Monday, January 14, 2019

Book Review: Voyage in the Dark, by Jean Rhys (1934)

Paperback cover of Voyage in the Dark, by Jean Rhys, originally published in 1934. The evocative cover design is by Tim Gaydos. (Photo by Mark C. Taylor)

Ella Williams, who wrote under the pen name of Jean Rhys, 1890-1979.
Voyage in the Dark, published in 1934, was the third novel by Jean Rhys, the pen name of Ella Williams. The novels Quartet, also known as Postures, and After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie, preceded Voyage in the Dark, and, read with her fourth novel, Good Morning, Midnight, form a quartet of works that cover similar themes. All four books follow female protagonists through their travails. The women in all of these books do not have the education or the inner drive to attempt to make much of a career for themselves, and as a consequence, they are largely financially dependent on the kindness of male companions. These male companions may be amused by these women for a while, but marriage is not on their minds. 

The main character in Voyage in the Dark is Anna Morgan. As the novel opens, 18-year-old Anna is treading the boards as a chorus girl. In the town of Southsea, Anna and her friend Maudie meet two men. Walter, the man Anna is paired off with, expresses an interest in seeing her again when they are back in London. Walter ends up supporting Anna in London, and tries to help her “get on,” i.e., advance her career. When the much-older Walter inevitably tires of Anna and casts her aside, she must figure out what to do with herself. 

Like Rhys, Anna was born and raised on an island in the Caribbean. (Anna’s island remains unnamed in the novel; Rhys was born in Dominica.) Throughout the novel, Anna flashes back to life on the island, and how different it was from London. These are fascinating passages, and they add a lot to Anna’s backstory. Anna always feels like an outsider in English culture, and I would venture to guess that Rhys felt similarly. 

I want to report to you that I enjoyed Voyage in the Dark, but “enjoy” isn’t really the proper word for experiencing Jean Rhys’ fiction. As always, I appreciated her sharp, incisive language and her keen observation of the human condition. It’s obvious to modern readers that rather than being simply moody or melancholy, Anna is suffering from some sort of severe clinical depression. There are numerous passages that attest to this, but the following ones really stuck out to me:

“Vincent started off again about books.
I said, ‘I haven’t read any of these books you’re talking about. I hardly ever read.’
‘Well, what do you do with yourself all day?’ he said.
‘I don’t know,’ I said.” (P.86)

“For a week after Walter left I hadn’t gone out; I didn’t want to. What I liked was lying in bed till very late, because I felt tired all the time, and having something to eat in bed and then in the afternoon staying a long time in the bath.” (P.90)

“It’s funny when you feel as if you don’t want anything more in your life except to sleep, or else to lie without moving. That’s when you can hear time sliding past you, like water running.” (P.113)

As much as I wanted to scream at Anna that she was depressed and should see a doctor, I don’t know if seeking professional help for mental health issues in the 1913-14 time period of the novel would have been beneficial for her. Anna’s struggles with depression were another thing that she had in common with her creator. As Rhys said in a 1979 interview:

“When I was excited about life, I didn’t want to write at all. I’ve never written when I was happy. I didn’t want to. But I’ve never had a long period of being happy. Do you think anyone has? I think you can be peaceful for a long time. When I think about it, if I had to choose, I’d rather be happy than write. You see, there’s very little invention in my books. What came first with most of them was the wish to get rid of this awful sadness that weighed me down.” Jean Rhys, The Paris Review interview, 1979.

