Archive for October, 2022

Daniel Defoe: Roxana, or The Fortunate Mistress

October 15, 2022

     Early prose fiction is a strange kettle of fish, as writers gradually worked out how to develop the form which eventually became the novel that most of us are now familiar with. It’s hard enough to decide where the ‘beginning’ of the novel actually was, but many seem to agree that Defoe was in there at the start, early in the eighteenth century, with Robinson Crusoe, Moll Flanders and A Journal of the Plague Year; Roxana is far less-known, and after finally reading it (nearly twenty years on the pending pile!) I can see why…

There are layers to the narrative as Defoe works to create the impression of verisimilitude: a writer did not want to give the impression a story was completely made up, but on the contrary to convince readers that it was true. Defoe is perhaps most successful at this in A Journal of the Plague Year, but when you look at the chronology you realise he could not have lived through the events he describes in the first person. We are to get a story of life of wickedness – sexual sin – and in those days it was necessary to ensure that the purported narrator was ultimately repentant as she regaled you with the salacious details of her past, as well as making clear she receives her comeuppance. So, regularly her regrets are trotted out, along with her supposed learning from her mistakes, and her warnings to others not to follow in her tracks. All very prurient, in a News Of The World manner.

Early novels are hard work for the reader, for a number of reasons. Firstly, no chapter divisions, which means the entire work, 300 pages, has no convenient start/stop points: you just have to put the book down, and try and pick up the thread later. Then there is the tonal monotony: almost no variation either in the pace or in the intensity of the narrative, no excitement, tension, build-up to a climax and then a relaxation for the reader. This is exhausting. And finally, there’s the question of dialogue, or speech: the conventions for this had to develop, and Defoe is in there right at the start. There’s an awful lot of reported speech, which we find harder to deal with nowadays. Occasionally there’s an attempt at presenting speech in the way we know it, but without the customary punctuation which makes it easier to follow. Finally, there’s a good deal of dialogue presented playscript fashion, which was the one clearly-established convention available at the time. To the contemporary reader, finding chunks of that in the middle of a novel is strange, too. All of these methods are also subservient to the desire to emphasise the verisimilitude of the story.

So, our heroine, after experiencing dire poverty at the hands of a worthless husband, eventually cashes in on her good looks and becomes a kept woman or mistress to a series of wealthy businessmen and aristocrats, living the life of Riley and amassing a huge fortune, whilst occasionally professing to have a conscience troubled by what she is doing. A series of children are abandoned on the way; these also come back to haunt her, and she discovers that trying to ‘go straight’ and become an honest woman again – being too old to be a mistress, and having amassed great wealth already – is harder than it looks. That will do as a summary of a rather tiresome plot; it’s actually pretty similar to Moll Flanders’ life story, so Defoe clearly knew what would sell…

There are a number of serious social and political issues Defoe raises, at a time when the middle classes and businessmen are emerging as a significant force in English society. All a woman’s property passed to her husband on marriage and she herself became a mere chattel; if you’ve acquired great wealth through whoring like our heroine, then a man offering to make an honest woman of you – socially and religiously a desirable outcome – means the loss of your wealth. So you continue as a ‘dishonest’ woman…

Equally, and this ties into Defoe’s time and the emergence of capitalism, our heroine is more interested in amassing wealth and hanging on to it than in anything else. There are numerous descriptions of presents she is given, money she is given, all listed like cash accounts, almost. Is this covetousness her real sin? She’s proud of her ability to hobnob with the highest society, and it’s even hinted that at one point she becomes the king’s mistress for a while. Defoe was a journalist, and I think we’re reminded here of ongoing public interest in the sexual and financial lives of celebrities today.

In the end, I have to say, the novel becomes tiresome and repetitive, plot development and suspense do not yet figure in the fictional template; the nearest we get is the description of a stormy passage over the North Sea, and Defoe does this much better in Robinson Crusoe. Overall, there is very little deliberate manipulation of the reader’s response. It’s a shambolic ragbag of a story, and an extremely unsatisfactory ending, too: open and unresolved, really and a complete let-down.

So, one to read only if you have it already sitting on your shelf, or if you are seriously interested in the early days of the English novel; even then, other of Defoe’s novels will serve and entertain you better.

Jean Verdon: S’amuser au Moyen Âge

October 5, 2022

     It’s not a book I’d have chosen to buy, but when I bought a pile of French novels in Luxembourg earlier this year, the assistant said, ‘You get a free book!’ and presented me with a box to choose from… I had read one of Jean Verdon’s earlier books on travel in the Middle Ages and it was fascinating. This one I have to confess to skim-reading a good deal of, particularly the lengthy extracts from documents in mediaeval French.

Life was so different back then: so many religious feast days (and leftovers from earlier, pagan days, too, despite the best efforts of the church) when work just didn’t happen or was limited; of course this counterbalanced those times when you had to work every hour that God sent, but even so… and there were also restrictions in terms of the daylight available for anything productive. It was a time of lurching from feast to famine; so much of the empty time was spent on eating and drinking when that was possible, and hunting and fishing. Peasants had their own produce whereas townsfolk did not, but then they were at the mercy of the weather. There were innumerable taverns – a regulation was passed somewhere once saying there should be no more than one for every eight houses – and prostitution was rife.

Having made the simplistic judgement that things have always been pretty much the same, I then thought a bit more deeply: work as we understand it now was a rather different concept for most people. At one level it was a deeply integrated part of your life and the person you were, with no possible escape from that fate, but it didn’t tie you down in quite the same futile ways it perhaps does today, when you think about what is real work, and what are real necessities.

