Friday, June 22, 2018

James Bond’s big number comes up in Carlisle auction as ‘Casino Royale’ first edition takes £22,500

Casino Royale first edition by Ian Fleming
The front cover of the 1953 first edition of ‘Casino Royale’, Ian Fleming’s first James Bond novel, that sold at Thomson Roddick for £22,500.

James Bond’s big number comes up in Carlisle auction as ‘Casino Royale’ first edition takes £22,500

The novel that introduced the world to James Bond, ‘Casino Royale’ of 1953, has long been a key target for collectors. Anyone who laid out 10/6d for a copy over 60 years ago and has kept good care of the book will have done themselves or their descendants proud.

Ian McKay
29 Jun 2017

This was clearly shown by a box of books sent into Thomson Roddick of Carlisle for their sale of June 21.
I gather that John Thomson was almost beside himself with excitement when he pulled out the copy of Ian Fleming’s sought after book.
It is identifiable as one of the 4729 first impression copies produced by Jonathan Cape by the absence of a Times review, and the jacket, showing only slight chipping and wear to the upper spine end and some creasing on the back, was unclipped.
The contents were noted as clean and there were no ownership inscriptions.
Casino Royale first edition by Ian Fleming
 The copy of ‘Casino Royale’ was one of only one of the 4729 first impression copies produced by publishers Jonathan Cape.
The consignor knew it was a first edition, but a dealer friend to whom it was first shown professed not to have sufficient expertise with modern firsts and it was left to the saleroom to come up with a valuation.
They were perhaps over conservative in their estimate of £5000-8000, but news spread quickly on social media, with Instagram in particular seeing lively exchanges, said Carlisle saleroom manager Steven Parkinson.
Interest came from as far afield as Sweden, Russia and the USA and all phone lines were booked, but on the day it was a bidder from the south of England who secured the prize at £22,500. 
Casino Royale first edition by Ian Fleming
 The first impression copy of Ian Fleming’s ‘Casino Royale’ that sold for £22,500 at Thomson Roddick drew bidders from the UK and overseas.
No straightforward first has made more at auction. The previous best, according to ABPC [American Book Prices Current], was a copy in the Falktoft library that in 2001, at Christie’s East in New York, made $30,000 (then £20,400) – though not listed by ABPC is another that Bonhams sold for £19,000 in 2016.
Sold by Christie’s New York in 2002 for $40,000 (then £25,600) was the Rechler library copy, inscribed “This pre-natal 1st Edition of the first of the collected works of Balzache” to his friend John Hayward, but the outright record holder is an advance review copy sold last year by Sotheby’s at £32,000.
One of those sent out to the press, Fleming’s Kemsley Newspaper colleagues, friends, etc., the Sotheby’s copy was inscribed to Ralph Arnold, a novelist, historical writer and later chairman of Constable. They had met years earlier at a quasi-finishing school in Kitzbuhel, Austria, where Fleming, having left Sandhurst without a commission, had been sent to “sort himself out”.
Fleming’s inscription reads “To Ralph, We have now both reduced our remainders by one copy”, beneath which Arnold later wrote, “I having told Ian, from the depths of my publishing experience, that he would be lucky if he made £200 out of this, his first thriller!!”

Ian Fleming / Casino Royale / Review

Casino Royale
By Ian Fleming

Casino Royale is the first novel written by Ian Fleming featuring the 00 agent Commander James Bond, published in 1953. The plot revolves around a plan to take down Le Chiffre, an agent of SMERSH, by bankrupting him in a high-stakes game of Baccarat Chemin-de-fer.

Casino Royale has the unique distinction of being the only James Bond novel to be adapted three times: as a 1954 American TV production, a 1967 spoof film, and finally as the basis for the 2006 film of the same name.

The head of Station S, Fawcett formulates a plan to take down SMERSH operative Le Chiffre who is the head of communist sympathizing trade unions in northern France, who is attempting to earn money in game in Baccarat Chemin de fer in order to compensate for the loss of his chain of brothels which were shut down after a law banning prostitution surfaces. M sends out his finest gambler, 00 agent Commander James Bond to play in the game. Station S's Vesper Lynd, Texan CIA agent Felix Leiter, and Frenchman René Mathis of the Deuxième Bureau are sent by their respective superiors to assist Bond in his endeavour.

