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Inglorious by Joanna Kavenna
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Inglorious (2007)

by Joanna Kavenna

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What a poorly-skewed ratings graph this book has on Goodreads. But the reviews here (and on Amazon) explain why: it's been mis-marketed. Does that cover look like quite a serious philosophical novel to you? Nope, I didn't think so. Only this cover suits it. People will judge and choose by covers, no matter what old adages say. And a lot of the blurbs sound altogether too chicklitty. The quotes from the serious press make sense but "Smart, funny and warm"? I think someone sentElle a Kathy Lette novel in the wrong cover for them to come up with that melted cheese. No-wonder there are so many reader reviews that seem to be missing the point and often the references in the book, saying it's miserable, or criticising the lack of a shiny happy self-helpy conclusion.

Dropping out of society and being all existentialist is, in art and fiction, historically a male occupation. That hadn't bothered me especially as I didn't see it as meaning women couldn't, just that fiction - not reality - considered them to have different preoccupations, plus I'm perfectly capable of identifying with different gendered characters.
In an interview Joanna Kavenna said:"I remember as a teenager reading all these canonical books by Lawrence and Camus on what was always billed as 'the human condition'. It's only much later that you start to think, 'where are all the women?'" Whereas my conclusion was that hardly any female writers were interested in producing work along those lines.
I hoped I would at some point they would and I'd notice it; those I'm now aware of have all been very recent creations. The film Wendy & Lucy was the first one I remember. And now this and Come to the Edge - a novel which Joanna Kavenna wrote straight after Inglorious but which wasn't published until seven years later.

Both are novels of (similar) ideas but with different tones. Inglorious is serious though there are lines at which some might laugh in dark humour, and it doesn't explain itself directly.
As in the later book, which I read first, there is a critique of capitalist society and the expected trajectory of an orderly life, which simultaneously understands the love of that society's trappings. (The heroine, Rosa, visits the home of some married friends: "Three children, it was a towering achievement. And the place was a work of art...Everything was immaculate.” ... Her covering letters on job applications have all the satiric rage and righteousness of the newly manic Dennis Bagley in How to Get Ahead in Advertising.)

Rosa's journey, most of which is around the streets in duller areas of West London, closely mirrors the protagonist's experience in Knut Hamsun's Hunger and the narrative often reminded me of the Norwegian book. Another review alludes to Dostoevsky. Her swing from colour-supplement success story with a happy family background, to starving, uncompromising, occasionally hallucinatory, dropout intellectual is precipitated by events that populate mainstream fiction: the death of her mother, walking out of a media job, the end of her moribund relationship - things sometimes trivialised when they belong to certain types of people in stories, especially younger middle-class women. But these things can be harrowingly painful with the depth of centuries, even though their surface outlines are templates for cheap station novels with pink covers, or films starring Jennifer Aniston. And I think Kavenna is trying to point this out in Inglorious. She said in the same article I quoted above: "what happens if women write books that are solely about women trying to struggle with life – do they get accepted as representations of the human condition, or is it just the female condition?" No, I don't think people have a problem accepting them as part of the human condition if the work is intellectually serious - and I've seen at least as many men as women give high opinions of such works. (However, chicklit is perhaps regarded more dismissively than the smaller number of similar popular novels by and about men.)

The modern setting made aspects of Hunger even clearer to me, and more pertinent, in particular its illustration of the mismatch between the money system and the human need for self-expression and actualisation - which is insoluble for most except the relatively well-off and a few off-grid survivalists. There is also a fantastically evoked sensation of grasping around for things, for the levers which work the world, through a fog which has descended. Part of the fog is unfortunately others' lack of understanding. Most of Rosa's friends can't comprehend life off their own tramlines and sneer at her - yet she is acting like the subjects in many works of art they no doubt admire, with her unusually idea-based depression. Though their worst actions are to catalogue cruelly to her face her failings during the last days of her dying relationship, as if they hadn't realised that everything which had happened was more than enough. Those who try to be helpful are ultimately very boundaried and intent on remaining immersed in their own lives and convenience. But then what else is anyone supposed to do? Co-dependent helping would be "unhealthy" or smothering or both. Another insoluble problem of how society works.

