“The Ebony Tower” (Post 5/5)

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[Explanation of Reading Journal Entries/Ratings]

Post 1/5

Post 2/5

Post 3/5

Post 4/5


 

“The Cloud”

3 out of 5 stars.

The Plot:

Tensions rise during a country picnic.

A strange story and, like every other piece in The Ebony Tower, unsatisfying if you want a complete narrative. Fowles leaves every story hanging but “The Cloud” is the most unsettling; it’s downright haunting.

It’s very difficult to get into (some bizarre stylistic choices don’t help) but if you can stick with it until the second half, the payoff is worth it.

[148] Reference:

O, you must wear your rue with a difference.

(p.219, title page)

I’ve told you before: I don’t know Shakespeare. Finding this reference was a key to unlocking much of this story.

Fowles has cast his tragic figure (Catherine) as Ophelia from Hamlet. In a 1994 letter to the editor in the New York Times, Colin Hugh Buckley does a wonderful job breaking down Ophelia’s line:

The knowledge that rue was widely considered in Renaissance Europe both as a contraceptive and an abortifacient (Science Times, March 8) newly illuminates Ophelia’s final scene in “Hamlet.”

She addresses the Queen: “There’s rue for you, and here’s some for me – we may call it herb of grace o’Sundays. Oh, you must wear your rue with a difference.”

Perhaps Ophelia’s deranged state and subsequent suicide are prompted by more than just heartbreak.

Other references to Ophelia will be made (see notes [161] and [163]). Continue reading

“The Ebony Tower” (Post 4/5)

Ebony Tower 04

[Explanation of Reading Journal Entries/Ratings]

Post 1/5

Post 2/5

Post 3/5

Post 5/5


 

“Poor Koko”

3 out of 5 stars.

The Plot:

An author is robbed while staying in an out-of-the-way cabin.

There’s something of Cloud Atlas‘s (review) Timothy Cavendish in this narrator.

[94] Translate:

Byth dorn re ver dhe’n tavas re hyr,

Mes den hep tavas a-gollas y dyr

(p.127, title page)

At the end of the story, our narrator translates this for us:

My incomprehensible epigraph shall have the last word, and serve as judgement on both father and son. It comes with a sad prescience from an extinct language of these islands, Old Cornish.

Too long a tongue, too short a hand;

But tongueless man has lost his land.

(p.165)

The only place I can find either phrase is in The History of Great Britain: From the First Invasion of It By the Romans Under Julius Caesar, Volume 2 (1823):

The kind of verse in which it is imagined the Druids delivered their doctrines to their scholars, was that which is called by the Welsh grammarians Englyn Milur, of which the following lines are a short specimen:

An lavar koth yu lavar guir

Bedh durn re ver, dhan tavaz rehir

Mez den heb davaz a gallaz i dir.

 

What’s said of old will always stand:

Too long a tongue, too short hand;

But he that had no tongue lost his land. Continue reading

“The Ebony Tower” (Post 3/5)

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[Explanation of Reading Journal Entries/Ratings]

Post 1/5

Post 2/5

Post 4/5

Post 5/5


 

“The Ebony Tower” (continued)

[57] David continues to be quite the ass. I can’t say I like either man in this story.

Once again, the ghost of infidelity stalked through David’s mind – not any consideration of its actuality, but if he hadn’t been married, if Beth… that is to say, if Beth didn’t sometimes have certain faults, an occasional brisk lack of understanding of him, an overmundane practicality, which this attractively cool and honest young mistress of a situation would be too intelligent (…) to show or at any rate to abuse.

(p.52 – 53)

Of course it’s Beth’s faults that make Diana attractive. And of course David understands every aspect of this young woman, despite only having known her for an afternoon.

He had a knowledge of a brutality totally alien to his nature: how men could rape. Something both tender and provocative in that defenselessness stirred him deeply.

(p.65)

 

He thought of Beth, probably in bed by now in Blackheath, in another world, asleep; of his absolute certainty that there could not be another man beside her. His real fear was of losing that certainty. Childish: if he was unfaithful, then she could be. No logic.

(p.84 – 85)

Nope. No logic at all. But a sentiment parroted in seventies literature (see Joseph Heller’s Something Happened, note [53]). Continue reading

“The Ebony Tower” (Post 2/5)

Ebony Tower 02

[Explanation of Reading Journal Entries/Ratings]

Post 1/5

Post 3/5

Post 4/5

Post 5/5


 

“The Ebony Tower” (continued)

[22] References:

Three very fine Permeke drawings. The Ensor and the Marquet. An early Bonnard. A characteristically febrile pencil sketch, unsigned but unmistakably Dufy. Then a splendid Jawlensky (how on earth had he got his hands on that?), an Otto Dix signed proof nicely juxtaposed with a Nevinson drawing. Two Matthew Smiths, a Picabia.

(p.15)

Constant Permeke (1886 – 1952) was a Belgian painter and sculptor who is considered the leading figure of Flemish expressionism.