Bond checks into the hotel and prepares his operation. Before Bond has a chance to face off with Le Chiffre, the Soviet agents make an attempt on his life. Bond survives a bomb blast unscathed. He makes it to the casino and confronts Le Chiffre. Bond then squares off against Le Chiffre. During the game, Bond is nearly killed by a gunman sent by Le Chiffre. Soon Bond goes bankrupt, but Felix Leiter provides him with extra capital to continue playing. Bond ultimately wins and bankrupts Le Chiffre, earning a sum of 40,000 Francs. After his win Bond takes Vesper out for a drink. She is lured into the parking lot and kidnapped by Le Chiffre. Bond pursues her in his Bentley and, after he crashes his car, is captured himself.

Subsequently Vesper is taken away by Le Chiffre's men while he physically tortures Bond, who wants to know where the cheque for the money he won was hidden. After a while, he decided he couldn't extract information from Bond and begins sadistic mental torture on him. Shortly after, a SMERSH agent enters and executes both Le Chiffre and his two men by shooting them in the head. The agent spares Bond's life because he had been given no orders to kill him, then tells him about SMERSH's ideals: That they are only known to give mercy by chance or by mistake (Both of which have been done in a single day to James Bond) then cuts a "Ш" (A Russian/Cyrillic symbol associated with spies) into Bond's left hand for future reference. Delirious, exhausted and in tremendous pain, Bond passes out immediately afterward.

Two days later, Bond regains consciousness and Vesper nurses him back to health. While in the hospital Bond contemplates his future as a spy. Three weeks later, they go on vacation where Bond starts a romantic relationship with Vesper. They take a vacation at a French seaside inn. They start a passionate relationship and Bond decides he will ask Vesper to marry him.

Vesper soon realizes that a SMERSH agent using the guise "Adolph Gettler" was watching their movements. Vesper grows increasingly fearful of her death and Bond's death from this man. Bond catches Vesper making a secret phone call and acting duplicitously. Bond is frustrated and their relationship becomes strained. It comes to a head when Bond demands to know her secret. She promises to tell him the next day. They make passionate love and Bond retires to his own room. Finally, unable to handle the guilt, Vesper deliberately overdoses on sleeping pills that night to commit suicide.

In the morning, Bond finds a letter from Vesper explaining that she was working for the MWD to free her boyfriend who served in the Polish RAF. She had also nearly sabotaged the operation in the casino by not getting in between the gunman. She then tells Bond she started to fall in love with Bond, and this ended up drawing the ire of SMERSH, who sent the agent to track Vesper and Bond. Vesper also stated she wanted to escape to South America, start up a new life with Bond, and have a baby with him. She then finishes the letter with "My love, my love."

Because of Vesper's lies and the engraving of "Ш" into his right hand Bond decides to oppose SMERSH, an act which sets the entire series in motion. The novel then ends with Bond telling a liaison officer, that "the bitch is dead now".

Comic strip adaptation

Casino Royale was the first James Bond novel to be adapted as a daily comic strip which was published in the Daily Express newspaper and syndicated worldwide. It ran from 7 July 1958 to 13 December 1958, and was written by Anthony Hern and illustrated by John McLusky. All strips are missing the familiar "JAMES BOND" heading in the top left corner which was used on all subsequent adventures.

To aid the Daily Express in illustrating James Bond, Ian Fleming commissioned an artist to create a sketch of what he believed James Bond to look like. The illustrator, John McLusky, however, felt that Fleming's 007 looked too "outdated" and "pre-war" and thus changed Bond to give him a more masculine look.

Ian Fleming / The Vesper Martini / Casino Royale

Casino Royale
“A dry martini,” [Bond] said. “One. In a deep champagne goblet.”
“Oui, monsieur.”
“Just a moment. Three measures of Gordon’s, one of vodka, half a measure of Kina Lillet. Shake it very well until it’s ice-cold, then add a large thin slice of lemon peel. Got it?”
“Certainly, monsieur.” The barman seemed pleased with the idea.
“Gosh, that’s certainly a drink,” said Leiter.
Bond laughed. “When I’m…er…concentrating,” he explained, “I never have more than one drink before dinner. But I do like that one to be large and very strong and very cold and very well-made. I hate small portions of anything, particularly when they taste bad. This drink’s my own invention. I’m going to patent it when I can think of a good name.”
—Ian Fleming, Casino Royale, Chapter 7, “Rouge et Noir’

