Archive for October, 2016

My A-Z of reading: F is for Film

October 27, 2016

Novels get made into films. Sometimes we like the film version of a book we know well, sometimes it’s awful. But how much thought do you give to the transformation that takes place? The two media are so radically different. The printed text relies on verbal description to create place, setting, atmosphere: a film can do this in seconds, perhaps much more effectively, with added music and sound effects. A novel can take us deep inside a character’s mind and thoughts: how do you do this in a film? And what difference does any of this make, anyway?

I’ll start with Jane Austen. Her novels have been filmed numerous times, for the cinema, and as series for television. And here we find another difference: a film has a relatively fixed time duration – let’s say from an hour and a half to two and a half hours. A TV series could easily be twice as long. What is left in, and what is cut? Again, how does this affect the story – when does it cease to be the Jane Austen novel we know and love, and become something else? Film can do the settings, the houses, the costumes and the looks and interaction between the characters, but what about the thoughts, what about the irony, the subtle authorial interventions? These are lost. Some may be hinted at or suggested through refashioning dialogue, but… And what about the invented moments, Colin Firth‘s famous wet and clinging shirt in the BBC version of Pride and Prejudice, or the kiss at the end of Persuasion. These things may look good on screen, but are they not also doing violence to the original? No, a film is always a version of the original…

I have always liked the film of The Name of the Rose. Sean Connery works as William of Baskerville. The locations and the use of light create a very effective sense of atmosphere; the library is superb and the apocalyptic ending is marvellously done. And yet, only after watching it is it possible to grasp how much of Eco’s superb novel is missing: the stunning erudition, the theology, Adso’s reflections. The film is faithful to the original, but only so far. Similarly, Gunter Grass’ pre-war Danzig is superbly recreated, both visually and atmospherically by Volker Schlondorf in his film of The Tin Drum: the subtly growing Nazi menace creeps up on everyone, and we are not spared the horrors, but the film is only half the novel. It doesn’t matter whether you feel that it’s the better half, my point is, it’s hardly Grass’ novel!

There are more film and TV versions of Sherlock Holmes than you can shake a stick at. Some are passable, some truly dire, some hardly Holmes at all, but I’m of the generation that was captivated by Jeremy Brett’s mannered performances in the 1980s for Granada TV. Fantastic attention to period detail, some re-arrangement of plots for dramatic effect, but fidelity to Conan Doyle’s original is perhaps easier to achieve when we’re (only) dealing with short, detective stories.

I have singularly failed to watch Gregory Peck’s performance as Atticus Finch in the film of To Kill A Mockingbird. We set out to watch it in class one day, but found the opening so crass, so clumsy and so unconvincing after our reading of the novel that the class virtually booed it off-screen: I stopped the video after about fifteen minutes and we gave up… It was instructive to watch and compare the two versions of Lord of the Flies: the aged black and white version made with non-actors that was so faithful to the original yet so ineffective twenty years after it was made, and the horrendous ‘updated’ US version with swearing, rewritten plot and so many other pointless alterations bore almost no resemblance to the original.

Perhaps the most successful – or do I mean accurate? – film version of a novel that I can recall is Richard Burton’s last role as O’Brien in 1984, and John Hurt’s superb performance as Winston. Orwell’s vision of London is visualised stunningly effectively, apart from the smells, of course, which Orwell himself was only able to describe in the original. Fear, paranoia, menace all loom out of the screen; even excerpts from Goldstein’s book – often skimmed by reluctant readers – are read into the film. Brilliant; closest to being a film of the novel rather than a version of it. Unless you know better?

My A-Z of reading: E is for Ending

October 24, 2016

I wrote about beginnings under B and I imagine you would expect me to write about endings… and it’s a lot harder and more complex, I feel. For, as we read, we develop our own expectations of the way a story will go and how we think it should end, and those expectations do not always match those of the writer who produces the text and therefore gets her or his way. How many times did I hear someone in a class object to the ending of a novel?