Like Rhys’ other female protagonists, Anna doesn’t seem to have a clear sense of what she wants out of life. Anna is somewhat passive; she’s much more acted upon by others than decisively acting for herself. When her life as Walter’s plaything is set up, she thinks:

“Of course, you get used to things, you get used to anything. It was as if I had always lived like that. Only sometimes, when I had got back home and was undressing to go to bed, I would think, ‘My God, this is a funny way to live. My God, how did this happen?’” (P.40)

Anna also has a somewhat unrealistic expectation of life:

“I don’t know how people live when they know exactly what’s going to happen to them each day. It seems to me it’s better to be dead than to live like that.” (P.75) 

Well, that’s harsh. And also not an attitude that is going to help you succeed in life. Life is repetition. That’s something that no one ever really tells you as you become an adult, but unless you have a really odd, fascinating job, much of life is the same every day. You will go to the same office/school/wherever you work and interact with many of the same people every single day. Then you’ll wake up and do it all again. Although to be fair to Anna, when I was 18 or 19 years old, I might have thought the same thing that she did. When you’re 18 or 19 years old you think that every day is pregnant with possibilities, and at some point you learn that’s not actually true. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. If I didn’t have a pretty good idea of what was going to happen to me each day, I’d be worried sick. 

The first-person narration of Voyage in the Dark gives it a different feel from Rhys’ other early novels, and it also enables the reader to feel a more immediate connection to Anna. Voyage in the Dark feels more like a first novel than Quartet does, so I wonder if Voyage was written before and then set aside. The flashbacks to Anna’s life on the island also give the novel some extra texture, and throughout the book I was more conscious of place and culture as themes. I think Anna’s sense of being an outsider in English culture is part of the alienation and depression that she feels. 

Reading Voyage in the Dark immediately after Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent, I was struck by the negative portrayal of London in both novels. In The Secret Agent, the metropolis becomes a symbol for the modern, mechanized age, and its capitalistic excesses. In Voyage in the Dark, London is a gloomy place: “Everything was always so exactly alikethat was what I could never get used to. And the cold; and the houses all exactly alike, and the streets going north, south, east, west, all exactly alike.” (P.179) I doubt that Rhys was specifically influenced by Conrad in the way she describes London, but I would guess that he was a writer she admired, since she quotes from his novel Almayer’s Folly in After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie. And she may have felt an affinity for another foreign-born author who was an outsider to English culture. 

Voyage in the Dark is an example of spare modernism at its best, and Rhys' writing style makes the novel feel very contemporary. It's an excellent introduction to this often overlooked author. 

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Book Review: The Secret Agent, by Joseph Conrad (1907)

The paperback cover of the 1983 Signet Classics edition of The Secret Agent that I read. (The Secret Agent was originally published in 1907.)

Polish/British author Joseph Conrad, 1857-1924. He's probably thinking, "And how many classic novels have you written in your third language?"
Joseph Conrad’s 1907 novel The Secret Agent is a classic work of political intrigue. As the novel begins, it focuses on the hapless Adolf Verloc, a British citizen living in London who is actually a secret agent for an unnamed foreign governmentmost likely Russia. Verloc owns a shop that sells dirty books, and has a wife, Winnie, who is one of the most interesting characters in the novel. Verloc also supports Winnie’s mother and her younger brother, Stevie, who we would probably diagnose today as having some sort of learning disability. Verloc has contacts among London’s anarchists, and he informs on them to the government he works for. Verloc is called to the Embassy, where Mr. Vladimir, a new administrator, excoriates Verloc for his incompetence. Vladimir tells Verloc that he needs to prod his anarchist friends to carry out an attack, so that the British government will then crack down on civil liberties. Vladimir’s idea for a target is science, and what better scientific target than the Greenwich Observatory? Yes, the Prime Meridian! Greenwich Mean Time! The very house of the great god of science itself!

I’ll leave the plot summary there, so as not to spoil anything. The Secret Agent is a complicated book, with a narrative point of view that shifts as we enter numerous characters’ heads for a period of time. While the novel is told in the third person, there’s part of a paragraph at the beginning of Chapter Two that is in first person. It’s the only time the first person narrator intrudes, so it’s an odd little moment. 

Conrad’s writing is sharp and precise, as he delineates many characters, and their various ways of thinking. Conrad is able to get inside the heads of characters like the Professor, a radical anarchist who walks around with a bomb in his coat, ready to push the button if he’s ever cornered by the cops, and Chief Inspector Heat, who has nothing but contempt for the anarchists. 

