The Atrocity Exhibition by J G Ballard

The Atrocity Exhibition by J G BallardWhat is this? On reading it, one may well wonder. Once can ask oneself: what is it for? What is it trying to do? Who is it written for? What is the author about? Indeed: what is a novel for? If it is for playing a little game with one’s self, a game of no consequence, a game with the most abstruse rules and the vaguest of ends, a game that will have little or no impact on the reader, over and above prompting a host of questions the author has already answered elsewhere, or has since attempted to answer in notes to the novel book in this revised edition, but which will not be answerd in the novel itself, questions as rudimentary as what is happening, to as profound as why do I persist, at all, as a reader, or even as a sentient being… Well, to be fair, Ballard’s novel, in and of itself, doesn’t prompt these questions, they are prompted instead by the fuss and the blather that surround this novel, as well as the more experimental novels of this period in English: so in this experiment, what is being attempted? Rather than pushing the boundaries of fiction, if indeed there are any, Ballard has succeeded here in merely pushing the limits of what the reader will put up with. The reader will, I think, put up with a great deal, just so long as she’s let in on the joke. But the joke shouldn’t be on her.

 The commentary on this novel is surprisingly thin on the ground. But I didn’t look too far:

 “The Atrocity Exhibition is split up into sections, similar to the style of William S. Burroughs, a writer whom Ballard admired. Burroughs wrote the preface to the book. Though often called a “novel” by critics, such a definition is disputed, because all its parts had an independent life. “Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan,” for example, had three prior incarnations: in the International Times, in Ronald Reagan: The Magazine of Poetry, and as a freestanding booklet from Unicorn Bookshop, Brighton, all in 1968. All 15 pieces had been printed and some even reprinted before The Atrocity Exhibition was published.

“Each chapter or story is split up into smaller sections, some of them labelled by part of a continuing sentence; Ballard has called these sections “condensed novels”. There is no clear beginning or end to the book, and it does not follow any of the conventional novelistic standards: the protagonist (such as he is) changes name with each chapter or story (Talbert, Traven, Travis, Talbot, etc.), just as his role and his visions of the world around him seem to change constantly. (Ballard explains in the 1990 annotated edition that the character’s name was inspired by reclusive novelist B. Traven, whose identity is still not known with certainty.)

“The stories describe how the mass media landscape inadvertently invades and splinters the private mind of the individual. Suffering from a mental breakdown, the protagonist—a doctor at a mental hospital—surrenders to a world of psychosis. Traven tries to make sense of the many public events that dominate his world (the death of Marilyn Monroe, the Space Race, and especially the assassination of John F. Kennedy), by restaging them in ways that, to his psychotic mind, gives them a more personal meaning. It is never quite clear how much of the novel “really” takes place, and how much only occurs inside the protagonist’s own head. Characters whom he kills return again in later chapters (his wife seems to die several times). He travels with a Marilyn Monroe scorched by radiation burns, and with a bomber-pilot of whom he notes that “the planes of his face did not seem to intersect correctly.”

Inner and outer landscapes seem to merge (a Ballardian specialty), as the ultimate goal of the protagonist is to start World War III, “though not in any conventional sense” – a war that will be fought entirely within his own mind. Bodies and landscapes are constantly confused (“Dr. Nathan found himself looking at what seemed a dune top, but was in fact an immensely magnified portion of the skin area over the iliac crest”, “he found himself walking between the corroding breasts of the film-actress”, and “these cliff-towers revealed the first spinal landscapes”). At other times the protagonist seems to see the entire world, and life around him, as nothing more than a vast geometrical equation, such as when he observes a woman pacing around the apartment he has rented: “This … woman was a modulus … by multiplying her into the space/time of the apartment, he could obtain a valid unit for his own existence.””

The Atrocity Exhibition by J G Ballard 2The Atrocity Exhibition (1970)

In 1966, New Worlds, a British science fiction magazine edited by the writer Michael Moorcock, published a “condensed novel” by JG Ballard titled “The Assassination Weapon”. Moorcock was, he remembers, “delighted” to receive Ballard’s copy. “It was exactly what I’d been looking for and I demanded more. He complained I was making his eyes bleed, turning them out. For me it was exemplary, a flag to wave for authors and readers.” Later that same year New Worlds published “The Atrocity Exhibition”, which would become the title story of Ballard’s most notorious book.

In 1970 the American publisher Doubleday agreed to print an edition of Ballard’s condensed novels under that title. Marc Haefele, a young Doubleday editor at the time, remembers that a few weeks before publication, the company president was touring a warehouse in Virginia when the book was drawn to his attention. On the spot, he gave the order to pulp the entire print run. A British edition went ahead, but it wasn’t until 1972 that an American edition was published, under the title Love and Napalm: Export USA.

Whatever the guardians of public morality found so hard to stomach about The Atrocity Exhibition, it was surely more than dirty words and lèse-majesté. The novel presents fragments or avatars of a traumatised man, variously named Travis, Travers, Traven, Talbot or Talbert, who is conducting some kind of spun-out scientific experiment, which also takes the form of a lecture or media spectacle. Traven is both a researcher and an experimental subject or patient in an institution where white-coated medical science has become contaminated by other things: pornography, celebrity, the imminence of violent disaster. He is observed by one Dr Nathan and has a highly fetishised sexual relationship with Karen Novotny or Catherine Austin or Coma, names for a blank, damaged woman who often seems to be constructed from fragments of female celebrities – Jackie Kennedy, Elizabeth Taylor, Marilyn Monroe.

The Atrocity Exhibition visits terrible violence on these female celebrity bodies, in the form of plane and car crashes, nuclear fallout, disasters of all kinds. Ronald Reagan and the car-safety campaigner Ralph Nader get the same treatment. The book’s obscenity, the reason it still has the potential to shock, is a function of its objectivity. It is clinical when, for decency’s sake, it ought to feign emotion. It looks on our sacred treasures, our culture’s real sacred treasures – the imaginary bodies of famous people – and responds with all the violence and lust and revulsion that the healthy well-adjusted citizen suppresses. Decency is what separates rational economic actors, dutifully maximising their personal benefit, from the racaille, from scum. It is the source of order. Ballard’s fictional refusal of it was – and remains – a threat.

Each section of The Atrocity Exhibition is a flight over the same apocalyptic landscape, a landscape that is also the human body, observed with a clinician’s eye as it undergoes trauma, as it is anatomised, penetrated, cut and crushed and humiliated, scorched and fucked. This body-landscape is also an image of itself, a mass-media projection made up of Hollywood movies and pornography and news footage of the Vietnam war. Living in the shadow of disaster, Travers is an exemplary modern subject. The only difference between him and the average suburbanite is that he doesn’t disguise his abjection. He is a burnt-out case, a celebrity stalker, a kind of psychological crash‑test dummy with a detached professional interest in the brick wall that’s about to make contact with his skull. He may, of course, also be insane.

The Atrocity Exhibition is a melancholy book, fixated on something terrible that it can’t let go. Its landscape is both dead and accelerating, a windblown desert strewn with the wreckage of modernity that is at the same time a place of unbearable speed and intensity. In 1964 Ballard’s wife Mary died suddenly of pneumonia, leaving him to bring up their three children alone. In 2007, when he was already terminally ill, I interviewed him. “I was terribly wounded by my wife’s death,” he told me. “Leaving me with these very young children, I felt that a crime had been committed by nature against this young woman – and her children – and I was searching desperately for an explanation … To some extent The Atrocity Exhibition is an attempt to explain all the terrible violence that I saw around me in the early 60s. It wasn’t just the Kennedy assassination … I think I was trying to look for a kind of new logic that would explain all these events.”

The Atrocity Exhibition by J G Ballard 3The Atrocity Exhibition by J.G. Ballard – Reviewed by Ted Gioia

What slasher films are to cinema, J.G. Ballard’s books are to literature.  Violence is put on center stage, not for condemnation or edification, but for the sheer adrenalin

boost of ‘exhibiting’ severe damage inflicted on people and objects.  Yet the peculiarly repulsive flavor of Ballard’s narratives comes from their constant juxtaposition of violence and precision.  One of the most frequently used words in The Atrocity Exhibition is “geometry”—it appears every few paragraphs in this pseudo-novel. (Example: “In his face the diagram of bones formed a geometry of murder.”)  “Algebra” runs a close second.  For some reason, trigonometry and calculus get a reprieve.

And it’s not just math.  Ballard also draws on the jargon of engineering, technology

and medical science, usually in strange, new contexts, imparting an austere,

textbook coldness to the maimings, woundings and couplings that provide

most of the meager storyline in this controversial novel.


In his introduction, Ballard tells his readers that they do not need to read these fragments sequentially, and can even skip passages that don’t “catch their eye.”  In a normal narrative, such an approach would make it hard to follow the plot, but no worries, mate (as my Aussie friends say):  there is no plot in The Atrocity Exhibition,  although its deranged protagonist—who is perhaps a doctor at a mental hospital, or maybe a patient—has aspirations of setting one in motion.  His goals are ambiguous, and seem to range from harmless staged re-enactments of violent acts to the actual launch of World War III. But readers expecting a clear (or even vague) explanation of motive or intent, let alone the unfolding of a narrative, will be disappointed.  You could almost imagine Ballard removing all the paragraphs that moved the story forward, leaving us with the remainder as milestones on a road to nowhere.

Roland Barthes once explained that he liked to construct his books out of fragments because the surprise, excitement and jouissance of a new start imparted a sense of momentum and delight to his works.  The fragment, he believed, “implies immediate bliss: it is a phantasm of discourse, an opening of desire.”  Ballard relies on the same technique, but I suspect his excitement came from the sudden way these fragments could end—with a car crash, a corpse, a “wound profile.”  Instead of Barthes’s bliss, we get Ballard’s bloody mess.

Ballard borrows many of his most peculiar and irritating techniques from the Alain Robbe-Grillet playbook: killing off a character who returns inexplicably later in the book, changing a character’s name for no decipherable reason, returning to the same incidents over and over again as if plots could suffer from obsessive-compulsive disorders. If he aims to unsettle his readers—and with this author, that aim is a given, no?—he may have some justification for these maneuvers, but the very context undermines Ballard’s gambit. In a more structured work, such radical touches would be disturbing, but in the context of The Atrocity Exhibition they merely add to the general incoherence—just as the piling up of acts of violence serves to reduce rather than magnify their impact on the reader.