Equally, there were none of the static, time-wasting amusements that we ‘enjoy’ today; what people did was largely participatory and based on social interaction; the closest a peasant would have got to anything resembling today’s passively consumed entertainments was possibly a travelling mystery or morality play. These, incidentally, were far more sophisticated in terms of stagecraft and mechanics than I’d previously known. And there were processions, royal entrances, public executions.

I wouldn’t have liked to live back then, obviously; life was proverbially nasty, brutish and short, and I have greatly valued the intellectual stimulus of my studies and career. Nevertheless the value of a book like this lies in its ability to make one step back for a while and reflect on what is of real significance and value in our own lives and what is of no real value and serves someone else’s purposes…

Albert Nolan: Jesus Before Christianity

October 3, 2022

     In a way this book covers similar territory to E P Sanders’ book I read and wrote about recently; in another way it’s very different. It’s not so scrupulously detailed or annotated, for a start.

Jesus is seen as a follower of John the Baptist initially, who then turns his attention to the downtrodden, oppressed classes who have no hope of escaping their poverty, which is basically regarded as a sinful state. I’d never thought of him as ‘middle class’ though in terms of the society of his time, he was. Nolan develops a coherent picture of, and interpretation of, Jesus’ work in the context of his time. However, and this is where I encountered the greatest difficulty, he attempts to be dispassionate and analytical against the background of his own faith and what he perceives to be Jesus’ picture of God as well. Faith is opposed to fatalism: things can be done, we can make the world a different place. Nolan’s Jesus preaches community, equality, the sharing of surplus, ie only having what you actually need. He is very clear about the man as radical, and what was new about his teaching and life; Jesus comes across not as a revolutionary in the manner of others of his time, but as someone who can understand and show us what right living is…

For Nolan the central incident sealing Jesus’ fate is the clearing out of the money-changers in the Temple, which made him a known and potentially dangerous figure in different ways to the Jewish leaders and Roman rulers.

I think I said in response to Sanders’ book that his purely rational, historical analysis of Jesus as a human being should make no difference to a person’s faith; I find the confusion of analysis and urge to faith here very unhelpful. Nolan tries to make Jesus human before his death, almost omits the resurrection as an embarrassment, and then somehow tries to make him into an extraordinary figure for those who remained, quite suddenly almost an extension of God; here he lost me, I’m afraid: this bolting of a religious message on to the end did not work for me.

Clearly I’ve been reading a good deal about the man Jesus and his times over recent years; I’m still not sure if I call my response a belief or a faith, but none of the historical investigations have diminished the inspirational teachings I have always seen at the heart of the message…

Erich Maria Remarque: All Quiet on the Western Front

October 1, 2022

     My former students will know, and if you search this blog you will discover, that I have a reasonably comprehensive knowledge of literature from the Great War. This novel, which I’ve read several times now, still moves me to tears at the end, and, I would argue, is probably the most powerful novel written about those hellish places and times. And, for the first time, I was struck by the parallel between the end of the novel and the final moments of the epic film O What A Lovely War.

Written in 1929 and the first novel (and film) the Nazis banned on coming to power, it clearly gains from the sense of immediacy – only a decade after the events it recalls. The writer lived through those times; it shows in a way in which no modern novel, no matter how well-researched, can do, and that is not to disparage contemporary writers like Pat Barker or Sebastian Faulks. It’s different from novels which present the British or French perspective; in particular the serious privations of both the men at the front and their folk at home are emphasised.

Remarque’s techniques stand up to scrutiny. The tone of the narrative is matter-of-fact throughout: the message is that you will get used to anything, eventually: the horrors are not dwelt on in gory detail. The tone makes the novel, laconic, the hero old and wise before his time, with a sense of doom ever-present in the back of his mind (just as in Wilfred Owen’s poem Anthem for Doomed Youth, I feel). The language enhances the effect, with the constant feeling that there just aren’t the words available to describe what he and his comrades experience. And there’s also the feeling that insanity is never that far away; even the hero notices and remarks on this. There is that memorable scene in the 1930 film when the men are under endless bombardment, which I still cannot forget even after many years. (Incidentally, why remake the film, as I learn has been done?)

There is a sense of timelessness; home and past are now and forever unreal. I have always found the section where Paul goes home on leave one of the most poignant in the novel. He can have none of that old life back, ever. I realised how much more effectively this is portrayed here, than in more recent fiction, too. Remarque’s style is obviously not contemporary; it takes us back in time in a different way. I found myself trying to work out why, for me, writing from that time is so much more effective, and I think it comes down to the fact that I’m not seduced by plot or story here; there is just warfare; there are just incidents; characters come and go (they are killed)…

This timelessness is enhanced by the wide use of the present tense in the narrative: here it works to convey the sense that there is only now for these men; that technique is gratuitously overused to no effect in much contemporary fiction. What will happen, what can happen for these men if they survive, and when the war is over? There is no future for them; their minds and hopes are already destroyed. The sadness about the love and the sex they will never enjoy is hinted at, just as in Owen’s Disability, which for my money is one of the most powerful poems ever written about that or any war. And Remarque did write a sequel, about what happened to those who made their way back, and in its own way, it’s as grim as this novel.

I remain of the opinion I formed half a century ago: war serves no purpose, war is evil. Some vile people derive power and profit from it: most people suffer. Re-reading this novel, and contemplating current events confirm my feeling.

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