Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen

Sense and Sensibility by Jane AustenOn rereading Sense and Sensibility slowly and with immense pleasure, as befits this beautiful Belknap Press annotated edition edited by Patricia Meyer Spacks, I am awestruck by Austen’s maturity and delicacy in this her first published novel. The opening two chapters which set the scene with the death of Henry Dashwood and then set the plot ticking with the magnanimous ungenerosity of the sole heir, John Dashwood, toward his step-mother and his three step-sisters are so finely polished that you might imagine Austen writing and rewriting them for years on end. Indeed, much of the first volume is near this level of concentrated effort. The second volume, less so, and the third more sprawling still. But by then the reader hardly notices being so caught up in the all too real lives of Elinor and her sister, Marianne. And the horridness of John Dashwood and his wife is equalled, or possibly surpassed, by the self-serving self-love of the faithless Willoughby.

Apart from the mixed characters of Elinor and Marianne, who partake of both sense and sensibility in different measures, the reader is struck by how generous Austen is with the less than perfect men, Edward and Colonel Brandon. These are specimens not on a par with Mr. Knightley from Emma, though clearly gentlemen. They are sad men, stunted in some ways. And it isn’t until their happiness is realized at the end of the novel that the possibility of their being more than they seem can even be considered. Or take a character like Mrs Jennings, who is comic in many respects yet in Austen’s hands becomes the very essence of generosity, kindness, and fellow feeling. These are characters who are determined to think well of and do well by others. If only the same could be said of all of us.

The lengthy opening essay in this edition by Patricia Meyer Spacks is wonderful. After an entire career teaching and writing on Austen and related authors, Meyer Spacks still writes with verve and economy and real interest. Proof, if any could be given, that Austen’s novels have enduring charm and bear repeated readings. By all means, if you are planning to reread Sense and Sensibility, do consider this lovely edition.

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The Story of the Lost Child by Elena Ferrante

The Story of the Lost Child by Elena FerranteOnce again, Elena Ferrante brings the intimate friendship of her principle characters, Elena and Lila, to life, though much of what occurs in this final novel in her Neapolitan series is harmful to their friendship. Elena rushes into her relationship with Nino Sarratore, all the the while trying to suppress her suspicion of Lila’s disapproval. Indeed, much of what Elena does and thinks and even writes in her growing career as a novelist and intellectual is shaped and conditioned either by Lila’s explicit critique or by Elena’s imagined version of what Lila might say. And so Elena acts both for and against her childhood friend, desperate to attain some form of autonomy even whilst she foregoes it in her anxiety. Elena has moved back to Naples, though not the old neighbourhood, with her two daughters. And it is motherhood that comes to dominate the themes here as first Elena and then Lila herself become pregnant. Their shared condition is emblematic of just how entwined their lives have been throughout whether they were conscious of it or not.

Eventually Elena moves with her now three daughters into the flat above Lila’s in the old neighbourhood. Here the ties with the past are strong. But so too are the ties with elements from the earlier three novels. Ferrante weaves the stories together so tightly that everything in the current novel feels as though it might have been there in the very first one, just hidden around a corner. The lives of Elena and Lila, their lovers and children, and their friends from the old neighbourhood breathe with fire. And once that fire catches you, it is nearly impossible to put the book down.

Ferrante’s Elena narrates the whole of this volume but she is not spared. Even when she is most critical of her friend, the reader sees through her fears to the self-doubt at its root. While not an unreliable narrator, we come to see her view as slanted, as given to jealousy and pettiness as any other, and so she becomes, unsympathetically, even more believable. It is a remarkable balancing act. By the end, I found myself reading ever more slowly, fearing with each page the inevitably loss of this brilliant friendship. Fortunately, I can start again almost immediately, which is surely one of the great blessings of novels as fine as these. Highly recommended.

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Munich Airport by Greg Baxter

Munich Airport by Greg NBaxterAn ex-pat American living in London learns that his sister, Miriam, who had been living in Berlin, has died of starvation. The news is both a shock and possibly expected. At any rate, it catalyses arcane reactions in her brother, who has not spoken to her in at least five years, and in their elderly widowed father whose estrangement from her extends even further into the past. Father and son meet in Berlin and undertake the repatriation of the body with the help of a consular official named Trish. Apparently standard bureaucratic delay prevents the release of the body for more than two weeks. And in that time both father and son, and to a lesser extent Trish, undergo flights of alienation and excess — renting a furnished luxury penthouse, hiring a car to undertake a trip down the Rhine and into Belgium and Luxembourg, immodest gourmandising, drinking to excess, sexual profligacy, and self-harm. This, followed by a starvation diet which may purge them of both their excess and their reason. Once Miriam’s body is released, they can begin their journey home. The father has chosen to fly them all out of Munich Airport so that they will not need to change planes, but when they reach Munich, the airport is socked in with heavy sleet and fog. So much so that their flight — indeed all flights — has been delayed interminably. And this is where we pick up the story with the brother narrating their current predicament interspersed with reflections on what has preceded that in the previous two weeks as well as earlier moments in the lives of Miriam, her brother and her father.