Of course, Ballard has his explanations, invariably placed in the accompanying notes to the text. The corpses, he assures, aren’t necessarily corpses, and so we shouldn’t be surprised if the dead rise again and deliver enigmatic dialogue in a later chapter. Their bloody, strewn bodies simply represent, in Ballard’s lexicon, “Alternate Deaths” which are staged by the protagonist (i.e. the fellow whose name changes from time to time in the novel). These “Alternate Deaths” —a new way of dying?—”take place partly in his own mind and partly in the external world,” Ballard helpfully explains.

Okay I get it now: the corpse is only ‘partly’ dead. Sorta like the proverbial gal who was ‘a little bit pregnant.’ And, hey, if radioactive material (another Ballard favorite) can have a half-life, shouldn’t people be allowed to have a half-death?  But even if the geometry is right here, I have doubts about the biology.  Call me old-fashioned, I’d still like to see a coroner’s report and find out what the presiding forensic pathologist makes of  this ‘Alternate Death’ business.

But the most characteristic sign of this author’s style is the insertion of some extravagant proclamation, comparison or metaphor that grabs our attention, but usually only through its idiocy.

Some examples:

“In the post-Warhol era a single gesture such as uncrossing one’s legs will have more significance than all the pages in War and Peace.”


“What our children have to fear are not the cars on the freeways of tomorrow, but our own pleasure in calculating the most elegant parameters of their deaths


“Christ’s crucifixion could be regarded as the first traffic accident.”


“One looks forward to the day when the General Theory of Relativity and the Principia will out-sell the Kama Sutra in back-street bookshops.”

I give Ballard credit for reaching for extreme effects, but the payoff never arrives.  His reports of “sexual congress with a rear exhaust assemble” sound like the kickoff for a third-rate dirty joke, as do his grotesque chapters on Ronald Reagan and John F. Kennedy—which caused so much controversy at the time of initial publication, but now just fall flat.  Reading “The Assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Considered as a Downhill Motor Race” one wonders who would find this amusing or interesting or exciting or even well-written. “The starting point was the Texas Book Depository, where all bets were placed on the Presidential race….Kennedy was disqualified at the hospital after taking a turn for the worse. Johnson now continued the race in the lead….”

The most inspired and perceptive writing in The Atrocity Exhibition comes in the notes to the “chapters,” added by the author in 1990, rather than from the text itself. Here Ballard offers up aperçus and aphorisms of a higher order.  He wonders whether future visitors from outer space will consider swimming pools as “votive offerings to the distant sea.” He enters into insightful discourses on celebrities—noting  that Mae West resembles a figment of Andy Warhol’s imagination (and suggesting that she anticipated the pop artist’s oeuvre), or that Richard Burton was typecast as Faustus since, in his later years, he had the look of a man “who had made the devil’s bargain and knew he had lost.”  And I can nod in appreciation at this writer’s lament: “it is still easier to describe the tango or the cockpit take-off procedure for a 747 than to recount in detail an act of love.” Then again, that was before the rear exhaust assembly arrived in the mail.

In these brief passages, Ballard makes me wish that he had taken a different path here. No, I don’t want a more coherent or sanitized version of this rambling story— frankly I don’t think The Atrocity Exhibition could be turned into a successful novel, even with the most radical Michael Jackson-type of reconstructive surgery —but rather would have delighted in a series of essays on the pop culture figures Ballard skewers in this book. Instead of giving us lame fantasies about Elizabeth Taylor and Marilyn Monroe, Ballard should have delivered a creative deconstruction akin to Barthes’s Mythologies. He had the capability and bravado to do that, perhaps to an unparallelled degree among his generation. But, as it stands, the best sections of The Atrocity Exhibition are those snippets where the authorial voice shifts in the direction of non-fiction.

I’ve read many novels over the years, including more than a few that have been banned and burned by outraged citizens, but The Atrocity Exhibition was the only one that made me want to wash my hands after finishing it. I purchased my dog-eared copy used through the mail – the book is out-of-print (are you surprised?) and only second-hand paperbacks were available—but I often found myself wondering what kind of creepy person had owned this deliberately repulsive book before me. Sad to say, future owners will probably wonder the same about me, and go in turn to wash their hands.

But the person who, no matter how much scrubbing and rubbing, won’t be able to wash off responsibility for this book is Mr. Ballard himself. So much more the pity.  A good writer, and sometimes a great one, he did neither his readers nor his own reputation any favors with this grotesquely sensationalistic volume.  An Atrocity Exhibition?  Yes, well at least it’s aptly named.

The Riverside Quarterly, Vol 6, No 3, August 1975

The Atrocity Exhibition by J G Ballard 4The Atrocity Exhibition by Nick Perry and Roy Wilkie (University of Strathclyde)

In 1970 Ballard published in the United Kingdom The Atrocity Exhibition (Jonathan Cape, London). We are informed that sections of the book had already appeared in such journals as Ambit, Encounter, ICA Eventsheet, International Times and Transatlantic Review, which would at least indicate that Ballard was seeking a wider, or different, audience for his short stories. Secondly, the idiosyncratic style Ballard was developing in The Terminal Beach and The Assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Considered as a Downhill Motor Race is now confirmed into a format where paragraphs are titled, incidents described apparently at random, and characters behave in strange ways without being strongly located. And whereas The Wind from Nowhere, The Drowned World, and The Crystal World have a conventional layout, one can, with the advantage of hindsight, identify the beginnings of this formal innovation in The Drought (The Burning World, in the U.S. and Canada). Its 42 chapters provide a clear contrast to the other novels, which are of similar length but consist of 8, 15, and 14 chapters respectively. Ballard himself has asserted his dissatisfaction with “linear systems of narrative”. In a Third Programme interview with George MacBeth, reprinted in The New S.F. (London: Hutchinson, 1969), he said:

“I’d been using in my novels and in most of my short stories a conventional kind of linear narrative, but I found that the action and events of the novels in particular were breaking down as I wrote them, that the characterisation, the sequence of events, were beginning to crystallise out into a series of shorter and shorter images and situations… What I feel I’ve done in these pieces of mine is to rediscover the present for myself — I feel that one needs a non-linear technique, simply because our lives today are not conducted in linear terms. They are much more quantified, a whole stream of random events is taking place.” (p. 46)

Thirdly, Ballard had by 1970 acquired enough of a literary reputation to be the subject of “one-off” reviews in the columns of the “heavy” British Sunday papers and the “quality” dailies. Hitherto, with the creditable exception of Kingsley Amis’ appraisal of The Drowned World he had, like all other science-fiction authors, been reviewed along with a bundle of five or six other books. Science-fiction authors continue to be reviewed in batches but Ballard’s publication by Encounter, Ambit, and Transatlantic Review appeared to be his rite de passage into the ranks of the literati.

The first nine “stories” in this collection convey a feeling of continuity –in fact, read like this and not as individual items in different magazines and journals, they almost suggest notes for a novel — by referring to characters, incidents, events, scenes, and images that appear and reappear. The central character is variously named Traven, Talbot, Tallis, Trabert, Travis, Talbert, Travers. (Some of these names had appeared in Ballard’s previously published work.) At the interview quoted earlier, Ballard commented:

“Yes, in effect they’re the same character, but their role in the stories is not to be characters in the sense that Scobie, let’s say, or any other character in the retrospective novel is a character, an identifiable human being rather like those we recognize among our friends, acquaintances, and so on.” (P. 47)

But, of course, in this case, informing us of what the character is not, in not very helpful in explaining in what sense they are characters.

“They make up a composite portrait of this man’s identity. in this story I was examining the particular role that a twentieth-century Messiah might take, in the context of mid-twentieth century life, and I feel that he would reappear in a whole series of aspects and relationships, touching an enormous range of events; that he wouldn’t have a single identity, in the sense that Jesus had — he would have a whole multiplex of contacts with various points.” (P. 49)

The central character, then, appears in many of these short stories in a composite role, and one might make a case for saying that the continual change in his name reflects his persisting uncertainties about his own identity.1 In the title story he appears as a scientist. In the second story, “The University of Death,” he is a lecturer who is suffering extreme stress and anxiety. In “The Assassination Weapon” he is a former H-bomber pilot. In “You: Coma: Marilyn Monroe” he is someone recovering from a mental breakdown. In “Notes from a Mental Breakdown” he is connected with space flights. In “The Great American Nude” he again appears as an instructor in an institute. In “The Summer Cannibals” no reference is made to any occupation. In “Tolerances of the Human Face” he is again referred to as working in the institute.

The activities of this central character constitute the core of the book, and scattered throughout the text are interpretations of his behavior. For example:

Talbot’s belief — and this is confirmed by the logic of the scenario — is that automobile crashes play very different roles from the ones we assign them. Apart from its ontological function, redefining the elements of space and time in terms of our most potent consumer durable, the car crash may be perceived unconsciously as a fertilizing rather than a destructive event — a liberation of sexual energy — mediating the sexuality of those who have died with an intensity impossible in any other form: James Dean and Miss Mansfield, Camus and the late President. (p. 29)

In the world that Ballard’s hero explores nothing is quite what it seems. For Travis, his wife and the patients at the hospital are “as unreal as the war the film companies had restarted in Vietnam” (p. 11). When a psychiatrist can claim that “the fact that an event has taken place is no proof of its valid occurrence” (p. 46) what is being challenged is our conventional notions of what constitutes a fact, an event, proof and validity. This is confirmed in the next chapter (story?) when the psychiatrist steps down from a silent helicopter, and begins to speak to Tallis:

His mouth worked silently, eyes fixed on Tallis. He stopped and then began again with an effort, lips and jaw moving in exaggerated spasms as if he were trying to extricate some gumlike residue from his teeth. After several intervals, when he had failed to make a single audible sound, he turned and went back to the helicopter. Without any noise it took off into the sky. (P. 55)

A few pages later an exchange between a girl called Coma and Tallis includes the line, “I saw the helicopter this morning — it didn’t land” (P. 58). Coma’s matter-of-fact acceptance of a woman’s dead body in the flat is acknowledged only by a glance at Tallis. His justification for the killing is his claim that “She was standing in the angle between the walls” (P. 58) and thus was “an unbearable intrusion into the time geometry of the room” (P. 57) 2. Such scenes and such prose are patently vulnerable to parody, but this silent helicopter and unconsummated conversation, like a film without the soundtrack, this matter-of-fact acceptance of a strange abstracted murder, are representative of the proliferation of bizarre scenes and events in The Atrocity Exhibition. Whereas in Ballard’s earlier work the questionable status of conventional notions of reality was often a conclusion to be drawn, it here becomes a self-evident starting point, an accepted “fact” rather than an emergent property.

