Dvärgen

When I did my semester abroad at Stockholm University, I took a course in modern Swedish literature (offered in English, since our Swedish wasn’t much more advanced than “En stor stark, tack!”). It was by far the best literature course of my undergrad career, in large part because of the excellent reading list. The course literature included Barabbas by Pär Lagerkvist, which made such a strong impression on me that I started building a small library of his books as soon as I moved to Sweden.

As I write this, I realize that I have to start almost every review here with some kind of explanation as to either how I came to hear of a book, or why I chose to read it, or both. I guess context is important to me. Here, for example, you can (rightly) infer that I went into this book biased and well-disposed towards Lagerkvist, and now you can (rightly) expect that I liked it. Now I can dispense with the pointless formality and hubris of passing judgment on a well-established classic and just ramble a bit. My point here isn’t to encourage—or discourage—anyone from picking up something relatively new and/or obscure. I just want to remember what I read and, in this case, present worthy Swedish books to my English-speaking friends. Lagerkvist was a huge international hit in his lifetime but he seems to have returned to mere domestic fame; these days Sweden’s entries in world literature appear to be limited to Strindberg and Nordic noir, which I feel is deeply unfair. Fortunately, it’s my understanding that there is an English translation of Dvärgen available and that it is of excellent quality, so you don’t have to miss out on this one.

Anyway! Dvärgen is simply the diary of a court dwarf in Renaissance Italy, spanning maybe six months to a year for the bulk of the action. It includes war, assassinations, intrigue, plague, famine and all the rest through the eyes of said unnamed dwarf, a character that literary criticism has near unanimously described as “evil incarnate.” That’s the interpretation I was thinking about after I finished the book. Is the narrator really meant to be as much?

I don’t ask the question to “woobify” him, as the expression goes—to turn a clearly morally corrupt character into a sympathetic and victimized hero. While his role as as servant means he’s often acting on behalf of others, the dwarf also carries out several actions on his own initiative, motivated by rage and sadism. Nor is there any attempt to make him appealing or “likeable,” like a secret fondness for animals or sensitivity to music. He finds all of the nobler human emotions and pursuits abhorrent or ridiculous; the only things he confesses to enjoying are war, violence, and bloodshed. The extent of the sympathy evoked for him is the absolutely dehumanizing treatment he receives from just about everyone around him. Stepping back, we can also of course point out that we are reading his own diary and account of himself, which is naturally how he wants to be experienced and how he is choosing to present himself, but that is an ambiguous point we can, at best, only infer. I’m sure there’s been more than one thesis already about the role of toxic masculinity and ableism in forming his character.

Rather, I ask the question because just as much of the evil in the book—if not most of it—is someone else’s doing. The prince decides to go to war entirely of his own volition, without consulting the dwarf at all. Likewise, when war proves fruitless, he decides to lure the enemy into an assassination with promises of peace and free trade. The dwarf might be the one to serve the enemy poisoned wine at the celebratory dinner, but he does so only at the order of the prince. And while the dwarf decides of his own accord to inform the prince of the tryst between the enemy prince’s son and the prince’s own daughter, the prince is the one who, in a fit of impetuous rage, murders the young man in his sleep.

Moreover, if we are to take the dwarf at his word, the fear and distaste that people express when they encounter him is nothing more than fear and distaste for what lurks inside themselves. Is this an observation that the reader is meant to take seriously? Or are we to understand that this is projection or warped thinking on behalf of the narrator, and that his claims of true insight and understanding are just so much bloviating?

Life is ambiguous, art is ambiguous, there are no easy answers. Even the ending is ambivalent: yes, the dwarf is in prison and peace seems to reign in the kingdom, but the connection between those two situations is unclear. Does the dwarf have such a supernaturally evil presence that peace cannot be achieved until he is disposed of? Or is the prince genuinely a changed man after facing political and personal consequences for his ambition, and the dwarf’s imprisonment merely an incidental fact following the death of the prince’s wife? The text supports both; the text chooses neither. The unanswered question.

Gösta Berlings saga

It took several months, but I finally finished Gösta Berlings saga. I read it years ago in English; now it was time for Swedish. The only problem is that when you read dense Swedish for most of your work day, there’s not a lot of brain left over for dense Swedish for fun. As a result it took me much longer than it normally would to finish a book of this length and linguistic heft. (Not to compare the quality of writing in a Selma Lagerlöf novel to that of a financial report!)

