Tag Archives: Modern Classics

Franz Kafka’s The Trial – Very Trying

Penguin Modern Classics, 1971.

Penguin Modern Classics, 1971.

Never having read any Kafka, I was quite excited when The Trial was chosen for one of my book groups, so I went online and found myself a fabulous 1971 copy from the Penguin Modern Classics series as you can see on the left.

First published in 1925, The Trial tells the story of a man “Joseph K.”, a senior bank clerk who is arrested and prosecuted by an unknown organisation. The nature of the crime is never revealed to the reader or even to Joseph himself. Joseph progresses through various stages of confusion and paranoia, trying to understand his situation as he moves from one strange situation to another.

I have to say from the outset, that I didn’t much enjoy the experience of reading The Trial. This is largely due to the nature of the writing style employed by Kafka which creates a dreamlike, or rather nightmarish sense of time and place. The reader is transported into a surreal reality where everything feels off-kilter. There is a strange sort of dream logic to things, for example in once scene, Joseph is in a courtroom and Kafka describes the atmosphere of the courtroom, and in a side comment mentions that people have brought cushions to put between their head and the ceiling. Or when he visits a painter Titorelli ;

“…he rushed after her, seized her by the skirts, whirled her once around her head and then set her down before the door among the other girls…”

I’d like to say that sentence makes sense in the context of the story, but I can’t! People seem to defy the laws of physics, odd things become normal and events happen with a sort of monotonous inevitability.

The book sort of reminded me of an M.C. EscherRelativityESCHER-410px picture. Fascinating, but if you look too long it just makes your head hurt.

Of course, this probably the essence of what Kafka intended to convey, and so in this way the book is very clever in putting the reader right into the nightmarish reality of Joseph K, who is isolated and yet surrounded by odd characters, alone in the face of an all-powerful almost totalitarian organisation that has him in its oppressive grip.

Even though I found the book a difficult read, the language itself is very simply conveyed. At the beginning of the novel the writing reminded me a little of Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, although I almost don’t like to compare it as C&P is one of my favourite novels. As you can probably tell by now, I personally wouldn’t choose to read another Kafka novel, but I’m glad I did as it stretched my imagination (and gave me wierd dreams). I wouldn’t want to put anyone off reading it though as I imagine it’s the kind of book you either love or hate and it’s definitely a different reading experience!

Has anyone else read any Kafka, or any other novels that you found surreal?

The Bell Jar – Sylvia Plath & Book Group

The Bell JarSo yesterday evening I pootled off to the Royal Festival Hall to join the book group set up by Savidge Reads and Kimbofo. I like this book group as it’s a relaxed affair,  though withenough structure to ensure that everyone is encouraged to talk but – and our new member Linda agreed with me on this – it is a nice varied group of people who are there to listen as well as discuss with an open minded attitude. The other thing I enjoy about this book group is that I get to meet a bunch of new people, whereas in my other book group I meet with my friends, so I feel it’s a good counterpart to that.

So this month’s book was Sylvia Plath’s semi-autobiographical novel The Bell Jar which Faber & Faber have re-released with this rather gorgeous cover to celebrate their 80th birthday.  I actually read it several years ago, but had pretty much forgotten most of the events in the novel! However that’s not reflective of the book’s content. I think I may have read it with a different perspective now as a twenty-something woman from when I was a teenager. Actually quite a few of us were in the same boat including Hattie who said that she identified more with the angst of the main character when she was younger.

The Bell Jar is a first person narrative account of the character Esther’s experience of being a young woman during the 1950’s. She moves from the suburbs of Boston for an internship at a fashion magazine in New York, and while it all seems very glamorous and exciting, Esther’s descriptions of her time there seem to suggest she really feels disoriented and quite detached from the whole thing. Having spent her whole life to this point getting straight A’s at school and winning scholarships, she is suddenly flung adrift into the adult world. As the book progresses, Esther withdraws from reality and becomes very depressed leading her to initially be seen by an unhelpful psychiatrist who prescribes electroshock therapy and then she is later hospitalized in a mental institution.  As the novel progresses I had get a strong sense of Esther’s own feeling of failing as she became more self-destructive, unable to even attempt suicide with much passion!

