The Collector by John Fowles

This has been one of my favorite novels since the time I was around sixteen, I have read it several times since then and I’ve been absolutely fascinated and overwhelmed by this book every time I read it. Previously I always used to read it in translation, but during my latest re-reading I became seriously concerned about the language use of the novel and I couldn’t figure out whether the general slovenliness of the text had to do with the quality of the translation or it was an integral part of the text, so I decided that next time I was going to read the novel in English, which I did last year. But as it turned out I don’t really like this novel anymore as much as I did earlier.

The Collector tells the story of Frederick (Ferdinand) Clegg, a perfectly average young man who suddenly wins a fortune which enables him to buy a secluded house somewhere in the countryside and kidnap Miranda, the beautiful art student whom he has had a crush on for a long time. Ferdinand’s hobby is, by the way, the collection of butterflies, and for him Miranda too is only a beautiful specimen of a rare kind of butterfly – a thing he can own and admire for its beauty. Ferdinand doesn’t care about sex, it’s enough for him that he can have Miranda as his „guest” and in fact he grants all the girl’s wishes – except for her wish for freedom. The story is told first from Ferdinand’s point of view and then from Miranda’s, and then the two short chapters in the end are again told by Ferdinand.

And now about the things I still like in this novel and those I don’t like that much anymore. First of all, I’m still fascinated by the narrative technique employed in the novel. Of course it’s no big deal to tell the same events from the points of view of two different characters, but I happen to be a sucker for books in which there is more than one narrator. It’s no big surprise that one advantage of this technique is that the reader gets to know two different interpretations of the same event: for instance, something Ferdinand considers to be a disgusting degradation of Miranda might in fact be a huge sacrifice from Miranda’s side.

Another interesting feature of the novel is that there is a huge social and cultural gap between Ferdinand and Miranda, consequently, they use two very distinct kinds of language and style, and for me only the linguistic and stylistic differences are enough to make it worth while to read the same things twice.

By the way, reading Ferdinand’s chapters, I realized that the Hungarian translation of the novel is not bad at all since Ferdinand really speaks in exactly the same cheap and ugly way as he does in the Hungarian translation. I often had to read Ferdinand’s sentences more than once to understand what he means because he uses such a coarse, almost disgusting English which makes it quite hard to grasp his meaning.

Anyway, despite the fact that as a hobby-linguist and an English language enthusiast I found it exceedingly interesting to observe the different language uses of Ferdinand and Miranda, what the author tried to suggest with their language use irritated me to a great extent. Yes, it’s quite obvious that Ferdinand is a coarse, working-class man while Miranda is a highly cultured, promising art student; yes, they had very different upbringings and education, but I consider the fact that it’s stated in the novel more than once that Ferdinand speaks the way he does because of his disadvantageous family background a bit too overt and spoon-feeding.

By the way, I didn’t get to like neither Ferdinand, nor Miranda. Ferdinand’s personality is quite simply shallow and disgusting, while Miranda is his diametric opposite: she is a sophisticated, cultured, sensitive, well-read and artistic girl – and this irritated me almost as much as Ferdinand’s ugly person. Why? Because of the things she does. She indulges in an endless self-analysis, she keeps discovering herself in the books she reads, and she keeps daydreaming about her famous artist friend, G. P. and about the way she will give herself to him if she ever gets free. (Still, even though I don’t like such pampered, artistic personalities as Miranda, I must mention that her relentless optimism and her unbreakable will to live really touched me.)

Speaking of Miranda’s erudite and artistic personality, let me add that the novel abounds in literary parallels and lovely intertextual references – and this is the reason why I keep calling Frederick by the name of Ferdinand. At the beginning of the story, Frederick introduces himself as Ferdinand to Miranda, and from that moment on the girl keeps comparing their relationship with the relationship of Miranda and Ferdinand in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, and keeps contemplating the fact that her captor is more like Caliban than Ferdinand. Besides the several explicit references to The Tempest, the novel also mentions several novels by Jane Austen, The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger, and Saturday Evening, Sunday Morning by Alan Sillitoe.