Cover of Gösta Berlings saga by Selma Lagerlöf
Image courtesy Ansgar Forlag

It’s Gösta Berlings saga, it’s good, the end. What’s more interesting about the book is how many English translations there are. The English translation I originally read was the 1918 edition put out by the American-Scandinavian Foundation, which is essentially Lillie Tudeer’s translation with supplemental material from Velma Swanston Howard, and I remember it as a bit of a slog. I can’t put my finger on it, except to say that it felt very dull and dead. But there have since been three other translations and I thought it would be fun to look at how they all handle that iconic opening line.

The original:

Äntligen stod prästen på predikstolan.*

Or Äntligen stod prästen i predikstolan, depending on which edition you’ve read. Mine is from 1920, so rather than i.

The Lillie Tudeer translation (1894):

The pastor was mounting the pulpit steps.

This is obviously, at a bare minimum, not particularly faithful to the original.

The Pauline Bancroft Flanch translation (1898):

At last the minister stood in the pulpit.

Already we’re much closer to the original.

The Robert Bly translation (1962):

At last the minister stood in the pulpit.

This translation is not a wholly new work but an edited and revised version of the Flanch translation, so not at all surprising it’s identical to the previous one.

The Paul Norlen translation (2009):

At long last the minister stood in the pulpit.

This translation is an entirely new work, and straightaway we have a little extra flavor in the text.

Since I’m writing this in English, I suppose I should leave off with a recommendation for which translation to pick up. Well, it goes without saying that I’d give a pass on the omnipresent Dover Thrift Edition or any other version of Lillie Tudeer’s translation. I’m the most curious now about Paul Norlen’s translation, though I have an all-or-nothing brain and so will probably burn through all three of the other versions in short order anyway.

Wise Child

Someone in one of the more obscure online corners I haunt was waxing nostalgic about Monica Furlong’s Wise Child a few months ago. My interest was piqued, since it sounded like something I would have loved as a middle schooler, and luckily I was able to find a copy without much trouble at all.

Cover of Wise Child by Monica Furlong
Image courtesy Alfred A. Knopf

After the death of her grandmother and without other family who can support her, the eponymous nine-year-old protagonist in Wise Child is taken in by Juniper, the village cailleach. Over the course of the book, Juniper helps Wise Child transform from a bit of a brat into someone more considerate, thoughtful and self-sufficient. She also teaches Wise Child the healing arts and some of the basics of magic to prepare her for becoming a witch, what Juniper calls a doran.

The comparison that immediately springs to mind is to Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising. There is certainly a fantastical element but, like Cooper, Furlong keeps the magic grounded in Scottish folklore (or at least appears to, I’m no expert). The prose is a delight to read, even as an adult. Furlong also has an informed understanding of everyday life in medieval Scotland, always specific in her description of foods, textiles, and buildings. This isn’t hand-wavey Ren Faire style Ye Olde Europe.

Unlike The Dark is Rising, and most other fantasy novels, the story in Wise Child is fairly low stakes. The conflict is entirely interpersonal—rivalry between Juniper and Wise Child’s mother, Maeve; the village priest’s animosity towards Juniper. That’s all pretty small potatoes compared to the thousand years of darkness, hurricanes a-blowin’ and rivers overflowin’, cats and dogs living together mass hysteria you usually expect in the genre. This probably accounts for the difference between the distinct characterization of Wise Child versus the sort of bland everyman (everyboy?) of Will Stanton in The Dark is Rising. When you’re coming up against the end of the world, the drama overshadows the characters and flattens them. But for interpersonal conflicts and personal development, you need nuanced, layered characters.

I don’t know how I missed this gem as a child. I would have seen a lot of myself in the awkward and precocious Wise Child, I’m sure. As an adult, it was refreshing to dip my toe back in the kind of middle grade reading that wasn’t trying to stealth market to adults (what’s up Young Adult) but that also didn’t condescend to its younger demographic. Wise Child was exactly the light summer reading I needed in a world that’s going up in flames.

The House by the River

Cover of The House by the River, by Lena Manta, translated from Greek by Gail Holst-Warhaft

I’m glad that Lena Manta isn’t my mother.

That’s really the only takeaway I have from this book. It seems to be a novel-length riff on “your mother will always love you and be there for you no matter what, also she was right all those years ago but she’ll never say I told you so because she’s just such a saint, but maybe she’ll write a novel instead.”

Theodora meets a much older man when she’s twelve, falls in love a few years later, and then marries him as soon as she turns eighteen. They have five daughters and then her beloved husband dies from stepping on a rusty nail and refusing to have his gangrenous leg amputated because he definitely has some PTSD from fighting in World War II that includes an abject, if poorly articulated, fear of amputation. This is the only remotely interesting piece of characterization in the book.