My impression has always been that until relatively recently, readers expected both a tidy resolution of the story (loose ends tidied up) and a happy ending too, and for many years, that was what they got. More recently, though, writers have experimented with offering their readers open endings rather than closed and final ones: why should they have to tie up all the loose ends, and what right do their readers have to a feeling of happiness and satisfaction at the end of a novel? And if we do not like the way a novel ends, then surely the question to ask is, so why did the writer choose to have that ending rather than the one I wanted? I found it useful to point my students in that direction, as it reminded them once again that a novel is a work of fiction (that is, something made) where the writer is in control of everything, making choices all the way along the line, and thereby excluding other choices…

In some ways for me the ending of Persuasion is the perfect happy ending: Anne and Wentworth finally get each other after many years, in spite of so many obstacles; his letter is a masterpiece of genuine feeling, and what reader can grudge them their happiness as they walk together – united at last – through the streets of Bath? Jane Austen manages it perfectly, I think.

Contrast this with the ending of Charlotte Bronte’s Villette, some forty years later. The power of it blew me away when I first read it: Lucy’s passion for Paul and the way the ending is deliberately left open – does he return for them to live happily ever after or is he lost forever in that dreadful Atlantic storm? – is heart-wrenching in the way it leaves the lovers parted, or in suspended animation for a century and a half now. Amazingly daring then, I’m sure, such openness is often imitated now, to rather less effect. There’s a similar power for me in the ending of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment: after we and Raskolnikov have been churned by the psychological torment of the plot, we are surely happy that Sonya will be waiting for him to return after he has purged his crime and they will be happy together…

It’s hard not to fall in love with Huck Finn’s innocence and genuineness as his adventures unfold; the silly escapades after his reunion with Tom Sawyer are a blot on the book and his character, but his decision to abandon civilisation and light out for the territory at the end of the novel I find immensely moving and powerful. Nor can I get to the end of the n-th re-read of The Name of the Rose without a lump in my throat: the suddenly aged Adso at the end of his life, in some way shaped by his one experience of passion and sexual fulfilment, and noting at the end of his adventure with William ‘I never saw him again’. If a book is well-written, a good story that makes me care about the characters, then little details like that are extraordinarily powerful.

Other endings I have loved: the tour-de-force that is the final section of Ulysses, the return full-circle at the end of One Hundred Years of Solitude, the kick in the guts that is the end of Nineteen Eighty-four – that has to be the ending, no matter how much we loathe it. And most recently, in a trilogy that has become (and I think will remain) a classic, Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights: the relationship that develops and blossoms between Lyra and Will, that I cannot put a name to, and then their separation forever into their own respective universes, parallel but never again to meet…

My A-Z of reading: D is for Dictionary

October 23, 2016

51ah2og2rhl-_ac_us160_When I was ten, I found a pound note in the street. Brought up to be honest, and because it was such a lot of money in those days, I took it to the police station where they kept it for three months, and, after no-one had claimed it, returned it to me! My dad contributed the remaining necessary five shillings and I bought the latest edition of the Concise Oxford Dictionary (a requirement for the grammar school I was about to attend): thus began my relationship with dictionaries.

The Concise Oxford sufficed until I got to university, where it soon revealed its limitations – it didn’t have enough words in it – and, with an early holiday wage-packet, I treated myself to the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary in two large volumes. Even though the edition was forty years old, it didn’t matter: the words I was looking up as a student of English literature were a lot older than that, and I held on to those two very useful volumes until a couple of years ago. At some intervening point when flush with money I splashed out on the reduced size, twenty-volumes-in-one edition of the OED. In retrospect, this was an expensive error as it’s had relatively little use, and we were just on the verge of the internet, and the changes to reference works that was about to bring.

Through our local library I have free access to the OED online, on those relatively rare occasions where I come across a word I haven’t met, or need to explore the etymology of a word I do know. It’s one of the great boons of the internet, along with wikipedia.


Crossword addicts will know, however, that in our field, the Oxford dictionaries don’t really cut the mustard; they don’t contain many of the archaisms and Scots words that fiendish compilers like to use. So Chambers Twentieth Century English Dictionary was added to the bookshelves – it had to become the Chambers English Dictionary after 2001, of course – and for my money it remains the best single-volume dictionary of our language, and has been a boon on many occasions when I’ve wrestled with the Guardian Prize Crossword of a weekend or a bank holiday. You see, for crossword completion you need the paper pages to be able to turn them over as you scan for the range of possibilities that might fit the gaps in the grid, and match the definition part of the clue: you just can’t do this effectively onscreen or online.

