January 2021 Wrap-Up: From The Glass Menagerie to A History of the Universe in 21 Stars

The Glass Menagerie [1944] by Tennessee Williams – ★★★★★

Tennessee Williams (A Streetcar Named Desire [1947]) published his partly-autobiographical play The Glass Menagerie in 1944 and this debut became an instant theatrical success. The play only has a handful of main characters, and centres on Amanda, a domineering mother to her two grown-up children – quietly rebellious Tom and completely submissive and “hopeless” Laura who “lives in a world of her own”. When Tom arranges for “a young gentleman caller” to come over for dinner so that he can meet Laura, the family’s hidden neuroses and insecurities come to the surface. Still reliving her years as a southern belle (probably as a way to cope with the Depression era realities), Amanda “overpowers” each individual around her, and her children devised special strategies to deal with their mother’s encroachment, and general isolation and loneliness. If Tom “goes to the movies” and drinks, Amanda’s unmarried and disabled daughter Laura retreats in her own imaginary world of glass figurines (which stand for the fragile world of dreams that is about to be shattered by the brutal reality).

This nuanced play revolving around memory portrays psychological domination, loneliness, familial misunderstandings, social discrimination and the refusal to let go of one’s past. As in his other plays, Williams shows powerfully the two worlds colliding – one of illusion filled with dreams of the now bygone era where sophistication, delicacy and leisure ruled, and another one filled with recent industrialisation and harsh realities of life experienced during the Depression. This is a play about the tragedy of life in its most unflinching form. The Glass Menagerie is a masterwork – perceptive and devastatingly powerful.

Peter Pan; or, the Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up or Peter & Wendy [1911] by J. M. Barrie – ★★★★★

The Neverland is always more or less an island, with astonishing splashes of colour here and there, and coral reefs…and savages and lonely lairs, and gnomes who are mostly tailors, and caves through which a river runs, and princes with six elder brothers, and a hut fast going to decay…” [1911: 7].

Since this month is a “children’s literature” month for me (see my list of 12 favourite childhood books), I also re-read Peter Pan by J. M. Barrie. Initially a play, this novel was first published in 1911 and tells of boy Peter Pan who just would not grow up. He whisks away three children living in London, Wendy, John and Michael, to a mysterious island the Neverland where there are pirates, mermaids and fairies, where there are adventures to be had, and the trio meet the Lost Boys as well as Peter Pan’s nemesis number one – sinister Captain James Hook. Re-reading it now, I thought it was a wonderful, wondrous children’s book with delightful absurdities inside. It was both fun and bittersweet, as well as “thrilling” and “cosy”, at the same time. I would say that it also has underlying thought-provoking messages for adults on the nature of memory, the passage of time, the symbolic battle between adulthood/old age (Captain Hook) and youth (Peter Pan), the power of belief and on the very essence of childhood.

No Exit [1945] by Jean-Paul Sartre – ★★★★1/2

John Milton famously said: “The mind is its own place and in itself, can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven”. In this play by Sartre, three people have died and gone to hell. They are seemingly decent and cultured individuals, but nothing is as it seems. They find themselves in a room strangely furnished, having to confront just each other, but for what purpose? Their secrets and circumstances as to why they now find themselves in hell are slowly becoming clear. And, so does their punishment.

This deliciously absurd play relies on an idea that nothing is more torturous then being confronted by other people, who probe one’s secrets, stir one’s conscience and who have certain expectations of one. It is only by being completely alone, without the need to justify anything or please anybody, that an individual can find their paradise – a certain kind of freedom. “Acting is simply reacting”, and that means that acting happens all the time because there are always other people to react to. So, Joseph Garcin, Inez Serrano and Estelle Rigault are left in one room to boil in each other’s thoughts of one another, in each other’s persistent and undeniable presence. There is seemingly no peace for this trio because the eyes of society (“the eyes of the other”) are forever locked on them, putting them through the circles of hell. “Hell is other people.