I happen to be a great fan of every kind of intertextuality and I love literary references in a novel, so the fact that The Collector is such an explicitly literary novel used to please me immensely in the past. But now it doesn’t please me so much anymore. Because for me nowadays real pleasure lies in finding a small, relatively hidden reference in a novel, and not in collecting such obvious references as those abundant in The Collector. I mean, if the heroine of a novel directly states while reading Jane Austen that sometimes she feels just like Emma, and sometimes like Marianne, then it’s no big deal to notice the literary parallels. For my current tastes, what Fowler does in this novel is too direct, too obvious.

And in order to be like Miranda and reflect upon myself let me just add that it’s quite an interesting experience for me to re-read a novel I used to love, and measure how my tastes have changed and realize what I consider important in a novel. If this had been the first time I read The Collector, I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t have become one of my favorite novels. But as it is, I still like it pretty well, even if my liking for it is mostly based on my previous readings and the last two parts, which still shock me thoroughly – just as they used to shock me every time in the last ten years.

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How the Light Gets In by M. J. Hyland

I was wandering around aimlessly in one of my favorite bookstores when I came across this novel. I had never heard about it before, but I loved its title and cover from the very first moment. I checked what the novel was about and read the selections from the favorable reviews on the back cover. Of course, according to these quotes, every single novel is masterful, exciting, heartbreaking, unsettling, beautifully written, irresistible, breathtaking or any arbitrary combination of these, and sometimes I’m still naive enough to believe what is written on the cover. However, I didn’t buy the book on the spot, but decided to keep it in my mind and buy it later. But then I kept thinking about it continuously, so a couple of days later I went back to the shop and bought it.

It’s always a great pleasure for me to read a book I know absolutely nothing about, and which hasn’t been read by any of my friends or acquaintances either. I always feel that these books aren’t yet „spoiled” by any previous opinions and prejudices, neither my own, nor those of others – so they still carry the inherent possibility to become one of those books that change my life. No wonder then that I started to read How the Light Gets In with great curiosity and excitement, and as it happened, I only needed to get as far as the second page to know for sure that this was indeed a book I was going to love – and one that I’m bound to re-read a hundred times later.

You may guess from the previous paragraphs that this isn’t going to be one of my most objective and analytical posts. However, I don’t want to fill this post only with my incoherent ramblings, so let me first tell you what this novel is about.

(By the way, I’m not sure about the origins of the title, but I searched the web and found that Leonard Cohen’s song „Anthem” contains the following lines: „There is a crack in everything // That’s how the light gets is”. It may just be possible that Hyland refers to this song in the title.)

How the Light Gets In tells the story of sixteen-year-old Lou, a girl with an exceptionally high IQ from Sydney, Australia. She lives with a family of misfits who mainly live on the dole. Naturally, Lou wants out, so when she gets a chance to spend a year in the US as an exchange student, she grabs the opportunity immediately. She considers this year as her big (or only) chance to change her life and herself as well. Arriving in the US, she is greeted by her host family, the lovely, healthy and well-off Hardings who try to make sure that the unlovely, uncouth, sulky, insomniac Lou finds her place in their Perfect American Life as soon as possible.

Of course this is not too easy for a girl like Lou, and she gets entangled in every kind of difficulty imaginable in a life of a sixteen-year-old girl: she smokes, drinks, does drugs, goes out with the wrong guys, doesn’t go home in time, steals and lies – and after a while it seems obvious that her dreams about a new life may never come true.

Have I read a lot of books about such things? Of course I have. What is so good about this novel then? Simply everything. For me How the Light Gets In is virtually perfect in terms of themes, quality of writing and style. The novel deals with such diverse topics as, for instance, the unattainability of the American Dream; the impossibility (or extreme difficulty) of fitting in; the identity crisis of teenagers; and teenage loves, desires and sexual relations – and miraculously, Hyland manages to fit all these topics into her novel, without making it overburdened or didactic.

And Lou tells her story in exactly that clever, sarcastic, hostile style which can be expected from a sixteen-year-old, intelligent, naive, unhappy, insecure girl. In the whole novel I only felt once, during one of Lou’s ruminations about alcoholism, that the words don’t sound authentic from the mouth of a teenage girl, and for a second I was afraid that the novel might suddenly turn into a didactic self-help book, but to my immense relief, this didn’t happen.