I also have my own personal mini-dictionary: for many years I have collected the words that are new to me as I’ve come across them in my reading; I’ve added them to my notebooks and eventually jotted down a definition alongside.


My other trusty companion is a recent edition of Le Petit Robert, which is a bit unwieldy but a worthy French equivalent to Chambers and very useful if I’m reading something challenging in French… although reaching for the iPad and hitting the Word Reference app is often a tad easier.

I have three distinctive uses for a dictionary: helping with crosswords, looking up the meaning of a word that is new to me, and exploring the etymology of a word when curiosity gets the better of me. And, as you will infer from the above, online is gradually winning, but won’t help with the crosswords.

Siegfried Lenz: The German Lesson

October 21, 2016

41ufinpue1l-_ac_us160_A chance, passing reference somewhere recently sent me back to this novel, which I haven’t read for more than twenty years. I was instantly reminded of Günter GrassThe Tin Drum, a comparison which I don’t think had occurred to me on previous readings, and which got me thinking. Along with Heinrich Böll, these are three writers particularly associated with German attempts to reconnect with a sense of conscience and morality as they explore the cesspool of Nazism and its effect on the German people in various ways. It’s easy for a non-German to call this a necessary task; it’s certainly an incredibly difficult one, and I have a certain admiration for those who have persisted over the years.

Grass and Lenz share the fact that they originate from territories the Germans lost at the end of the war: Grass’ hometown of Danzig, an international city, has become Gdansk, in Poland, and Lenz’s hometown Lyck is now Elk in the Masurian region of Poland. The rights and wrongs of this ethnic cleansing are far too complex to elucidate here.

The setting of The German Lesson is Schleswig-Holstein, the area around the town of Husum near the border with Denmark, and gives the novel a far bleaker feel than Grass’ novels: small settlements and flat wind-swept coastlines are no match for the international and multiracial city of Oskar Mazerath’s story. Grass’ novel is narrated by a boy/man who is the inmate of an asylum; Lenz’s narrator is a juvenile delinquent incarcerated in an institution. It’s interesting that those who were children in the Nazi-time are not able to become ‘normal’ functioning adults – even Grass himself kept his forced membership (he was 14 at the time) of the SS a secret almost until his death, to the shock and horror of many.

Siggi’s father is a village policman given the task of monitoring a painter who has fallen foul of the Nazi authorities and been banned from painting; he takes this duty very seriously, obsessively even. He is a very strict father, and his wife a taciturn and sour woman; they make their children’s lives hell, imposing senseless rules and vicious punishments; in the end the children are desperate to escape. The elder son shoots himself in the arm to avoid military service and is repudiated by his parents, cast out from the family never to be mentioned and when he turns up back at the family home, having been seriously injured in an air attack, they turn him in. Siggi begins to take and secrete paintings to save them from his father, who, even after the end of the war, does not give up the task he was set by the Nazi authorities…

Lenz puts the idea of duty under the microscope. We see Siggi’s father’s idiotic and overbearing sense of it poisoning all family relationships and friendships, tipping him into mania. Max, the painter, sustains his duty to his art through a series of invisible paintings in a cat-and-mouse game with the policeman, that we aren’t always invited to approve of, I think. And Siggi the delinquent is punished for not writing his essay on the joys of duty by the prison governor, at which point he makes it his duty to explain himself – through the novel, demonstrating a similar, if less harmful (?) obsessiveness to his father.

It’s a far more pessimistic novel than I remember: Siggi the delinquent cannot live a straight life though he may wish to, and has nothing to look forward to outside the juvenile offenders’ institution; can he even have a clear picture of what an ordinary life might be? Irrevocably shaped – perverted and twisted by his father, and equally, though with out violence and horror, cajoled and patronised into accepting another duty by the governor – what chance has he?

