Archive for March, 2023

Marge Piercy: Woman on the Edge of Time

March 20, 2023

      This feminist utopia from the 1970s called for a re-read; I explored it thoroughly for my thesis on feminist science fiction in the early 1980s, and returning to it after 40 years has been very interesting. It’s from an era when various women writers were exploring two very different future possibilities: one without men at all, and one where physical and social differences between men and women were being gradually erased, in a move towards androgyny. Woman on the Edge of Time is one of these, and at some level may be compared with some of Ursula Le Guin’s novels.

The androgyny aspect is interesting because it felt at once slightly dated, and at the same time rather prescient, in our days of gender fluidity: the 22nd century inhabitants have solved the pronouns debate rather more neatly than our present, using ‘per’ (short for person) as a non-gendered third person pronoun. And it doesn’t jar too much after a while, given that focus is not primarily on gender.

Many of the 1970s feminist themes are present: male violence, mental health, therapy as growth and a means of problem-solving and conflict resolution; whilst I read I felt that I’d gone back in time, and yet reminded myself that things have not changed that much, and most of what was being said in the seventies sadly still rings true. Those radical visions of half a century ago have faded somewhat, though certain aspects do seem to have been integrated in some people’s lives.

There is pace and intensity to the narrative, and the atmosphere of poverty, violence, mental illness and general hopelessness of the life of Connie the protagonist is swiftly and vividly established. Then arrives the 22nd century interloper in her life and with her help, Connie visits and learns about the utopian society of the future; these visits provide welcome relief from her actual situation of abuse and neglect by her family and in the mental hospital where she is incarcerated.

Piercy creates an authentic-feeling future society and language to go with it (though its actual coming about is unclear), and explores it through skilfully through the interwoven strands. The utopian world in some ways resembles that of both William MorrisNews From Nowhere and Ernest Callenbach’s Ecotopia novels; the technology Piercy envisions does not seem too silly, out-paced and old-fashioned even 50 years later.

How convincing is the utopia, though? It seems to have come about after some sort of societal breakdown; there are clearly far fewer people for the world to have to support. I can see why Piercy did not go into much detail here, given that it’s the difference in the people and their lives that interest her, the potential for a new society, but I do think that a successful utopian vision needs to take the reader some of the way along the journey there.

Finally, the novel raised the question we often found ourselves discussing in sixth-form English class: which books will survive to be read by future generations, and why? While it was interesting enough, in a scholarly sort of way, to revisit this novel, I can’t see myself wanting to read it again. It has dated, its future vision a little too ‘twee’ and also out of touch with the current age. The issues it raises are important and we must not lose sight of them, but in my judgement, it’s Ursula Le Guin’s treatment of them that stands the test of time.

Paul Fussell: Poetic Meter & Poetic Form

March 14, 2023

      This is a pretty old book – even the revised edition is over 40 years old – but I found myself thinking, “I wish I’d had this when I was teaching.” It’s a slim volume that does what it says on the cover, comprehensively. I like Fussell; his books on the effects of the First World War, and on war itself, are great insights into how people and artists have been affected by this plague on the species. He is American, and at times his scansion reveals this…

This book is quite technical, almost mathematical at times, but always in a useful sort of way; it requires serious concentration as the different kinds of poetic meter are explained and illustrated, in a logical and historical sequence. It’s highly informative, and very much worth the effort, and even after years of teaching poetry and practical criticism in the English school system, I had a greater awareness of the hidden or unnoticed artifice in the construction of poetry.

There are myriad excellent helpful examples and illustrations in the section on metre, with relevant parts inflected for clarity. He offers pithy and cogent judgements throughout, particularly about free verse and its excesses; he illustrates both bad and good, which is illuminating, and there are helpful comparisons at times. I found him particularly good on the sonnet.

Overall, the book offers a good and logical way into the joys and complexities of practical criticism, and despite the necessary analytical approach, nowhere does Fussell lose sight of what poetry actually is, what it does and how it can affect us. His ultimate aim is clear: the ‘trained reader’, for ‘the innocent eye sees nothing’. If you can track down a copy, well worth it.

Iain Pears: The Dream of Scipio

March 7, 2023

      I’m really not quite sure where to start with this remarkable novel, and I can’t fathom why it’s taken twenty years and a book group choice to bring it to my attention. Influences: the focus on mediaeval times and integration of philosophy into a novel inevitably reminds me of Umberto Eco’s classic The Name of the Rose. The astonishing plot structure, hooking the reader with a major event and then immediately dropping it reminded me of Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent: a massive explosion in London: how did that happen? The writer teases, and you have to read and piece so many things together to get there and understand. And the interweaving of the three plot strands and the cutting from story to story in such a skilful, cinematographic way…

I was also hooked because of the setting in an area of Provence I’ve known and loved since my student days; I had vivid pictures in my mind as I read. Pears linked in to my interest in Roman history, church history and the Renaissance as well. Two things stretched my credulity just a little too much: the likelihood of Oliver the poet gaining access to the Pope and having such a powerful influence in him, and also the chance encounter between Julia the artist and Picasso.