Later in the novel, after Bond first meets Vesper, he asks to borrow the name. And thus the Vesper martini was born in Ian Fleming’s Casino Royale. But before you run off to make the perfect Vesper for your Casino Royale 10th Anniversary parties, let’s dwell on some details. Preferably details that will make you sound incredibly snobbish at gatherings, am I right?
Fleming’s friend Ivar Bryce first concocted the recipe for the Vesper martini in the early 1950’s. Since then, however, the ingredients are no longer Bryce’s.  If you search for the recipe, you’ll note many variations of the drink. I’ve collected a dozen slightly different variations on the original — and yes, I’ve made and tried them all.

 Let’s start with the basics as detailed by Fleming.

The Vesper Martini (from Casino Royale):

3oz Gordon’s gin
1oz vodka
1/2oz Kina Lillet

Shake all ingredients. Strain into a martini glass and add a lemon twist.

Gordon’s gin is not Gordon’s gin. North American Gordon’s is mixing gin, sold by the barrel. It tastes accordingly like swill. Even the superior British Gordon’s has been reformulated to 75 proof from the original 94.6. (A 94.6 proof Gordon’s Export gin exists out there in the wild, but I’ve not yet had the pleasure of procuring a bottle for Vesper sampling.)
Likewise, the vodka Fleming would have used was 100-proof, whereas the vodka currently in your cabinet is likely a 90. Though, this is merely a note for obsessives or people who want to find themselves under the table a little faster. But there is a reason for the high alcohol content of the drink. The shaking produces a greater dilution. If you find yourself with lower proof vodka, dare I say, you might consider stirring your Vesper — which would actually more align with Bond’s stated wish for a drink that is cold. Stirring actually creates the colder drink.
Now the main reason for so many modern Vesper martini variations. Kina Lillet removed quinine from the drink in 1986 and became merely Lillet or Lillet Blanc. The Lillet sold in stores today is most definitely not a straight substitute for Fleming’s Kina Lillet. Modern Lillet is sweeter and doesn’t have enough bite to rise above 3 measures of gin. It never stood a chance.

All that said, here’s my current preferred formulation, including liquors of choice.

007hertzrumble’s Vesper Martini:

2.5oz gin (Tanqueray 10)
1.0oz vodka (Stoli Blue label – 100 proof)
1/2oz Cocchi Americano
splash of lemon juice or even Lillet (each balanced the drink in different ways)

Shake all ingredients. Strain into a martini glass and add a lemon twist.

My preferred gin for martinis has become Tanqueray 10. I find it smoother than the other regular, commercially available gins. Don’t get fancy with your gin in this drink. Find your martini standard and stick with it. For vodka authenticity I stick with the 100-proof Stoli Blue label, but you probably won’t notice the difference between 90 and 100 unless you’re sipping side-by-side.
Replace the extinct Kina Lillet with Cocchi Americano, an Italian apertif wine that contains quinine. In case you’re concerned about never actually finishing that bottle of Cocchi Americano, look up the recipe for a Corpse Reviver #2. You’ll finish the bottle. (You can also try Lillet with two drops of bitters as a substitute, but I wasn’t fond of the bitters and Lillet combo.)
About that splash of lemon juice/Lillet. I hate to say this, but after trying to perfect the Vesper recipe over the last couple years, I’ve concluded that the Vesper is a challenging beverage. And by challenging, I mean it’s quite abrasive. And perhaps this is for the best because more than two of these and you’ll be buggered. The splash of lemon or Lillet sweetens the package just enough. Too much, however, and the drink tastes really confused. It’s a fine line between perfection and a straight up kerfuffle.
For a sweeter version, remove the Cocchi and just add 2/3oz of Lillet and the splash of lemon to give the flavor a fighting chance. Adjust as necessary.

Still, despite the barriers to entry, I’ve come to enjoy these martini half-breeds. Partly because I’m a Bond enthusiast and partly because I find the perfect Vesper slightly elusive. I’ve made a few great ones at home and had one perfect Vesper martini at a French restaurant — which swapped the gin and vodka ratios (3:1 vodka to gin) and used extra Lillet… which I’ve also attempted at home.

