Archive for January, 2016

Shakespeare: Cymbeline

January 29, 2016

51620XFKCTL._AA160_It’s not a play I know that well, never having studied it, and I’ve only read it a few times. It’s supposed to be set in ancient Britain, at the time of the emperor Augustus (which is a bit odd, since the Roman History I studied had no offical contact between Britain and Rome between Julius Caesar’s adventures in 55 and 54BC and Claudius’ conquest nearly a century later, but let’s not get too niggly..) but one thing that I have never really got is a sense of that time period; dialogue, action and attitudes basically feel like those of the sixteenth century, and the scenes in Rome and with Romans are very cursory.

It’s another of those plays where a villain convinces a man that his partner (wife or intended wife) has been unfaithful to him, causing grief and mayhem. Instead of the machinations of Don John which I wrote about in my last piece, about Much Ado, this time it’s the alleged friend of a friend, Iachimo, who manages to convince the absent Posthumus that he has slept with Imogen, the former’s wife. Clearly captivated by her beauty, he has tried it on a couple of times but got nowhere; repulsed he sneaks into her room at night and notes so many details of the chamber and the woman that he is able to convince Posthumus he’s done the dirty deed, even though he hasn’t…

There are elements of the scheming nature of Iago in Iachimo; Cymbeline‘s wife is also a schemer, and it’s via a supposed poison that she’s had concocted for a nefarious purpose that Imogen ends up apparently dead, and buried, though she comes back to life later on (now where has Shakespeare used that idea before?) This is a Roman element, I suppose, as Romans – especially women – were notorious for their use of poison to get rid of people who got in their way. And the idea of the heroine restored to life and reunited with her true love, her husband who had been gulled and led to doubt her honesty, comes up again in the later and rather more spectacular play, TheWinter’s Tale.

Then there’s the long-lost loyal friend who has fallen out of the king’s favour and gone into hiding (having arranged to have two of the king’s sons stolen away, too), which leads into a series of episodes set among the more primitive ancient Britons, though why Milford Haven should be everyone’s preferred spot does escape me.

Certainly Shakespeare wasn’t above re-using elements of earlier plays that had been successful! And they work well, re-used. The language of the play is often very complex, the syntax somewhat tortured, compacted in the way that a good number of Prospero‘s speeches are in The Tempest. I am looking forward to seeing it in performance, as I expect that it will be more immediately comprehensible when performed. And, although the combinations of plots, attitudes and characters are at times a challenge for a twenty-first century reader, I did feel strangely moved by the ending.

Shakespeare: Much Ado About Nothing

January 27, 2016

51NjXWbSjBL._AA160_When I wrote about The Taming of the Shrew last month, I mentioned that I’d come late to the enjoyment of Shakespeare’s comedies, and considered some of the reasons. I’m back here again, having revisited Much Ado About Nothing, which I realise has some similarities with the former, particularly in the central male/ female relationship.

The idea of a comedy being a story – a drama – that ends happily, rather than something that you spend a lot of time laughing at, is a difficult one for us to take on board, although if tragedy is a story with an unhappy ending, then the contrast is logical. And in a Shakespearean comedy there is usually a good deal to laugh at, even if it isn’t the primary focus. And then there is the tragi-comedy – a drama of tragedy averted – as it was so succinctly put by my English teacher at school. There are certainly tragi-comic elements in Much Ado.

I don’t find the sharpness and the displays of wit between Beatrice and Benedick anywhere near as funny or as enjoyable as those between Petruchio and Katherine, though I do like the idea of their being so ‘up themselves’ that they can be manipulated into admitting that they fancy each other, love each other, and will marry. I do find the plot which leads to the public shaming of the chaste Hero quite a shocking element in a play which will eventually turn out to have a happy ending, and Claudio’s behaviour seems quite unforgivable: thank heaven for suspension of disbelief, I suppose. And there is a reminder that the first Elizabethans prized different things from us, found different things humorous, and different behaviours acceptable.