Villete [1853] by Charlotte Bronte – ★★★★

Apparently, this is an all-time favourite book of Kazuo Ishiguro (as can be discerned from one of his most recent interviews). Charlotte Bronte is famously known as the author of Jane Eyre [1847], and this book has similar themes and tropes. It is impossible to do full justice to a book of this calibre in a short review, but, briefly, Villette talks about young woman Lucy Snowe, a relatable and sympathetic heroine, who travels from England to France for employment, and, eventually, become a teacher in an all-girls boarding school there. The first person narrative is almost unreliable, and Lucy’s hidden passion, tormented psyche and longings for personal happiness drive the narrative forward as her imagination is first fuelled by one dashing doctor, and, later, her mental battle with strict Professor Paul Emmanuel threatens to overthrow her previous conceptions of love and devotion.

This beautiful novel with rich and confident prose is full of secret delights as it tells a tale of one unrequited love, foreign-country adaptation, as well as of a quest of finding oneself and one’s happiness in the most unusual of places. Perhaps rather unjustly on my part, but I also honestly found the book a little on a repetitive side with regards to many expressions of the main heroine, not quite as psychologically or narratively exciting as I had initially hoped it to be, its characters’ actions and characteristics a bit overbearing, stereotypical and puzzling, and the book generally replete with some both predictable and unbelievable coincidences.

The Aurelian [1941] by Vladimir Nabokov – ★★★★

For Pilgram belonged…to a special breed of dreamers, such dreamers as used to be called in the old days “Aurelians”….”. This is a very short, rather personal, story about a man, Paul Pilgram, who runs a shop that is dedicated to butterflies and insects. He and his wife are childless, and Pilgram seems to have dedicated his whole life to butterflies. Only he has never really been abroad and has always hoped to experience the thrill of butterfly-watching and -catching first hand in some exotic, distant land. Nabokov, who himself was an avid butterfly collector, had a way with words and his prose flows beautifully in this story. The story itself can be read through a lens of symbolism and philosophy, and its themes encompass the extremities of our dreams and our pursuits of them, and what it takes to bridge the ultimate gap between the man and his obsession.

A History of the Universe in 21 Stars (and 3 Imposters) [2020] by Giles Sparrow★★★1/2

Here, at the bottom of this list, is this non-fiction book about stars. I loved the idea of the book to map the history of science as related to the universe through just twenty-one stars, and, if you ignore some of the language and rather confusing explanations, it is a good guide to stars and constellations.


28 thoughts on “January 2021 Wrap-Up: From The Glass Menagerie to A History of the Universe in 21 Stars

        1. Interesting! and I am sure it was! I have never seen a live performance of this play, but I want to one day (if such an opportunity arises). This play and A Streetcar Named Desire are now my favourites of Williams. I am still to read Summer and Smoke, and I have recently seen a film Suddenly, Last Summer, but was left with mixed feelings – I am sure the play itself is better than the adaptation!

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    1. I highly recommend the play! For a relatively short play, it is incredibly powerful. Perhaps because it is semi-autobiographical. Williams definitely knew what he was trying to portray.

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    1. Yes, very interesting! They definitely have in common this unforgettable introspective narrative. I think Ishiguro said something along the lines that for decades he was also saying to everyone that his favourite novel is Crime & Punishment or something from Dostoyevsky, but then he realised that in fact it was Villette and this book only. He said he’d grown to appreciate it much more as time passed.

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      1. I wonder if the unreliable narration appealed to him. I believe Villette is meant to be one of the earliest examples in English of this kind of unreliable narrator, and obviously Ishiguro is a master of unreliability.

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  1. I decided last year to read No Exit, but haven’t got to it yet. I am glad you rate it so highly. I’ve always had a soft spot for Waiting for Godot – it will be interesting to see how they compare.

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  2. What a great list. The first 3 are favorites of mine. I’ve yet to read anything by Nabokov. Have you ever seen the movie Finding Neverland with Kate Winslet? It’s based on Barrie’s life. If you’re a Peter Pan fan, you’ll love the film.

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