Here’s my best attempt at the inversion.

007herzrumble’s Inverted Vesper martini:

3oz vodka (Belvedere or Grey Goose)
1oz gin (Tanqueray 10)
2/3oz Lillet

Stir (blasphemy!) — no really, stir — all ingredients in the shaker. Strain into a martini glass and add a lemon twist.

A personal warning — never — never ever ever ever drink more than 2 Vespers of any variety. If you need a refresher about how to make a standard, straight up dry martini, here’s a YouTube video that uses my preferred recipe with a bunch of guys who are mostly less annoying that most YouTube bartenders.


Thursday, June 21, 2018

Irvine Welsh's Top Ten List

Irvine Welsh's Top Ten List

Irvine Welsh (born 1958) is a Scottish novelist, playwright and short story writer whose work is characterized by raw dialect and fierce depictions of life in Edinburgh. He achieved instant fame with his first novel, Trainspotting (1993), which recalled both Last Exit to Brooklynand A Clockwork Orange in its electric use of brutal street slang to tell the story of a group of nihilistic young heroin addicts with no dreams or possibilities. His other novels include Filth (1998),Porno (2002), Crime (2008) and The Sex Lives of Siamese Twins (2014). His latest new, A Decent Ride (2015), short-listed for the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse prize for comic fiction, celebrates an un-reconstructed misogynist hustler—a central character who is shameless but also, oddly, decent. His four short story collections include The Acid House (1994) and Reheated Cabbage (2009). For more information, visit hisofficial website.
1. Ulysses by James Joyce (1922). Filled with convoluted plotting, scrambled syntax, puns, neologisms, and arcane mythological allusions, Ulysses recounts the misadventures of schlubby Dublin advertising salesman Leopold Bloom on a single day, June 16, 1904. As Everyman Bloom and a host of other characters act out, on a banal and quotidian scale, the major episodes of Homer’s ­Odyssey—including encounters with modern-day sirens and a Cyclops—Joyce’s bawdy mock-epic suggests the improbability, perhaps even the pointlessness, of heroism in the modern age.

2. Underworld by Don DeLillo (1997). A finalist for the National Book Award, this literary page-turner is about the second half of the twentieth century in America and about two people, an artist and an executive, whose lives intertwine in New York in the fifties and again in the nineties. With cameo appearances by Lenny Bruce, J. Edgar Hoover, Bobby Thompson, Frank Sinatra, Jackie Gleason and Toots Shor, it has been called a “dazzling, phosphorescent work of art.”

3. Blood Meridian: Or the Evening Redness in the West by Cormac McCarthy (1985). D. H. Lawrence famously remarked that the archetypal American hero was a stoic, a loner, and a killer. Cormac McCarthy’s tale of the formation and dissolution of a band of scalp hunters in northern Mexico in the late 1840s embodies that dire maxim. Led by a soldier named Glanton and a mysterious, hairless, moral monstrosity known as the “Judge,” these freebooters wipe out Indians, Mexicans, and each other amidst a landscape of such sublime desolation one feels it leaching into their very souls.

4. Cities of the Red Night by William S. Burroughs (1981). This  novel follows various plot strands – including 18th century pirates seeking to live lives of freedom according to articles written by Captain James Mission; a present-day detective, “Clem Snide, Private Asshole,” investigating the ritual sex murder of young boys, and the rise of a radioactive virus that may involve the CIA. An opium-infused apocalyptic vision from the legendary author of Naked Lunch, it is the first of the trilogy with The Places of the Dead Roads and his final novel, The Western Lands.

5. A Disaffection by James Kelman (1989). Patrick Doyle is a 29 year old Glasgow teacher in an ordinary school. Disaffected, frustrated and increasingly bitter at the system he is employed to maintain, Patrick begins his rebellion, fuelled by drink and his passionate, unrequited love for a fellow teacher.