Pierre Bonnard (1867 – 1947) was referenced in The Magus (Post 2, note [72]).

Ensor and Marquet were referenced in Post 1, note [5].

Dufy was referenced in The Magus (note [306]).

Alexej von Jawlensky (1864 – 1941) was a Russian expressionist painter active in Germany. He was a member of the New Munich Artist’s Association, The Blue Rider group and later The Blue Four. His works sell for extremely high prices (Schokko for over eighteen million US dollars in 2008).

Otto Dix (1891 – 1969) was a German painter and printmaker, noted for his ruthless and harshly realistic depictions of Weimar (the unofficial historical designation for the German state between 1919 and 1933) society and the brutality of war.

Christopher R. W. Nevinson (1889 – 1946) was an English figure and landscape painter, etcher and lithographer, who was one of the most famous war artists of World War I.

Francis Picabia (1879 – 1953) was a French avant-garde painter, poet and typographist. After experimenting with Impressionism and Pointillism, Picabia became associated with Cubism. Continue reading

“The Ebony Tower” (Post 1/5)

Ebony Tower 01

[Explanation of Reading Journal Entries/Ratings]

Post 2/5

Post 3/5

Post 4/5

Post 5/5


 John Fowles’ 1974 five-story collection. I read a first edition hardcover.

3 out of 5 stars (average for collection).

Times Read: 2

Seen the Movie: No. (The title story was made into a 1984 TV film.)

Fowles’ working title for this collection, Variations, sets the stage. He’s going to play with themes from past and future novels in a variety of styles (see Post 3, note [89]), which makes The Ebony Tower a sort of Fowles sampler; read this and you’ll know all his tricks: the good, the bad, the clichéd. Not his best work, but the best representation of his work.

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“The Wind in the Willows”

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[Explanation of Reading Journal Entries/Ratings]

Kenneth Grahame’s 1908 (!) anthropomorphic-animal classic. I read a 1976 paperback with a Disney cover that had nothing to do with any scene in the book.

3.5 out of 5 stars. 

Times Read: 1

Seen the Movie: There are a lot of versions but I’ve never seen any.

The Plot:

Mole, Rat, Badger and Toad have adventures in the English countryside.

As a kid, I thought I was too cool for books about talking animals and fantastic adventures. Amending this mistake, I’ve been going back to the classics (The Neverending Story, The Last Unicorn, Watership Down) with great results. The Wind in the Willows might not be as good as those others but it’s a pleasant, quick read.

We really have two books here: one a lovely tale of friendship between Mole and Rat with moments of poignancy, affection, and surprisingly moving spirituality. The second, which unfortunately ends up dominating the book, is about Toad: a cocky, reckless, irredeemable character who the others like for some reason.

Unlike Watership Down, this truly is a children’s book. The stakes are low and everything works out in the end. No violence, no lasting pain, nothing worse than hurt feelings.

Two last points before we get into it: the text feels fifty years old, not a hundred (a compliment, believe me, a huge compliment), and Grahame does something I’ve never seen before: the animals, who wear clothes and behave as people, live alongside and interact with same-sized humans.

Continue reading

“Hey Nostradamus!”

Hey Nostradamus

[Explanation of Reading Journal Entries/Ratings]

Douglas Coupland’s 2003 novel. I read a paperback from the library (thanks, library!) and now I’m on the lookout for my own copy.

3.5 out of 5 stars.

The Plot:

Four narrators examine love, loneliness, life, and death in the short- and long-term aftermath of a school shooting.

The plot description made me pass on this book for years, even as I worked through the rest of Coupland’s back catalog. I assumed the bulk of the narrative took place in the lead-up to a school shooting, not what Coupland gives us – the shooting as an early event that we immediately jump forward in time from. He’s more interested in what comes after; the people affected, not the perpetrators.

Coupland’s characters always feel like they’re arriving through a strangely youthful prism, as though you’re reading what an intelligent sixteen-year-old thinks being an adult is like. He usually write in first person, sometimes with several narrators per book, but the thoughts and dialogue never significantly change. Sixty-somethings sound like eighteen-year-olds. Nerds sound like drug dealers sound like court stenographers.

Q: Kurt Vonnegut has a similar every-narrator-sounds-the-same style and I love him, so why rag on Coupland?

A: Though Vonnegut’s narrators are almost interchangeable (outwardly surly folk who harbor a small flame of hope), Vonnegut’s dialogue is sharp and believable even at its most absurd. Coupland’s dialogue often sounds wrong. Everyone in his universe speaks in the same fragmented, whimsical, this-is-random-therefore-funny way and it rings false. Also, Vonnegut really likes using “said” and, as we’ll see, Coupland is averse to all dialogue attributions. With such similar dialogue between characters, he’s setting the reader up for confusion.

My relationship with Coupland-as-author is on shaky ground, yet I’ve read nearly a dozen of his books. Why? Because when Coupland gets his hands on a good plot, he’s incredibly readable. Hey Nostradamus! might be his best, rising above style to deliver something profoundly intricate and moving.

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