My A-Z of reading: C is for Criticism

October 18, 2016

Having been a student and teacher of literature for longer than anything else in my life, I’ve had time to read a lot of literary criticism, and to come to feel pretty ambivalent about it. At first, in the sixth form, I was at first a little surprised that people wrote about the books, plays and poetry I was studying. But A C Bradley and Harley Granville-Barker were eye-opening about the depth and richness of what Shakespeare had to offer me. At university, I was expected to read widely, texts and criticism; when researching I did little else, and it gradually dawned on me that I, too, was becoming a critic, of sorts…

There’s something important about the purity and primacy of an author’s text: once s/he has ‘given it away’ by publishing it, making it a public property, it becomes open to supporting a multiplicity of meanings and interpretations, and not all of those are known to, or intended by, the author. This is often a very good thing, enabling, as it does, any reader to make a reading, perhaps an original one, as long as they can support their interpretation (cries of ‘evidence?’ used to echo around my classroom). I treasured those – quite rare, but very gratifying – moments when a student came up with an idea about a word or phrase that had never occurred to me, or that I’d never read about.

Criticism comes across as ‘learned’; someone has read, and carefully thought about a text, studied it and written about it, and would seem thereby to have a right to be paid attention to and be taken seriously… but the process, as I came to learn, is not quite as innocent as that. For starters, whilst opening us up to meanings and understandings that they offer us, are critics not also, at the same time, maybe shutting the door on other possibilities? A critic is not an innocent bystander, as I came to realise while studying for my master’s in Literature and Cultural Change in the Twentieth Century at Lancaster University, where we spent as much time on critics and how they worked as we did on literature itself: any critic develops her/his criticism from a certain cultural, political and social background, and so interprets from a certain perspective. Is that perspective one that I accept or respect? Marxist critics, for example, showed that writers can unconsciously and uncritically support a certain vision of the world and exclude others, and that critics do exactly the same thing; that’s not to say that Marxist critics are therefore right and have the last word, rather that they reveal something unperceived, and enlighten us a little bit more about what is really going on. Ditto for feminism critics…

My research into science fiction took my questioning of attitudes, perspectives and literary criticism itself even further, as I examined a wide range of works (criticism and fiction) written from a feminist perspective, and also studied a genre of writing which many critics regarded as a somewhat inferior genre, not really worthy of serious literary study – of course, I didn’t agree with this judgement, and had to make out and justify my case…a thesis followed by a viva examination with a good cop and bad cop examiner is quite something!

So, I think I’ve come round to the idea that criticism is a useful tool for making us think, or at least introducing us to the idea that it’s possible to see more than initially meets the eye in a text that we’re reading, but that we need to be as wary of the critic as we are curious about the original text. Also, as I’ve grown older I’ve begun to see history repeating itself, as it were: a new generation of freshly trained and qualified critics – just like I was once! – comes along to revisit the same texts, and similar issues, in pretty similar ways: every generation re-invents the wheel, as it seeks to make its living, and a few grains more are added to the sum total of our knowledge and understanding.

My A-Z of reading: B is for Beginnings

October 16, 2016

What’s the most effective and memorable beginning to a novel (or a play or poem, for that matter) for you? Many will perhaps default to the obvious ones, like the opening line of Pride and Prejudice… but what makes a really effective start?

I suppose there are the ones we remember, and the ones that actually work, the ones that have an instant effect, and the ones that creep up on us. I’ve always liked the opening of George Orwell‘s Nineteen Eighty-fourIt was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. That works for me partly because of the immediate shock – what sort of world is this, where clocks actually strike thirteen? And it takes me back to my childhood, at the end of the 1950s in the little village where I was born, where the next-door neighbour but one, a reclusive old woman, actually had a decrepit clock that did strike thirteen. This astonished me, and I used to love listening to that final, wrong strike.

But the one I remember most often is not actually an opening sentence, but the opening incident: the narrator of Lawrence Sterne‘s Tristram Shandy is telling of the Sunday night ritual in his parents’ household: Sunday night is intercourse night and he is about to be conceived, when in medias res his mother enquires of his father if he had remembered to wind the clock… for me, this sets the tone for the rest of this wonderful novel, the longest shaggy-dog story in the world as someone once called it.