And then there’s Dogberry and the watch: I’ve always warmed to this bumbling crew with their hearts in the right place, and the whole happy ending depends on them, of course. Somehow their blundering and their malapropisms mean the mounties get their men, as it were, and we realise how much of the success of this play depends on overheard conversations, and who overhears them and what they do with that eavesdropped knowledge…

Because it’s a comedy, the punishment of the evil Don John is deferred beyond the end of the play: there is no real assurance that he will get what he deserves, unlike what is promised Iago, for example; again an instance of the difference between tragedy and comedy.

I have yet to see a performance of this play; I suspect I will enjoy it much more when it’s brought to life. I have a DVD of the recent RSC production which I must get around to watching.

The staircase (concluded): Themes & Ideas

January 25, 2016

I suppose, in terms of my teaching, the themes and ideas were the optional extra, as I explained in that introductory post: there don’t actually have to be any, and plenty of novels are successful enough without them. It’s where works of fiction become more complex and demanding of their readers, and novels which are set for examination or other kinds of study will normally be chosen because they contain ideas and issues for the student to explore.

Clearly, it’s possible to read a novel and ignore or skate over the ideas because what you are interested in is the plot or the characters, particularly in that first reading; maybe they are not particularly noticeable or evident; perhaps you will deliberately look for them later. I’ve always enjoyed and responded to what I call the literature of ideas, not that I don’t enjoy fiction to relax and unwind with, like my collection of science fiction and detective novels. But – and I don’t know whether this came about because I turned into a student of literature – writers have usually made me think, at the same time as entertaining me.

Here I realise we come on to another idea which isn’t perhaps widely considered, that once an author has published a book, it is public; that is, the author no longer has sole ownership of it and what it says or contains. A reader may find something, interpret something in a way that the author didn’t originally intend, or didn’t think of when writing: that is a valid idea, or interpretation nenetheless. So, these themes or ideas that I’ve been writing about may be deliberately intended to form part of the work by an author, or they may be accidental, and this is not always clear; it has seemed to me that the more time that elapses since the first publication of a novel, the more open it becomes to a wider range of interpretations and meanings than the author may originally have intended. Her or his novel is in the public domain (I’m not meaning the legal sense of the term here), in the wild, as it were, with an existence and potential for understanding that are its own. Some authors openly acknowldege this, some may have not even thought of this possibility…

I’ve written theoretically thus far about the concept of themes and ideas, the third step of my staircase; now I’ll consider two texts in the light of the theory, by way of illustration.

To Kill A Mockingbird is a story. A brother and sister grow up, in a single-parent family, with their father who is a lawyer and who undertakes a particularly challenging defence of a black man accused of raping a white woman, in the racist society of 1930s Deep South USA. He loses the case. That’s the novel, and yet we can look at it from a number of other angles: it’s about growing up in a racist society and the different ways people respond to this; it’s about parenting and how parents shape your life; it’s about the relations between parents and children; it’s about adults and children; it’s about growing up and how you change in the way you see and respond to the world. All of those are the bigger ideas or themes lurking in the novel, and surely there cannot be many readers who have not noticed some of them.

Birdsong is a story of the First World War, the horrors of the trenches and how men survive or not, set against he background of the Battle of the Somme. And yet… it’s a novel about comradeship; it’s a novel about how men react when pushed to the absolute limits, when any minute might be their last, living amongst unspeakable horrors; it’s a novel about the power of memory, across the generations, and the power of memory to shape lives. Faulks very carefully weaves a number of different threads together to bring out each of these key ideas and more…

My reading of fiction has always seemed the richer for being able to see such connections, and an even broader picture than just those of the plot and the characters; if students are encouraged to look more widely, they will surely enhance their understanding of a text, write more intelligently about it, and glean higher grades.

The staircase (continued): Character

January 24, 2016

This is the next level in terms of depth of engagement with a text: there are various questions to consider. Is a character convincing (if the writer is writing a realist novel)? If it’s a fantasy, then the criteria may be rather different, but somewhere along the line issues of plausibility or credibility come in to play as necessary to convince us to stay with a particular text. We need to be interested in a character’s progress and development – hence the popularity of the bildungsroman, for example. That’s what keeps us interested in Jane Eyre, in Villette, in some of Somerset Maugham‘s novels, to name a few.

