal) and a non-fiction book of first-person testimonies about the “sexual miseries” of Moroccan women – Slimani’s oeuvre is slim, but fearless. “Everyone asks me ‘Why do you choose such subversive or shocking themes?’, but when I’m alone in my office, I’m not like, ‘OK I’m going to shock’. I want to write about a character who fascinates me, someone who I don’t understand.”

Lullaby might begin with the murders, but she set out, rather more mundanely, to write about the ambiguous figure of the nanny. “Who can really say, ‘I know my nanny’?” Slimani asks, sending a chill through every working parent’s heart. “Everyone tells her, ‘You belong to the family’ but everyone knows that she doesn’t.” She grew up in Rabat and her family had a live-in nanny, whom she called her Mouima, little mother, “but I knew she was an employee. If she did anything wrong, my mother or father would tell her, ‘You have to go’.”

Slimani with President Macron.
 Slimani with President Macron. Photograph: POOL/Reuters

But the nanny’s lot, it turned out, made boring fiction: “You go to the park, you make food, you change nappies, so after 100 pages I was like, OK and now?” The “and now” turned out to be the discovery of the real-life murder of two children by their nanny in New York in 2012. “Woah! I thought, I have to start with this,” she says, revealing more than a splinter of ice. “Now the reader is going to be very interested in this very normal family.”
Slimani’s Greek tragedy – we know it ends badly – creates a powerful double perspective: the reader’s terrible foreknowledge undercutting the parents’ fatal ignorance as they entrust their whole world to this “miracle” nanny. It’s hard not to read the novel as a symbolic punishment of the mother and father’s reluctance to relinquish their old lifestyles. Was that deliberate?
“No, not at all,” she insists. But she did want the reader to ask the question. Her character is known only by her first name, Louise, after the British nanny Louise Woodward who was convicted of involuntary manslaughter in the US in 1997. She remembers the implication made by the defence lawyer in that case, that if the mother, a doctor, had “wanted her children to be safe, she should have stayed at home”. By making us complicit in casting judgment on the parents, Lullabyprobes our enduring fears and prejudices about working mothers.
“We are the first generation of women to whom everyone said: you can have it all – you can have a career, you can have children, you can marry or not marry, you can divorce. Wow, it’s so amazing! But no one gives us the mode d’emploi, the way to do everything. It is too hard,” she says.
Here are the messy contradictions of motherhood: the intensity and the boredom; the hunger for your children and the sense that “they are eating me alive”. Slimani wanted to capture “the anxieties and claustrophobia of being a mother”, and the book’s suffocating pull leaves the reader longing to come up for air.
“When you are a little girl everyone tells you that when you are a mother you are going to be so fulfilled with love, you will never feel lonely any more, you will want to give everything to your children,” Slimani says. The reality, of course, is that there is also “a lot of anxiety, moments of depression, moments when you just want to have a break and go out of your house and be someone else, become who you were before. But it’s a kind of taboo.”

While the novel shines a “light here and there” on the nanny’s sad backstory, it was important that she remain a mystery at the end. Significantly, Louise is white, while Myriam, like the author, is from Morocco – although this is carefully understated, just part of the casual racism and snobbery at play in unexpected ways. “I felt it very important to say that sometimes the boss is an immigrant, and that sometimes the poor are white,” she says. “This made it violent as a social relationship.”
As the only white woman, Louise is the stranger among the already estranged community of immigrant nannies. “When she goes to the park, she’s always alone because she doesn’t speak the same language, she doesn’t come from Africa, or from Ukraine, and I think that is why she commits this act, because she belongs to nowhere and no one. She is at the bottom of society, she is a woman and she is poor. She is no one.”

The bleak depictions of the park will give anyone who’s shivered by the swings a pang of recognition. And it was here that Slimani first had the idea for the novel: “As a writer you don’t only work in an office, so in the afternoon I wander in my neighbourhood and I go to these playgrounds. In the winter it is very sad because you can see all those African women in the traditional dresses but with a big coat on and they are very cold and the children are very cold in those dirty playgrounds.”
Slimani came to Paris to study when she was 18, and fell in love with the city, “but not with the romantic Paris. What fascinates me is the loneliness, the poverty, it’s a violent city. There is something very dark here, especially where I live in Pigalle. It is the district of sex, of eroticism, there’s a lot of immigration. I wanted to show this place.”
Although a date is never mentioned (the external world is glimpsed, filmy and distant, from within the bubble of looking after small children), this is Paris 2015 – at dinner parties, people talk about “their jobs, about terrorism and property prices” and Myriam forbids the children to watch television after the terror attacks in the Bataclan concert hall and elsewhere in the city. “It was a very difficult year,” Slimani concedes. “It was very violent. Being an immigrant at this time, being a Muslim at this time was a very particular experience, sometimes very sad, sometimes you could feel very humiliated by the way people talked about origins or Islam. How can I use all this atmosphere to build Louise and her loneliness and her madness?” she asked herself.