Along the way, Conrad has many excellent quotes: “The way of even the most justifiable revolutions is prepared by personal impulses disguised into creeds.” (p.76)

Another of my favorite quotes was this: “But Chief Inspector Heat was not very wiseat least not truly so. True wisdom, which is not certain of anything in this world of contradictions, would have prevented him from attaining his present position.” (p.79) 

A piece of terse wisdom from Conrad emerges as he describes the Assistant Commissioner of police and his relentless drive to investigate: “We can never cease to be ourselves.” (p.102)

Joseph Conrad had a very interesting backstory, to put it mildly. He was born Jozef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski to Polish parents in Berdychiv, in what is now the Ukraine. English was his third language, after Polish and French, and he didn’t start to learn English until he joined the British merchant marine in his twenties. Pretty impressive, as he is now considered one of the greatest novelists of the English language. After a 19-year marine career, Conrad published his first novel Almayer’s Folly: A Story of an Eastern River in 1895, when he was thirty-seven years old. Conrad devoted himself to writing for the rest of his life, and he produced a substantial body of work that has proven to be highly influential, including the novella Heart of Darkness, and the novels Lord Jim, Nostromo, and Under Western Eyes, among others

The Secret Agent is an excellent book, and quite a haunting one. Some of the events in the book were inspired by the 1894 death of Martial Bourdin, a French anarchist who accidentally blew himself up in Greenwich Park, close to the Observatory. It’s unknown what Bourdin’s ultimate goal was, but it may have been an attack on the Observatory. In a 1920 “Author’s Note,” to The Secret Agent, Conrad wrote of Bourdin’s actions as “a blood-stained inanity of so fatuous a kind that it was impossible to fathom its origin by any reasonable or even unreasonable process of thought. For perverse unreason has its own logical processes.” The Secret Agent is Joseph Conrad’s attempt to explain the logical processes of this kind of perverse unreason.

Saturday, January 5, 2019

Movie Review: Springsteen on Broadway, Directed by Thom Zimny (2018)

Bruce Springsteen, performing Springsteen on Broadway, 2018.

CD cover for Springsteen on Broadway, 2018.
Bruce Springsteen’s series of Broadway appearances recently concluded in December. Springsteen on Broadway ran for 236 performances at the Walter Kerr Theatre. The show was also filmed and released on Netflix in December. The film of Springsteen on Broadway was directed by Thom Zimny, who has directed numerous Springsteen documentaries, as well as the excellent documentary Elvis Presley: The Searcher. 

Springsteen on Broadway puts us up close and personal with the Boss as he regales the audiences with stories of his life and sings some of his most famous songs. It’s no surprise that there are many stories about his father, with whom Bruce had a difficult and complicated relationship. Springsteen is very aware of the ironies and contradictions of his career. He talks about being the voice of the working man, and then tells us that doing this Broadway show is the only time in his life he’s ever worked five days a week. He’s never punched a time clock or worked the night shift at the refinery, which is a testament to how effective a writer he is. Springsteen also talks about wanting to get out of his home town, finally adding the punch line: “I now live ten minutes away from my home town.” (Of course, he did get out and lived away from New Jersey for many years.) 

The show highlights Springsteen’s acute self-awareness, and how deep his emotions run. At the end of the show he describes his feelings as he drove by the house where he grew up and discovered that the huge beech tree in front of his house had been cut down. It’s beautiful how Springsteen describes his thoughts and feelings about this tree. I probably would have said something like, “I was so sad that the tree had been cut down. It meant a lot to me.” Trust me; Bruce was much more eloquent than I would be. Springsteen is such a poet, and it’s so clear throughout the show how much he loves words, as he uses the cadence of a preacher to arouse our emotions. He has the soul of a poet, but also the instincts of a showman. There are very few performers in the history of rock and roll who have been able to merge the two as successfully as he has. He’s very masculine, and at the same time, amazingly sensitive. 

Bruce is joined by his wife Patti Scialfa for two songs, “Tougher than the Rest” and the lovely “Brilliant Disguise,” both from his 1987 album Tunnel of Love. Other than that, it’s just Springsteen and a guitar, or a piano, singing his songs and telling his stories. It’s an intensely emotional experience, and it’s pretty amazing that Springsteen could perform this show night after night for so long.