When teaching To Kill A Mockingbird, I was often conscious of the long opening section – Part One – which is getting on for a third of the entire novel, and appears to go absolutely nowhere. Occasionally a class would become somewhat restless as we read, and this caused me to reflect on it as the opening to a novel; it was often only at the end of the entire book that we could go back and reflect on what Harper Lee had been doing with that lengthy introduction – “too much description, sir!” – creating such a vivid sense of place that we could actually fit ourselves into Maycomb. The book needed it, before the real story of Tom Robinson could start.

Plays are no different, and looking at what Shakespeare does is instructive. Often he hurls us head-first into the action – the witches in Macbeth, the storm in The Tempest: we are instantly gripped and cannot look back, and in different ways he develops the stories and sweeps us forward. And yet, he can do slow and subtle, too: the discussion of Antonio’s melancholy at the start of The Merchant of Venice, for example, or the gentlemen comparing notes about the king’s erratic behaviour at the start of King Lear.

John Donne has some wonderful opening lines in his Songs and Sonnets: Busy old fool, unruly sun (The Sun Rising), for example, or For God’s sake hold your tongue (The Canonisation), or When by thy scorn, O Murderess, I am dead (The Apparition), or Mark but this flea… as an exercise in seduction technique unequalled by any other poet I know.

So what works, and how? Something must intrigue us, either instantly and suddenly as in the Donne poems, or it must begin to insinuate itself, to sow a trail of loose ends and possibilities that we find sufficiently interesting to continue to pay attention, rather than go off to something else, as Shakespeare intrigues us at the start of King Lear. And whatever bait a writer or poet dangles before an audience or reader, it must go on to offer the promise of (eventual) satisfaction after that initial flash of inspiration.

My A-Z of reading: A is for Atlas

October 13, 2016

41x19xixdpl-_ac_us160_Some of my readers may have realised I have a long-standing fascination with maps. I remember asking for, and receiving, an atlas for Christmas when I was seven or eight: that’s what comes from hearing about all sorts of faraway and fascinating places from a well-travelled dad (though not all the places were visited freely, thanks to Stalin, but that’s a different story); it was replaced with a larger one a few years later, and then when I was feeling flush, with the full-on, full-size Times Comprehensive Atlas, and I’m now on my second one of those…

So what is it about atlases and maps? Well, there’s a weightiness and therefore a seriousness to a proper atlas, and I find maps a real thing of beauty: the care, neatness and accuracy of the lines, and the different colours for different types of land and depth of sea. And then there is the magic of all those place names, whether it’s the crazy-sounding village names of our our West Country (Queen’s Camel, Mudford Sock, anyone?) or the unpronounceable towns of Eastern Europe (Szekesfehervar? Dniepropetrovsk? Szczecin?)… Milton had a field day in Paradise Lost with faraway placenames: they made wonderful poetry. (And I have a map with them all on!)

There’s a ridiculous amount of information contained in a map, and depending on how well-drawn and coloured it is, you can do a pretty good job of visualising an area, although I will admit that Google Earth does a just as good if not better job pretty instantly. Town, street and metro maps are different, and just as fascinating. And then there are the maps in other languages… early Arabic maps of the world which look wonderfully familiar until you look at the writing. A Polish relative, back in communist times, gave me a road atlas of the Soviet Union, not because it was something that I’d ever use, but because it was something he’d managed to buy, and could offer as a gift, when finding presents for people was really hard. I treasure this volume, on shoddy paper, in Cyrillic script, with vast tracts of the country missing because there are zero roads there (can you imagine that?) and places where you can follow a dirt track for 500+ kilometres until the road just stops, and then have to turn round and head back the way you came.

Atlases have also become excellent at conveying much more than just geographical information, as new generations of cartographers have developed the art: conflicts, migrations, wars and much more can be very clearly represented. I’m thinking of some of the remarkably informative maps published in papers like Le Monde Diplomatique, which occasionally publishes a thematic atlas devoted to a topic like the environment… There’s the astonishing Peters projection atlas, which presents the entire world at exactly the same scale throughout, and manages to equalise the land areas visually too, so that although parts of the world look rather distorted (and we all know that putting a spherical word onto flat paper can’t really be done) the whole world is fairly and equitably represented, with none of the bias to the West, or the US or the developed world that we see in all other atlases.


