Archive for January, 2019

Philip K Dick: Dr. Bloodmoney

January 31, 2019

51rslz-9fgl._ac_us218_I’m picking up my re-read of Philip K Dick’s novels after a Christmas break, and just finished re-acquainting myself with Dr Bloodmoney after forty years – so that must have been around the time I was working on my MA thesis. It’s hard to know where to start with it, really. If we go for the links with what’s gone before, then there are the first tentatives at colonising Mars, which in this novel are interrupted by nuclear war: the story jumps between the future of 1981 and 1988 and it’s clear that at some time in between these dates, US civilisation has been seriously disrupted by unspecified nuclear conflict. As usual, Dick makes the insanity clear: war was instantaneous, unexpected, nobody knew what it was about and it may have been an enormous mistake…

Or – and here Dick is off on another nature of reality trail – the war is caused by a madman who imagines that he is God and by concentrating his powers he can make war happen; he is plagued by his guilt at having been a nuclear research scientist responsible for an ‘accident’ at some time in the past, and obsessed with the need to atone for this. It’s certainly Dick’s most disturbing novel so far, for my money; he will go on to develop some of these ideas even further in Deus Irae.

Even after war, which may be construed as a warning from God, the remaining humans rebuilding their lives persist in behaving in the same old stupid and venal ways. Practical knowledge and skills are obviously vital for a surviving and recovering society: in the US they are a commodity, for sale as always.

As a narrative, it’s quite episodic and disjointed, though characters re-appearing provide some continuity. It’s a pretty nightmarish small-town world that Dick creates, of ordinary people as well as a host of mutations caused by radiation. The one unifying force in the crazy times is the prospective Martian colonist marooned by the war in orbit above the earth, broadcasting hopefully to those he passes over, and the forces of chaos are embodied not only by the scientist who has survived but also by an increasingly power-crazed ‘phocomelus’ – a survivor of the thalidomide drug which caused so much damage to newborns in Europe in the 1960s – who also enjoys supernatural powers.

It’s a worthwhile and chaotic read, with so many of Dick’s ideas up in the air at the same time that it lacks the power of many of his other more disciplined novels. But you have to admire the man and his ideas: he gets you thinking on so many different fronts…

Advertisements

On the quality of attention

January 30, 2019

This follows on from my recent post on the quality of information, in a way: my simple premise is that in the past, when there was less – in terms of quantity – information generally available, what there was received rather more of our attention, whereas nowadays it washes over us, and we take in far less.

Let me give personal examples. Back in the olden times, we bought The Guardian newspaper every day, and read it from cover to cover, pretty much. A single source of news well-scoured. Now I have the internet, and look at the stories in The Guardian that grab my attention. But, because of the way web pages are constructed, I have no real way of knowing what I’ve missed, and never come across. I’ll glance at the BBC news and The Independent too, and check the New York Times and perhaps Le Monde too. I’m casting my net a lot wider, but often grazing rather than reading carefully: has my attention-span changed? Much more to read, much less depth to what I’m reading? Not only that, but the way articles are presented, how they’re written and who writes them has also changed; everything seems less detailed, briefer, more ephemeral: designed to grab my attention briefly… then what?

One printed periodical still finds its way into the house: I’ve subscribed to Le Monde Diplomatique for some twenty years or so, not because I’m a closet diplomat (though my teaching job used to draw quite heavily on what I used to call my Kissinger skills) but because as a publication offering thorough and detailed information, and serious analysis of and commentary on world affairs, I have yet to find its equal. Is it because of my age that I read it so carefully and thoroughly and treasure it as a source of my understanding of the state of the world?

I’ve come across references to academic studies that suggest that our attention to what we read and take in is changing because of the internet, that the human brain may well be being ‘rewired’ in ways that we don’t yet completely understand. Such changes, if they are taking place, will inevitably have a greater effect on those younger than me, it seems. Already I am aware of an attitude in people younger than myself, that it’s less important to know – as in the sense of retain in the memory – information, because it can so easily be accessed on a device that one always has to hand. That’s as may be; certainly my brain is cluttered up with things like phone numbers and addresses from twenty, thirty, fifty years ago that are of no use at all, but if not committing information to memory becomes the norm, what does that say about us, our brains, our futures?