One of reviews quoted in the book claims that Lou Connor is a female equivalent of Holden Caulfield. I think that comparing this novel to The Catcher in the Rye is both inevitable and correct. As The Catcher in the Rye is such a classic, it only seems natural that it’s mentioned in connection with every new novel dealing with teenage angst. And in the case of How the Light Gets In the comparison indeed seems apt: Lou’s behavior, her desire to be loved, her critical view of the world, her penchant for hasty judgment and sometimes even her vocabulary reminded me of Holden. And apart from Lou herself, there are several episodes and motifs in the novel which seem to be references to Salinger’s novel. For instance, Lou’s relationship with the Russian exchange student Lishny bears strong reminiscences to the relations between Holden and Jane Gallagher in The Catcher in the Rye. (By the way, „Lishny” seemed such a strange name to me that I felt compelled to dig up its meaning. Actually, the word means „superfluous”, „futile”. But as Hyland herself doesn’t explain about the word in the novel, I don’t want to analyze the possible implications of this name either. )

I read it more than once that one should read The Catcher in the Rye as a teenager, as it’s impossible to grasp its atmosphere and meaning if you first read it as an adult. Actually, I was around 16 when I first read The Catcher in the Rye, and re-read it many times since then, and it always proved a compelling, cathartic book for me. Still, I don’t know how I would have reacted to it if I had first read it as an adult. As I mentioned, How the Light Gets In indeed resembles The Catcher in the Rye in many respects, just as Lou resembles Holden. If we examine Lou’s character more closely, she is nothing more than a not too amiable, whining teenager who would like to change the world and herself in it – but we may surmise that she will soon grow up, learn how things really are, and be forced to conform to the norms of society.

So I might as well feel that Lou is only a pretty irritating teenager, and I have nothing to do with her, as I’m way past her age and her petty problems. But as it happens, I can very much feel for Lou, I can understand her struggles, and my heart nearly breaks whenever I see how she steps one step closer to ruining her life completely.

There are two possibilities here. It might be that deep down I’m still a teenager, this is why I can understand Lou’s story so much. Or it might be that this an excellent novel about a sixteen-year-old which is not only meant to be read by other sixteen-year-olds. And I believe this second possibility is the case here.

Mystic River by Dennis Lehane

(The post may contain spoilers.)

I’ve already read two other novels by Dennis Lehane and I’ve grown to like him. However, I liked both Shutter Island and Sacred in a negative kind of way: I didn’t like them because they were exceptional books, or because they completely renewed their genre or because they made me feel something I’d never felt before. No. I simply liked them because they were decently written books, with a good story, with interesting, very human characters and with witty conversation. (Of course these are just the basics in a novel – or rather, these should be the basics in a novel – but for some reason a book featuring all the above-mentioned elements is relatively hard to come by.) So what I most liked in these novels was that there was nothing in them I could criticize – they were good in their way, without being outstanding, and even though this may sound rather condescending, I do think this meagre praise is definitely something.

However, I liked Mystic River not because it’s not bad at all, but because it’s an excellent novel. The three protagonists of the novel used the friends in their childhood. They fooled around together all the time, until one day something happened: one of the boys, the loser of their bunch, Dave hopped into the car of the men who at first sight looked just like policemen, and when he finally escaped from the in-fact-not-policemen after four days and went home, suddenly nothing was the same as it used to be. Due to his experiences, Dave developed something very much like a split personality; his friend, Jimmy – a silent, moody, nonchalant but very emotional boy – felt sadness settling on his heart; and the third boy, Sean slowly drifted away from the old bunch, as he was always a good boy, he lived in a better neighborhood and had a more normal family than the others – so he probably couldn’t have been the friend of the other two boys for long, anyway.

Twenty-five years later Dave is still an average loser; Jimmy, an ex-criminal and now the owner of a shop lives happily with his family; and Sean works as a detective while suffering constantly because his pregnant wife had left him a year before. Of course the childhood friendship of these three men ended long ago (although Jimmy and Dave are related through their wives), but the brutal murder of Jimmy’s daughter, Katie brings them together again, because Sean is the detective investigating the case, and it seems that Dave might have committed something terrible on the night of the murder.