Thursday, January 3, 2019

Concert Review: Nick Lowe at the Dakota Jazz Club

Nick Lowe at the Dakota Jazz Club, January 3, 2019. (Photo by Mark C. Taylor)

My first concert of 2019 was one of my favorite people to see live: singer-songwriter extraordinaire Nick Lowe, who performed solo at the Dakota Jazz Club in Minneapolis tonight. I’ve seen Nick Lowe in concert several times before, and seeing him perform solo is always a treat. Inevitably, the songs sound somewhat different from the familiar studio versions, but it never feels as though they’re missing anything when Lowe performs them solo. Lowe’s rhythmic guitar playing propels the songs along.

Lowe’s songs are beautifully constructedthere’s not a wasted word or phrase, especially in his songs from the last 25 years or so. Minimalist masterpieces, they say a lot in their brevity. Songs like “I Read a Lot” and “House for Sale” describe experiences vividly in just a few stanzas. Lowe revealed that as he was writing “I Read a Lot” he was imagining Michael Buble singing it. To me, it sounds like a perfect Nick Lowe song. But Lowe has long said that when he writes a song he wants it to sound like it’s a standard, like it’s already been around for ages. 

“People Change,” the concert opener, is one of my favorite songs to explain Lowe’s gift for economy of language. It starts out “Storybook love, made for one another/Now she treats you just like a brother.” In 14 words, Lowe has created an entire story. We get the point immediately, no need for verse upon verse.

Nick looked good, sharply dressed and rail-thin, wearing a white button-down shirt and black slacks, and black dress shoes. Lowe’s shock of pure white hair gives him a distinguished air, as do his black-framed glasses, behind which are a handsome pair of very blue eyes. 

Lowe sang a new song, “Love Starvation,” and looking back at my review of Lowe’s 2016 concert at the Dakota, I recall that he sang some new songs then as well, so perhaps we can hope for a new album in the not-too-distant future? Fingers crossed, anyway. 

Lowe sang a couple of covers, including a lovely version of “Heartbreaker,” written by the Bee Gees for Dionne Warwick, and included on Lowe’s 2018 EP Tokyo Bay. In Lowe’s hands, the song becomes a stripped down cry of anguish. Lowe’s voice is very expressive, and he uses it to great emotional effect, especially on ballads. My wife and my mother both find Lowe’s voice very sexy. (My wife adores Nick’s song “Let’s Stay in and Make Love.”)

I was very pleased that Lowe sang “Rome Wasn’t Built in a Day,” which is one of my favorites of his. Inevitably, “Cruel to be Kind” made an appearance, and after it was done, Nick reprised the catchy chorus and we all sang along loudly, which was a lot of fun. We also got to sing along to the chorus of “When I Write the Book,” one of Lowe’s power pop gems from the band Rockpile. 

Lowe made a funny joke about the “new musicians’ rules going into effect this year: no encores.” (He was kidding, of course.) The first encore concluded with “(What’s So Funny ‘bout) Peace, Love and Understanding?” Lowe’s most famous song, which is ironic, since Lowe’s original version, cut with the band Brinsley Schwarz, isn’t that famous. It was Elvis Costello’s 1979 cover version that made the song a classic. And it was Curtis Stigers’ version on the soundtrack of The Bodyguard that netted Lowe a windfall in royalties when he most needed it. Nick came back for a second encore, his beautiful, heartfelt version of Elvis Costello’s “Alison.”


People Change
Stoplight Roses
Love Starvation
Long Limbed Girl
Has She Got a Friend?
What’s Shakin’ on the Hill
Ragin’ Eyes
The Club
Rome Wasn’t Built in a Day
Without Love
I Live on a Battlefield
I Read a Lot
Cruel to be Kind
Tokyo Bay
House for Sale
Lonely Just Like Me
I Knew the Bride (When She Used to Rock and Roll)
When I Write the Book
(What’s So Funny ‘bout) Peace, Love and Understanding