If I hadn't read Granta 123: The Best of Young British Novelists 4, I can't imagine I'd have picked up a book that looked like this, or gone beyond dismissing its synopsis (the old one on here ... I replaced it on Goodreads with one from the author's website mentioning "Dante's centre point of life", which gives a better impression of what's inside). hopefully a few more readers who'll like this will find it now, undeterred by average ratings from those who wanted to read something completely different.

Read 10-14 May 2013. ( )
  antonomasia | Aug 15, 2013 |
This was a profound and quite moving novel which, against all expectations, sustained its intensity right through to the end, never letting up at all. It is surely the work of an awesome intellect.

The story follows Rosa, a journalist who suffers a sort of early mid-life crisis following the death of her mother, quits her job and slides into poverty and mental instability. Suddenly she is aware of the futility of her own existence, and the fundamental questions of philosophy are suddenly all too important, and prevent her from pulling herself together.

Though told in the third person, Rosa's 'voice' comes across very clearly, and the enormity of the outside world, as she views it walking through the streets of London, is fascinating viewed through her eyes. Not a detail is missed, and it is reminiscent of James Joyce's 'Ullyses' though - dare I say it - better and more enjoyable. I also admired the author's ability to zero in on the telling details - the bank employee with his 'faceful of compelling moles', and the ageing man who sits opposite Rosa on the train, banging into her and taking so long over his apology that they were 'in danger of having a conversation' ! ( )
3 vote jayne_charles | Aug 25, 2010 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
a tale about a lonely, depressed and desperate woman who quits her job to figure it out all. i mean, how many women haven't been on the verge of a nervous breakdown at some point in thier lives? ( )
  amanaceerdh | Oct 23, 2009 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
Rosa Lane is a character to remember. If you like books that are character driven, this is a fantastic choice for you. Especially if you have gone through a lot in your lifetime, you will relate. ( )
  PoeticaL | Sep 1, 2009 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
I read this book last fall, but what has stayed with me in this story of a woman who is depressed and alone, facing really hard decisions for the first time in her life. After he mother dies, Rosa leaves a job she dislikes and then her boyfriend leaves her. These series of disasters just set the stage for Rosa to fix herself. ( )
  kepitcher | Aug 15, 2009 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0312427883, Paperback)

When Rosa Lane, a promising young journalist, impulsively hits the send button on an email to her boss saying "I quit," so begins her pursuit of enlightenment in the jungles of cutthroat London. As she embarks upon her quest for a sense of purpose, she is deceived by her lover, surprised by her friends, turned out by her roommate, threatened by her bank manager, picked over by prospective employers, and tormented by all the bizarre expectations of the modern world. An erudite and darkly comic novel, brimming with lacerating wit and compassion, Inglorious is a truly engrossing character study of a woman walking the edge between self-destruction and self-discovery.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:22:58 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

"One day successful young journalist and dedicated urbanite Rosa Lane sends her boss an email that says "I quit" and walks out of her job. She can't explain why - not to Liam, with whom she has Lived for many years; not to her friends, who had her pegged as the first female editor of her national newspaper; not to her recently widowed father, whose only daughter has never before given him any reason to worry. All Rosa knows is that she needs to find enlightenment, some way of understanding the death of her mother, and some reason to do more than just earn a living." "Thus begins the piercingly wise and bitingly funny odyssey of Rosa Lane. Inexplicable to her friends and family, Rosa embarks on a quest for a sense of purpose, in which she runs afoul of all the rules of mating, morality, and money. Along the way, she is deceived by her lover, surprised by her friends, turned out by her roommate, threatened by her bank manager, picked over by prospective employers, befuddled by philosophy, and tormented by omnivorous London. Brought very low indeed, Rosa in her desperation makes a final assault on those who have done her wrong, leading to the beginning of her return to normality - whatever that is."--BOOK JACKET.… (more)

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