‘A Room of One’s Own’ by Virginia Woolf: liberal feminism or creative speculation?

This text was a genuine pleasure to read on many levels. The ideas were really interesting, the style was superb, and there was nothing predictable about it. Even though I have read it before, certain passages made me pause in wonder. However, it is arguably worth underlining what the text is not.

The text is fairly unstructured. This is because of the way it was created. It was based around notes for two separate lectures. It was then put together and polished at a later date. This means that there was a slight loss of coherence- but coherence was not what Woolf was making into a priority.

Hermione Lee, who has written a thorough introduction to the text, has highlighted that Woolf admired the poetic but imperfect essays of Charles Lamb. This admiration has arguably influenced the somewhat odd manner in which Woolf made her feminist appeal. She called for female writers to be given the space to engage in cross-genre activity based on secure and more equal foundations- but she interspersed her philosophical reading of literary history with digressions about the weather, Tennyson and a Manx cat! I fear I cannot do full justice to Woolf with this review because I would need the assistance of poets.

A review of ‘Phoenix Fled’ by Attia Hosain- small gifts taste good.

This collection of short stories was a fascinating if uneven read. Some of the tales were memorably crafted, while others left few traces behind them. Nevertheless, between them they conspired to make a vivid tapestry of a subcontinent in transition. A pervasive sadness gave additional flavour to the work.

In some ways, this was a hymn to tradition. In that sense, it could be construed as a reactionary work. Political idealism was mocked, progress was dismissed. However, there was evidence of a sympathy with ordinary people that seeped into the stories. She was able to portray how cruelty between individuals can lead to great unhappiness.

Ms Hosain was not from a poor background, and this showed in the text. However, she felt that her gender had deprived her of educational opportunities which her male counterparts had had. Hence she knew what injustice was, and this gave her sensitivity.

When it comes to style, the author was able to start her stories effectively enough. However, she did use the odd redundant word on occasion- this prevented her art from being quite as poetic as it might otherwise have been.

‘Natasha and other stories’ by David Bezmozgis. A homage to Babel?

This collection of short stories was surprisingly good. The debut work of a novelist who had emigrated from Latvia as a boy, it really captured the culture of a group of Jews who had left the Soviet Union. The Jewish people in question were neither heroes, nor villains- but they were survivors. Some were canny, several were flawed, but it was hard not to empathise with their varied and colourful predicaments.

David Bezmozgis does seem to have achieved his own voice, but it is hard not to see that he was conscious of the need to pay homage to at least one great Jewish writer of the past. In the final story, which is moving, he wrote about a character thus:

“A real Odessa character, right out of the pages of Babel. He had even grown up on Babel’s street. As a young boy Itzik had carted watermelons for Babel’s uncle. What hadn’t he done in this life?”

Isaac Babel had written short stories, as well as plays. This reference to Babel stood out because Bezmozgis does not make many other references to other authors in the stories in question- he seems to avoid postmodernism in favour of more traditional prose tales.

‘The Grass is Singing’ by Doris Lessing: a remarkable first novel.

It is not as though I am a stranger to the work of Doris Lessing. I have admired ‘Martha Quest’, appreciated ‘Memoirs of a Survivor’, and been amazed by ‘The Golden Notebook.’ I have also seen many positive features in ‘The Summer Before the Dark’, ‘The Good Terrorist’ and ‘The Four-Gated City.’ Nevertheless, I have been stunned by the quality of ‘The Grass is Singing.’

The book has the power that made ‘Martha Quest’ a revelation. It has much of the realism that made the autobiography of Lessing a pleasure to read. And it has a style which captures poverty, beauty, and despair with equal felicity of expression. Her prose becomes poetic when she describes the countryside. Lessing gets inside the heads of her characters without timidity. And at this stage in her career, her work was a passionate indictment of injustice.

When it comes to the question of feminism, I am a little unsure. She composed the novel before feminism gathered new strength after its post-war defeats. It is hard to tell if Lessing actually liked the women she depicted. There is something hard and pitiless about her attitude to people who were trapped in social structures they lacked the ability to understand. At this point, Lessing’s anger at imperialism was arguably more passionate than her anger at patriarchy. Throughout her career, Lessing was hard to classify- too individualist to fit in easily with the new social movements which she chronicled. Putting these ideological reflections to one side, this was a great and surprising read.

A review of ‘Lost Illusions’ by HonorĂ© de Balzac. The question of Scott.

This epic novel has already inspired me to make a few notes-see below. However, it is quite difficult to bring together a brief, illuminating and coherent review. There is so much to admire in the text: humour, realism, depth, plot, characterisation, and knowledge were found to be available in abundant quantities. It is a rich book about life, writing, publishing, and printing, but it is also an entertainment par excellence.

Nevertheless, a review cannot consist of praise alone. This novel is arguably haunted by the presence of Sir Walter Scott. There are several references to the phenomenal success of the poet and novelist. Indeed, much is made of the tendency to imitate his work. While there is satire in the text, it does seem that these remarks are based on a little envy.

However, apart from sales, it seems that Balzac had little to be envious about. It is a long time since I read ‘Ivanhoe’ and my exposure to Scott is limited, but I find it very hard to believe that the fascinating Balzac should have been bothered by the success of the Tory writer. ‘Lost Illusions’ is a masterpiece, almost Flaubertian in its achievement (it lacks the precision of Flaubert), and it will reward discerning readers who turn to it for study or pleasure. Professor Hugh Trevor-Roper may have been enthusiastic about Scott, but it is difficult to comprehend this passion which may have partly stemmed from his interest in the region where the Scottish border sits. I would like to read more Balzac eventually, but I am now lucky enough to be reading some Doris Lessing.