I love old atlases especially, too, although too expensive for my pocket. I do have a 1919 Daily Telegraph Victory Atlas which is colossal, and built in the old-fashioned manner where every double-page spread is individually pasted and sewn into the binding so there are no minute gaps or discrepancies at the centre where nowadays two pages join… and I think of the incredible labour involved in redrawing so many maps and re-labelling so many towns and cities at the end of the Great War as new nations were born.

My biggest treat is probably Taschen’s marvellous reprint of (selected sections) of Joan Blaeu’s humongous seventeenth century Atlas Maior. It’s a work of incredible colour and beauty, and you get a picture of a half-discovered world, with the lands Europeans knew well delineated in great detail and accuracy, and those half-known, unexplored areas sketched in vaguely, half-accurately – but they are there and you know that there were intrepid explorers hurtling about the globe eager to fill in the gaps.


I’ve never been able – or wanted to – sit and read a dictionary or an encyclopaedia, but I’ll happily spend an entire evening turning the pages and poring over a good atlas.

My A-Z of reading: A is for Audiobook

October 10, 2016

(An occasional series)

I was very sniffy about audiobooks when they first came out; I couldn’t see why one would want to listen to someone reading a book rather than read it oneself. And, listening to text read aloud takes so much longer than reading it silently to oneself. I suppose I couldn’t visualise situations where I’d make use of audiobooks.

Then I ended up with a drive to work for a number of years, half an hour each way. As I grew older, I tired of listening to news bulletins, and Radio Three’s programming became less and less attractive. I came across a reference to the librivox website somewhere and began exploring, downloaded a favourite novel or two, and never looked back.

I discovered Naxos Audiobooks, too: higher-quality, commercial recordings of real favourites like Sherlock Holmes, Tristram Shandy, Ulysses, Paradise Lost. And, now that I’m retired, and regularly go off for solo driving adventures, I can listen to a lot more. Since I can actually ‘read’ a book whilst driving, I can get through more books than previously, which is clearly a good thing.

I choose carefully. Sometimes it’s difficult and obscure stuff that I’d probably get a headache actually reading – The City of God by St Augustine, or JosephusWars of the Jews are a couple of examples. Here, the text does come at you more slowly, so you have time to think about it, and it doesn’t matter if you miss a bit because you’re concentrating on the road; it’s not quite the same as skim-reading, or skipping pages. Other times, it’s old favourites I have loved for years; I can never tire of any of the Sherlock Holmes stories, and the Naxos recordings are first class. The familiarity is there, so I can concentrate on different aspects of the stories. Occasionally it’s something completely new, perhaps impossible to track down in print: there is some wonderful travel writing, and some gripping personal accounts of service in the Great War available from librivox.

And this is where I get something I’d never imagined I would, before I got into audiobooks. Particularly if the recording is a good one (and not every librivox one is), it’s possible to listen out for nuances of style, a writer’s particular vocabulary, how s/he constructs sentences. Yes, you can do this with a printed book, too, but it’s a lot easier with an audiobook. Reading the Qur’an, for instance, I found pretty challenging, but listening to an English version was much easier, because that holy book was written to be recited… And listening to Milton’s Paradise Lost – another stunning Naxos recording – I can sink into the beauty, the complexity of the verse, the breadth of the vocabulary, the invented words, the rhythm. Truly magical.

Robert Barclay: An Apology

October 9, 2016

This is a post about religion, linked to a book I’ve been reading, which is why this post appears here: having no wish to force religion on anyone, if it’s not your thing, you could stop reading now…

I was raised a Catholic, and gave this up while at university. I tried atheism and agnosticism for a good twenty years, but these failed me too – I think once you have been a Catholic, it’s almost impossible to eradicate some spiritual yearning. So, having tried a few other possibilities I eventually became a Quaker, which I have been at home with for well over twenty years. It suits because it’s a religion of seekers and I’ve been seeking something all my life, and it’s a religion that, although hard work, treats me as an intelligent person, and does not force creeds, disciplines and believing twenty impossible things before breakfast on me.