The act of writing as a physical skill and as a need is dying out, too. Phones, keyboards and predictive text are ensuring this. Students complain about having to write essays in exams; they now find it hard and haven’t the stamina.

There has always been the ephemeral – mental pabulum – cheap and trashy magazines, newspapers and TV, but it does seem that there is so much more of it in the world of social media, which appears to suck up many hours of many people’s attention. I know that I may just be an ageing and increasingly out-of-touch dead colonel type for noticing and commenting on this; I do know that times change and one cannot swim against the tide. What I do think, though, is that more of us ought to be reflecting on what is going on, what is changing, and loudly asking what it all means…

Olga Tokarczuk: Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead

January 28, 2019

41PJk9rkWBL._AC_US218_What an extraordinary novel – a woman living in a hamlet in the mountains on the border between Poland and the Czech republic involved in a murder mystery as local people are killed, apparently by wild animals. She is very strange, obsessed with translating William Blake into Polish, endlessly watching the weather channel on TV, her world governed by astrological readings and interpretations.

Olga Tokarczuk takes us convincingly inside the head of this narrator and her bizarre perspective on the world, and we come to like her and empathise with her, even as she becomes ever stranger. Her personality very strongly and sympathetically and shapes the entire first person narrative. At various points I was reminded of the surrealism of Boris Vian’s novels, though our narrator’s world is populated by relatively ordinary folk and objects, and also some of the weirdness of the Ben Marcus novels I have read, except that again things aren’t quite so externally strange in this book.

Everything begins with the mysterious death of one of the other inhabitants of the village, yet rapidly, as events unfold through her perspective, we find ourselves wondering, ‘is this woman mad?’ as she proposes the theory that the man has been killed in revenge by the local wild deer whom he has been hunting…

In some ways it’s a challenging read, presenting the reader with uncomfortable moral truths about our relations with the animal world; what strikes more than anything is how these moral challenges are presented. From inside the narrator’s head, we read a rambling story: she is pleasant, even endearing through her crankiness and obsessions. As there’s an element of mystery and detection I won’t say too much about the plot. When she comes onto the mediaeval court cases that humans brought against various animals for crimes against people, her idea that the animal world might be capable of getting its own back no longer seems quite so weird.

It is an astonishingly good and utterly surreal tale, and several times I found myself admiring the translator’s work: Antonia Lloyd Jones has done a wonderful job making this such a flowing and accessible read. The novel’s title is (roughly) taken from Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. There is a superb twist at the end, which I had begun to suspect… if you want something really different to start your year with, this is a good one.

On the quality of information

January 27, 2019

I’ve always read quite widely, beyond my own specialisms as an English teacher and student of literature and into other areas which I could understand, and used to find it rather disconcerting as a teacher when I would mention a fact or some information outside our subject, and a student would ask, “Sir, how come you know so much stuff?’ because it seemed natural and normal to know such things. I don’t think I ever gave a satisfactory answer to the question, but one of my lines was that I always liked to learn a new fact each day, and would offer them that fact as their knowledge gained ration for that day.

There is now an incomprehensible amount of information available, at most people’s fingertips, instantly. Several billion pages out there on the web, last time anyone informed me. And yet, how reliable, how accurate, how findable? The school librarian used to describe the internet as the world’s largest library, but with all the books thrown randomly on the floor.

Back in the past, a learned person could know everything. Reading Pliny’s Natural History is eye-opening: that’s what was known about the world back then. A few hundred years later, in the early seventh century, Isidore of Seville wrote his Etymologies, which has a claim to be the world’s first real encyclopaedia. In a few hundred pages we find everything that was known: as the author, he knew it all… and for that, he has been named patron saint of the internet by the Catholic Church.