This is also the next level of analysis: we can consider not only the individual characters, but also the relationships between them, and whether we find their interactions convincing. We may encounter such things as the development of romance, feuding, issues of loyalty and betrayal, exploration of friendships… We will also have our own response to specific characters – we may like or dislike them, want certain things for them in terms of the plot development: they take on lives of their own, independent of the author, even though they are the creations of that author. This can lead to us disliking the ending of a novel because it does not turn out the way we think it should have done…

For an illustration, I turn to two of my favourite characters, Holmes and Watson in the Sherlock Holmes stories. The relationship between them is quite sketchy, as are their individual characters in general. But there is a relationship, starting off from an engineered encounter, introductions and their negotiating the terms on which they will share rooms. As the stories progress, we see through small details the trust that develops between them, the things they like and dislike in each other, the differences between them. Watson is twice married in the stories, and moves out of 221b Baker Street; he has a medical practice of his own at one point, and yet what we might find rather unconvincing is the ease with which his long-suffering wife allows him to join Holmes on any and every caper when he is asked… Holmes’ response is very touching on the couple of occasions where he realises he has overstepped the mark, and exposed his loyal friend to too great a danger. Though the detective stories are the most important thing, as readers we are glad to meet the pair again, in some familiar surroundings, but about to embark on a new adventure. Incidentally, this is probably why I do not like the new modern takes on Holmes, but that’s another matter.

Looking at a couple of more serious examples, from a novel I loved to teach – To Kill A Mockingbird – we can see how skilfully Harper Lee uses her characters in the book. We have the complex relationship between brother and sister, parent and child relationship between them and their single parent father, and then more generally the whole range of relationships between adults and children is put under the microscope: Dill’s sad and fantasised relationship with his father, the strange relationship between Boo and Arthur Radley, Boo’s protectiveness towards the children, Mayella’s appalling relationship with her father which is shockingly laid bare at the trial…

Because we are people too, we can live vicariously through the characters of a novel, and this seems to me why the characters are the make or break element in the success of a book: if there’s no-one who speaks to us, to interest us, to grab our attention and have us interested in their fate – imaginary though it is – why would we bother?

Go Set A Watchman and To Kill A Mockingbird compared

January 23, 2016

51CC2jfysbL._AA160_51A6rmAqknL._AA160_Anyone who looks at the two books side by side (which probably means every reader) will be shocked and surprised by the changes to and differences from what we have always been familiar with. We have to remember that GSAW was written first, and that Harper Lee was sent away by her editor to rewrite it. And we need also to remember that TKAM is set in the 1930s, whilst GSAW is set in the early 1950s. Finally, it does no harm to recall that the time of the writing of GSAW – the first novel – was much closer to the time when the novel is set, and the complex racial politics of the US at the time. Nowadays those political arguments are remote, perhaps half incomprehensible: what informed the editor’s reaction to GSAW all those years ago?

I remember (and perhaps some of my readers may, too), a GCSE oral coursework task that I occasionally set, which involved a hot-seating monologue about a chosen character from TKAM twenty years after the events of the novel. Varied and interesting as the students’ performances were, none approached the power of GSAW’s arguments.

Congenital heart disease kills Scout’s mother in both novels; it explains the non-appearance of Jem in GSAW. Sexual abuse and incest, only alluded to in TKAM in Mayella Ewell’s courtroom testimony, is clearer and plainer in GSAW. Both Scout and Jean Louise visit the negro quarters; the encounter with Cal in the 1950s is far harder and more upsetting in the 1950s context. The disapproving Aunt Alexandra is there, as is the mad Cousin Joshua; the isolation of Maycomb and the strange history of the county is there, almost unchanged; missionary teas happen in both novels, though much more carefully choreographed and bitingly satirised in TKAM.

The visit to the black community’s church is a powerful episode in TKAM: the white church service in GSAW falls rather flat; there is a flashback to Atticus’ successful defence of a black man accused of rape by a white woman during the children’s childhood in GSAW; the courthouse scenes are obviously right at the heart of TKAM, whereas the courthouse is the focus of a racist gathering, Atticus’ attendance at which triggers the explosions that shape the conclusion of GSAW. Epsiodes from the children’s lives (Jem, Scout, Dill) figure in both novels.