So, Mystic River is supposedly a crime novel. It certainly features a murder, a murderer, and a couple of typical doughnut-munching, coffee-gulping, alcoholic and/or workaholic cops who have no private life whatsoever, who like to fire witticisms at everybody and who are so extremely tough that when they see a half-rotten corpse in the trunk of a car, they go ahead and jokingly ask their colleague whether he would care for a sandwich.

However, as regards the typical elements (clichés) of a crime novel, Dennis Lehane stops right here, and the majority of the novel consists of a thorough analysis of the characters’ inner lives and feelings. And Lehane does this remarkably well – in a heartrendingly emotional, yet totally understated, quiet way. The way Dave fights his demons; his wife’s, Celeste’s dilemma whether she should stand by her husband or betray him; Sean’s helpless rage and the hopeless emptiness in his life left by her wife’s departure; the grief Jimmy feels after the death of his daughter; the perhaps exaggerated („I will never love anyone this much again”) but definitely serious heartache suffered by Katie’s boyfriend Brendan – all these are depicted in such a way that I was very close to shedding tears at several points in the novel.

Besides the constant analysis of the characters’ inner torments, the main theme of the novel is the question how a person’s life becomes what it is. Are there any moments in a life after which things inevitably change? And how is it possible to live with the idea that the smallest decision might change the course of a life forever? Put this way, these questions may sound like the questions in some cheap, pop-psychological, mystical novel just like the ones of Paulo Coelho. But Dennis Lehane is no Coelho, and his characters don’t act as if they were hugely talented geniuses in the fields on psychology and philosophy who can redeem themselves, the others or the whole world in a simple way – so Mystic River treats these questions with taste and delicacy.

By the way, it’s an interesting question who had the worst life of the three men. Judging objectively, Dave seems to be the most pitiable of the three, because he was robbed of his chance to grow up to be a healthy, mentally stable man at a very early age. However, it was Jimmy I pitied the most: his quiet, sad, deeply emotional personality and his wildness make for a very strange mixture, and his suppressed, almost unbearable and inexpressible pain is very painful to witness even from the outside.

It’s strange that by eliminating Dave at the end of the novel, it seems that order is finally restored to the two men’s life (of course I ignore the fact that order is not restored to the life of Celeste – but this novel is more about the three men than about anybody else): Sean’s wife comes home, and Jimmy finally becomes strong enough to start to deal with his grief in some way.

Is this a happy end? We get rid of the poor, psychologically damaged loser with a life screwed up mainly by others, and then everybody is happy? I wouldn’t say so, since it’s only too obvious that both Sean and Jimmy paid a huge price for this order and perhaps-happiness. And I’ve got a notion that probably both of them will keep thinking a lot about the day Dave hopped into that ominous car – and the different lives they might have had, had Dave not done so.

The End of the Road by John Barth

When I was at university, this book was one of the cult novels in my circle of friends. We read, reread and discussed it constantly, we analyzed its humour and philosophy all the time and the first sentence („In a sense, I am Jacob Horner.”) became a saying we quoted to each other on a daily basis. And though I’m not at university anymore, The End of the Road is still one of those novels I can reread and enjoy anywhere, anytime.

The anti-hero of the novel is the afore-mentioned Jacob Horner who periodically suffers from a strange psychiatric condition: when he is presented with a lot of different options to choose from, sometimes he is bewildered by the choices to the extent that he is unable to move. His doctor urges him to find a job where he can follow a huge number of rules, because the regularity of such a job will always enable him to choose from his options. Jacob Horner follows his doctor’s advice and accepts a position as a teacher of English grammar in a school in Wicomico. While there, he meets his fellow teacher, Joe Morgan, an excessively self-consistent man who has a rational explanation for everything, and his wife, Rennie. The three become friendly, and the rest of the novel consists of their conversations, their attempts to persuade the others out of their beliefs and opinions, and the power games they play – until all this talking leads to certain tragic consequences.