6. The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky (1880). In perhaps the consummate Russian novel, Dostoevsky dramatizes the spiritual conundrums of nineteenth-century Russia through the story of three brothers and their father’s murder. Hedonistic Dmitri, tortured intellectual Ivan, and saintly Alyosha embody distinct philosophical positions, while remaining full-fledged human beings. Issues such as free will, secularism, and Russia’s unique destiny are argued not through authorial polemic, but through the confessions, diatribes, and nightmares of the characters themselves. An unsparing portrayal of human vice and weakness, the novel ultimately imparts a vision of redemption. Dostoevsky’s passion, doubt, and imaginative power compel even the secular West he scorned.

7. Men at Arms by Evelyn Waugh (1952). Meet Guy Crouchback, a 35-year-old divorced Catholic. Though the armed services really don't want him, he manfully succeeds in joining the Royal Corps of Halberdiers during World War II. There he meets Apthorpe, an eccentric African who is devoted to his “thunderbox” (aka chemical closet). Together they make quite a team. This is the first book in Waugh’s “Swords of Honour” trilogy which explores war, religion and politics. It is followed by Officers and Gentlemen (1955) and Unconditional Surrender(1961).

8. Lanark: A Life in Four Books by Alasdair Gray (1981). In the maverick Scottish author’s testy allegory, four (eccentrically illustrated) “books,” which are presented nonsequentially, trace the lives of two protagonists who are a single frustrated artist. Grim naturalism depicts Glaswegian painter Duncan Thaw’s losing battles with public indifference and chronic illness. Blakean fantasy traces the parallel sufferings of Thaw’s eponymous alter ego, whose misadventures in the dystopian city of Unthank represent Thaw’s continuing miseries in the hereafter he inhabits following his suicide. Accusatory, opaque, redundant—the novel is also, oddly enough, compulsively readable and perversely memorable.

9. Tender Is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1934). The heartbreaking, semiautobiographical story of two expatriate Americans living in France during the 1920s: a gifted young psychiatrist, Dick Diver, and the wealthy, troubled patient who becomes his wife. In this tragic tale of romance and character, her lush lifestyle soon begins to destroy Diver, as alcohol, infidelities, and mental illness claim his hopes. Of the book, Fitzgerald wrote, “Gatsby was a tour de force, but this is a confession of faith.”

10. The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson (1886). This novel might easily have become a victim of its own surpassing fame, which has removed all suspense from its central riddle: What is the relationship between Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde? Yet as our narrator plumbs Dr. Jekyll’s descent into drug-addled, alter-ego madness, we are riveted by Stevenson’s portrait of the good and evil that lurks in one man’s heart. “This, too, was myself,” Jekyll says of Hyde. Somehow we suspect it’s us, too.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Howards End by EM Forster / Review

Howards End by EM Forster


Well, it is odd and sad that our minds should be such seed-beds, and we without power to choose the seed. But man is an odd, sad creature as yet, intent on pilfering the earth, and heedless of the growths within himself. He cannot be bored about psychology. He leaves it to the specialist, which is as if he should leave his dinner to be eaten by a steam-engine. He cannot be bothered to digest his own soul. Margaret and Helen have been more patient, and it is suggested that Margaret has succeeded--so far as success is yet possible. She does understand herself, she has some rudimentary control over her own growth. Whether Helen has succeeded, one cannot say. 
Howards End is about two families. The Schlegel sisters, Helen and Margaret, are intellectuals, deeply interested in what they call "personal relations," and the life of the mind. The Wilcoxes, who own the titular country house, are pragmatic and businesslike, care little for "personal relations," and only value what is useful to them. If one of these sounds preferable to you, it sounds also preferable to me, and when I tell you that this novel is about the essential struggle between these two perspectives perhaps you will understand why I do not think Howards End is quite successful. 
In short: Margaret Schlegel befriends the Wilcox matron, Ruth, who promptly dies and leaves Margaret Howards End, though it is written in a note to the remaining Wilcoxes who proceed to ignore it. Margaret then befriends the widower (and much older) Henry Wilcox, who, surprisingly, asks Margaret to marry him. Margaret, surprisingly, accepts. (Observant readers may note that this puts her on the path to inherit Howards End anyway, which is the only way the book could end, really.) The engagement is not conflict-free, and Howards End represents the stakes is in this allegorical battle: England, the world, the future, etc. In this passage Forster rhapsodizes over a hilltop view of the English countryside and coast:

England was alive, throbbing through all her estuaries, crying for joy through the mouths of her gulls, and the north wind, with contrary motion, blew stronger against her rising seas. What did it mean? For what end are her fair complexities, her changes of soil, her sinuous coast? Does she belong to those who have moulded her and made her feared by other lands, or to those who had added nothing to her power, but have somehow seen her, seen the whole island at once, lying as a jewel in a silver sea, sailing as a ship of souls, with all the brave world's fleet accompanying her towards eternity?