In the relationship between subject and object, between the knower and what he knows, Ballard’s attention is on the subjective, on the knower. What he implies is that when advertising and the visual media in some meaningful sense are the world — then the concomitant multiplicity of images provides a challenge to conventional notions of an objective reality that has clear-cut and tangible attributes. Both the emphasis on the visual media and The Atrocity Exhibition’s format indicate a tutelary nod in the direction of McLuhan, but a McLuhan transformed by a metaphysic that is peculiarly Ballard’s.

For him the importance of the media is that they make possible a meeting and a fusion between the private fantasy and the public event — ”a coincidence between inner and outer landscapes.” The media transform the meaning of public events in ways that participants or onlookers might not recognize — this much has become a commonplace. Ballard’s claim is that the private fantasy, the subjective, is not so much transformed as vindicated by the media. The disapprobation conventionally attached to subjectivism is thus misconceived, being predicated upon an unduly delimited conception of the objective for coping with the world in which we live. Although the book explores landscapes quite different from the steaming jungles and salt flats of his previous work, Ballard’s epistemology remains constant,

In The Drowned World Kerans has been appalled by the re-emergence of the drowned city, a horror given voice by Beatrice’s plaintive “It’s like some imaginary city of Hell” (p. 121). Kerans had flooded the lagoon in an effort to reconcile his “inner” mental state with the external environment. Although Kerens inhabited a post-disaster planet and an imaginary future, whereas Travis lives in a pre-disaster world and a fictional present (however interpreted), Ballard’s latest hero is driven by the same compulsions. His situation is identified in italics:

In the suburbs of Hell Travis walked in the flaring lights of the petrochemical plants. The ruins of abandoned cinemas stood at the street corners, faded hoardings facing them across the empty streets.” (P. 17)

Whereas the reappearance of London’s long submerged streets was a temporary phenomenon, Travis’ suburbs of Hell prove much more intransigent. Nature (and a few strategically placed sticks of dynamite) was on the side of Kerans. Travis has no such powerful ally, and is thus dependent upon the resources he can muster from within himself. A synopsis of the “psychologic” that this involves reads as follows:

1) The distinction between what is real and what is fictional in the outside world has broken down.

2) Owing to the absurdity of the world, the absence of fixed determinate values, the only relevant measure of meaning is subjective conviction. Traven is committed to a quest for some ontological fortress that can provide him with the certitude that the world cannot give.

3) He finds that certitude in the celebration of personal violence and sexual perversity.

 4) Although the external world does not make sense, sense can be wrung from it by the selection and combination of apparently unrelated items in strange ways that confirm and exemplify Traven’s subjective certainties. The artifacts, imagery and public events of the external world thus become the raw materials from which Traven constructs a private world.

 5) The continuing recalcitrance of the external world, (including other people), its (and their) refusal to yield to such inner logic both disturbs Traven and provides his guide for conduct. Inner and outer worlds must be reconciled, and only the outer world can be modified.

What the reader is offered, therefore, is a grand tour around the central character’s obsessions, expressed in what is almost a private code, a vocabulary of images organised in obscure combinations. Traven’s efforts to make sense of the world find their special expression in the creation of “scenarios.” The particular meaning assigned to that term by Herman Kahn and his associates no doubt accounts for its employment:

A scenario results from an attempt to describe in more or less detail some hypothetical sequence of events. Scenarios can emphasize different aspects of “future history”.3

Ballard is fond of such associations. It also suggests Genet. The sexual scenarios that are a specialty of the brothel in The Balcony have their counterpart in the world outside its walls. The private fantasies of Madam Irma’s patrons, their masquerades as bishop, general, or judge are an innocuous mirror of public life — the “perversions” of the latter are much more disturbing, its illusions sustained at much greater cost. For Genet as for Ballard the meaning of public events, the trappings of responsibility must be re-evaluated and their connexion with private fantasies made manifest. Ballard’s scenarios consist of a collage of events, objects, media images, and characters, with the staging of car-crashes as the characteristic method of apocalyptic unification. The extent to which Ballard’s own sympathies lie with his central character is indicated by his readiness to act the part of Traven in a short film called Crash that the BBC screened in early 1971; during 1970 he had a sculpture exhibition at the London New Arts Laboratory Gallery on the theme of crashed cars; during 1969 he paid for a series of advertisements in Ambit that were similar to those which Trabert supposedly places in Vogue and Paris Match (p. 66). There was no doubt more than a hint Dali-style publicity involved in this latter enterprise (Ballard has elsewhere claimed that the painter is a genius), but the links between author and character are willingly displayed.

Throughout most of the stories is a psychiatrist Dr. Nathan, whose role is an interpretative one. Ballard said of him In the MacBeth interview:

“He appears as a psychiatrist. He relates to the other psychiatrists in the other stories, who serve the role of analysing the events of the narrative from the point of view of the clinical implications.” (p. 47)

By implication, Ballard is suggesting that Nathan’s analysis is correct — at least in clinical terms. He is, however, a character about whom we are told very little, and yet references to his smoking habits occur time and time again. His “gold-tipped” taste is pointed out on at least six different occasions (pp. 9, 25, 65, 73, 104, 117) and further references to his smoking supplement these (pp 13, 34, 42, 65, 107, 114). When the stories were separately published this kind of thing wasn’t evident. When they are collected together and published as a novel it looks like an opportunity lost. If one wished to be coy about it, one could list the quotations, add a cigarette case and suggest that they make up a composite portrait of the psychiatrist’s identity.

Certainly the irony of The Atrocity Exhibition is the shear sameness of it all. Nathan is not a well thought-out figure; his role is ambiguous and this emerges less as a function of the attempt to build a character, than of Ballard’s unwillingness to pass up an opportunity to plead Traven’s point of view. From the outset Nathan declares that he doubts whether the distinction between the doctor and patient is valid any longer (p. 13), but in the early sections of the book his interpretations of Travis’ behavior do maintain a measure of academic detachment and disassociation (see, for example, “In Death, Yes” (P. 34) and “Einstein” (P. 48)). In the fourth chapter/story he makes an effort to communicate with Tallis, an effort that is singularly unsuccessful (as the quotation from p. 55 given above indicates). But now he understands a little better, sees the world more nearly through Tallis’ own eyes (for example, p. 65). Thus after a scenario has been staged, “Dr. Nathan decided not to speak to him. His own identity would seem little more than a summary of postures, the geometry of an accusation” (p. 80). By the time we have reached the eighth chapter/story Nathan considers Traven’s “problem” is everyone’s problem, and appears to approve of, or at least acquiesce to his solution. Thus:

“Traven’s problem is how to come to terms with the violence that has pursued his life — not merely the violence of accident and bereavement, or the horrors of war, but the biomorphic horror of our own bodies, the awkward geometry of the postures we assume. Traven has at last realized that the real significance of these acts of violence lies elsewhere, in what we might term ‘the death of affect.’ Consider all our most real and tender pleasures – in the excitements of pain and mutilation; in sex as the perfect arena, like a culture bed of sterile pus, for all the veronicas of our own perversions, in voyeurism and self-disgust, in our moral freedom to pursue our own psychopathologies as a game, and in our ever greater powers of abstraction.” (p. 104)

Nathan’s subsequent argument that the Vietnam war does not repel us but in fact “appeals by virtue of its complex of polyperverse acts” (p. 107) and should, therefore, be recognised as socially beneficial, is an extension of this same theme.

Finally, chapters/stories 10, 11, 12, and 14 in the novel/collection express such ideas without the presence of a “character” at all. They employ the language of the scientific report, but each paragraph is prefigured by a phrase that refers to some aspect of Traven’s fantasies or fears. Each chapter is about three or four pages long, with Traven’s fantasies making up just one or at most two sentences. A typical paragraph begins:

The optimum auto disaster. Panels consisting of drive-in theatre personnel, students and middle-income housewives were encouraged to devise the optimum auto-disaster. A wide choice of impact modes was available, including roll-over, roll-over followed by head-on collision, multiple pile-ups and motorcade attacks. The choice of death postures included (1) normal driving position (2) sleep, rear seat (3) acts of intercourse, by both driver and passenger (4) severe anginal spasm… (pp. 138-9)

Harold Rosenberg provides a somewhat relevant comment:

America masks its terrors behind patterns of fact. Here the intolerable discloses its presence not in the grimaces of comedy or tragedy but in the bland citations of the scientific report. Since The War no novel or play has given body to the larger disturbances of the American consciousness. Literature, one hears, is dead, or too enfeebled to risk arduous adventures. Nevertheless, documents keep appearing that touch upon apprehensions equal to any in the history of men. Computations of the daily incidence of outlawed sex in America’s bedrooms; records of scientific sadism practiced by governments and their programmes to transform the will of individuals; estimates by atomic technicians of the flimsiness of the earth and of the natural shape of the human body. When phenomena of this order are explored in a work of the imagination, its author tends to be exiled to the colony of “morbid intellectuals.” Given the form of the report or survey, and authorized by the rhetoric of the professions, the most alarming topics overcome the handicap of their profundity and enter into the conversation of solid men of affairs.4

Ballard has recognised this tendency and is prepared to comment on it — ”for Traven,” comments Nathan, “science is the ultimate pornography” (p. 48) — for he shapes the authoritative character of such reports to his own purposes. By interweaving this style of narrative with the expression of Traven’s subjective concerns, Ballard is insisting that Traven is the “representative” for psychological processes which are characteristic of our time. For the reports claim to refer to the responses of, amongst others, mental patients, witnesses of the Kennedy assassination, soldiers, housewives, students, and psychotic children. Typically, they are written so as to confirm Dr. Nathan’s early assertion that the distinction between doctor and patient, between sane and insane, is no longer valid (p. 13) and his final claim that Traven is the forerunner of many others (p. 107). At times the language of the reports is almost interchangeable with what we have come to expect of Nathan in the first chapters. For example (P. 33):

These studies confirm that it is only in terms of a psychosexual module such as provided by the Vietnam war that the United States public can enter into a relationship with the world generally characterised by the term “love.”

Whether Nathan is supposed to be their author may appear to be largely idle speculation — except that it would imply that the book is more of a unity than its form suggests. Perhaps the central character is supposed to have written them, for Nathan does mention “Talbot’s deliberate self-involvement in the narrative of the scenario” (p. 27) but then references to Nathan’s report writing also occur on several occasions (for example, p. 15 and p. 45).