Theodora raises her daughters as a single mom and doesn’t consider for a moment remarrying (because she’s too old….at the ripe old age of 34). All of her daughters grow up to be breathtakingly beautiful (of course), leave home and in one way or another meet terrible tragedies and eventually come home, chagrined and heartbroken. The daughters who tried to have careers and interests outside of Blissful Domesticity are duly punished, whether it’s a career or an affair (or, in one case, both), but no one comes out of things unscathed. The ones who got married followed in their mother’s footsteps and married older (in one case, much older) men.

It’s possible to distinguish one daughter from the other in the beginning of the book, when they’re still young, but that’s perhaps mostly a function of the narration being fairly distant. As adults, when things switch to a closer third person perspective for each daughter, they become interchangeable. Even as they live somewhat different lives, their internal monologue is indistinguishable from the other because the writing is robotic. Not terse, not sparse, not subtle. Robotic. Robotic and repetitive. I think literally every single sister is described as a “volcano” during their first formative sexual experience.

Each sister has a tragic, melodramatic chapter about their life outside of the village, setting them up for the inevitable fall that will send them back to their mother who loved them and only wanted to protect them, after all. Of course, how stupid they were for thinking they could ever leave home! Their mother had been right all along! Structurally it feels like the book is trying to build a story about resilient women and the power of sisterhood, but it never rises beyond mere melodrama. All of this is why I’m glad Lena Manta isn’t my mother because I expect I would get a lot of guilt tripping over not calling enough, not visiting enough, why don’t you have some more food, when are you going to give me grandchildren, etc.

The only highlight in this book, and the part that was interesting enough that I actually slowed down to savor the reading, was the part of the book that took place under the Nazi occupation of Greece and the subsequent civil war. A whole book about Theodora trying to raise her family and keep things together would have been far more interesting, particularly in a novel by a Greek author of an age to have parents who lived through that history. Instead Manta breezes over that in favor of melodrama that swings between merely uninteresting (oh no, an affair!) or outright cringeworthy (egregious White Saviorism; hamfisted Mafia tropes).

Like so many other people, I got this book for free on World Book Day, so I suppose I can’t complain. You get what you pay for.

Burnt Shadows

One of my ongoing goals is to clear out my backlog of unread books. Burnt Shadows has been in my library since 2009 and might win the award for “gone longest without reading,” at least among the books I have left after numerous purges. The Wrath of Kon Mari.

Cover of Burnt Shadows by Kamila Shamsie
Image courtesy Bond Street Books

Author: Kamila Shamsie

My GoodReads rating: 2 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 3.9 stars

Language scaling: B2+

Summary: The atom bomb brings together disparate families from Japan, India, England and Germany, leading to tragedy and betrayal in post-9/11 America.

Recommended audience: History buffs and international policy nerds who might want a narrative, fictional take on what they already know

In-depth thoughts: Is it bad manners to pan a book from your college writing workshop professor? I guess, but I’ll go ahead and bite the hand that fed me.

The current political atmosphere in the US, when the national paranoia stoked in the aftermath of September 11th, 2001 is once again on the rise, may have affected how I felt about everything. Maybe my own impatience with reading and wanting to get back on track with my book goals might have also forced me to rush and engage with Burnt Shadows differently than if I were just leisurely reading.

The story itself, about the thin threads of happenstance that connect people half a world apart, is intricate and fascinating and the multigenerational aspect of the story  is handled really well, in that all of the parts that Shamsie includes in the story feel absolutely essential.

The sticking point for me was the characters. There are a lot, but it’s not their plenitude that I had an issue with. Actually, on a technical level, the multiple perspectives are handled masterfully. Usually switching perspectives within a scene is confusing and unnecessary, but in this case it works for Shamsie and brings essential information and development to the table.

But the reason that these perspective shifts work on a micro level might be why I was lukewarm about the book on a macro level. Maybe it’s easier to smooth the transition between “head hops” when all of the characters have the same inner narrative style: vaguely lyrical, poetic, refined. It’s not up there with the dialogue in John Green’s Kids With Cancer Falling in Love Makes For Rave Reviews Because Who Would Shit on a Story About Kids With Cancer*—each character’s language and thought process, in isolation, is completely believable; there’s nothing bombastic or ridiculous about any of it—but it does strain credulity a bit that everyone in Burnt Shadows looks at the world through similar metaphors and has essentially the same inner narrative voice. I was reminded a lot of  A Death in the Family and why I rage quit that one years ago: characters were only surface-level different; they still all thought with the same voice and noticed and commented on the same sorts of things. That one was an atheist and another was religious had no real bearing on anything. They were all interchangeable.