Slimani worked as a reporter for the weekly journal Jeune Afrique, which was useful training for becoming a novelist, she says, because you have “to observe people, pay attention to details”. Following the birth of her son, it seemed it was finally time to make good her mother’s prediction that she would be a writer one day. Her family enrolled her on a creative writing course, and she gave herself two years.

Her first novel, written in the wake of the Arab spring and set in Morocco, was refused “by every editor in Paris”. They were right, she says now, “it was a total failure”, but that setback freed her from the burden of identity politics. She wrote Dans le Jardin de l’Ogre about as far away from “camels and deserts” as it’s possible to get. “The public and the critics were a little bit surprised that as a Moroccan young woman I was writing about sex and about a French woman in Paris,” she says.
Slimani has been criticised (in her former paper) for choosing such provocative subjects, but following the publication of the non-fiction Sexe et Mensonge: La Vie Sexuelle au Maroc (2017), she also received “tonnes” of grateful letters from Moroccan women. The book was published just before the emergence of the #MeToo campaign, and she says: “It is very important for women to break the silence and to stop being ashamed, because the silence is always good for those who harass, for those who are violent, for those who dominate.”
Reading Lullaby feels like a nightmare from which you emerge, as Louise wakes from a heavy sleep, “feeling sad, disoriented, your stomach full of tears”, and the experience of writing it was draining. But its success “is a dream that came true. When I was a little girl and people would ask me what I wanted to be when I got older I always used to say I want to be paid to think. So for me to dream, to think, to write – it is wonderful.”
She is working on another novel, but isn’t telling … Is it going to be shocking? “I hope so!”
Writing has been a profoundly liberating experience for Slimani. “For me, it is freedom, freedom from everything: when I write I’m not a woman, I’m not a Muslim, I’m not a Moroccan. I can reinvent myself and I can reinvent the world”
 Lullaby is published by Faber.




A life in writing / Javier Marías


Friday, June 15, 2018

A life in writing / Daljit Nagra / ‘Poetry is an espresso shot of thought’

Daljit Nagra won the Forward prize for best first collection in 2007. Photograph: Christian Sinibaldi for the Guardian

Daljit Nagra: ‘Poetry is an espresso shot of thought’

Claire Armitstead
Fri 14 Jul 2017

Daljit Nagra remembers the moment his life changed course: it was when he rang home for his A-level results. He was a 21-year-old secondary school dropout from Sheffield who had spent a year at evening classes studying English, sociology and politics. “I didn’t expect to get good grades and when my brother read them out over the phone it was a complete shock.”
He hadn’t presumed to apply for university, but his results were good enough to earn him a place in the clearing system. He took a train down to London for an interview at London University’s Royal Holloway College and was accepted to read English. It was the start of a journey that would lead two decades later to the winners’ podium at the Forward prizes, where he joined the great and the good of the UK poetry world to collect the award for best first collection.

“I defy anyone not to come away from this volume feeling gladdened, afflicted, revitalised,” wrote a Guardian reviewer of his winning book, Look We Have Coming to Dover! Written in a freewheeling “Punglish” – a hybrid of English and Punjabi rhythms – it combined Dulux, Sugar Puffs and Hilda Ogden with chapatis, saris and sitars, exploring the experiences of second-generation British Indians “with captivating exuberance and genuine, striking originality”.

Ten years later, with three well-received collections and a recreation of the Indian epic, the Ramayana to his name, Nagra has become a pillar of the poetry establishment. He is poet in residence at BBC Radio 4 and has a university job around the corner from the one-time “sink school” in which he spent his early teens.
His home in the north London suburb of Harrow is a picture of middle-class family life, with fridge magnet poetry in the kitchen and a trampoline in the garden. Eyeing a large circle of browning grass, he ruefully remarks that he and his wife had just dismantled the playhouse, because their daughters – now seven and nine – had grown out of it.
His new collection, British Museum, combines the canonical jostlings of a mature poet who is negotiating his place on a world stage with intimate musings on the complexities of his own mixed-up culture. “Am I adrift in my heritage?” he wonders in one poem. “I am Sikh by birth, secular by nature,” he declares in another.
There is little trace of the Punglish that marked out his debut collection, though in one poem, he picks a comedy fight in rap rhythms with the “Whitey canon … your lowing herd centuries of verse / that famed an isle & spoke for an echelon / grafted by so many gorgeous clerics / diplomats, lords, academics; etonians and door-knocking Tory petitioners / sponsored by monarchs & earls & slave owners”.

In the garden of his London home.
 In the garden of his London home. Photograph: Christian Sinibaldi for the Guardian

But for all its self-assertiveness, the collection is suffused with survivor guilt, an awareness of what Robert Frost described as “the road not taken”, which taps directly and painfully into his own life story and that of his wider family.
His parents arrived in the UK in the late 1950s, drawn by the promise of jobs. “The British advertised in Punjab because Sikhs were seen as hard workers from farming backgrounds,” he says. It wasn’t a story of escape from hardship – his father was a well-known wrestling champion with a cushy future lined up as a celebrity army officer – but his mother was “completely uneducated”. In their new home in Yiewsley, near Heathrow airport, his father took factory jobs while his mother worked in a hospital laundry. Both did as much overtime as they could, so Nagra, born in 1966, and his older brother spent their free time out with their friends playing football. Every Sunday morning they would spend hours at the local gurdwara (Sikh temple), listening to services recited in 17th-century language. “I didn’t understand a word of it. But part of the idea of my relatives is that the word of God is washing over you.”