In the stateless state of those who have already passed through security at an international airport, grounded by the murky fog that paralyses airports and action, and faced with a constitutional ambivalence about his father, himself and everything else, we follow the brother’s not always trustworthy impressions. But ultimately nothing is clear or fully explained. An underlying sense of menace pervades but it has no clear source. Emotions are fractured and changeable. And perhaps the only moments of clarity come when the son speaks about the advent of twelve-tone music and especially the music of Alban Berg.

That singular break with tonality seems also to be the model for Baxter’s treatment of the novel. Not so much a case of anti-narrative as the abandonment of narrative, or rather narrative as the underpinning structure of the novel. Themes of death and excess cross against those of loss and abandonment or harm and self-harm. But there is no centre, per se, and so we are carried along solely by the power of Baxter’s prose itself. And what prose that is! I was transfixed. Constantly unsettled. And ultimately a bit in awe. This is a novel that warrants re-reading almost immediately. Highly recommended.

 

Peace by Richard Bausch

Peace by Richard BauschThe intense existential doubt precipitated by moments of life and death struggle, catastrophic moral choice, and, yes, the peace that passeth understanding meld in this frighteningly clear and poignant tale. It is 1944, the Italian campaign, and three men are tasked, along with an elderly Italian guide, to scout up a low mountain in order to ascertain what forces of retreating Germans lie ahead. Go up a mountain and come back down. If that isn’t the basis of an archetypical narrative arc, I don’t know what is. Simple. But that stripped down symbolism and its corollaries reverberates throughout this haunting story.

Of course the three GIs are carrying far more than their packs. Bausch masterfully flashes back to their time before the landing, and in the case of one, Corporal Robert Marson, to his life in a suburb of Washington D.C. It is more than fear for their lives though that burdens them. An incident has occurred shortly before they are ordered out on this reconnaissance. That incident and their deliberation as to how to respond to it sets the moral choice before them. As if that weren’t enough, they find themselves encountering, from a distance, the slaughter of Jews by the retreating German forces, and on their return journey, the very real threat of death dealt by an unseen sniper.

Bausch’s writing here is so taut, so fully under control, so pitch perfect, that you will find your pace through the story to be almost breathless. This is fine writing indeed. And though it is a short novel, it feels replete. Highly recommended.

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
On rereading Pride and Prejudice in this beautiful Belknap Press annotated edition edited by Patricia Meyer Spacks, I am struck by the almost irrepressible joy evinced at various points by so many of the actors in the drama. Take Jane, the oldest of the Bennet sister, and her perfect bliss at the familial joy that will result from her happy union with Mr. Bingley. She wonders, “how shall I bear so much happiness!” Or take her perfectly insensible youngest sister, Lydia, whose joy on becoming the first wed of the sisters burbles forth heedless of the shame brought on her siblings and parents by her escapade with Mr. Wickham. Or take Mr. Bennet’s delight at the obsequiousness of his cousin, Mr. Collins, or the inanities of Mrs. Bennet. And finally, take Elizabeth’s willingness to laugh at and with her proud husband to be, Mr. Darcy. Joy rises to the surface like cream. And it is joy to which we are fitted, each to our nature.

This is such a lovely edition. It is in a large format allowing the annotations to accompany the text directly. There are numerous notes discussing fine points of interpretation given generous presentation by Patricia Meyer Spacks, though at times she reserves judgement on their felicity. And there is an excellent introduction, also from Professor Spacks, which is fully conscious of the fact that most who pick up this edition of Austen’s classic will be rereading it. And the joys of rereading, especially of works that merit rereading such as this one, are many. For myself, I relish the slower pace at which I take the text, revelling in each expected but still surprising turn of events. And yet, subsequent to Elizabeth’s re-acquaintance with Mr. Darcy at Pemberley, I still find myself racing onward almost desperate to see Elizabeth reach her deserved joy.

For an early work, admittedly reworked and finally published after the success of Sense and Sensibility, I think that Pride and Prejudice points to much of what will solidify in Austen’s later writing, especially her very fine Emma. But perhaps it is the youthful exuberance that this novel cannot cloak which more than anything encourages the devotion so many readers have for it. After all, we will have our joy.

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The above edition of Pride and Prejudice was a gift I received the Christmas before last. I held it in reserve through the year waiting for the ideal time to savour it. Events overtook me such that it wasn’t until this past Christmas that I felt the inclination to indulge myself. I’m glad I did. Hardly anything restores me the way rereading one of Austen’s novels does.

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