So three stories are interwoven, from the start, each with a male hero and a significant female: a Roman aristocrat striving to sustain what remains of Roman civilisation in Provence in the mid-fifth century as all around is collapsing; a troubadour poet at the time of the emerging Renaissance and the arrival of the plague epidemic in the mid-14th century; a dilettante French intellectual in the 1930s as Europe lurches towards the inevitable crisis. The similarities in their situations and in their concerns are gradually revealed as the interwoven stories develop, and the 20th century character gradually unearths and pieces together the history of the other two characters.

The women are equally significant: one of the last-surviving Greek philosophers, a woman briefly glimpsed by a poet who instantly is love-stricken, and an artist seeking inspiration and originality.

Where is truth, is one of Pears’ questions, as multiple versions of his characters’ pasts are unearthed, explored, theorised about. How much is lost over time, drifts into myth, or is deliberately distorted for others’ purposes. An even bigger issue is the idea that good people should strive to preserve the values of civilisation while the world around them crumbles into chaos. This is a difficult task, and fraught with compromise and betrayal, as each of the characters must discover; characters who we warm to and come to like have their very dark moments; we may be shocked, and at the same time we much acknowledge our gratitude at never having been tested in that way. Surrendering to barbarism is actually quite easy; it creeps up on you.

Pears digs deeper, though: what, exactly, is civilisation, and is it worth preserving? The perspective of the good or the worthy is restricted by their own time; later generations will look differently, judge differently. Each of the three male characters sells out or compromises himself in order, supposedly, to preserve that which is dearest to him, and in the grand scheme of things the enormous betrayals achieve very little. Interestingly (or significantly), none of the female characters does. In some ways, I found this a profoundly pessimistic novel, because so true to the human condition, it seemed to me.

It is a novel of ideas, and yet the characters are also vividly and convincingly drawn; I was surprised and moved by how Pears developed the initial flirtation between Julien the intellectual and Julia the artist into a powerful relationship, and what it ultimately led to. It’s a very thought-provoking read, at least to me; I shall hope to return to it some time soon, not least to try and unpick what Pears’ imagined characters explore about God, the soul and our purpose as human beings. Anyway, highly recommended.

Natalia Ginzburg: All Our Yesterdays

March 4, 2023

      Until I got halfway through this novel, I really wasn’t sure; I’d been a little put off by Sally Rooney’s gushing introduction and was wondering what on earth she had been on about. There wasn’t any sudden epiphany moment, but a growing sensation that this was good, the perspective was interesting and the message was becoming clearer.

It’s a novel set in Italy in the years of fascism leading up to the Second World War, the compromises people made, and the effect of Mussolini’s collapse and the German takeover. As the story progressed I found myself more and more reminded of Irène Nemirovsky’s astonishing Suite Française. There is the utter confusion of ordinary decent people whose lives are overtaken by war and who don’t know what to do, and a powerful anti-war message about the futility, pointlessness and total insanity of it all; even when war is over, the survivors are still lost. That’s a statement of the bloody obvious, and yet it takes skill to make us see it so powerfully and effectively.

There are so many characters you need to draw yourself a miniature family tree, just as if you’re reading a Russian novel. The gradual buildup to war is very much the background to the family story in the first half, with the focus on the youngest member, Anna, and her somewhat childish fantasies and dreams about revolution; people drift aimlessly, not conscious of what is going on around them or what is about to happen. Life happens to Anna, and this comes through in the evenness of the tone of the narrative, and the writer’s eschewing of reported speech.

Everything sharpens halfway through, with Anna’s unexpected pregnancy, a marriage of convenience to save her honour, and her move to a village deep in the south, in the middle of nowhere; here I was also reminded of Carlo Levi’s stunning Christ Stopped at Eboli, with its picture of dire poverty, isolation, ignorance and hopelessness.

Until I got into the rhythm of the story, I found the monotone, the evenness of the narrative, the lack of variation in pace a little annoying; the use of purely sequential narrative is not a style of story-telling that is much used nowadays. There were no twists in the plot, no subplots, no suspense, and yet it all gradually became a more and more compelling read. There’s not really a lot of story, if truth be told, there are just people, lives and consequences, and the way the effect of it all crept up on me was pretty powerful. I recommend this one.

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