Athanasius Kircher lived in the seventeenth century; a polymath, some regard him as the last person able to know everything that was known, in the days before the explosion of knowledge in all areas.

I love the internet and the access it gives me to so much information, and I have learned to be very cautious and very sceptical too. Wikipedia is a stunning resource and one I am happy occasionally to donate money to, and one of its virtues is that anyone can contribute to it, but this obviously raises the question about how reliable some of its information is. Back in the old days of printed reference books, these were compiled by experts, checked before printing, and expensive; the gold standard for more than two centuries was the Encyclopaedia Britannica. But who goes there as their first call for information now? A search for anything throws up hundreds or thousands of hits; who ever goes beyond the first couple of pages? And how many look carefully at the source of the information? If we are dubious, we can’t easily check, so we just move on to another result.

In former times, we could assume that information was accurate because of how it was collated and disseminated; nowadays I suggest it doesn’t often occur to us even to question the accuracy of what we find in a web search, and this does disturb me. Inaccuracy is possible accidentally, because of carelessness, and when anyone can post information online, inaccurate information can be deliberate, and increasingly is; if we are not alerted to engage our critical faculties, this is surely dangerous.

Money is involved behind the scenes, of course. The Encyclopaedia Britannica cost hundreds of pounds, and once printed, a good deal of its information was already out-of-date. Smaller reference books – dictionaries, gazetteers, atlases and the like – all cost money. Nowadays because “free” information is available in vast quantities, we feel entitled to have it for nothing. A good deal of quality information online is only available by subscription, and our first reaction when faced with a need to shell out for information is to look elsewhere for a free source. This is even more true when it comes to news, current affairs, and analysis thereof: we used to buy newspapers and read them without too much complaint; now we expect our news free.

We were shaped – manipulated, perhaps – in the past by the power of the wealthy to control the publication and dissemination of knowledge: no change there, then. And it continues today in different ways, and not many of us are wary enough. All I can hope to do is make more people aware of this; I have no solutions to offer to the problem.

Heroes and icons

January 25, 2019

Something got me thinking about heroes recently, and I found myself wondering if I had any. A hero: someone whose life and work I greatly admire; is that a good enough definition? Or am I thinking of an icon?

One will have to be Shakespeare. I realise I had a very good first encounter with the man and his work, through an inspirational English teacher (who was ultimately responsible for my pursuing such a career myself) who chose a demanding and challenging play for study at O Level: The Merchant of Venice. Difficult to classify, though many critics call it a tragicomedy, which will do, I suppose. The point is, it raised so many issues for teenage minds to wrestle with: what is justice? What is racism? Who are we meant to sympathise with? In other words, I had an early introduction to the idea that there are no easy answers, and that one should beware of anyone who claimed to have one… And this same teacher went on to teach us Othello and King Lear at A Level, two astonishingly powerful tragedies which move me to tears whenever I watch them.

At university we had a course on ‘The Drama’ in our first year, and were fortunate enough to have the lectures on Shakespeare delivered by Kenneth Muir, the head of the Department of English at the University of Liverpool and eminent Shakespearean scholar, then on the verge of retirement. He was amazing: clear and perceptive in his analysis, what stunned us all most was that whatever play he was discussing, he could immediately recall whatever lines he wanted, from memory, as he paced the lecture theatre.

Obviously as an English teacher myself, I had to teach many of the plays. I tried only to teach plays I really liked, especially after having made the early mistake of trying to interest year 8 students in A Midsummer Night’s Dream because that was one of the plays designated for year 8… I had to teach Macbeth – a play I liked but never really completely warmed to – more times than I care to think; I loved teaching Julius Caesar and Romeo and Juliet, and when it came to sixth form, went for the tragedies whenever I could, though only ever once managed to get to teach King Lear. Othello and Antony and Cleopatra were my great favourites.

Everyone will have their own take on Shakespeare’s greatness. For me there were two things in particular: the astonishing power and beauty of his language in so many different situations and through so many different characters, and his ability to raise so many questions through his plots, to make his audiences think, to make them uncomfortable, in short to make them see that there was no one easy response to anything.