Esther is sharp and keen in her observations, especially about the people around her in tragic but witty way, while at other times comes across as very naïve. A whole range of characters drift in and out of her life. Key outside influences including a high-school sweetheart Buddy, a rather insipid sort of boy who she becomes disillusioned with, Doreen, who is a hedonistic girl that she meets on the internship and her Mother who seems unable to come to terms with her depression and responds by glossing over Esther’s problems.

I am so glad that this book group meant reading this novel for a second time. I found it very absorbing towards the middle to end of the novel, perhaps a strange sort of compulsive desire to watch as she withdraws from the real world.  I found that while at the beginning of the novel I was kind of antagonized by her distanced and often childish attitude, I came to understand her more and more. In fact I can imagine some readers finding the first couple of chapters to be quite frivolous in the descriptions of the girly glossy lifestyle that she is flung into, but as the book progresses it becomes very dark! While not being laugh out loud funny, her wry humour kept me engaged and I simultaneously loved and cringed at her biting comments about other characters.

I felt that Plath was wonderfully successful at conveying the behaviour and feelings of this girl as she collapsed into herself, and even though you would expect a certain verisimilitude because of it being semi-autobiographical, her descriptions are so evocative. The paragraph in which Esther describes the feeling as being inside a Bell Jar really brings to the reader into her detached, claustrophobic and unreal world! One thing that Esther really struggles with is her idea of what she wants to be and how she must make choices her in life which will lead her to lose out on things that she wants. This is described beautifully in chapter 7.

I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story.  From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked.  One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn’t quite make out.  I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose.  I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.

Although I thought I would feel depressed by The Bell Jar, I didn’t find it to be so. Instead I found while it was tragic, it was also witty, engaging and in some places quite uplifting.

This was an excellent book for a reading group as it literally kept us all talking for hours, examining Esther’s personality, her relationships with other characters and the strange events that  affect her throughout. I very much recommend this novel to any book group.

Here are some other thoughts on The Bell Jar from my fellow book-groupers; Simon, (Savidge Reads), Claire (Paperback Reader), and Kim (Kimbofo).

A Double Dose of Ulysses

Savidge Reads has inspired me to join Dovegreyreader‘s Team Ulysses and very sweetly fetched me a copy from his local secondhand bookshop. But I had already bid on one on a nice Penguin Classic on Ebay after carefully selecting  a  so now I have two. Whoops!

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Is anyone else following Team Ulysses? How are people getting on? If you read it before did you love it and was it as difficult as people say?

Also, I’ve just moved to WordPress from Blogger as the publishing tools and dashboard seem significantly more sophisticated (Google, sort it out!) and am settling into my new home so hope people like the new look.

Lawrence Durrell Discovery: The Alexandria Quartet

A little belated blog about some gems I picked up in Savidge Reads’ favourite 5 for £2 secondhand bookstore a couple of weeks ago. Actually they were a bit more expensive at £1 each from the classic literature section, but I couldn’t help myself as it was a full matching (ish) lot of 4 Faber books.

So here they are – The ‘Alexandria Quartet’ comprising Justine (1957), Balthazar (1958), Mountolive (1958) and Clea (1960) by poet and novelist Lawrence Durrell.


The books didn’t have much of a blurb on the back and even a quick flick through didn’t really help me in figuring out what they were about, but I guess I was sort of drawn to the mysteriousness of them. Also, I noted that the prose at the beginning of the first book was quite beautiful;

“The sea is high again today, with a thrilling flush of wind. In the midst of winter you can feel the inventions of Spring. A sky of hot nude pearl until midday, crickets in sheltered places, and now the wind unpacking the great planes, ransacking the great planes…”

According to the bumpf on the Faber & Faber website, the Alexandria quartet is ‘an investigation of modern love’, exploring the sexual and political intrigues of a group of expatriates in Egypt before and during the Second World War. Each book tells essentially the same story from character different perspectives.

I have a suspicion that these might be a bit of a mission to read, but I’m looking forward to giving them a go and hopefully finding something special.

Has anyone read these novels? Are they beautiful literature or just plain odd?! Would love to hear any thoughts before I embark.