A number of women appear and reappear throughout the book. The central character has a wife, Margaret, who appears in three of the stories; there is a colleague of Nathan’s who appears in six of them, four times as Catherine Austin, once as Claire Austin and once as Elizabeth Austin. Most frequent of all is Karen Novotny — she is in seven. None of them is to be identified by any distinguishable physical characteristics, although the implication is that they are all reasonably attractive. They are, however, distinguished by the roles they play, and by their place in the fantasies of the central character. Margaret Traven emerges as a conventional wife caught up in a situation that she does not understand, initially unable to contact her husband and subsequently unable to communicate with him, irritated and confused by both Nathan (p. 68) and one Captain Webster whose role appears to be something akin to providing a watching brief on the whole business for the sake of the C.I.A.

Dr. Austin is Traven’s lover; he has an “undecided affair” with her (p. 11) in which she has the status of an object “an obscene masturbatory appliance” (p. 24). But she is also a doctor, with the detachment that such an occupation implies, as well as having become the lover of Koester, a research student (cf. p. 79). (Koester disturbs Traven not only because he is Catherine’s lover, but also because he is creating “scenarios” of his own — in particular, a kind of 20th century crucifixion in which Traven has the leading part. Koester is a research assistant who has learned well.)

If Margaret represents the wife who doesn’t understand, and Catherine Austin an unfaithful academic mistress, Karen Novotny, the third woman of these stories, represents the sensual and the erotic.

Talbot followed her about the apartment drawing chalk outlines on the floor around her chair, around the cups and utensils on the breakfast table, as she drank her coffee, and lastly around herself:

 (1) sitting, in the posture of Rodin’s “Thinker,” on the edge of the bidet, (2) watching from the balcony as she waited for Koester to catch up with them again, (3) making love to Talbot on the bed. He worked silently at the chalk outlines, now and then rearranging her limbs.” (P. 32)

Their period in the apartment together had been one of almost narcotic domesticity. In the planes of her body, in the contours of her breasts and thighs, he seemed to mimetize all his dreams and obsessions.” (p. 64)

Typically, it is Karen who picks him up in an empty hotel cinema after a conference on space medicine, or on a motorway, or at a beach planetarium, or on top of a car park, or at, a demonstration cinema on facial surgery.

In identifying what these three women “represent,” we must bear in mind one point. It is what they represent to the central character that is important, and their places in his pattern of obsession. All of them are “killed” at least once, Karen Novotny most frequently of all, and both these deaths and the curious way in which their sexual activities are described are purportedly explicable in terms of Traven’s efforts to make sense of the world — or more precisely his world. For example:

Amatory elements: nil. The act of love became a vector in an applied geometry. (P- 75)

This is explained by Nathan thus:

“Talbot has accepted in absolute terms the logic of sexual union. For him all junctions, whether of our own soft biologies or the hard geometries of these walls and ceilings are equivalent to one another. What Talbert is searching for is the primary act of intercourse, the first apposition of the dimensions of time and space.” (p. 78)

There are a few other “characters’ besides those mentioned, Kline, Coma, and Xero, for example — a trinity who appear to be wholly the product of Traven’s fantasies. They usually appear together and enjoy no objective status independent of the central character’s perception, creatures of the imagination employed in, and the expressions of, his strange purposes:

A watching Trinity. Personae of the unconscious: Xero: run hot with a million programmes, this terrifying figure seemed to Trabert like a vast neural switchboard… Coma; this beautiful but mute young woman, madonna of the time-ways, surveyed Trabert with maternal eyes.

 Kline: “Why must we await, and fear, a disaster in space in order to understand our own time? – Matta” (p. 64)

The Atrocity Exhibition is by any standard a strange book but it does not represent a total break with his previous work. The form is different and the specific elements that now make up the landscape are technological much more often than they are natural — Ballard is here concerned to come to terms with technology. The imaginary natural landscapes of the future have become the artificial landscapes of the present. And yet what is the “real” continues to be problematic. As Karen Novotny explains, “We’re all in the movies.”

The Atrocity Exhibition by J G Ballard 5Hmmmmmm. It’s hard to know what to make of a work of fiction that doesn’t work as fiction. Indeed, one that tires hard not to, constantly undermining itself whenever it even fleetingly gets off the ground. In no other area of human enterprise, outside of art, is it considered appropriate, useful or in any way laudable, to undermine what you’re doing as you go about it. An athlete inducing a heart attack in himself, a soldier shooting himself, a builder smashing bricks on his head (all apposite metaphors for this work) but in art it’s what is done, what needs to be done, and what is done again and again, in more and more sustained and imaginative ways. Could another work of fiction as bad (where “bad” means bad, i.e. doesn’t work at all) as this be written?

 Of course it could. But are the bland pointless fictions that proliferate even worse? And the cliché-dredging, over sentimental, trite and shallow novels that bulge out of newsagents on Railway Station concourses and Airport terminals, are these a bigger problem than the pointless splurges of J G Ballard? Yes. But when the cutting edge of fiction is not only blunt, but soggy, which way goes the rest?

 If there are experiments to be done, who is to do them? How are they to be done? How should failure be dealt with? And what would success look like?

 Experiment indeed!


Mr A


Villette by Charlotte Bronte

“Who are you Miss Snowe? …are you anybody?”

Villette by Charlotte Bronte 

In Dr Sally Minogue’s excellent introduction to the new Wordsworth Classics Edition, the reader can get a good sense of the huge achievement of this novel, if only an acknowledgement of Bronte’s creation of the…

 “sense of the abyss yawning below the social inanities of existence.”

And “these qualities made many of Bronte’s contemporaries uncomfortable – especially the men.” Such is the importance of Bronte’s 1853 work. Critics of the time found it “almost intolerably painful’” and a modern reader can easily understand why.

Minogue writes of first reading Villette as experience of her “reaching back to Bronte’s century – and Bronte reached forward to mine.”

The reader is presented with so many features of modern / twentieth century fiction: the unreliable narrator, self-reflexive narrative, the participant reader and the lack of closure – it’s no wonder that the contemporary reader was thrown into a bit of a spin. Yet it is the depth of feeling at the heart of the novel – the protagonist’s profound journey – that most troubles and captures the reader:

“Lucy’s distress is internal, mental, spiritual; at times her mental vertigo verges on the ontological, questioning the very nature of self in relation to existence.”

Indeed, there are several parts of the book, in each volume, that challenge the reader’s empathy and grasp of the protagonist’s plight. Minogue writes:

“The [Long Vacation] chapter is the most heavily revised of Volume One in manuscript, and Bronte continued to refine it at proof stage. A sustained, almost pitiless account of a passage of despair, it has no equal in its own century, and few in our own – to which it speaks so fully.”

And then, soon afterwards, Lucy Snowe “willy-nilly engages with existence again”.

Dr Minogue does concede that though “Bronte’s metaphors can jar the modern reader, and occasionally obscure more than they reveal, at their best they carry their full symbolic freight without sacrificing anything of their realism.”

Minogue looks briefly at the autobiographical aspects of the novel, but deals with them scantily: “Whatever her personal investment in the novel, Bronte’s larger aim was to speak, not of her particular life, but of life in general, perhaps of aspects of life she was particularly fitted through her experiences to understand, aspects not commonly dealt with in the fiction of her day.”

Bronte, in response to criticism that the novel lacked excitement she wrote that “the regular novel reader” may not find “the colours dashed onto the canvas with the proper amount of daring” but claims for her work that “…my palette affords no brighter tints; were I to attempt to deepen the reds, or burnish the yellows, I should but botch.”

Dr Minogue considers that “proud sense of self for which Lucy has struggled through all the pain of the Long Vacation, a selfhood which may have emerged from the specifics of her social and economic isolation, but which seems to her, and indeed to the reader, to go deeper than economics, history or culture.”

Minogue writes very well on how this novel works: “The fear of invisibility which pervades the creation of Lucy, most acutely described when Lucy encounters ‘a silly pause, a wordless silence, a long blank of oblivion… seven weeks as bare as seven sheets of blank paper’ is a fear of non-existence itself, when existence seems to depend on the recognition of others. Lucy combats this by deliberately making herself less visible, and creating herself almost entirely within. Only we as readers are privy to that creation, and know its instability and frailty, but also its profound strength.”

Minogue finally contends that “Kate Millet gives probably the earliest feminist account, and still one of the finest… acutely characterising it as:

 ‘too subversive to be popular.”

Yes, it is a novel wholly imbued with the urgent and burning need of the narrator, the necessity to remain “always Lucy Snowe.” Which is what makes the novel in one way so modern, and in others, so of its time. The ending, I found to be as troubling as whole tracts where, as a reader, you don’t know where you are, or where you are going, which is an odd experience in reading a novel of this era. I felt wrong-footed and challenged on so many pages, as though I were reading a much more contemporary work, as well as a work that wore its danger and its challenge much more on its sleeve.

 A great novel. Perhaps the best Bronte novel?

Mr A










The Madwoman in the Attic

mad woman in the atticThe Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination is a 1979 book by Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, in which Gilbert and Gubar examine Victorian literature from a feminist perspective. Gilbert and Gubar draw their title from Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, in which Rochester’s wife (née Bertha Mason) is kept secretly locked in an attic apartment by her husband.

The text specifically examines Jane Austen, Mary Shelley, Charlotte and Emily Brontë, George Eliot, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Christina Rossetti and Emily Dickinson.

In the work, Gilbert and Gubar examine the notion that women writers of the nineteenth century were confined in their writing to make their female characters either embody the “angel” or the “monster.” This struggle stemmed from male writers’ tendencies to categorize female characters as either pure, angelic women or rebellious, unkempt madwomen. In their argument Gilbert and Gubar point to Virginia Woolf, who says women writers must “kill the aesthetic ideal through which they themselves have been ‘killed’ into art”. While it may be easy to construe that feminist writers embody the “madwoman” or “monster,” Gilbert and Gubar stress the importance of killing off both figures because neither accurately represents women or women writers. Instead, Gilbert and Gubar urge female writers to strive for autonomous self-definition beyond this dichotomy, which they see as imposed by a reductionist patriarchal view of women’s roles.

They also explore the way women were inhibited in their writing by what they called the Anxiety of Authorship – the lack of legitimating role-models for the nineteenth-century woman writer.[3] One result was what they identified as the literary palimpsest or double-voiced text – one with a feminist subtext hidden within a more conventional narrative, so that “surface designs conceal or obscure deeper, less socially acceptable levels of meaning”.[4]

Over 700 pages long, the work is an early landmark in feminist literary criticism. While some would argue that it has become outdated, and that the metaphoric framework outlined by Gilbert and Gubar is limiting, essentialist, and insufficiently aware of the varying individual circumstances, it remains an important and influential (if not foundational) feminist work.[7]

Originally published in 1979, the book is now in its second edition (2000), the first from Yale University and second from Yale Nota Bene press.