The End of the Road is a deeply philosophical novel, and it’s mainly concerned with the basic problems and questions of existentialism. Barth sometimes treats these themes seriously, but his approach is more often ironic. For instance, the starting point of the novel is realistic and absurd at the same time: Jacob Horner has a paralysis attack when he has to decide which town to travel to with the 20 dollars he has in his pocket. The ticket clerk names four different towns but Jacob is unable to choose from them. It’s not that he’s afraid of the consequences of his decision – he cannot decide because none of the four names mean anything to him and none of the towns interest him more than the other three, so he feels that selecting any one of the four is simply not worth the trouble.

For Jacob, freedom is a restrictive factor, but he can function as a more or less healthy human being if he is provided with straightforward instructions as to how to choose from his options. What further complicates Jacob’s condition, however, is the fact that he has no personality and no opinions about anything. Or, as Jacob likes to put it, the problem is that in fact he has several personalities and several opinions about everything, and he’s capable of alternating between his personalities and opinions at a moment’s notice, what’s more, he is able to hold and voice several, mutually exclusive opinions about any subject at the same time, and this leads to his inability to decide.

Jacob’s lack of opinions and personality is contrasted with Joe Morgan’s unchanging personality, inner consistency and steady opinions. Joe has an opinion about virtually everything, each of his actions derives from certain underlying principles and base virtues, and he can go on analyzing everything he does for hours. His wife, Rennie is a paler version (disciple) of Joe: her earlier, immature personality was completely overwritten by Joe – partly with the help of his persuasive discourse and partly with the help of some domestic violence. Their smug, complacent life is deeply disturbed by Jacob’s incomprehensible personality, chaotic mind, indifference, amorality and inconsistency. The Morgans are unable to find a place for Jacob in their own, thoroughly categorized world, and they seriously play with the idea that since perhaps a man is nothing more than the sum of his opinions, and Jacob keeps voicing mutually exclusive opinions all the time, it may be that he doesn’t even exist.

All this talking is very entertaining for a while, but then philosophy is put into practice, and the seemingly innocent, harmless quarrels and debates lead to a tragedy – one from which, predictably, only Jacob Horner, a person with no personality and with nothing to lose emerges unscathed.

And speaking about personality and the lack of thereof: I think it’s a touch of genius that the three protagonists of the novel are a person with no personality, a person with too strong a personality, and a person with a copycat personality. Because of this, the interactions between Jacob, Joe and Rennie never for a moment become boring, and the relations between them give rise to several interesting questions: to what extent is one allowed to deliberately influence the other’s personality? Where does one person’s personality start and where does the other’s personality end? And anyway: what constitutes someone’s personality?

Intriguing points, intriguing novel. It’s definitely worth reading.

Peach Blossom Pavilion by Mingmei Yip

I have not been affected so far by the huge popularity of geisha and, in general, Far Eastern novels. Consequently, I started to read Mingmei Yip’s novel with completely naive eyes. And even though I am still not entirely aware of all the clichés and rules of geisha/courtesan novels after reading Peach Blossom Pavilion, I got a feeling that Ms. Yip learned her lesson and made sure that she used as many of the recommended ingredients of a geisha novel as possible. (Yes, I know geishas are Japanese, and this novel is set in China, but I am sure you get the point.)

The story is set in China in the 1920s, and it centers around the beautiful young girl, Xiang Xiang (a.k.a. Precious Orchid). Our heroine is only thirteen years old when she arrives at the most elite brothel of Shanghai, Peach Blossom Pavilion, after her father was innocently sentenced to death, and her mother entered a monastery. After the initial difficulties and some feeble revolt attempts, Precious Orchid becomes a priceless possession for the owners of the brothel. She slowly evolves into an awesome and sophisticated beauty, and the Shanghai elite worships her for her countless musical, artistic and erotic talents, and immerses her in a heap of presents and flowers everyday. Precious Orchid enjoys the luxury, but in her heart, of course, she hates and despises everyone and everything connected to the brothel, and her only goal in life is to leave her golden cage one day and take her revenge for the death of her innocent father.