I said ‘one’ before I mentioned Shakespeare, so logically there will be another, and there is.

​_Whereas I can claim a certain measure of expertise in the field of literature, in the field of music I am a zero. Tone deaf, unable to play any instrument, bribed at school not to sing in music lessons because I put others off. But my other hero, or icon, is J S Bach. And I will find it much harder to explain why. A long while ago I mentioned how a teacher at school had initially fired my curiosity by refusing to play Bach to us ‘peasants’; another teacher played us the fifth Brandenburg Concerto, and I could not believe my ears, transported by the speed and virtuosity of the harpsichordist.

My encyclopaedic knowledge of 1970s rock music gradually began to fade as I explored the world of jazz and classical music, and one fateful day I spent a whole pound on a whim, on a secondhand LP of two Bach cantatas from a stall on Lancaster market. Many years later, having worn it out, I managed to find a replacement.

Bach’s music transports me onto a more spiritual plane: that’s the only way I can put it, really. The cello suites, for example, some of the shorter and less fiery organ pieces, but above all the church cantatas take me away from myself, my ordinary little world and its worries and preoccupations and lead me somewhere completely other with my mind – my being, thoughts, consciousness — to another place entirely. It’s beyond me and much more powerful than me; I don’t understand it and I feel unutterably grateful for the experience.

Bach was a Lutheran, a very religious and God-fearing man: I am not. As a Quaker, I explore a spiritual path, true, but worship in silence; I don’t know whether God exists or is a creation of the human mind. But Bach’s music speaks to me so profoundly, from nearly three centuries ago, in a way which complements everything I believe in, and manages to restore my faith in humanity.

So yes, perhaps there are heroes, and I have a couple of them.

On responsibility

January 24, 2019

As I’ve grown older, I’ve come to realise that I’m a thinker and not a doer by nature; from this blog you can see I read and reflect and write a lot. I’ve been considering this in the light of what I perceive to be the parlous state of the world at the moment, and wonder what my contribution has been.

From my teenage years, I’ve been aware of the state of the planet and the effects of pollution on it, after reading The Doomsday Book by Gordon Rattray Taylor, an eye-opening moment. This led me to explore the realm of speculative fiction, in which writers consider what ifs, both in term so what may happen if things get worse, and what we may do to improve things. So the fiction of John Brunner (Stand on Zanzibar, The Sheep Look Up, for instance, is balanced by the more positive imaginings of Ursula Le Guin and Ernest Callenbach (Ecotopia), and I spent several years researching into science fiction with a social slant in my younger years.

I’ve worked for food co-ops and housing co-ops, as radical alternatives to the usual ways of feeding and housing ourselves, and learned much from those experiences; I’ve been vegetarian for over 40 years, converted others, spread the message about responsible eating. I have done my best to recycle, and not to over-consume (I’ll polish my halo now).

As a career, I taught, in secondary schools, and think that I always did my best to have students read and discuss texts of all kinds that would make them think about the world they were going to live in and the choices they would make. I was radical without preaching, and enjoyed playing devil’s advocate, as many of my former students would recognise. This was a difficult but enjoyable line to tread, and one I feel I had no choice about; only once did a parent challenge me about my political views in nearly 30 years.

Politically I have supported organisations which espoused issues I felt strongly about – CND, Amnesty International, Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, the Soil Association; I can’t remember ever having been a member of a political party, which I know some may think is a fault. I have always voted: I believe this is a civic duty, and anyone who doesn’t vote has no right to complain about the outcome of an election. I have never voted Conservative, and could not. I have never supported tax-cutting, privatisation, selling-off national assets. But obviously we have benefited (?) financially, in crude terms of having more money in our pockets…

At one level, I can tell myself I’ve done OK there: smug, white, middle-class, keep your head down. But. When it came down to choosing a career, I chose something safe – teaching – rather than anything which challenged the current order, though it was a career of service, which I think is important. When it came to having a home and family, I went down the conventional paths; we have a decent home in a decent town, and decent pensions. I drive a car, but do not fly. So I’m not completely blameless in terms of environmental footprint.