…from… The Mad Woman in the Attic: Jane Austen’s Cover Story and Its Secret Agents


Austen’s propriety is most apparent in the overt lesson she sets out to teach in all of her mature novels. Aware that male superiority is far more than a fiction, she always defers to the economic, social, and political power of men as she dramatizes how and why female survival depends on gaining male approval and protection. All the heroines who reject inadequate fathers are engaged in a search for better, more sensitive men who are, nevertheless, still the representatives of authority. As in Northanger Abbey, the happy ending of an Austen novel occurs when the girl becomes a daughter to her husband, an older and wiser man who has been her teacher and her advisor, whose house can provide her with shelter and sustenance and at least derived status, reflected glory. Whether it be parsonage or ancestral mansion, the man’s house is where the heroine can retreat from both her parents’ inadequacies and the perils of the outside world: like Henry Tilney’s Woodston, Delaford, Pemberley, Donwell, and Thornton Lacy are spacious, beautiful places almost always supplied with the loveliest fruit trees and the prettiest prospects. Whereas becoming a man means proving or testing oneself or earning a vocation, becoming a woman means relinquishing achievement and accommodating oneself to men and the spaces they provide.

Dramatizing the necessity of female submission for female survival, Austen’s story is especially flattering to male readers because it describes the taming not just of any woman but specifically of a rebellious, imaginative girl who is amorously mastered by a sensible man. No less than the blotter literally held over the manuscript on her writing desk, Austen’s cover story of the necessity for silence and submission reinforces women’s subordinate position in patriarchal culture. Interestingly, what common law called “coverture” at this time actually defined the married woman’s status as suspended or “covered”: “the very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage,” wrote Sir William Blackstone, “or at least is incorporated and consolidated into that of the husband : under whose wing, protection and cover, she performs everything.” The happiest ending envisioned by Austen, at least until her very last novel, accepts the necessity of protection and cover for heroines who wish to perform anything at all.

At the same time, however, we shall see that Austen herself “performs everything” under this cover story. As Virginia Woolf noted, for all her “infallible discretion,” Austen always stimulates her readers “to supply what is not there.” A story as sexist as that of the taming of the shrew, for example, provides her with a “blotter” or socially acceptable cover for expressing her own self-division. Undoubtedly a useful acknowledgment of her own ladylike submission and her acquiescence to masculine values, this plot also allows Austen to consider her own anxiety about female assertion and expression, to dramatize her doubts about the possibility of being both a woman and a writer. She describes both her own dilemma and, by extension, that of all women who experience themselves as divided, caught in the contradiction between their status as human beings and their vocation as females.

The impropriety of female creativity first emerges as a problem in Lady Susan, where Austen seems divided between her delight in the vitality of a talented libertine lady and her simultaneous rejection of the sexuality and selfishness of her heroine’s plots. In this first version of the taming of the shrew, Austen exposes the wicked wilfulness of Lady Susan, who gets her own way because of her “artful” (Letters 4, 13, and 17), “bewitching powers” (Letter 4), powers intimately related to her “clever” and “happy command of language” (Letter 8). Using “deep arts,” Lady Susan always has a “design” (Letter 4) or “artifice” that testifies to her great “talent” (Letters 16 and 36) as a “Mistress of Deceit” (Letter 23) who knows how to play a number of parts quite convincingly. She is the first of a series of heroines, of varying degrees of attractiveness, whose lively wit and energetic imagination make them both fascinating and frightening to their creator.

Several critics have explored how Lady Susan’s London ways are contrasted to her daughter’s love of the country, how the mother’s talkative liveliness and sexuality are balanced against the daughter’s silence and chastity, how art is opposed to nature. But, if Lady Susan is energetic in her pursuit of pleasure, her daughter is quite vapid and weak; indeed, she seems far more socialized into passivity than a fit representative of nature would be. Actually she is only necessary to emphasize Lady Susan’s unattractiveness — her cruelty to her daughter — which can best be viewed as Austen’s reflex to suppress her interest in such wilful sorts of women. For the relationship between Lady Susan and Frederica is not unlike that between the crafty Queen and her angelic step daughter, Snow White: Lady Susan seems almost obsessed with hatred of her daughter, who represents an extension of her own self, a projection of her own inescapable femininity which she tries to destroy or transcend even at the risk of the social ostracism she must inevitably incur at the end of the novel. These two, mother and daughter, reappear transformed in the mature novels into sisters, sometimes because Austen wishes to consider how they embody available options that are in some ways equally attractive yet mutually exclusive, sometimes because she seeks to illustrate how these two divided aspects of the self can be integrated.

In Sense and Sensibility (181 1), as most readers of the novel have noted, Marianne Dashwood’s sensibility links her to the Romantic imagination. Repeatedly described as fanciful, imaginative, emotionally responsive, and receptive to the natural beauty of trees and the aesthetic beauties of Cowper, Marianne is extremely sensitive to language, repelled by clichés, and impatient with the polite lies of civility. Although quite different from Lady Susan, she too allows her lively affections to involve her in an improper amorous involvement, and her indiscreet behaviour is contrasted with that of her sister Elinor, who is silent, reserved, and eminently proper. If the imagination is linked with Machiavellian evil in Lady Susan, it is closely associated with self-destruction in Sense and Sensibility: when Elinor and Marianne have to confront the same painful situation — betrayal by the men they deemed future husbands — Elinor’s stoical self-restraint is the strength born of her good sense while Marianne’s indulgence in sensibility almost causes her own death, the unfettered play of her imagination seeming to result in a terrible fever that represents how imaginative women are infected and sickened by their dreams.

Marianne’s youthful enthusiasm is very attractive, and the reader, like Colonel Brandon, is tempted to find “something so amiable in the prejudices of a young mind, that one is sorry to see them give way to the reception of more general opinions” (I, chap. 11). But give way they apparently must and evidently do. Eagerness of fancy is a passion like any other, perhaps more imprudent because it is not recognized as such. As delightful as it might first seem, moreover, it is always shown to be a sign of immaturity, of a refusal to submit. Finally this is unbecoming and unproductive in women, who must exert their inner resources for pliancy, elasticity of spirit, and accommodation. Sense and Sensibility is an especially painful novel to read because Austen herself seems caught between her attraction to Marianne’s sincerity and spontaneity, while at the same identifying with the civil falsehoods and the reserved, polite silences of Elinor, whose art is fittingly portrayed as the painting of screens.

Pride and Prejudice (1813) continues to associate the perils of the imagination with the pitfalls of selfhood, sexuality, and assertion. Elizabeth Bennet is her father’s favourite daughter because she has inherited his wit. She is talkative, satirical, quick at interpreting appearances and articulating her judgments, and so she too is contrasted to a sensible silent sister, Jane, who is quiet, unwilling to express her needs or desires, supportive of all and critical of none. While moral Jane remains an invalid, captive at the Bingleys, her satirical sister Elizabeth walks two miles along muddy roads to help nurse her. While Jane visits the Gardners only to remain inside their house waiting hopelessly for the visitors she wishes to receive, Elizabeth travels to the Collins’ establishment where she visits Lady Catherine. While Jane remains at home, lovesick but uncomplaining, Elizabeth accompanies the Gardeners on a walking tour of Derbyshire. Jane’s docility, gentleness, and benevolence are remarkable, for she suffers silently throughout the entire plot, until she is finally set free by her Prince Charming. In these respects, she adumbrates Jane Fairfax of Austen’s Emma (1816), another Jane who is totally passive and quiet, despite the fact that she is repeatedly humiliated by her lover.

Indeed, although Jane Fairfax is eventually driven to a gesture of revolt — the pathetic decision to endure the “slave-trade” of becoming a governess rather than wait for Frank Churchill to become her husband — she is a paragon of submissive politeness and patience throughout her ordeal, so much so that, “wrapped up in a cloak of politeness,” she was to Emma and even to Mr. Knightley “disgustingly . . . suspiciously, reserved” (II, chap. 2).


Just as Jane Bennet forecasts the role and character of Jane Fairfax, Elizabeth Bennet shares much with Emma who, perhaps more than all the others, demonstrates Austen’s ambivalence about her imaginative powers, since she created in Emma a heroine whom she suspected no one but herself would like. A player of word games, a painter of portraits and a spinner of tales, Emma is clearly an avatar of Austen the artist. And more than all the other playful, lively girls, Emma reminds us that the witty woman is responding to her own confining situation with words that become her weapon, a defence against banality, a way of at least seeming to control her life. Like Austen, Emma has at her disposal worn-out, hackneyed stories of romance that she is smart enough to resist in her own life. If Emma is an artist who manipulates people as if they were characters in her own stories, Austen emphasizes not only the immorality of this activity, but its cause or motivation: except for placating her father, Emma has nothing to do. Given her intelligence and imagination, her impatient attempts to transform a mundane reality are completely understandable.

Emma and her friends believe her capable of answering questions which puzzle less quick and assured girls, an ability shown to be necessary in a world of professions and falsehoods, puzzles, charades, and riddles. But word games deceive especially those players who think they have discovered the hidden meanings, and Emma misinterprets every riddle. Most of the letters in the novel contain “nothing but truth, though there might be some truths not told” (II, chap. 2). Because readiness to talk frequently masks reticence to communicate, the vast majority of conversations involve characters who not only remain unaffected by dialogue, but barely hear each other talking: Isabella, Miss Bates and Mr. Woodhouse, Mrs. Elton and Mr. Weston are participating in simultaneous soliloquies. The civil falsehoods that keep society running make each character a riddle to the others, a polite puzzle. With professions of openness Frank Churchill has been keeping a secret that threatens to embarrass and pain both Emma and Jane Fairfax. Emma discovers the ambiguous nature of discourse that mystifies, withholds, coerces, and lies as much as it reveals.

