Last Sunday I spent over £100 in Heffers in Cambridge. I bought Wells and Woolf and Waugh and Wogan, and a bunch of other names from near the end of the alphabet. (Yes, I did just stand there pulling books off shelves until the pile got unreasonably high.) In the course of the week, I then knocked off three of them.
Can you imagine language, once clear-cut and exact, softening and guttering, losing shape and import, becoming mere lumps of sound again?
HG Wells’s The Island of Doctor Moreau is macabre. It’s pretty much the last word in macabre. It’s a literary response to late nineteenth-century science – its practice, its ethics, its risks. Winston Churchill would not speak until 1940 of “the abyss of a new dark age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science,” but the same fear suffuses Moreau.
It’s visceral and disturbing. Moreau’s description of himself as a religious man is sickening, perverse; his experiments are horrifying. The half-human life to which he condemns his subjects is more terrible than the anaesthetic-free vivisection itself. The island’s Beast Men are mockeries of what it is to be human, victims of Moreau’s insatiable and callous hubris. His indifference to the suffering he inflicts is somehow more chilling than the sadism of a torturer, because it twists what should be an admirable goal: the pursuit of scientific truth. Above all, though, it questions what it is to be human. “Are we not Men?”
Don’t expect a polemic, and don’t expect answers. The novel is simply a vivid way of putting the questions – about science, religion, humanity. And our narrator, at the end, is oddly reminiscent of Lemuel Gulliver after his return from the land of the Yahoos and Houyhnhnms:
I could not persuade myself that the men and women I met were not another, still passably human, Beast People, animals half-wrought into the outward image of human souls, and that they would presently begin to revert, to show first this bestial mark and then that. […] I look about me at my fellow men. And I go in fear. I see faces keen and bright, others dull and dangerous, others unsteady, insincere; none that have the calm authority of a reasonable soul. I feel as though the animal was surging up through them; that presently the degradation of the Islanders will be played over again on a larger scale. I know this is an illusion, that these seeming men and women are indeed men and women, men and women for ever, perfectly reasonable creatures, full of human desires and tender solicitude, emancipated from instinct, and the slaves of no fantastic Law – beings altogether different from the Beast Folk.
But as readers, we’re not so sure.
I have never read any Woolf before in my life. To the Lighthouse – a recommendation from work – was a revelation. It took me a little time to tune into her writing, and the colleague who recommended it said she thought it got more understandable and more enjoyable with every reading (like most Modernism, then). But even on a first reading, it was undeniably fantastic. What we’re not told is as important as what we are told. We’re told that Mrs Ramsay is beautiful. But we’re never told what she looks like. Her beauty is never described. Like a pebble dropped in the water, we can only know it by its effects – the sound that makes us turn, too late to see it; the ripples it makes, spreading across the entirety of a novel or a pond; the way it moves the twigs and leaves and people surrounding it.
Oddly enough, Mrs Ramsay herself often reminded me of Lotty Wilkins from The Enchanted April, who “sees” people marrying and being the Xs.
In addition to Mrs Ramsay, who have we got? Her husband, Mr Ramsay, an academic, temperamental and ever-conscious of the responsibilities that a father of eight has; Charles Tansley, who thinks he’s quite something, a bold nonconformer, but is really just a bit of a self-important prat, “making it his business to tell her that women can’t write, women can’t paint, not so much that he believed it, as that for some odd reason he wished it”; painter Lily Briscoe, who’s just excellent in pretty much every way (“Could she not […] if she wanted a little revenge take it by laughing at him?”).
Nan Shepherd’s The Weatherhouse reminded me of Wuthering Heights in setting, in that it’s steeped in and shaped by place and dialect – in this instance, Scottish.
It’s a very peculiar book. Set predominantly during the First World War, it’s about a place that the war hardly seems to touch. It’s about love and respectability and family, about selfishness and image and religion – “I think – I think I wanted it to be me that would save his soul, not just that his soul would be saved.” There’s a gloriously skipped love / reconciliation scene, showing exactly why such exchanges rarely need to be spelt out (I actually think even the Austenian “What did she say? Just what she ought, of course. A lady always does” is a little clumsy). And there are some excellent background anecdotes of autodidactism which put me in mind of Rose’s The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes.
That is a really very uninformative paragraph. I’m finding it hard to capture the book, though. Go where it takes you and see where you end up.
The Island of Doctor Moreau
Author HG Wells
Best line “It is when suffering finds a voice and sets our nerves quivering that this pity comes troubling us.”
Best character The Dog Man.
To the Lighthouse
Author Virginia Woolf
Best line “As if to be caught happy in a world of misery was for an honest man the most despicable of crimes.”
Best character Lily Briscoe. “How did one judge people, think of them? How did one add up this and that and conclude it was liking one felt, or disliking?”
Author Nan Shepherd
Best line “She carried a pocket Testament and read it on ostentatious occasions.”
Best character John Grey.