There is also an element of melodrama in the writing that feels out of place for me. This is a story about really terrible things, like the atom bomb and Guantanamo Bay and Islamophobia and kids in military training camps—the extra layer of interpersonal melodrama feels unnecessary, and undercuts the gravity of the story.

 

*I mean, I would. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Beyond the Rice Fields

Beyond the Rice Fields was a Facebook book club selection for September; I finished it in the middle of October. Sometimes it takes me a while, but I get there!

Beyond the Rice Fields cover
Image courtesy Restless Books

Author: Naivo

Translator: Allison M. Charrette (French)

My GoodReads rating: 3 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 3.76 stars

Language scaling: C1

Content warning: A fair amount of off- and on-screen violence and gore

Summary: The clash between Christian missionaries and the ruling elite of Madagascar as it plays out in the lives and loves of Fara and Tsito.

Recommended audience: Anyone curious about the pre-colonial history of Madagascar; anyone looking to read more African literature

In-depth thoughts: This is a completely petty point, but once I realized that Beyond the Rice Fields had been translated from French instead of Malagasy, I lost a lot of steam. Not because of anything wrong with the book, but rather because I always feel a little guilty and uninspired when I read an English translation of a work originally written in a language I can more or less read (Swedish, French).  But I didn’t realize that when the book turned up for book club, and so I didn’t even think to see if I could find the French edition anywhere.

My pettiness aside, the book is beautifully written. I savored the prose even when I knew tragedy was just around the corner. Naivo’s writing has a lyricism and a rhythm that’s utterly captivating, though that doesn’t stop the plot from feeling like it’s dragging at certain points. And it’s not even a dragging plot that I mind; it’s that it moves so relentlessly and so slowly towards tragedy. (Spoiler alert, I guess: the ending is a downer.) I’m willing to slog through hell and high water if I think the protagonists will get their reward in the end, but when things become a slow motion trainwreck it’s a little harder to bear. Especially when it feels like a deus ex machina trainwreck.

The most satisfying endings and character arcs are when someone gets what they deserve, for better or for worse. When bad luck and misfortune constantly befall a character, and when they’re undone by chance and circumstances rather than their own poor decisions or character flaws, their tragic end is so much less satisfying. That’s my one-sentence critique of Beyond the Rice Fields: the tragedy feels senseless and unearned. It’s just plain bad luck. Of course, tragedy in real life is often senseless and unearned. I just want something else from fiction, especially right now.

For EFL readers, Beyond the Rice Fields might be hard work in places;  among other things, Naivo has a tendency to stack lengthy modifiers on top of each other:

A scarlet curtain was visible in the back, concealing a secret door, behind which I heard voices.

But this complex construction also gives the prose its lullaby-like quality. If you can’t read the French original, Charrette’s English translation is beautiful and rewarding.

Book Review: The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue

This was another selection from one of my three book clubs, this one based on Discord and more generally YA focused. The earlier book I read with them was Roar.

 

The cover of "The Gentleman's Guide to Vice and Virtue" by Mackenzi Lee

Author: Mackenzi Lee

My GoodReads rating: 2 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 4.17

Language scaling: B2+

Summary: On the eve of his entry into adulthood, Henry Montague is going on a tour of Europe with his sister and his best friend and love interest, Percy. What starts out as a sedate tour of arts and culture ends up being a cross-continental treasure hunt.

Recommended audience: 19th century adventure novel fans; those interested in GLBTQ+ literature

In-depth thoughts: This was a book that I was really excited about. I watch a couple of Booktubers now and again, and The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue had come up in a lot of their videos. The concept sounded interesting and these were people whose tastes I trusted, so when my Discord book club chose this book for February I was glad that, for once, I was going to read the new release I was interested in fairly close to release. (This doesn’t happen often! Too many books!)

Once, as a kid, I took a sip from a cup without looking and expected apple juice. It actually had milk. The moment of confusion where my brain tried to sort out expectations versus reality meant the drink didn’t really taste like anything, at least anything I was familiar with. It was just uncomfortable and disconcerting.

The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue is that moment in book form. I think I was expecting a subtle, more character-driven slow burn romance; when it turned out to be a Return the MacGuffin adventure story I was disappointed and slightly uncomfortable for the remainder of the story.