And yet this is clearly not enough, either for me, or for my generation: during the time of our stewardship and responsibility for the planet through our political and economic decisions, things have gone from bad to worse. We haven’t been responsible for events like the two world wars, but we have surely benefited from warmongering policies followed by our governments and allies, and the continuing exploitation of other countries by our companies and businesses.

Now that I’m retired, I feel as if the baton has passed to younger generations, who I hope will have more clarity of vision and courage than ours, which has benefited from the sixty-plus years of peace since 1945 and the welfare state put in place after it. I’m not happy with where my generation has left things, and often ask myself: could I – should I – have done more?

Thirty glorious years?

January 24, 2019

Warning: politics ahead

The French call the decades in which I grew up ‘les trente glorieuses’ – the thirty glorious years, harking back to (another) lost golden age, in this case of unparalleled economic growth and prosperity as their country, along with others, gradually recovered from the nightmare of the Second World War, in an era of relative peace, security and a real welfare state. And no, I haven’t forgotten that this was the era of the Cold War and the Cuban missile crisis; I do feel somehow, though, that saner heads were in control then, than are now. Then, both sides were almost too afraid to do anything really risky, and we did all survive the risks of nuclear annihilation.

Those decades were also the years when the European project was hatched and developed, bonding nations ever more closely in the effort to ensure that the nineteen thirties and forties were never repeated; so far they haven’t been. Looking back on those years now long ago, I’m quite happy to have grown up during them; yes, I know I would say that, wouldn’t I? But they were relatively prosperous, carefree and stress-free times, compared with today.

Something happened at the cusp of the seventies and eighties which began to throw everything out of kilter. Reagan and Thatcher came to power in the West and unleashed a wilder form of capitalism based on selfishness and unrestrained individualism – perhaps an inevitable outcome of the urge for individual self-expression and fulfilment seen in the sixties and seventies, but definitely driven by people with a much harder-nosed agenda than the blissful hippies that some of us once were… and there was the determination, too, to destroy the Soviet bloc by out-spending it, which ultimately succeeded. Having family who lived behind the Iron Curtain, I know how much they craved our freedom and prosperity, and yet it’s now evident that not everyone saw 1989 as an unalloyed blessing.

All the cards were thrown up in the air, and the extremely wealthy, those inveterate gamblers with other people’s lives and money, have never been happier, or wealthier.

And in my declining years I have a sense of living in a far more perilous world than the one of my youth. Terrorism and extremism of all kinds are widespread. The environment – seas and climate – is in serious danger, and there seems to be little sense of urgency about dealing with looming disasters. People have lost faith and trust in politicians to serve their countries and societies, electing the likes of Trump, voting for Brexit, allowing demagogues like Erdogan, Orban, Le Pen and others to make the running and set the agenda. I am also quite aware that the world I have been writing about is the West, where I live, and which I know, and that the experience of much of the rest of the world has been very different.

I have not chosen to be a political activist myself; in my career as a teacher I always strove to make future citizens think carefully about the world they lived in and the effects of choices they might make, and to beware of anyone who offered easy and simple answers to the worlds’ problems. And I cannot put my finger on what has gone wrong, but I do not feel optimistic about the future of the planet or the species. The generations who lived through the world wars and who used to warn us have died, and left us to unravel the lessons of history ourselves. Fail.

On heresy

January 23, 2019

A punishable drift from accepted orthodoxy, but how, and by whom: who decides what is ‘correct’, the ‘party line’, and how? And why are organisations so fearful of other views?