The focus is different: GSAW is Jean Louise’s novel, whereas TKAM belongs to a whole raft of characters, shifting subtly as we get inside the skin of so many of the characters.

Both books are, in their different ways, about growing up, the loss of innocence; I found myself initially judging that this is less skilfully done in GSAW, but then I was less sure. It’s done very differently, to be sure, and perhaps the young Scout’s adventures in TKAM are cosier and more endearing, less challenging and threatening than those undergone by an adult. Certainly GSAW is much bleaker: Jean Louise has lost Cal, and fears she has lost her father and the rest of her family, too.

In the end, I did feel that GSAW is a much cruder novel, and I can see why an editor would have said ‘go away and do a lot more work on this book’. The initial set-up is rather bald: Jean Louise the outsider returns home to be shocked by how racist her home town seems to be. There’s a great deal of preachiness about the racial problems of the 1950s, and at times I felt the novel slipped into didacticism. And yet, I can accept that this may have come from Harper Lee’s genuine love of the Deep South as her home, and a picture of it very different from the rest of the US which was still, a century after the Cival War, trying to impose its values and methods on the region. Special pleading? But certainly an editor might judge it a barrier to its success as a novel. The more romanticised picture which emerges in TKAM certainly guaranteed success.

My perspective is also probably different from others’: having taught TKAM so many times in my career, I feel I know it like the back of my hand. And GSAW is both a fascinating insight, and thought-provoking complement to its – much better – successor.


Harper Lee: Go Set A Watchman

January 23, 2016

51CC2jfysbL._AA160_I finally got round to acquiring and reading this book, and I’ve thought about it quite a bit. I think it’s impossible to write about without the shadow of To Kill A Mockingbird hovering in the background, as I can’t imagine anyone who has picked up this book to read without having read the world-famous best-seller. Nevertheless, I will try… (Cue usual spoiler alerts, if needed!)

Firstly, after reading it myself, I cannot recall a single review or article about the book (which henceforth I will refer to in these posts as GSAW) which did it justice: it’s far more interesting and complex than has been allowed. Like TKAM, it’s a novel about growing up.

The heart of the novel is a lengthy, complex, powerful and sustained argument about the racial politics of the Deep South in the early 1950s, that rages between Jean Louise Finch, a woman in her early twenties who now lives in New York but who has returned to Maycomb for a vacation. She argues with her childhood sweetheart (who would be her fiance), her Aunt, her father Atticus and her Uncle Jack. As a young adult she realises that her father and family are not the people she thought they were when she was a child but judges them hypocrites; innocence must be shed, painfully, as part of growing up and becoming a person in one’s own right.

The structure of the novel feels rather loose, especially in the early stages, which are the build-up to the argument outlined above. I didn’t really find Hank, her childhood sweetheart, terribly convincing, either as a character or as a potential husband for Jean Louise, and, interestingly, he almost seems to fade out as the novel works towards its powerful denouement.

The elderly Atticus is crippled by arthritis and looked after by his sister Alexandra; his brother Jack lives close by: Maycomb is a place where you belong or don’t belong, and Jean Louise doesn’t know whether she fits any longer: do you inevitably become an outsider once you leave a place?

Throughout GSAW – though it is in many ways a rougher and less well structured and shaped book than TKAM – there is evidence of real subtletly in character portayal and development; one is aware of the beginnings of the talents that would shine through more clearly in TKAM. The real origins of that successful novel are here, and one is left with the impression of Lee learning on the job.

The tone of the novel is livelier, less leisurely and dreamy than TKAM; there is already some of the dry humour and folksy wisdom that we perhaps came to know and love in that novel. I read it quickly; I couldn’t put it down (I refer you to my remarks on plot in my previous post!); I know I shall go back to it and re-read much more carefully soon.

Next post: Go Set A Watchman and To Kill A Mockingbird compared.

The staircase (continued): Plot

January 23, 2016

Plot is story. A series of events is introduced, developed and played out; there is often suspense and tension to keep the reader engaged and involved. There is a denouement – full or partial according to when the novel was written – Victorians liked to tidy everything up, modern writers are not so bothered, or are even deliberately bloody-minded, and go for open endings.