Yet Austen could not punish her more thoroughly than she does, and in this respect too Emma resembles the other imaginative girls. For all these heroines are mortified, humiliated, even bullied into sense. Austen’s heavy attack on Emma, for instance, depends on the abject failure of the girl’s wit. The very brilliant and assertive playfulness that initially marks her as a heroine is finally criticized on the grounds that it is self-deluding. Unable to imagine her visions into reality, she finds that she has all along been manipulated as a character in someone else’s fiction. Through Emma, Austen is confronting the inadequacy of fiction and the pain of the “imaginist” who encounters the relentless recalcitrance of the world in which she lives, but she is also exposing the vulnerable delusions that Emma shares with Catherine Morland before the latter learns that she has no story to tell. Not only does the female artist fail, then, her efforts are condemned as tyrannical and coercive. Emma feels great self-loathing when she discovers how blind she has been: she is “ashamed of every sensation but the one revealed to her — her affection for Mr. Knightley — Every other part of her mind was disgusting” (III, chap. 2).

Although Emma is the centre of Austen’s fiction, what she has to learn is her commonality with Jane Fairfax, her vulnerability as a female. Like the antithetical sisters we have discussed, Jane Fairfax and Emma are doubles. Since they are the most accomplished girls in Highbury, exactly the same age, suitable companions, the fact that they are not friends is in itself quite significant. Emma even believes at times that her dislike for Jane is caused by her seeing in Jane “the really accomplished young woman which she wanted to be thought herself” (II, chap. 2). In fact, she has to succumb to Jane’s fate, to become her double through the realization that she too has been manipulated as a pawn in Frank Churchill’s game. The seriousness of Emma’s assertive playfulness is made clear when she behaves rudely, making uncivil remarks at Box Hill, when she talks indiscreetly, unwittingly encouraging the advances of Mr. Elton, and when she allows her imagination to indulge in rather lewd suppositions about the possible sexual intrigues of Jane Fairfax and a married man. In other words, Emma’s imagination has led her to the sin of being unladylike, and her complete mortification is a prelude to submission as she becomes a friend of Jane Fairfax, at one with her too in her realization of her own powerlessness. In this respect, Mr. Elton’s recitation of a well-known riddle seems ominous:


My first doth affliction denote,

Which my second is destin’d to feel

And my whole is the best antidote

That affliction to soften and heal. — [I, chap. 9]


For if the answer is woe/man, then in the process of growing up female Emma must be initiated into a secondary role of service and silence.

Similarly, in Northanger Abbey Catherine Morland experiences “the liberty which her imagination had dared to take” as a folly which makes her feel that “She hated herself more than she could express” (II, chap. 10) so that she too is reduced to “silence and sadness” (II, chap. 15). Although Marianne Dashwood’s sister had admitted that “thirty-five and seventeen had better not have anything to do with matrimony together” (I, chap. 8), Marianne allows herself at the end to be given away to Colonel Brandon as a “reward” (III, chap. 14) for his virtuous constancy. At nineteen she finds herself “submitting to new attachments, entering on new duties” (III, chap. 14). “With such a confederacy against her,” the narrator asks, “what else could she do?” Even Elizabeth Bennet, who had “prided” herself on her “discernment,” finds that she had never known even herself (II, chap. 13). When “her anger was turned against herself” (II, chap. 14), Elizabeth realizes that “she had been blind, partial, prejudiced, absurd” (II, chap. 13). Significantly, “she was humbled, she was grieved ; she repented, though she hardly knew of what” (III, chap. 8; italics ours).

All of these girls learn the necessity of curbing their tongues: Marianne is silent when she learns submission and even when “a thousand inquiries sprung up from her heart . . . she dared not urge one” (III, chap. 10). When she finds that “For herself she was humbled; but she was proud of him” (III, chap. 10), Elizabeth Bennet displays her maturity by her modest reticence: not only does she refrain from telling both her parents about her feelings for Mr. Darcy, she never tells Jane about Mrs. Gardiner’s letter or about her lover’s role in persuading Mr. Bingley not to propose. Whereas before she had scorned Mr. Collins’s imputation that ladies never say what they mean, at the end of Pride and Prejudice Elizabeth refuses to answer Lady Catherine and lies to her mother about the motives for that lady’s visit. Furthermore, Elizabeth checks herself with Mr. Darcy, remembering “that he had yet to learn to be laughed at, and it was rather too early to begin” (III, chap. 16).

Emma also refrains from communicating with both Mrs. Elton and Jane Fairfax when she learns to behave discreetly. She manages to keep Harriet’s secret even when M r – Knightley proposes to her. “What did she say?” the narrator coyly asks. “Just what she ought, of course. A lady always does” (III, chap. 13). And at this point the novelist indicates her own ladylike discretion as she too refrains from detailing the personal scene explicitly. The polite talk of ladies, as Robin Lakoff has shown, is devised “to prevent the expression of strong statements,” but such politeness commits both author and heroine alike to their resolve “of being humble and discreet and repressing imagination” (I, chap. 17). The novelist who has been fascinated with double-talk from the very beginning of her writing career sees the silences, evasions, and lies of women as an inescapable sign of their requisite sense of doubleness.

Austen’s self-division — her fascination with the imagination and her anxiety that it is unfeminine — is part of her consciousness of the unique dilemma of all women, who must acquiesce in their status as objects after an adolescence in which they experience themselves as free agents. Simone de Beauvoir expresses the question asked by all Austen’s heroines: “if I can accomplish my destiny only as the Other, how shall I give up my Ego?” Like Emma, Austen’s heroines are made to view their adolescent eroticism, their imaginative and physical activity, as an outgrown vitality incompatible with womanly restraint and survival: “how improperly had she been acting. . . . How inconsiderate, how indelicate, how irrational, how unfeeling, had been her conduct! What blindness, what madness, had led her on!” (Ill, chap. 11). The initiation into conscious acceptance of powerlessness is always mortifying, for it involves the fall from authority into the acceptance of one’s status as a mere character, as well as the humiliating acknowledgment on the part of the witty sister that she must become her self-denying, quiet double. Assertion, imagination, and wit are tempting forms of self-definition which encourage each of the lively heroines to think that she can master or has mastered the world, but this is proven a dangerous illusion for women who must accept the fate of being mastered, and so the heroine learns the benefits of modesty, reticence, and patience.

If we recall Sophia’s dying advice to Laura in Love and Freindship — “Run mad as often as you chuse; but do not faint” — it becomes clear that Austen is haunted by both these options and that she seems to feel that fainting, even if it only means playing at being dead, is a more viable solution for women who are acceptable to men only when they inhabit the glass coffin of silence, stillness, secondariness. At the same time, however, Austen never renounces the subjectivity of what her heroines term their own “madness” until the end of each of their stories. The complementarity of the lively and the quiet sisters, moreover, suggests that these two inadequate responses to the female situation are inseparable. We have already seen that Marianne Dashwood’s situation when she is betrayed by the man she considers her fiance is quite similar to her sister’s, and many critics have shown that Elinor has a great deal of sensibility, while Marianne has some sense. Certainly Elizabeth and Jane Bennet, like Emma Woodhouse and Jane Fairfax, are confronted with similar dilemmas even as they eventually reach similar strategies for survival. In consistently drawing our attention to the friendship and reciprocity between sisters, Austen holds out the hope that maturity can bring women consciousness of self as subject and object.

Although all women may be, as she is, split between the conflicting desire for assertion in the world and retreat into the security of the home — speech and silence, independence and dependency — Austen implies that this psychic conflict can be resolved. Because the relationship between personal identity and social role is so problematic for women, the emerging self can only survive with a sustained double vision. As Austen’s admirers have always appreciated, she does write out accommodations, even when admitting their cost: since the polarities of fainting and going mad are extremes that tempt but destroy women, Austen describes how it is possible for a kind of dialectic of self-consciousness to emerge. While this aspect of female consciousness has driven many women to schizophrenia, Austen’s heroines live and flourish because of their contradictory projections. When the heroines are able to live Christian lives, doing unto others as they would be done, the daughters are ready to become wives. Self-consciousness liberates them from the self, enabling them to be exquisitely sensitive to the needs and responses of others. This is what distinguishes them from the comic victims of Austen’s wit, who are either imprisoned in officious egoism or incapacitated by lethargic indolence: for Austen selfishness and selflessness are virtually interchangeable.

Only the mature heroines can sympathize and identify with the self-important meddlers and the somnambulant valetudinarians who abound in Austen’s novels. But their maturity implies a fallen world and the continual possibility, indeed the necessity, of self-division, duplicity, and double-talk. As the narrator of Emma explains, “Seldom, very seldom, does complete truth belong to any human disclosure; seldom can it happen that something is not a little disguised or a little mistaken” (III, chap. 13). Using silence as a means of manipulation, passivity as a tactic to gain power, submission as a means of attaining the only control available to them, the heroines seem to submit as they get what they both want and need. On the one hand, this process and its accompanying sense of doubleness is psychologically and ethically beneficial, even a boon to women who are raised by it to real heroism. On the other hand, it is a painful degradation for heroines immersed or immured in what de Beauvoir would call their own “alterity.”

The mortifications of Emma, Elizabeth, and Marianne are, then, the necessary accompaniment to the surrender of self-responsibility and definition. While Marianne Brandon, Elizabeth Darcy, and Emma Knightley never exist except in the slightly malevolent futurity of all happily-ever-afters, surely they would have learned the intricate gestures of subordination. And in Mansfield Park (1814), where Austen examines most carefully the price of doubleness, the mature author dramatizes how the psychic split so common in women can explode into full-scale fragmentation when reintegration becomes impossible. Nowhere in her fiction is the conflict between self and other portrayed with more sensitivity to the possibility of the personality fragmenting schizophrenically than in this novel in which Austen seems the most conflicted about her own talents.

Fanny Price and Mary Crawford enact what has developed into a familiar conflict in Austen’s fiction. Fanny loves the country, where she lives quietly and contentedly, conservative in her tastes, revering old buildings and trees, and acquiescent in her behaviour, submitting to indignities from every member of the household with patient humility. But “what was tranquillity and comfort to Fanny was tediousness and vexation to Mary” (II, chap. 11), because differences of disposition, habit, and circumstance make the latter a talented and restless girl, a harpist, a superb card player, and a witty conversationalist capable of parody and puns. In the famous play episode the two are most obviously contrasted: exemplary Fanny refuses to play a part, deeming the theatrical improper in Sir Bertram’s absence, while Mary enters into the rehearsals with vivacity and anticipation of the performance precisely because it gives her the opportunity to dramatize, under the cover of the written script, her own amorous feelings toward Edmund. This use of art links Mary to Austen in a way further corroborated by biographical accounts of Austen’s delight as a girl in such home theatricals. While many critics agree that Austen sets out to celebrate Fanny’s responsiveness to nature, in fact it is Mary who most resembles her creator in seeing “inanimate nature, with little observation; her attention was all for men and women, her talents for the light and lively” (I, chap. 8).