Additionally, Henry (or “Monty,” as he’s known for most of the book) takes a breezy, ironic tone that feels anachronistic, too modern for a book taking place in pre-Revolutionary France. Confession: I love 19th century adventure novels, as racist and sexist and issue-laden as they are. And The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue doesn’t read like one of those at all. This wouldn’t be a problem except I think Lee wants this book to be a more inclusive version of exactly those books.

To her credit, Lee gives a very thorough accounting of all of her research and inspiration for a number of aspects of the books (the Grand Tour, European politics, queer history, race relations) at the end. When it comes to Henry, she cites the journals of James Boswell as inspiration. This has made me rather keen to read them. His diaries about his own Grand Tour are a little hard to come by, but his account of traveling to the Hebrides is available for free on Kindle.

While my expectations may have soured the book for me overall (apple juice and milk), it’s still a good book that, thanks to the narrator’s unusually modern voice, can be a great choice for EFL students.

Review: The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage

I borrowed this book from a friend. She thought to recommend it to me on the basis of the footnotes (long story), not knowing that I’m also a huge nerd for Ada Lovelace. I mean, I’m pretty obviously a huge nerd generally and she knew that much when she let me borrow it; I mean a nerd for Lovelace and the Analytical Engine specifically.

The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage
Image courtesy Sydney Padua and Pantheon

Author: Sydney Padua

My GoodReads rating: 5 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 4.05 stars

Language scaling: B1 / C1

Plot summary: In this lighthearted steampunk alternative history, Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage build a working model of the Analytical Engine and go on adventures.

Recommended audience: Steampunk fans; graphic novel fans; those interested in the history of modern computing.

In-depth thoughts: There are two language gradings above; it depends on whether you include all of the primary sources and quotes that Padua provides in the footnotes, in the appendices, and (occasionally) in the dialogue in the comic itself. Padua’s contemporary English will probably be more familar and easier for EFL readers to grasp than quotes taken from Victorian-era sources. As a native speaker who is a huge fan of thorough, clearly cited research, I appreciate all of those quotes and sources; EFL writers might find that trying to read through some of those sections is too difficult.

If any of the language gets too complicated, though, you can give yourself a break and enjoy Padua’s adorable art.

Book Review: The Three-Body Problem

I normally don’t pay attention to awards in real time. If I’m browsing a bookstore and I see that a particular book has won this or that prize, it might push me towards buying it rather than putting it back. But nominees? Voting? Nah. I’m still prioritizing my Classics Club journey through the TIME Top 100 Novels list, so I’m not really up to date on new releases (except the ones I get from NetGalley and Blogging for Books).

But sometimes I catch wind of things and my interest gets piqued. That was the case with The Three-Body Problem—and that was mostly because of the Puppies Hugo debacle. Chinese science fiction? Sign me up!

The Three-Body Problem cover
Image courtesy Tor Publishing

Author: Cixin Liu

Translator: Ken Liu

My GoodReads rating: 4 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 3.98 stars

Language scaling: B1/B2+

Plot summary: Nanotechnology expert Wang Miao becomes sucked up in a covert government plot, dating back to the Cultural Revolution, to manage humanity’s first contact with an alien race.

Recommended audience: Fans of hard science fiction; people interested in quantum physics.

In-depth thoughts: The Three-Body Problem is a first contact novel that is very much informed by contemporary breakthroughs (the Large Hadron Collider) and theories (quantum entanglement). It’s an interesting companion piece to The Sparrow, where the scientific expertise isn’t in the tech or the theory but in the culture- and race-building.

 

A comparison between The Three-Body Problem and The Vegetarian is also warranted. Technically, Chinese and Korean are members of different language families (Sino-Tibetan and Koreanic*), but it’s safe to say they are both equally alien to English. Smith and Liu probably faced similar problems regarding not only language but also culture. The Three-Body Problem is steeped in China’s modern history; The Vegetarian in Korean cuisine. Among many other small things, both languages have particular forms of address (especially within families) we don’t use in English.