The novel offers all that can be enticing in a story set in an exotic, faraway, culturally different time and space. Among other things, it contains several sex scenes which seem over-mystified and much too sophisticated, but still interesting for a reader from the western world. It also offers us a glimpse of Chinese daily rituals such as the ritual of tea-drinking: the characters drink countless cups of tea during the course of the story, and drinking tea seems to have the same social function as drinking an alcoholic drink has in western literature. And to top all these, the novel contains a lot of cheap but profound-sounding, mock-Chinese philosophy about the way jin and jang, and good and bad karma interact with each other.

However, there is one ingredient which is painfully missing from the novel: the soul. Even though the story is told from Precious Orchid’s perspective, and she is telling the reader about her own life and her own experiences, the narration still lacks both feeling and a touch of personality. Her words are usually bare and hollow, and they do not manifest any feeling, pain or desire. The soullessness of the narration is even more underlined by the fact that our heroine is a very unlikable, selfish and shallow person, who, among several other things, is even capable of leaving her true love because she misses the luxury of her past.

You should not look for deep sentiments, profound characterization or believable, dramatic life stories in this novel. The best (or the least irritating) way to read this novel is to simply take it as an erotic adventure story in which the unrelenting heroine survives the most gruesome difficulties, and manages to find her place in the world against all odds. By the way, sometimes the novel reminded me of Marquis De Sade’s Justine – only without its humour. Anyway, it might be possible to enjoy this novel as an easy to read adventure story, because I certainly admit that it is full of action and it is not boring for a minute.

The Afterparty by Leo Benedictus

I read a very good and enthusiastic post about The Afterparty on Kimbofo’s blog a couple of months ago, and based on her post, it was pretty easy for me to draw the conclusion that I would probably like this novel. Sometime later, I read an equally good, though critical post about the book on Kevin’s blog, and also read through the majority of the circa 150 (and mostly critical) comments the post generated, and I became even more curious about the novel. (By the way, the comments themselves are very interesting, and what makes the whole thread even more so is that the author himself joined the discussion and managed to react to the not too favorable comments and argue in a friendly way, without any resentment whatsoever. I’m sure this is the way discussions among adults should work, but they tend not to work this way, so reading 150 comments without any rudeness was immensely delightful for me.)

Of course it’s not an accident that Leo Benedictus keeps in touch with his readers and is on the lookout for reviews about his novel. But before I go into this, let me first tell you about the novel.

The Afterparty tells the story of the birthday bash and the subsequent afterparty of Hugo Marks, a 31-year-old movie actor. The main characters are Hugo himself; his wife, the (ex-)junkie supermodel Mellody; an indistinct journalist, Michael Knight, who ends up at Hugo’s party almost by accident, after his boss hands him over her own invitation; and young pop star and X-Factor participant Calvin Vance. These four people initially don’t really have too much to do with one another, but they get into various entanglements during the party and the afterparty, and by the end of the night it becomes obvious that things will never be the same again. The events themselves are made even more interesting by the fact that they are told from multiple points of view, and of course none of the events mean quite the same to the different characters.

Apart from the ’real’ story, the references to real life and to other novels which are hidden in the story, and the gently satiric depiction of the celebrity world, however, The Afterparty is also about the way a writer called William Mendez writes a novel about the birthday bash of Hugo Marks – a novel originally titled Publicity***** –, how he manages to get his novel published, and what ideas he has about the ways his novel should be publicized.

The blurb of The Afterparty says: „This book is different. You’ve never really read a book like this before.” I don’t consider myself a burned out reader who can never be pleased with anything because she had already seen it all, still, I must admit that I did read books like this before. As regards, for instance, telling a story from multiple points of view, let me only mention some works of William Faulkner, Choderlos de Laclos or Bret Easton Ellis – but it’s true that I’ve never read a story in which the different characters’ parts are written in different fonts, and in which the font type itself plays as crucial a part in the characterization of characters as any detailed description about their personality or appearance. And I also read books dealing with the shallow and meaningless lives of celebrities; and also read novels which constantly kept reflecting on themselves and/or the outside world besides (or instead of) simply telling a story.