In spite of their antithetical responses, Mary and Fanny, like the other “sisters” in Austen’s fiction, have much in common. Both are visitors in the country and virtually parentless outsiders at Mansfield Park. Both have disreputable family histories which they seek to escape in part through their contact with the Bertram household. Both are loving sisters to brothers very much in need of their counsel and support. Both are relatively poor, dependent on male relatives for financial security. While Mary rides Fanny’s horse, Fanny wears what she thinks is one of Mary’s necklaces. While Fanny loves to hear Mary’s music, Mary consistently seeks out Fanny’s advice. They are the only two young people aware that Henry is flirting outrageously with both Bertram sisters and thereby creating terrible jealousies. Both see Rushworth as the fool that he is, both are aware of the potential impropriety of the play, and both are in love with Edmund Bertram. Indeed, each seems incomplete because she lacks precisely the qualities so fully embodied by the other: thus, Fanny seems constrained, lacking nerve and will, while Mary is insensitive to the needs and feelings of her friends; one is too silent, the other too talkative.

Perhaps Fanny does learn enough from Mary to become a true Austen heroine. Not only does she “come out” at a dance in her honour, but she does so in a state “nearly approaching high spirits” (II, chap. 10). She rejects the attempts at persuasion made by Sir Thomas and he accuses her of “wilfulness of temper, self-conceit, and . . . independence of spirit” (III, chap. I). In defending herself against the unwelcome addresses of Henry Crawford, Fanny also speaks more, and more angrily, than she ever has before. Finally, she does liberate herself from the need for Edmund’s approval, specifically when she questions his authority and becomes “vexed into displeasure, and anger, against Edmund” (III, chap. 8). Recently, two feminist critics have persuasively argued that, when Fanny refuses to marry for social advantage, she becomes the moral model for all the other characters, challenging their social system and exposing its flimsy values. And certainly Fanny does become a kind of authority figure for her younger sister Susan, whom she eventually liberates from the noisy confinement of the Portsmouth household.

Yet, trapped in angelic reserve, Fanny can never assert or enliven herself except in extreme situations where she only succeeds through passive resistance. A model of domestic virtue — “dependent, helpless, friendless, neglected, forgotten” (II, chap. 7) — she resembles Snow White not only in her passivity but in her invalid deathliness, her immobility, her pale purity. And Austen is careful to show us that Fanny can only assert herself through silence, reserve, recalcitrance, and even cunning. Since, as Leo Bersani has argued, “non-being is the ultimate prudence in the world of Mansfield Park,”Fanny is destined to become the next Lady Bertram, following the example of Sir Thomas’s corpselike wife. With purity that seems prudish and reserve bordering on hypocrisy, Fanny is far less likeable than Austen’s other heroines: as Frank Churchill comments of Jane Fairfax, “There is safety in reserve, but no attraction” (II, chap. 6). Obedience, tears, pallor, and martyrdom are effective but not especially endearing methods of survival, in part because one senses some pride in Fanny’s self-abasement.

If Fanny Price seems unable fully to actualize herself as an authentic subject, Mary Crawford fails to admit her contingency. Because of this, like the Queen who insists on telling and living her own lively stories, she is exorcised from Mansfield Park, both the place and the plot, in a manner that dramatizes Austen’s obsessive anxiety over Mary’s particular brand of impropriety — her audacious speech. When Mary’s liberty deteriorates into license and her self-actualization into selfishness, Edmund can only defend her by claiming that “She does not think evil, but she speaks it — speaks it in playfulness” and he admits this means “the mind itself was tainted” (II, chap. 9). Although Mary’s only crimes do, in fact, seem to be verbal, we are told repeatedly that her mind has been “led astray and bewildered, and without any suspicion of being so; darkened, yet fancying itself light” (III, chap. 6). Because she would excuse as “folly” what both Fanny and Edmund term “evil,” her language gives away her immodesty, her “blunted delicacy” (III, chap. 16). Edmund says in horror, “No reluctance, no horror, no feminine — shall I say? no modest loathings!” (Ill, chap. 16). It is, significantly, “the manner in which she spoke” (III, chap. 16) that gives the greatest offense and determines Edmund’s final rejection.

When, during the episode of the theatricals, Fanny silently plays the role of the angel by refusing to play, Mary Crawford metamorphoses into a siren as she coquettishly persuades Edmund to participate in the very theatricals he initially condemned as improper. Fanny knows that in part her own reticence is caused by fear of exposing herself, but this does not stop her from feeling extremely jealous of Mary, not only because Mary is a fine actress but because she has chosen to play a part that allows her to express her otherwise silent opposition to Edmund’s choice of a clerical profession. Heretical, worldly, cynical in her disdain for the institutions of the Church, Mary is a damned Eve who offers to seduce prelapsarian Edmund Bertram in the garden of the green room, when the father is away on a business trip, and she almost succeeds, at least until the absent father reappears to burn all the scripts, to repress this libidinal outbreak in paradise and call for music which “helped conceal the want of real harmony” (II, chap. 2). Since the rehearsals have brought nothing but restlessness, rivalry, vexation, pettiness, and sexual license, Lover’s Vows illustrates Austen’s belief that self-expression and artistry are dangerously attractive precisely because they liberate actors from the rules, roles, social obligations, and familial bonds of everyday life.

Mary’s seductive allure is the same as her brother Henry’s. He is the best actor, both on and off the stage, because he has the ability to be “every thing to every body” (II, chap. 13). But he can “do nothing without a mixture of evil” (II, chap. 13). Attractive precisely because of his protean ability to change himself into a number of attractive personages, Henry is an impersonator who degenerates into an imposter, npt unlike Frank Churchill, who is also “acting a part or making a parade of insincere professions” (£, II, chap. 6). Indeed, Henry is a good representative of the kind of young man with whom each of the heroines falls briefly in love before she is finally disillusioned: Willoughby, Wickham, Frank Churchill, Henry Crawford, and Mr. Elliot are eminently agreeable because they are self-changers, self-shapers. In many respects they are attractive to the heroines because somehow they act as doubles: younger men who must learn to please, narcissists, they experience traditionally “feminine” powerlessness and they are therefore especially interested in becoming the creators of themselves.

In Mansfield Park, however, Austen defines this self-creating spirit as a “bewitching” (II, chap. 13) “infection” (II, chap. 1), and the epidemic restlessness represented by the Crawfords is seen as far more dangerous than Fanny’s invalid passivity. Fanny’s rejection of Henry represents, then, her censure of his presumptuous attempt to author his own life, his past history, and his present fictional identities. Self-divided, indulging his passions, alienated from authority, full of ambition, and seeking revenge for past injuries, the false young man verges on the Satanic. While he manages to thrive in his own fashion, finding a suitable lover or wife and generally making his fortune in the process, his way cannot be the Austen heroine’s. Although his crimes are real actions while hers are purely rhetorical, she is more completely censured because her liberties more seriously defy her social role.

When her Adam refuses to taste the fruit offered by Mary Crawford, Austen follows the example of Samuel Richardson in her favourite of his novels, Sir Charles Grandison, where Harriet draws a complimentary analogy between Sir Charles and Adam: the former would not have been so compliant as to taste the forbidden fruit; instead he would have left it to God to annihilate the first Eve and supply a second. Just as Fanny sees through the play actor, Henry Crawford, to the role-player and hypocrite, Edmund finally recognizes Mary’s playfulness as her refusal to submit to the categories of her culture, a revolt that is both attractive and immoral because it gains her the freedom to become whatever she likes, even to choose not to submit to one identity but to try out a variety of voices. For all these reasons, she has to be annihilated. But, unlike Richardson, Austen in destroying this unrepentent, imaginative, and assertive girl is demonstrating her own self-division.

In all six of Austen’s novels women who are refused the means of self-definition are shown to be fatally drawn to the dangerous delights of impersonation and pretense. But Austen’s profession depends on just these disguises. What else, if not impersonation, is characterization? What is plot, if not pretence? In all the novels, the narrator’s voice is witty, assertive, spirited, independent, even (as D. W. Harding has shown) arrogant and nasty. Poised between the subjectivity of lyric and the objectivity of drama, the novel furnishes Austen with a unique opportunity: she can create Mary Crawford’s witty letters or Emma’s brilliant retorts, even while rejecting them as improper; furthermore, she can reprove as indecent in a heroine what is necessary to an author. Authorship for Austen is an escape from the very restraints she imposes on her female characters. And in this respect she seems typical, for women may have contributed so significantly to narrative fiction precisely because it effectively objectifies, even as it sustains and hides, the subjectivity of the author. Put another way, in the novels Austen questions and criticizes her own aesthetic and ironic sensibilities, noting the limits and asserting the dangers of an imagination undisciplined by the rigors of art.


Using her characters to castigate the imaginative invention that informs her own novels, Austen is involved in a contradiction that, as we have seen, she approves as the only solution available to her heroines. Just as they manage to survive only by seeming to submit, she succeeds in maintaining her double consciousness in fiction that proclaims its docility and restraint even as it uncovers the delights of assertion and rebellion. Indeed the comedy of Austen’s novels explores the tensions between the freedom of her art and the dependency of her characters: while they stutter and sputter and lapse into silence and even hasten to perfect felicity, she attains a woman’s language that is magnificently duplicitous. In this respect, Austen serves as a paradigm of the literary ladies who would emerge so successfully and plentifully in the mid-nineteenth century, popular lady novelists like Rhoda Broughton, Charlotte Mary Yonge, Home Lee, and Mrs. Craik who strenuously suppressed awareness of how their own professional work called into question traditional female roles. Deeply conservative as their content appears to be, however, it frequendy retains traces of the original duplicity so manifest in its origin, even as it demonstrates their own exuberant evasion of the inescapable limits they prescribe for their model heroines.