It’s useful to think about what drives our first reading, especially if you are one of those readers like me, who comes back again and again to his favourite books. First time round, plot draws us along: what happens next? How will it end? And such questions shape our initial response, at least. Was it a good story? Did we like the way it ended? Think about – as I suggested in the last post – the way we sometimes disagree with the way a writer ends her/his novel, based on our interpretation as we read, usually of characters. And if we feel the ending is wrong, surely the next thing we must ask ourselves is, OK, so why did the author choose to end it like that?

Re-readers will know what’s coming next. Usually we will retain at least an outline of the plot in our memories, and will be able to recall how the story ends. This means that we are not so plot-driven second, or nth time round, and can have a different focus to our reading, indeed we can deliberately choose a specific focus if we want to or need to (for study purposes perhaps). We will pay more attention to other details, perhaps notice many small things that we glossed over on that first, plot-driven reading.

The Sherlock Holmes stories come to mind here. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve read them over the past fifty years. Usually, I don’t recall the ending until I’m well into a story, so that the pleasure is not ruined by knowing who did it straight away.

Then there is the other end of the spectrum, when we consider a vast novel like War and Peace, of Vassily Grossman‘s twentieth century masterpiece, Life and Fate. Real and fictitious events interwoven unfold against a huge canvas; many different plot strands are interconnected, and it’s often hard to keep track of all the threads; sometimes we are given lists of characters in an appendix so we can refer to them when we get confused. Then we are glad when a particular, or a favourite strand re-emerges after having disappeared for some time, and continuity is re-established.

Vasily Peskov: Lost in the Taiga

January 21, 2016

41SubYN8UnL._AA160_51-v0KQnlxL._AA160_This is the most astonishing and moving book I’ve read for a very long time. It’s a true story, first published in the last days of the Soviet Union.

A few years ago, I first came across the amazing story of the accidental discovery, in 1978, by a geological survey team, of a family living in the depths of the taiga, at least 150 miles from any known settlement. A helicopter, flying over a deserted area, noticed clear signs of land cultivation and investigated. The family had been living, hidden there for over 35 years.

They were a family of Old Believers, a religious sect dating from a schism in the Russian Orthodox Church over 350 years ago, who avoid the world, and any contact with it, and have nothing to do with the ‘secular’ world, including papers and identification, and money. They were hermits: a father and his four children, two sons and two daughters (their mother had died, basically of inanition, in the 1960s). A couple of weeks ago, their story resurfaced in the media as the final survivor, Agafia, now in her seventies, had been taken ill and airlifted to hospital. I’d tracked down the book written by a journalist from Komsomolskaya Pravda in the 1990s a while back; and this latest story prompted me to buy and read it. (Note: the English translation is out of print and advertised at the usual idiotic telephone number prices on a certain website; I bought the cheap current French paperback edition.)

The family lived in a hovel, in unbelievably primitive conditions, on potatoes, gruel, and whatever fish and game they were able to catch, wove cloth to clothe themselves, and fabricated whatever else they needed to the best of their ability. They had basically reached the end of their resources and were in desperate straits. Initially suspicious of visitors, they eventually got used to them, and related their past and their beliefs. Many modern things were instantly judged to be forbidden. Ill-health suddenly carried off three of the children, leaving the father and one daughter; eventually the father died of old age, leaving the daughter completely alone. Despite offers from various relatives and other Old Believers to take her in, Agafia judged them to be spiritually wanting and remained alone in the taiga, which was where she had grown up.

There are a couple of films about them on You Tube (which I haven’t seen yet) and apparently an English documentary-maker is making a film for TV later on this year.

It was a gripping and fascinating story for a number of reasons. Firstly, apparently thousands of Old Believers did just the same; this family happens to have been found, where others will have died in isolation and never be known about. Secondly, only Russia is vast enough for people to be able to hide liek this. More impressive was the strength and power of belief the family demonstrated: that this was the way they should live, and made no compromises. Yes, looked at from outside, their beliefs and practices seem completely mad, but – and I found this interesting – once discovered, their way of life was respected by the Soviet state, and via the geological station and some of its workers, the family was helped as much as they would allow themselves to be helped. And the author, a Soviet journalist for a mass-cicrulation newspaper, treats them sympathetically and with understanding.