The secondary school they went to did not offer O-levels, only the CSE exams aimed at those destined for manual jobs. His brother abandoned school at 16 – “Everyone was told to go and get a job at Heathrow. It’s very hard to go on when you’re at that kind of school. You have to force yourself and the education system to accept you,” Nagra says. But he was saved by a “fascination for learning, for knowledge”. He became an avid watcher of television news and documentaries, and when he demonstrated that he was capable of getting top CSE grades, his family decided that he should become a doctor.
That moment in his school career coincided with his parents’ decision to move north to Sheffield and buy a general store. “The great achievement of that first generation was to get their independence,” he says. “Some of my relatives were starting to buy shops and word got around that this was a good way to make a living. They just learned the trade off other relatives.”
While his brother ran the shop, Daljit struggled with science A-levels, dropping out after a year “because I realised it wasn’t me”. After a couple of years helping out in the shop, he chanced upon a copy of William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience. It was the first book of poetry he had ever read and, he says, it impressed him so strongly that he decided to sign on at a local further education college for A-level evening classes.

Illustration by Alan Vest

It was once he had made it to university that his horizons radically changed. “It was a completely different world. Just being at university. There was a group of 70 of us and everyone seemed to speak a different language, and they talked about Oxford and Cambridge with great reverence and some were dropouts who were quite bitter. It was a magical experience. I made lots of friends, some of whom I still have.”

The most priceless thing he learned, he says, was the art of listening. “I don’t think I’d ever had that experience before: that’s one way to define the move into a different class. People listen and talk calmly.” Thirty years on, his eyes sparkle as he sits back and back in his chair and says: “... someone really listening”.
He took three poems to one of his professors, who was complimentary, but didn’t dare to do anything more with them until, in his late 20s, he spotted an article in the London listings magazine Time Out “offering one-to-one sessions with a contemporary poet called Ruth Padel … She said I needed to read poetry magazines and go to workshops. She gave me the roadmap,” he says.
In the meantime, he had taught English as a foreign language in Greece and the Czech Republic and qualified as a secondary school English teacher. At first he submitted poems to small magazines under a “highly improbable” pseudonym, Khan Singh Kumar. “I thought I’d just write for pleasure, for fun,” he says. But gradually he realised that he needed to take himself more seriously, and began writing under his own name. Years of teaching at the Jewish Free School, a liberal Jewish comprehensive, ended after his Forward poetry prize win.
In 2015, he was appointed Radio 4’s first poet in residence, giving him the licence to roam the country, taking its poetic pulse on behalf of listeners. But there is a darker story that haunts the new collection: his brief, conformist marriage to the mother of his 23-year-old eldest daughter. “I feel stuck on my ex,” he writes. In an opening poem about one of his younger daughters, he says: “Look at me flying upstairs / on the wings of my shame / for my second-chance life”.

His second wife, Katherine, was a teaching colleague who has since retrained as an educational psychologist. One of the most touching poems in the collection mourns his mother’s reluctance to accept her. “Our tongues are reined in: I keep my own counsel / and let the air go bitter when she won’t sustain / Katherine. Once when she called, instead of she / she said the name aloud. It was cut down to Cane.”
His parents have retired back to west London but still live “in a Sikh bubble” within easy walking distance of the local gurdwara. In his teenage years, he admits, he was contemptuous of what he saw as their lack of sophistication. “When they put the Ramayana or the Mahabharata on TV in the 1980s my parents would get out the joss sticks. They regarded it not as an art work but as a spiritual experience involving gigantic people who can really touch the sky. I was disrespectful of that value system as a child, but you learn to value it.”
His own retelling of the Ramayana, published in 2013, was an important stepping stone in that reconciliation, though, as he writes in the introduction, “The Ramayana I present now is not the one I was told as a child; instead it is the product of a globalised westernised writer who lives among many faiths and cultures and who seeks to represent voices from as many villages as possible with the same passion as the version I heard as a child.”
Those faiths and cultures continue to animate his work, bringing something new to the centuries-old tradition to which he so knowingly aspires. He has no interest in diversifying into novels or other forms of literature. “Poetry,” he says, “is an espresso shot of thought and public poetry is as necessary as it ever was. Watching Channel 4 or reading broadsheets and seeing the horrors that are going on in the Middle East and elsewhere makes you realise the serious purpose of it.” Or, as one of the more colourful characters in British Museum bathetically puts it, “All gods is dead / It always bastard rain.”
 British Museum is published by Faber. 




A life in writing / Javier Marías