I came to ponder the topic after looking up a reference to Pelagianism which came up in something I was reading. Pelagianism was a fifth century heresy which denied original sin, in other words, Adam’s sin was his alone on not visited on every subsequent human generation, as the church (or St Augustine of Hippo, anyway) taught; this meant that infant baptism was not vital… once you get into the hair-splitting nitty-gritty of questions like this, that way madness lies, as someone once said. I have read several interesting novels whose outcome hinges on heresy: Marguerite Yourcenar’s masterpiece L’Oeuvre Au Noir, Jill Paton Walsh’s Knowledge of Angels, and Luther Blissett’s Q. This last novel, set in the early days of the Reformation and centred around various divergences from the Lutheranism that was gradually becoming an orthodoxy itself, was apparently written by a collective…

51x8b2znkvl._ac_us218_51zEOgllRmL._AC_US218_

It’s the same in politics, although the need for rigidly politically correct lines of thought seems more to affect left wing and progressive organisations. I was reminded of the political acrobatics described in Ismail Kadare’s astonishing novel The Great Winter, recounting the split between the Party of Labour of Albania under Enver Hoxha, and the Communist Party of the Soviet Union: so many words, so little difference, so much significance. The party members in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four are oppressed by the need to follow and toe the party line; we follow the workings of the Stalinist purges in Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon. Ultimately, of course, it’s all about control: if someone has to spend all their time ensuring that they know the official party line, that they think correctly and do not deviate from it, then they are in a constant state of self-induced anxiety, which is worsened by the often random nature of arrests and purges. And also, everyone is watching everyone else…

51xrmj+pVjL._AC_US218_

I wonder if this kind of nit-picking explains my lifelong reluctance to join political organisations, or religious ones. I still spend ages thrashing out my own ideas and understandings, unwilling to take on board anyone else’s wholesale, although I do read lots of other people’s ideas. There came a point when I was on the verge of losing my Catholic faith, when a priest whom I respected responded to something I said with ‘that’s a bit too Protestant for me!’ And I realised that some of my thoughts were therefore definitely unorthodox, even heretical… Whereas I knew others who seemed quite happy to live with a whole series of contradictions and still practise their religion, I couldn’t.

Oppressed by books

January 23, 2019

My study has needed re-painting for a while, and I finally tackled it last week; it took far longer than I expected, because of the books, and rather alarmingly, by the end of it, I felt quite oppressed by them. Although the study is quite roomy, it’s full of stuff, all of which had to be moved, along with the 1000 or so books on six different sets of shelves, before a particular section of the room could be painted. As I finally re-shelved the last of the books, I did a small cull, wishing I could do a bigger one. Am I ever going to read that again? I found myself thinking.

There’s always an – and yet – though.

There’s a particular physical comfort and sensual pleasure from being surrounded by books, most of which I’m quite attached to in some way or other. Many of them are physically nice objects, with quality paper, good quality binding, well looked-after… and that’s before I think about the contents. I love the Everyman’s Library series and have quite a lot of these: they are not OTT in the way I find the Folio Society collection, for example. And I also have quite a lot of cheap French paperbacks, which I like for their fine design – echoing Penguin in earlier days – and basic quality paper.

I like the various sections that line my study: almost a wall of travel writing which I’ve gradually collected over the last couple of decades, a wall of literature with its complete hardback Arden Shakespeare Second Series in individual volumes, shelves of history, atlases. I feel at home in this room, and it’s good to have so much within easy reach of my enormous desk.

And yet, I felt oppressed. Many of the books will go eventually, as I age, and re-read before reluctantly parting with them. But others need to go now. I piled up all the Polish albums of photos of cities, gifts from the socialist era when there was plenty of spare cheap printing capacity and the regime wanted to boast both of the nation’s past and the socialist construction: I probably looked through them a couple of times forty years ago and never since. I don’t have the time or the inclination to try and sell books online, so they will go to Amnesty. And there are many other lovely coffee-table type books that I cannot bear to part with at the moment.