This leads me to the book I’ve just finished re-reading (again): its full title is An Apology for the True Christian Divinity. It’s an extremely challenging read (makes swimming through molasses easy), but one I find very comforting. Quakers are known for having produced almost no theological works, and Robert Barclay’s book is the original and the best. He wrote it towards the end of the seventeenth century – so when the Society of Friends had only been in existence a few decades – as a way of explaining and justifying his faith, and dedicated it to the king, Charles the Second. He hoped, I think, to reduce the oppression of the Society by the public authorities.

It’s a stunning work of logic, which works its way through a series of propositions about Christianity, with the aim of getting back to the original beliefs and practices of the primitive church before it was perverted and corrupted in the service of power and secular authority. Everything is fully and painstakingly argued and referenced, as he refutes Roman Catholics, the various Protestant churches, Calvinists and more: clearly and logically he shows why he believes Quakers have got it right…

And yet, he doesn’t come across as dogmatic: he argues, reasons and convinces, and to someone who has never been able to escape the power of argument and logic – I’ve lost count of the number of times people have referred to me as Aquarian (which I am) in my approach – he comforts me by making it all make some sort of sense insofar as that’s possible, a reason behind my faith, if you like, which I seem to need.

It’s very hard work as a book because it’s written in rather convoluted seventeenth-century English, as well as relying on syllogism and refutation. An attempt was made to put it into modern English by an American some forty years ago or so, but apparently his is rather a flawed version which trims, edits and unwittingly or wittingly twists the sense of the original in many places… so we are left with the original to wrestle with. And I’ve found it worth it, once again; I can put it to one side for a few years until it begins to call to me again through the power of Barclay’s logic and astonishing breadth of learning, of which I am in awe.

On disappointment

October 3, 2016

51bp1419yjl-_ac_us160_Have you ever started a book which you were really looking forward to reading, expecting it to be really good, and gradually been let down, realising that actually you weren’t enjoying it very much? Optimistic, you continue, hoping it will pick up… sometimes it does, a bit, but it never actually matches your original expectations. And perhaps, like me, for various reasons you’re reluctant to just give up.

It’s happening to me a little more frequently nowadays, and has got me thinking. I’m always quite sceptical of reviews, especially those that rave about how brilliant a particular book is. Perversely, perhaps, the more fashionable, trendy or popular a book seems, the more suspicious I am of it.

Disappointment is often linked to the length of a novel. I’m not put off by the proverbial door-stopper, expecting to find depth and detail more satisfying, and some lengthy tomes are worth the effort – War and Peace, Life and Fate, the Arbat Trilogy – but others have deceived. When I came to re-read Lawrence Norfolk’s The Pope’s Rhinoceros, I wished I hadn’t bothered; the last Thomas Pynchon, Against the Day, sustained me during a lengthy illness, but I can’t imagine myself reaching for it again, and Don De Lillo’s Underworld, which so many raved about, was a masterpiece of tedium to me: I really couldn’t see the point. I’ve been disappointed by some of my favourite authors: Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum was a great let-down after The Name of the Rose; The Island of the Day Before was a little better, but not a lot. But then he gave us Baudolino

When I consider what’s happened, I’m often struck by the thinness of the plot – too drawn-out and self-indulgent, even: a story that takes too long to get not very far, and after having really enjoyed a previous novel, I’ve thought, ‘well, I’ll try this, it should be good’, and it’s not. Are writers doing a Dickens, and writing by the yard because they need the money?

My current disappointment – I’ll write a proper review when I get to the end – and what’s prompted this post is The Tower, by Uwe Tellkamp. It’s a novel about the complications and frustrations of life in the former DDR (German Democratic Republic), set in Dresden among a relatively privileged group of families. So far, in 400 of 1400 pages (!) there have been some interesting glimpses of daily life, a sense of menace from the ever-present Stasi, and a lot of tedium reading about a group of people for whom I do not really care. I shall persevere, though I currently feel victim of my enthusiasm for books that do not seem likely to get translated into English. This one will be no great loss, on current showing.

It strikes me that I’ve become harder to please as I’ve grown older, and perhaps a little more conservative in my tastes. I used to read a good deal of experimental literature, including some quite weird stuff, and really enjoyed it. But then, I have recently enjoyed Ben Marcus and Laszlo Krasznahorkai, and they are hardly run-of-the-mill writers. Maybe one has less patience as one ages?

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