Though it sports some nice prose, I am ambivalent about this passage. It very tidily expresses the novel's entire theme, but to do so Forster, as he frequently does, stamps all over the book, showing his footprints. Was he this intrusive in A Room with a View?
The larger problem, for me, is that I simply don't buy the central plot point of the book's second half, that Margaret would accept Wilcox' proposal. Wilcox is a lout, dismissive to Margaret, disdaining of servants and the poor, valuing only what he can use or buy and throwing the rest on the mind's rubbish-heap. Margaret keeps insisting on his fundamental goodness, but I fail to see it. Forster's own opinion seems to be that the Wilcoxes are worthwhile because, as one character puts it, "They keep England going, it is my opinion." (I suppose Forster wrote too early to know how Mussolini was respected for making the trains run on time.)
But through a convoluted series of happenings, Wilcox is redeemed and all is set right. His redemption fails to redeem Margaret's poor judgment in marrying him, which in turn undermines Forster's regard for her sense of "personal relations." Thinkers and doers are reconciled, and you yourself may guess where they spend the rest of their happy days.


Tuesday, June 19, 2018

AS Byatt's Possession / Review

AS Byatt's Possession 

Is it possible to love a novel for all the wrong reasons? Yesterday, I finished A.S. Byatt's Possession (1990) for the first time—"a romance" (the front cover tells me), "an intellectual mystery and triumphant love story" (the back cover continues) about "a pair of young scholars researching the lives of two Victorian poets." Jay Parini's New York Times review of the award-winning novel describes its mass of fictional research material—a completely fabricated trace of poems, letters, diaries, and scholarly biographical excerpts—as its "most dazzlingly aspect." While this artificial archive is certainly impressive and no doubt brilliantly composed and arranged as a counterpoint to the main plot, I confess that I fall into the camp of bad readers who skimmed the letters and diaries and often skipped the poetry altogether. I found it difficult to invest my time and mental energy in this material, especially since most of that energy is currently going toward research projects of my own or class prep for the upcoming fall semester. Although I enjoyed Byatt's style and the novel's plot, characters/caricatures, and settings (and I am certainly interested in reading her Lawrentian quartet), I just didn't—couldn't—care about the affair between Chistabel LaMotte and Randolph Henry Ash.

As I scroll through the Goodreads reviews, I find myself chastised, "READ THE POETRY, PEOPLE!" and left out of what, for many readers, appears to have been a profound, transformative experience. And yet I'm beginning to wonder what sort of ideal reader the novel itself presumes. It seems to me that Possession's ideal reader is a patient student who will slow their pace when appropriate (a three-page poem does not read as quickly as three pages of narrative, after all; letters or diaries do not function dramatically the way realist dialogue does). Byatt's ideal reader is also a detective who, like its main characters, will search epigraphs and long lost research material for clues or echoes that amplify the novel's plot and ideas (about love, death, literary studies, public funding, Anglo-American difference, etc.). Maybe I resisted this role, since I was not looking to study this novel or to become the sort of academic sleuth exemplified by Maud Bailey, Roland Michell, and others. (I'm neither an archivist nor a researcher on a heroic quest for solutions to mysteries.) And maybe I resisted for good reason, since the novel itself seems ambivalent about the value of its ideal reader (who is doubled and tripled by its characters). Indeed, the obsessive and possessive investment of its characters in uncovering the truth of what happened between these poets—especially when seen through the non-academic eyes of family members or journalists—looks overinflated, self-centered, or misdirected. Even the plot must personalize the truth of the LaMotte–Ash affair; in the end, this postmodern Dickensian novel is really all about the discovery of a major character's familial connection to the very mysteries driving her.

And so I'm left with a few questions: How does one depict or explain an academic's attachment to their subject of study? Is "possession"—ownership of an object, of a copyright, of a favorite author, of a field of study, of a lover, of a future—the most convincing metaphor? Reading on . . .

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.