But it’s indeed true that I’ve never read a book incorporating all these, and I found the way Leo Benedictus mixes all these postmodern features and creates something he, for some reason, calls ’post-postmodern’ absolutely delightful. I’m not at all sure about the difference between postmodern and post-postmodern (if there is any), but I know that The Afterparty is exactly the kind of postmodern I love: it’s clever, funny, (self-)ironic, and instead of dealing with matters of life and death, it deals with a question that happens to be one of my all-time hobby-horses: what is fiction and how does it relate to reality?

The Afterparty happens to be a piece of fiction which relates to reality quite directly. As I know it contains several references to real-life British celebrities and their infamous ways, so as I’m not that much into British celebrity life, I’m sure I missed several references or jokes in the novel. Still, I didn’t find this such a big problem as I found in the novel a lot of other things to entertain me.

For instance, the fact that in a truly clever postmodern way, The Afterparty contains itself and the story of its own marketing as well. Let me mention only a few examples of how this works. One of the marketing ploys devised by William Mendez, the novelist in the novel, is that the publisher should encourage readers to publish tweets on Twitter which contain the #afterpartybook identifying label, and promise that at least one such tweet per user will be published in the appendix of the 2012 paperback edition of the novel. And what a surprise, this happens to be one of the marketing ploys surrounding The Afterparty. And it is probably also a part of the marketing that Leo Benedictus himself participates actively in creating a hype around his novel, sometimes acts in a contradictory way, and pretends that he has a huge ego.

Well, perhaps he does have a huge ego; and perhaps I’m a mindless consumer to be set up by such marketing techniques, but I find the cheeky and entertaining way The Afterparty is advertised immensely clever and funny. (Therefore I already published and afterparty-tweet and I can hardly wait to see my username in print in the 2012 paperback edition.

There’s something that bothers me, though. I wonder how lasting The Afterparty will prove after its novelty wears off, or if we take away its current relevance and the games which surrounded its first publication in March 2011, and which won’t be interesting at all one or two years from now. Right now I will not venture to decide this question. However, I consider The Afterparty such a good book that quite probably I will reread it in a couple of years’ time, and then I will write another post about my impressions.

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë

I was about twelve years old when, rummaging through my grandmother’s shelves, I came across this novel. Thanks to the Hungarian habit of changing the simple titles of novels to more interesting ones, the book was called The Orphan of Lowood instead of Jane Eyre, and the title led me astray: I was expecting a novel similar to Oliver Twist, and found that, in Jane Eyre, it is only the first 100 pages that deal with the topic of being an orphan in Lowood, and then the novel moves on to such themes as love, self-sacrifice, passion, belief, perseverance and similar others. At the age of twelve I wasn’t too deeply interested in these topics, consequently, the story of Jane Eyre did not find its way to my heart. Now I thought it is time to re-read the novel and find out what it can offer to my somewhat older self.

When I started to read, it immediately struck me as strange that I remember the story very well, as usually I’m not too good at recalling the small details and twists and turns of a novel, and as I had not become a Jane Eyre fan during my first read, I did not expect myself to remember a lot. Still, it seems that the novel must have made a big impression somewhere deep in my mind, as now even the smallest details came back to me at once. Of course it is also possible that my knowledge of the story can be attributed to my studies: Jane Eyre is one of those texts in English literature which was analyzed a thousand times, has countless adaptations and is referred to in several other works of fiction, so it would have been quite impossible for me during my years as an English major student to bypass this text completely, and I could easily have been involuntarily immersed in the details of the story.

Anyway, despite all my memories and lack of enthusiasm, now I was drawn into the world of Jane Eyre at once, and the story did not let me go during the first two-thirds of the novel. I found that the text was outstanding, heart-rending and colorful; the behavior, values, confidence and independence of Jane Eyre were very much worth my attention; the depiction of the contemporary high society was authentic; and the development of Jane’s and Mr. Rochester’s relationship was believable and written in a beautiful language. Apart from all these, I was stunned by the modernity of the ideas in the novel. The way Jane speaks about her need for freedom of action, about her desire to use and develop her abilities, and about the equality of man and woman is much ahead of her time. (The novel was published in 1847.)