Ken Liu’s language struck me right away; it’s clear and simple to the point of being choppy. I wasn’t sure if I liked it at fist, but as the story picked up I enjoyed it. Ken Liu and Cixin Liu both give their comments at the end of the novel and Ken Liu discusses the specific issues of translating literary style between cultures with different literary norms and rules:
But there are more subtle issues involving literary devices and narrative technique. The Chinese literary tradition shaped and was shaped by its readers, giving rise to different emphases and preferences in fiction compared to what American readers expect. In some cases, I tried to adjust the narrative techniques to ones that American readers are more familiar with. In other cases, I’ve left them alone, believing that it’s better to retain the flavor of the original.
. . .
The best translations into English do not, in fact, read as if they were originally written in English. The English words are arranged in such a way that the reader sees a glimpse of another culture’s patterns of thinking, hears an echo of another language’s rhythms and cadences, and feels a tremor of another people’s gestures and movements.
. . .
In moving from one language, culture, and reading community to another language, culture, and reading community, some aspects of the original are inevitably lost. But if the translation is done well, some things are also gained — not least of which is a bridge between the two readerships.

Translation notes aside, I only had a small problem with the book. Science fiction has not always been a genre that lends itself to nuanced, mutli-layered characters—often we have a few given archetypes that are faced with a predicament, and the narrative thrust isn’t about their journey as characters but about how the problem is solved. The same tradition seems to have informed The Three-Body Problem as well, though Liu Cixin doesn’t mention any of his science fiction influences or heroes in his afterword. The characters in the story are largely archetypes or just stand-ins; plot points for a story rather than flesh-and-blood people. The exception is Ye Wenjie, who I thought was interesting and compelling. I wish she was in the story more.

Overall it was a great hook for a trilogy. Once I finish Swedish class, I’ll definitely be picking up the sequels as a treat for myself.

*Korean is sometimes grouped in with Altaic languages and sometimes considered its own isolated family. Either way, it’s not linguistically connected to Chinese the same way that English is connected to, say, German.

Book Review: The French Lieutenant’s Woman

Genre: Literary fiction

My GoodReads rating: 2 stars

Language scaling: Advanced (C1+)

Plot summary: In Victorian England, Charles Smithson and Ernestina Freeman are engaged to be married. While visiting Ernestina in the town of Lyme Regis, Charles meets and eventually falls in love with the tragic Sarah Woodruff, known around the village as “The French Lieutenant’s Woman.”

Recommended audience: Hardcore English literature fans

In-depth thoughts: The French Lieutenant’s Woman is the first book I’m discussing here to be part of my larger goal of conquering TIME magazine’s list of the Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century. I’m almost done, but it’s taken quite a while. There have been a lot of snags and pauses along the way; The French Lieutenant’s Woman is my first foray into the list after a lengthy dry spell.

I knew nothing about the book going into it. Considering that John Fowles is listed among Great Britain’s top 50 writers, that makes me maybe one of the worst English majors ever, but so it is. That’s exactly why I decided to tackle the TIME Top 100 Novels list: to fill in the gaps of my literary education. (English literature, at any rate.)

Image courtesy Jonathan Cape/Random House

Where to start with this book? Well, the writing is complex and dense. This is not a complaint; it’s good to stretch the little gray cells once in a while, and once you accustom yourself to the faux-Victorian style of the novel things continue at a relatively snappy pace. But it’s still work, and for so much work one expects some kind of reward.

By “reward,” I don’t mean a good or at least satisfying ending, plot-wise; I mean the entire reading experience. Contrast The French Lieutenant’s Woman with a book it inspired: A. S. Byatt’s Possession. On the surface, the plot isn’t too terribly exciting. What’s commendable about Possession is Byatt’s thorough commitment to her fictional poets and her parallel narrative structure. All told, Possession includes: a modern-day narrative; a Victorian narrative; considerable personal correspondence from a variety of fictional Victorians; journal entries from a Victorian-era French teenager; and a small corpus of highly formalized poetry for the two aforementioned fictional poets. That is some dedication to the craft.

The French Lieutenant’s Woman lacks any such dedication, particularly in the variety of viewpoints. The narrative chugs along in a consistent third person that is sometimes quite close and other times quite distant, with only a few winks and nods at the fourth wall to make it feel at all modern. We spend exactly zero time with Sarah Woodruff, the titular character. Instead, we spend most of the time with Charles. Sometimes we leave Charles to get to know other male characters, such as the Irish doctor or Charles’s servant, Sam, but most of the time we’re with Charles. Women are treated even more distantly, and no woman is treated more distantly than Sarah. Because of this, everything else falls apart. Without the privilege of an interior monologue, Sarah remains nothing more than the tired trope of “hysterical attention whore” and the entire novel feels much staler and older than its 1969 publication date.

The bell cannot be unrung; the book cannot be unread. Fowles’s The Magus sounds like it might be more my cup of tea, but other than that I won’t be coming back to this author anytime soon. Not even Meryl Streep and Jeremy Irons can save this one for me.