Finally, I reflected on this degree of isolation. There was a beauty and attractiveness about its purity to me, in particular the rejection of the secular world, but there was also a sense of horror: here is something I know I could never put up with, here is something I put on the level of people deciding to travel one-way to Mars: most humans need each others’ company…



Teaching Literature: the staircase

January 20, 2016

I used to use a metaphor, the novel as a staircase, when I was teaching English Literature. It’s an idea I think students found helpful, and it works, with differing levels of sophistication, at all the stages of teaching. It’s a small staircase: it has only three stairs. The bottom step is labelled ‘plot‘, the second ‘character‘ and the top one ‘themes and ideas‘. If you’re an ex-student of mine, you can stop reading now and go get a cup of tea.

The staircase offers a sequence for exploring a novel (or indeed any work of literature that tells a story); it also offers a way of showing students how to develop their analytical skills and move from lower to higher marks and grades.

Plot is the bottom level; without it you can’t have a story. If you don’t know the plot, can’t understand it, sequence it and summarise it, you aren’t going to get very far in an examination. If you have plot secure in your mind, you will be able to write some sense and get some marks.

Character is the next step up: you need characters in a story, you need to know who they are and how they interact, and understand their personalities to an extent. Secure understanding here enables a student to access the next stages in a mark scheme, and consequently higher marks.

The top step is the themes and ideas: what the writer has to say and wants her/his readers to be thinking about, reflecting on as they are reading. As a reader, you can have an opinion about these ideas, and it doesn’t have to be the same as the writer’s. The more you can analyse at this level, the more chance you have of accessing the very highest grades on offer.

The idea isn’t rocket science, and I never claimed it was; it took a number of years to evolve into what I’ve presented above. It worked well with a lot of the texts I taught, particularly at GCSE, (although I introduced the concept in outline much earlier), such as To Kill A Mockingbird, Lord of the Flies, Romeo and Juliet, The Merchant of Venice and Macbeth. Now I find myself unconsciously applying the model to other novels or plays I’m reading: it offers a useful scaffold or framework for exploring a text.

Lesson over. For those who would like more detail, I’ll write more fully in upcoming posts. Who knows, someone may find this stuff useful; in my retirement, I no longer use it.

The myth of realism (3)

January 17, 2016


So, it’s pretty clear that realism is a bit of a myth. Our response is to suspend our disbelief for the duration of our reading; it’s a psychological adjustment, unconsciously undertaken, to allow us to enjoy a work of fiction as entertainment without getting too bogged down by nagging implausibilities; we just accept certain ‘unreal’ things for the sake of the story.

Writers’ control of us as readers therefore fades or disappears from our awareness; we have to make a conscious effort to notice what they are up to. A writer chooses, deliberately, certain characters, a particular setting, frames and shapes a plot and has a particular ending in view (usually) – remember those times when you either felt cheated by the way a story ended, or felt that the author had got it wrong? The writer excludes certain possibilities, omits boring and mundane things (usually), telescopes events (usually – though alert readers may have just had Joyce‘s Ulysses leap into their minds. We are nudged, our response is shaped, we are manipulated throughout, and don’t normally notice. For example – and I’m being deliberately outrageous here, perhaps – how long does the cringe factor in the denouement of Jane Austen‘s Emma take to hit us? The happy couple are finally united, Emma and Mr Knightley; then think about their respective ages, and the fact that Mr Knightley dandled the baby Emma on his knee as a young man…

There are writers who toy with their readers in different ways, conversing with them in their pages, to remind them that they are there, in controlled of the story, puppet-masters. Fielding does this openly in Tom Jones, Jane Austen (a couple of generations later) is much more subtle; hints and comments from her to her reader come through her oblique style, as we realise that certain observations cannot have come from that particular character. Some writers break off to preach to their readers – Tolstoy in War and Peace, Robert Tressell in The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists.

Where does all this get me, in the end? I like a good story as much as anyone else. I suspend my disbelief and allow myself to be drawn in and manipulated just like the next person. But I find it interesting, eye-opening even, to step back and look at what is really going on every now and then, sometimes in the middle of a novel, sometimes after I’ve reached the end. Words are very powerful things.

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