Things to do before 30: read these 33 books

‘Meditations’ by Marcus Aurelius


‘The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays’ by Albert Camus


‘Crime and Punishment’ by Fyodor Dostoyevsky


‘Anna Karenina’ by Leo Tolstoy


‘The Little Prince’ by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry


‘The Power of Myth’ by Joseph Campbell


‘The Bhagavad Gita’ — author unknown


‘Siddhartha’ by Hermann Hesse


‘The Essential Rumi’ by Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi


‘The Year of Magical Thinking’ by Joan Didion


‘The God of Small Things’ by Arundhati Roy


‘Fun Home’ by Alison Bechdel


‘White Teeth’ by Zadie Smith


‘The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao’ by Junot Díaz


‘The Beggar Maid’ by Alice Munro


‘The World According to Garp’ by John Irving


‘The Complete Persepolis’ by Marjane Satrapi


‘Between the World and Me’ by Ta-Nehisi Coates


‘First They Killed My Father’ by Loung Ung


‘The Truth’ by Neil Strauss


‘Iron John’ by Robert Bly


‘The Tipping Point’ by Malcolm Gladwell


‘The Black Swan’ by Nassim Taleb


‘The Miracle of Mindfulness’ by Thich Nhat Hanh


‘So Good They Can’t Ignore You’ by Cal Newport


‘The Intelligent Investor’ by Benjamin Graham


‘Give and Take’ by Adam Grant


‘The Power Broker’ by Robert Caro


‘Flow’ by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi


‘Zero to One’ by Peter Thiel


‘Crossing the Unknown Sea’ by David Whyte


‘Tiny Beautiful Things’ by Cheryl Strayed


‘How Will You Measure Your Life?’ by Clayton Christensen


Reeds in the Wind by Grazia Deledda

Reeds in the Wind by Grazia DeleddaChicago Sunday Tribune, September 20, 1998 – Reviewed by Todd Gitlin

 “Surely, in a time when the most obscure female novelist may be instantly catapulted to canonical status on the strength of her sex and previous obscurity, a writer of the emotional power of Grazia Deledda is overdue for literary resurrection…. It is easy to be transfixed…by the bluntness of Deledda’s characters’ emotions, the harshness of their lives, their rawness and violence, sometimes their downright weirdness — or as they say in the academy nowadays, “otherness.”… Most of the strangeness in [Deledda’s] books does not arise from local color. The strangeness that counts is that of the gnarled, interrupted passions of family life. Rarely are her stories wrapped in impressionist gauze, and for all the folkloric gaudiness, the family patterns are recognizable. Intense bonds are ready-made to break…. There is frequently a biblical quality to Deledda’s prose…. It is hard not to feel, when reading her, that whatever the particularities of late 19th-century Sardinians, her readers are getting close to some pure ore of human emotion.”

Publishers Weekly, September 21, 1998

“Published in Italy in 1913 but never before translated into English, this richly atmospheric novel by Deledda (1871-1936), the second woman to receive the Nobel Prize for literature ( 1926), is a tale of penitence, salvation and a Christian-peasant notion of destiny. Deledda (Cosima; After the Divorce) traces the decline of the noble Pintor sisters, who live in Sardinia at the turn of the century. Proud but poor, the three sisters, Ruth, Ester and Noemi, are reduced to selling their farm’s produce clandestinely from their own house…. Deledda beautifully captures the rough, malaria-ridden Sardinian setting, where superstition vies with theology, folklore has a strong hold on the imagination and ‘the sound of the accordion fills the courtyard with moans and shouts.’ The novel bears some resemblance to Tomasi di Lampedusa’s The Leopard in its depiction of the decline of a noble family and to Carlo Levi’s Christ Stopped at Eboli in its portrait of 20th-century peasants who still harbor medieval beliefs in sprites and witches. In a conversation with one of the Pintor sisters, Efix [their servant] muses, “We are reeds, and fate is the wind.” Deledda evocatively depicts the desperate plight of the peasants who hope for a heavenly redemption from their earthly hardships.

World Literature Today, Winter 2001 – Reviewed by V. Louise Katainen, Auburn University

“When Grazia Deledda (1875-1936) won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1926, she became only the second woman to receive this high honor. Born in Sardinia, Deledda moved in 1900 to Rome, where she wrote many novels and short stories focused primarily on Sardinian peasant life. Deledda’s writing is characterized by an intense lyricism. Though she was influenced by naturalistic writers such as Emile Zola and Giovanni Verga. Deledda’s concentration on the metaphysical, as well as on the physical, imparts to her prose a singular urgency that distances her works from those of the abovementioned authors, whose primary aim was to portray with “scientific” objectivity the societies inhabited by their characters.

A dreamlike quality envelops the story. Past is present, and the future will seemingly always be like the past. In Deledda’s subtly lyrical style, the past is both something to be revered and an obstacle to individual and societal growth. Hence, enduring traditions are equally a trap and a treasure. In Deledda’s Sardinia, life goes on in eternal cycles dominated by nature’s seasons. Deledda’s principal stylistic tool is the simile, which she employs abundantly. The human world is compared to things of nature: the land, vegetation, birds, and animals. Contrariwise, the natural world is anthropomorphized, so that it becomes as alive and as knowing as the people who populate it. Thus, the division between the human and the natural worlds is blurred; the two melt together to produce a pantheistic whole. What Deledda is attempting to convey by joining the worlds of nature and human society is that for the characters of this powerful novel both the natural and the human are indispensable and inseparable parts of their known universe.

Deledda succeeds in portraying a society in slow transition, a society incredibly distant from that of modern times. Old traditions, superstitions, and a seemingly immovable feudal social structure block creative adaptation to new circumstances. Though separated from the western coast of Italy by only about 150 miles of sea, the Sardinia that Deledda conjures up is an island populated by a few anachronistic nobles and a majority of fatalistic, poverty-stricken peasants, who seem locked in an unchanging world of self-perpetuating misery. They are, as the title of the novel suggests, reeds bending before the winds of fate, unable and/or unwilling to alter the trajectory of their lives’ journeys.

Italian Americana – Reviewed by John Paul Russo, University of Miami, FL

What Thomas Hardy did for Wessex and Faulkner for Yoknapatawpha County, Deledda did for the Barbagia, the mountainous region of central Sardinia: she found the universal in the particular.

Yes – redolent of Lampedusa’s ‘The Leopard’ – this is a great novel: memorable and moving. A classic as well as an important novel. Sitting alongside the fiction of its time from America and England it cuts a strange and dazzling figure.

Mr A

Mumu by Ivan Turgenev

Mumu by Ivan Turgenev

“Mumu is one of Turgenev’s best known stories, beautifully and subtly constructed. At first sight a touching story of the love between a serf  and his dog, cruelly disrupted by the jealousy of his mistress. Written in 1852, when it was not exactly customary to write about a simple serf and his feelings. Turgenev was never politically outspoken, but his prose speaks for itself.

“Mumu stood for the Russian people, their sensible character, work lust, and faithful nature. Faithful to even the most cruel master or mistress. The serfs might as well be mute, like Mumu, because they were an ignored class. With this story Turgenev gave a voice to the serfs.

“When Turgenev wrote Mumu in 1852 he was in exile because of the obituary of Gogol that he wrote. He suspected that it had more to do with his Sportsman’s Sketches, which had somehow slipped through the strict censure. In this light Mumu can be seen as a protest against the censure. Mumu is finally published in1884.”

“Turgenev’s work is distinguished from that of his most famous contemporaries by its sophisticated lack of hyperbole, its balance, and its concern for artistic values. His greatest work was always topical, committed literature, having universal appeal in the elegance of the love story and the psychological acuity of the portraiture. He was similarly a letter writer of great charm, wit, and probity. His reputation may have become overshadowed by those of Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, but his own qualities of lucidity and urbanity and, above all, his sense of the extreme preciousness of the beautiful in life endow his work with a magic that has lasting appeal.”

You can read Mumu online:

Reminiscent of Chekov’s short stories, who is rightly acclaimed to be the master of the form, Turganev’s writing is informed by his visceral hatred of serfdom. This is such a generous and moving story and artfully told. It could seem that the lot of the serf in nineteenth century Russia prefigures the lot of twentieth century man as related by many of its authors. The fickle masters of the serfs however, have a little more heart and a little less spite.

 The narrator asks to at the end of the story “…of what use would be a dog to him?” and it rings out as the most profound and meaningful of questions.

Mr A

A Crash Course in Existentialism: A Short Introduction to Jean-Paul Sartre & Finding Meaning in a Meaningless World

Very broadly speaking, all philosophy contains within it dialectical tensions: some ideas seem ennobling and consoling, others unsettling and alienating. Every school, movement, and individual thinker deals in some measure of both. Sometimes we feel unsettled because of historical and cultural distance. When Socrates talks about slavery or censorship in matter-of-fact ways, for example, we might be startled, but his audience didn’t see things the way we do. When it comes, however, to the Existentialists, the cultural and political milieu of these thinkers may resemble our own closely enough that statements which shocked their readers still shock most people today.

Take one of the bigger questions like, oh, the meaning of life. “We understand our lives as being meaningful,” says Hank Green above—brother of John Green, the other half of the Crash Course educational team. We might find purpose and fulfillment in a number of things, from religion to art, sports, careers, and politics.

Existentialists, Green tells us, would say that “any or all of these things can give your life meaning.” Consoling, eh? “But at the same time,” and here comes the downer, “they say none of them can.” These thinkers may be spread out over time and space—from the 19th century Denmark and Germany of Kierkegaard and Nietzsche to the 1950s France of Sartre, De Beauvoir, and Camus. But Existentialist thinkers share at least one common trait: anti-essentialism.

As Green explains, classical philosophy offered the comforting explanation that everything contained an essence: “a certain set of core principles that are necessary or essential for a thing to be what it is.” Not only do chairs and tables have essences but so do human beings, they thought, and “your essence gives you a purpose.” Still a very widespread and commonplace belief, we can probably agree, and one people rarely think about critically unless they’re having… well, an existential crisis. So far so good when it comes to grasping the essence (sorry) of Existentialist thinking.

Green goes astray however, when he gets to Nietzsche, whom he claims embraced Nihilism, “the belief in the ultimate meaninglessness of life.” Not only did Nietzsche vehemently oppose nihilism as self-defeating, but he feared the consequences of its spread, even if he sometimes saw it as an inevitable product of modernity. Another important consideration when studying so-called Existentialist thinkers is that they themselves were deeply troubled by their troubling insights. Kierkegaard turned to a radical form of Christianity, Camus to an introspective individualism… and perhaps the most famous Existentialist, Jean Paul Sartre, came to embrace doctrinaire Marxism.

But first, he formulated the most quotable maxim of Existentialist thought: “Existence precedes Essence.” From this, he drew a conclusion both troubling and consoling: “It’s up to each of us to determine who we are. We have to write our own essence through the way we choose to live.” But this liberated condition is absurd: it means we are ultimately responsible for everything we do, even when we have no idea what’s going to happen when we do it, or any larger purpose for doing it at all. Whether ardently religious like Kierkegaard or ardently atheist like Nietzsche and Sartre, Existentialist philosophers who stared into the void found there all of the boundless freedom and terrifying vertigo we came to associate with the neurosis of the modern human condition.