I almost believed that I was heading towards a cathartic reading experience, when something changed. I could hardly stop reading the first two volumes, but then I could hardly read the third volume, in which Jane leaves Thornfield to find her place in the world alone. I was irritated and bored at the same time by the fact that in the last 200 pages, three or four new characters were introduced, a new storyline was developed, new conflicts occurred and I witnessed unbelievable coincidences and miraculous turns – which didn’t interest me at all, since my only concern was Jane and I wanted her to find her happiness at last.

I tried to explain to myself why I found the last 200 pages of the novel so boring, and I came up with two possible reasons for this: it might be that I no longer have the patience to read very long novels, because I believe that everything worth telling can be told in 400 pages at the most – however, I can immediately refute this claim, as I know countless examples of highly engaging 400 or more page novels. And it can also be that it’s not a very brilliant idea to take a story in an absolutely new direction in its last one-third. I don’t have any scientific explanation for this, it’s only my gut feeling that it does no good to the structure and rhythm of a novel to load the story with several new elements towards its end. Personally, I don’t have an idea how the time of Jane’s necessary absence from Thornfield could have been filled in any better way, but I’m not a novelist, so I cannot be expected to know this. On the whole I think if Jane Eyre was a book of only 450 pages, it would be a perfect novel, but as it is, the eagerly longed-for catharsis didn’t come, or rather, it was lost somewhere along the totally uninteresting story of the Rivers family.

Finally, let me include some trivia here: on my copy of Jane Eyre, among the usual pieces of positive reviews there are two, rather contradictory sentences. On the front cover a certain Jenny Colgan states that “Jane Eyre has been turning girls into women for generations”; and on the back cover, Sarah Waters claims that “you have to be a grown-up to really get it”. I refrain from any further comments and just add one thing: I agree with Ms. Waters and I truly believe that Jane Eyre is not exactly the read for teenage girls.

The Oxford Murders by Guillermo Martínez

As you might guess from its title, this novel is set in Oxford and it’s about a series of murders. The narrator, a young Argentinian mathematician (whose name we don’t learn, only know that it contains a double ’l’ which makes it hard to pronounce for several people – so we might as well surmise that the name is „Guillermo”) arrives in Oxford on a one-year scholarship to study mathematical theory, but his attention to his studies soon flags for two reasons. One of these is that our hero quickly finds a girlfriend and spends his time with her instead of studying hard, and the other is that he becomes entangled in a strange murder case which seems to be the first in a series. The narrator then proceeds with the help of Arthur Seldom, the famous mathematician, to investigate the case and tries to find out how the clues left by the murderer, which are elements in a mathematical series, are connected with the individual cases in the murder series.

The most interesting feature of this novel is the narrator’s character and the role he plays in the novel. On the one hand, our hero is a typical cool guy, a Latin macho who is so charming and impetuous that he seems to be able to captivate the hearts of half the women in Oxford in a moment. Based on his age and his behavior, he – and not the considerably older Seldom – should be the supersleuth who solves the mysteries, but our young hero doesn’t seem to be a particularly apt detective, he never realizes anything on his own and it takes him quite a lot of time to find the solution. So if we read The Oxford Murders as a typical hero-and-his-sidekick story, we have to realize that the protagonist fits the role of the sidekick much better than the role of the hero.

This playful reversal is not the only interesting feature in the novel, however. As the author is a mathematician, the protagonists are mathematicians and it seems that the murderer has something to do with mathematics as well, it’s probably no surprise that the novel contains quite a lot of mathematical-philosophical ruminations. But don’t worry – they are understandable, enjoyable and thought-provoking, and they go only so deep as not to frighten away a reader like me who only likes to admire mathematics from a safe distance. Martínez doesn’t scare his readers with actual calculations and formulas but manages to show some of the beauty of mathematics.

And one more thing which makes this novel stand out from the mass of crime stories: the way Martínez depicts Oxford. He creates the atmosphere of the ancient, peaceful university town astonishingly well, and he easily makes the reader visualize a world where people don’t hang curtains on their windows and don’t lock their front doors because they have nothing to hide – but where they still live a life full of emotions and passions behind the facade of a calm, „typically English” way of life.

And after all, this clever but not too demanding novel is exactly about emotions and passions. Served with a lot of mathematics.