I know that a disciplined approach would have me ruthlessly go through everything and select only the books I could definitely justify keeping (ha ha!). I recognise that my feelings are changing with age, and I do try and de-clutter, but I cannot understand the various lifestyle coaches who just say ‘get rid of it all, you can always buy it again if you need it’ and readers who claim to keep everything they need on their e-readers cannot really be serious, in my books. My books do increasingly remind me of my mortality: they can outlive me, and will not have the associations they have for me, for others…

Anyway, I now have a newly-painted study, in exactly the same colours as it was before but cleaner and fresher, and in another ten years I may well not care about re-decorating…

How writers write changes with time…

January 21, 2019

 

One of the things I really valued about my studies of literature at university (both English and French) was that they helped me to gain the beginnings of an overview of literature over time, and to a lesser extent in space, that is, different countries. Slowly and gradually, I began to put together the jigsaw of how people had written, what forms they had used, and what their subject-matter had been, and how these had changed and developed over the centuries. I think that this was probably part of the design of the course, at a fairly traditional redbrick university in the nineteen-seventies.

So people initially wrote verse because that was how stories were most easily remembered in the days before printing and mass literacy; otherwise stories were re-enacted onstage in the theatre, so poetry and drama as forms long pre-dated prose fiction, which required individual literacy, printing and sufficient income to purchase books before it became widespread and eventually dominant.

Perhaps it is because prose was the way in which academic ideas and discourse were expressed, that the earliest prose fiction sought to convince readers of its veracity and presented itself almost as documentary: in English, I’m thinking of Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (based on a true story) and A Journal of the Plague Year (referring to the events of 1665, before Defoe’s time) and Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, where the author is keen to situate geographically the location of each of the eponymous hero’s adventures.

Adventures in the realm of sex and love soon followed in novels like Fielding’s Tom Jones; eventually becoming rather more genteel in the search for the ideal partner, as evidenced in the novels of Jane Austen, perhaps. Character development came to interest many writers and then came the development of what is best summed up in the German word bildungsroman, or novel of education. Obvious examples in English are Jane Eyre and Villette, or Samuel Butler’s The Way of All Flesh: we see the early life of characters, and the people and events which influence them in their development and the formation of their character as they gradually mature into adults. In a sense we are seeing literature here preceding the development of the science of psychology in looking at what influences form and shape individuals as they grow, although this aspect of the novel flourishes later in the nineteenth and into the early twentieth century as that science develops.

Because there was a strong faith in human progress and a dream of the gradual improvement of people and their society, society itself comes under the literary microscope later on in the nineteenth century, in the novels of writers such as Dickens and George Eliot: Middlemarch attempts a wide-ranging portrait of the different classes of English society in a provincial town at the time of electoral reform in the 1820s and 1830s. Society is also under the microscope in the detective fiction of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories: here is Victorian London, the largest city on the planet, home to crime and criminals of all classes, presented in a sanitised version for its readership, at the same time as the ghastly Jack the Ripper murders were actually happening.

Writers become more interested in the workings of the human mind as the century moved to its close and into the twentieth; writers like Joseph Conrad and James Joyce are experimenting with ways of showing us inside humans’ heads: Joyce takes us through five different ages and stages in the development of Stephen Dedalus in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, using the stream of consciousness technique.

There are times when I feel that the novel reached its limits in the late twentieth century, running out of new avenues to pursue and new aspects of human experience to explore. I have found a great deal of recent and contemporary fiction (in English, at least) to be rather dull, repetitive, self-indulgent even.

But three new strands do emerge with a fair degree of clarity, I think. As the pace of – particularly technological – change has accelerated, science fiction or speculative fiction has come into its own. Much of it may perhaps not count as literature, but the notion that as a species we shape and may perhaps destroy our world, is a logical avenue for writers to pursue. Then there is that very elusive genre magic realism, perhaps embedded in the real and yet definitely not realistic, as exemplified by the novels of Gabriel Garcia Marquez or Günter Grass, to name a couple. I still can’t really nail down what exactly it is doing, but I love it. And finally there is what I suppose we may call gender fiction, writing that explores the experiences of a particular gender – feminist fiction or women’s fiction – or sexuality – gay fiction. Who can say where literature will turn next? Have you come across any pointers?

%d bloggers like this: