Archive for the 'fiction' Category

Older Men Don’t Read Fiction…

April 8, 2018

I recently alluded to some research suggesting that older men didn’t read (very much) fiction and, as I fall into that demographic category, I have been thinking more about it, and about my habits. I’ve been prompted to revisit it because of the difficulty I’ve experienced in choosing a couple of books to take away with me on my annual walking holiday in the Ardennes.

How is that difficult, you may wonder, as I’ve often mentioned having piles of books waiting for my eyeball time? And those piles include a fair number of novels that I’ve bought, with the obvious intention of reading them; recommendations by friends or ones that had good reviews, or books by writers I already know and want to explore further. But I can’t decide: shall I take a new novel, or a history book? Shall I take some old favourite novels which I’ve been promising myself to re-read for ages? I can see I shall reach the stage of randomly grabbing a pile and thrusting them into my bag early on the morning of my departure, a last-minute eeny-meeny-miny-mo…

So, I asked myself in the middle of the night, what on earth is going on? I went back to my reading journal: this year, out of 22 books read so far, two (!) have been novels, and one of those was a re-read. Last year, 27 out of 64 were novels, of which only five were new. In 2016, 10 novels out of 52 books, two new novels; in 2015, 20 out of 71. I have to go back to 2014 to see more than half of the books read being novels, and even then, there were an awful lot of re-reads. There’s the evidence.

Next, the excuses. I haven’t felt there are an awful lot of good new novels being published, or at least, ones that call to me to read them. I am in the middle of a history and travel reading phase which has been going on for several years. Pretty thin as explanations go, I have to acknowledge.

At the moment I feel happier re-reading novels I’ve read previously, even if a long time ago. Here I think there’s something of a comfort factor going on, re-acquainting myself with old favourites, old friends – and there are times I look wistfully at a book on my shelves and think to myself – am I ever going to find the time to re-read that one? A new novel feels like much more of a challenge: am I going to enjoy it? can I actually be bothered? will it make that much of a difference to me? And it’s easier for non-fiction to draw me in at the moment. If a novel is vicarious living, vicarious experience, perhaps I’m not in need of so much of that in my retirement, perhaps I’m getting on with my own living at the moment…

Yet somewhere in the back of my mind there is a nagging doubt or uncertainty; I cannot quite believe that I’m avoiding reading novels, that I’m actively expecting to be disappointed, and feeling that I don’t want to make the effort. So, if there are any other men out there who count themselves as ‘older’, I’d be interested to hear from you. And from anyone who has ever ‘gone off’ reading fiction, for whatever reason. I’d like to get to the bottom of this one.

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Philip Pullman: Daemon Voices

April 8, 2018

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A writer writes about his craft, his inspirations, and how he works: fascinating, in the same way that Ursula Le Guin doing just that was fascinating. He doesn’t disappoint in the way he writes, either – there’s more of the fluent clear language and sentence-crafting that one experiences in his novels. Pullman is a very readable writer, accessible, communicating effectively. You may think, well, yes, he would, but that’s not always the case…

He’s very strong and forthright on a writer’s responsibilities, fascinating on how stories work, and challenges literary theorists. He writes about his experiences as a teacher and rages against the insanities and inanities of our ‘National Curriculum’. He’s forcefully and coherently atheist, anti-God; this I found quite challenging myself, and though I appreciated his stance, decided to continue to differ with him there…

Out of his atheism there arises a sense of wonder: for Pullman, the more we discover, the more wondrous the universe seems to be, an approach which chimes in with my own ever since my childhood excitement at looking at the skies and learning about other worlds.

Clearly I was looking for further understanding of the genesis of, and intentions behind, the Dark Materials trilogy, and I was not disappointed. There was a detailed personal response to Milton‘s Paradise Lost, and how the Fall story and his anti-religious stance worked together to create a story in which the Fall was a good thing: the loss of innocence and a knowledge of good and evil is what makes us human; that knowledge of evil does not imply that all humans therefore embrace it. There is a myth of the Fall in the world of the mulefa in The Amber Spyglass; it both resembles the one in our world and is very different from it, and Pullman’s clarification was very interesting.

Pullman is interesting on the craft of the writer, too, and open about his need and desire to make a decent living out of it. He’s scathing about Tolkien‘s trilogy, which he compares with Middlemarch (!) from the perspective of characterisation, and finds seriously wanting, and he has no time for C S LewisNarnia books either, because of their reactionary, anti-human, anti-life and pleasure content. I didn’t disagree with him there, either. Perhaps the most eye-opening section for me was a chapter on the nature of the narrator, where he raises a whole raft of issues with which I was familiar as a life-long student of literature, but to contemplate them from the perspective of a practising writer was really illuminating. He also takes issue with the current trend for people to write stories in the present tense and demonstrates clearly how limiting a choice this is.

Pullman shares a good deal of himself with his readers here. Most of the pieces in the collection were originally lectures or talks; a few are introductions he has written to various books. The whole is a book full of surprises; I found him reflecting on a wide range of books I had also known and loved in the past, and also came across a few recommendations for my to-read list. As an insight into the mind and art of one of our best living writers, it’s really good: challenging and thought-provoking.

G H Lewes: The Novels of Jane Austen

April 2, 2018

An essay rather than a full-length book from Librivox this time, but an interesting historical curiosity which I enjoyed. Lewes wrote in 1859, out of a feeling that although many people of his acquaintance had encountered some of her novels, very few of them had heard of ‘Miss Austen’ herself. Partly this seems to have been because very little biographical information about Jane Austen was available, but also because a certain ‘Miss Austin’ was better known at that time, for her translations from the German – of what, we are not told.

This becomes more interesting when we recall that Lewes had a very unconventional – for the time – relationship with Mary Anne Evans, whose nom-de-plume was George Eliot. She also made some translations of German works, and her early novel Scenes From Clerical Life (by Mr George Eliot!) is referred to at one point…

Lewes writes at a time when Jane Austen’s reputation was not established, and he sets out to do this.

Although he deems her a great English writer, she can never be one of the very greatest because of the narrowness of her subject-matter: she produces brilliant ‘miniatures’ but they are not ‘frescoes’… unlike the works of Sir Walter Scott, Austen’s contemporary, with whom she was constantly being unfavourably compared. Who reads Scott nowadays? Lewes also found ‘Miss Bronte’ tedious – he seems to mean Charlotte, since he later imagines that no-one will read Jane Eyre in the future.

He focuses on many aspects of Austen’s writing and craft which delight us nowadays, and which are judged as her particular strengths, and contributions to the genre: her style and use of language, her shifting narrative viewpoint, her comic characters (which he illustrates through detailed references to Mr Collins and Mrs Elton in particular), her close attention to detail and her humour generally. On the other hand, he praises Northanger Abbey highly and marks Persuasion down, which I don’t think chimes with current judgements.

Having noticed that overlap between a judgement from a century and a half ago and our times, I also remarked that completely absent from Lewes’ essay was any reflection on the social criticism implicit in Austen’s writing: critics today are highly aware of what she has to say about the precarious position of single women, women who failed to find a marriage partner, and their limited and diminishing prospects as they aged: what would have become of the Bennett sisters or the Dashwoods if suitable men hadn’t appeared on the scene? What a grim existence faces poor Jane Fairfax…until Frank Churchill does the decent thing. Austen is also aware of the profound social changes taking place in the England in which she lived, the effects of the Napoleonic Wars and the importance of the Royal Navy; some even read significance into her allusions to slavery in Mansfield Park. Clearly, social context – or any kind of context – was not a part of the study of literature in Victorian times.

So, interesting questions are raised about an issue I’ve often reflected upon: reputations, and what works will survive to be read and appreciated by future generations, and we can see that Lewes’ judgement is flawed on several counts, perhaps because he is still too close to those authors and texts about which he writes. It clearly took a good deal of time for Jane Austen to attain her current place in the pantheon of English writers…

Ellis Meredith: The Master Knot of Human Fate

March 30, 2018

The resume of this Librivox audiobook grabbed me, and so I downloaded it to listen to in the car.

A natural cataclysm of some sort – never truly explained or clarified – isolates a man and a woman, who knew each other in their previous existence – on an island some where California and the western US used to be. Luckily (!) everything necessary for their basic survival is on hand…

I was interested to learn about the cataclysm, and was disappointed. I was interested to see how their Robinson Crusoe or Swiss Family Robinson existence panned out, but, apart from everything going just swimmingly, I learned little. A home and smallholding, conveniently abandoned, was to hand.

I wondered if anyone else had survived. Our heroes hope against hope for a sign, a ship; after a year one appears on the horizon, and they signal to it – perhaps rather foolishly, it might seem – but next morning it is revealed to have been an abandoned wreck, and not even useful supplies can be gleaned from the wreck, as Robinson managed three centuries ago. So they are alone.

A twenty-first century reader would wonder about the possibility of emotion and sexual attraction between them, isolated for the duration. Clearly they were fond of each other in their previous world, and they do grow closer. They realise that they may be the only humans left alive, and reflect on whether they have a duty to continue the species. And they engage in interminable religious and philosophical discussions about this, and about what faith their putative offspring should be raised in…. Everything is sauced and spiced with liberal doses of nineteenth century religion (the novel was written in 1901); they must be sure they ‘love’ each other and have absolutely no doubts about what they are about to undertake, before they devise a wedding ceremony for themselves, and she happens to find an old wedding-dress in a trunk.

And then the story ends.

Reader, do not waste your time either reading or listening to this book: it really isn’t worth it. Maudlin, tiresome and sentimental, it should have stayed forgotten. Librivox and Project Gutenberg do a great job of restoring access to forgotten literature of the past, but this one could have quite well stayed lost, I think.

Charlotte Bronte: Jane Eyre

March 21, 2018

41mxwSdzuzL._AC_US218_I don’t exactly remember how, at a recent family gathering, we ended up with a lively discussion of the character of Mr Rochester, but I did end up agreeing to re-read Jane Eyre and remind myself of what I thought. The heavy-duty gothic elements of the novel had faded somewhat since I’d last read it – the dreams pregnant with significance, the weighty use of pathetic fallacy, as had the super-sized lashings of Victorian Christianity. On the one level, the author displays outrage at the more hypocritical aspects of such religion and the attendant ‘charity’ (Lowood School, obviously) and its meanness, but the whole of Jane’s life is driven by the need to be ‘good’…

As a bildungsroman it’s worth consideration as we do see how her character is formed by certain crucial events – Lowood, Helen Burns’ friendship, Miss Temple, encounters with Rochester and St John Rivers – and she moves quite convincingly from timidity to self-confidence and self-reliance through her experiences of love and trust, as well as hardship and deprivation.

Rochester’s appearance is trailed well in advance, and I was brought up short by the fact that he’s twice her age: another cradle-snatcher, almost, like Emma Woodhouse‘s Mr Knightley. What is it about women and older men in novels of that century: is it crudely reductionist to see a sublimation or even repression of youthful sexuality here? What is the attraction? He behaves oddly at their initial encounter: he is awkward, forward, forthright, abrupt and domineering, it seemed to me. Quickly they are established as intellectual equals, yet her supposed superior morality – through her religion – is underlined, and contrasted with the rakish behaviour tolerated in males of the time.

Rochester is unconventional, and this makes him interesting, and attractive to Jane. But he is a flawed character and must suffer for his offences, even though she has fallen in love with him. The portrait of an ageing playboy lumbered with an insane wife (and, importantly, his ensnarement into this marriage goes some way to excuse his behaviour) does show us a tormented and tortured man craving happiness when he recognises its possibility, but he is surely wrong – whatever century we are in – when he seeks to beguile Jane into a bigamous relationship.

There is rather too much coincidence in all the long-lost family connections and money for this modern reader, and the creepiness of St John Rivers palls very quickly, as the author again criticises – though mildly and carefully now – Victorian religion and missionary fervour, while making her case for a woman’s right to real love and happiness on her terms. The maiming of Rochester goes too far for me, as does his conversion to religion in the maudlin and sentimental conclusion to the novel; I was confirmed in my feeling that Villette is the superior novel, and also very surprised at how the two novels end so similarly, with the deaths of potential lovers…

So, Mr Rochester: a lively and attractive mind but not sexy as that wouldn’t do in the 1850s; a forthright and open-minded character (perhaps as a would-be bigamist, too open-minded); a match for Jane intellectually, but a life-partner? possibly. There I’m not convinced.

 

Italo Calvino: Invisible Cities

March 16, 2018

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I really liked If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller, and have read it a couple of times. I wondered why I’d never read Invisible Cities, and something else I was reading recently re-awakened my interest and prompted me to get it and finally read it, and it was marvellous. The concept itself is astonishing: a conversation between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan, in which the traveller describes a range of imaginary cities to the great Khan in a series of prose poems. All the cities are named after women, fall into a range of different categories, and are woven symmetrically into the whole. Interspersing the nine chapters of the book are conversations between the pair, reflecting on a range of connected ideas.

I found myself very quickly reminded of Jorge Luis Borges in a number of ways. Firstly, the writing is in short sections or chapters; like poetry, each deals with a single subject, or here, city. And the slightly magical, slightly ethereal style is also reminiscent of the great Argentinian writer, although, of course, my judgement is limited as I can read neither in the original.

Each city is different, disturbing, dislocating; each contains enough in itself, in its own story, to shake you up, make you reflect and ponder. Some will truly enchant you, others will hardly move you at all. At one point the great Khan realises that in each city Marco Polo may be describing a different aspect of Venice, his home city; equally he is contemplating aspects of our life journey in the world. Sometimes a city verges on the truly surreal, in a way in which the language itself seems to lose its meaning – rather along the lines of Ben Marcus‘ bizarre The Age of Wire and String – you read the words, and they are words you can comprehend individually, but the ways in which they are related to each other challenges perception…

Each city is its own prose poem: the cities are weird and the magic of Calvino’s words and images conjures up vivid if implausible, unreal or insane places, at times in a drug-like haze. Many of the places have a very seductive appeal, and even though the travels are going nowhere, for these places do not exist, the magical and haunting lyricism of the cities timelessly suspended in eternity carries you along in a trance.

How does it work? We listen to an intriguing story-teller; we are in the territory of myth; we are travellers visiting unknown places along with him. Words create vivid pictures, and ideas make us think. The ethereal nature of the places and the encounters carry us effortlessly along… and yet there’s more to it than that. It’s a lovely book, and I don’t use that word about many books.

Fading into obscurity…

March 15, 2018

On a recent visit to my mother, I noticed a novel by Somerset Maugham on the bookshelf, and found myself thinking, ‘Does anyone still read him?’ And I was back on a well-worn track, the one where I contemplate writers falling out of favour. I remember reading Somerset Maugham in the 1970s, when The Razor’s Edge inspired me in my hippy days with the urge to travel (reasonably) far and wide, and to explore spiritual issues more widely. And I also read some of the shorter novels about which I remember nothing, and Of Human Bondage, and thought, ‘Why is the hero so stupid?’

I still can’t really decide whether it’s merely about fashions changing, and publishers finding new middle-ranking writers to put before the public, or whether some writers deservedly fade into obscurity, because they do not cross generational divides with their characters and treatment of their subject-matter. New thriller writers emerge fairly consistently, so why would anyone read the relatively tame and worthy efforts of Hammond Innes, Alistair MacLean or Ian Fleming, who marked my teenage years? But other, perhaps ‘worthier’ writers also disappear, becoming curiosities only encountered by a much narrower audience, not in bookshops any longer but perhaps encountered in second-hand and charity shops, recommended by a friend or even appearing briefly on an academic reading list.

For instance, and I’m sure I’ve made this particular point before, who now reads D H Lawrence? Jean-Paul Sartre, even? Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn? Franz Kafka? Graham Greene? I have most of Hermann Hesse’s fiction mouldering on my shelves, but no-one ever mentions him any more. What also seems to happen is that a writer who was quite prolific in their time is now only associated with one or two books of theirs, and the rest are forgotten. So George Orwell is remembered for Animal Farm because it’s often a set text in schools, and for Nineteen Eighty-four because that’s one of the iconic novels of the last century. Joseph Conrad is still known as the author of Heart of Darkness, and perhaps for The Secret Agent; his many other books, including the marvellous Nostromo, almost completely forgotten.

There’s a filtering process going on: publishers renewing their lists, generations who read a particular writer and enjoyed them passing on, academics and schools picking up certain writers and giving them a new lease of life while ignoring others… how do we know that those who have been forgotten deserved to fade into obscurity? The real test of time, whether a writer survives, needs a generation or two to work. We cannot say now if even a widely read and very popular writer like J K Rowling will still be read in fifty years time. So, when I stare at my bookshelves and see the collected works of Jane Austen, for example, I know she has survived across two centuries and more, garnering praise and academic recognition, TV adaptations and recommendations across generations, but who else who wrote then and has been forgotten, might also have a decent claim on our attention? We will never know.

The other thing is, that I can’t really say why this issue bothers me so much, and yet it does. I suppose it may be because it links into the wider question of how we make our – necessarily subjective – value judgements, the criteria we use, and how those influence (or not) wider collective judgements.

I offer a list of ten books – in no particular order – which I think have unreasonably fallen into obscurity:

Joseph Conrad – Nostromo

Mark Twain – Life On The Mississippi

Katharine Burdekin – Swastika Night

Jaroslav Hasek – The Good Soldier Svejk

Hermann Hesse – Narziss and Goldmund

Aldous Huxley – Island

Marge Piercy – Woman On The Edge Of Time

Joseph Roth – The Radetzky March

Jean-Paul Sartre – The Reprieve

John Kennedy Toole – A Confederacy Of Dunces

Jerome K Jerome: Three Men on the Bummel

March 3, 2018

51Fi2+wwa4L._AC_US218_Late nineteenth-century humour seems very tame, and a good deal of it relies on gender and national stereotypes that feel very jaded or even unacceptable today. I remember laughing my head off as a child reading Three Men in a Boat, and when a work colleague introduced me to Three Men on the Bummel quite a few years ago, I remember enjoying it. This time round, having been prompted to re-read it by a newspaper article about forgotten books by well-known writers, I found it rather tiresome. Except that, reading and feeling it’s all rather jaded, one suddenly comes across a moment that does make one laugh out loud… and there were a decent few of those.

Three Victorian men, two married and one a confirmed bachelor, leave their wives behind and go for a walking and cycling holiday in Germany. It’s suitably, if mildly chaotic, and full of the usual mishaps and misunderstandings. A great deal of the humour derives from each other’s faults and failings as seen by the others, and from quick-fire conversations which seem to be the forebear of modern stand-up comedy.

There’s a lot of rambling and digressing from the main idea, which feels a bit like padding, covering a wide range of topics, gently mocking of both England and the English, and foreigners. Jerome easily finds the occasion for fun in the Germans’ perceived penchant for tidiness, neatness and order. There are long drawn-out anecdotes based on linguistic misunderstandings; overall the tone struck me as rather flat, too even, lacking variation.

When I tried to think about what had disappointed me, I think it was hindsight, in a way: in 1900 it was easy to make fun of Germans being sticklers for law and authority, with rules for everything and penalties and fines for infringements; after seeing the effect of this on a global scale twice in the twentieth century such national proclivities somehow seem rather uneasy or inappropriate sources of humour… Germans are bred to obey anything with buttons, he says at one point. Humour is a funny thing in more ways than one. And I feel minded to look up Mark Twain‘s accounts of travel in Germany to see if he makes me feel the same way.

Ursula Le Guin : The Wave in the Mind

February 25, 2018

51xBAmhj48L._AC_US218_It was refreshing to read some of Le Guin‘s more recent essays, after the rather dated The Language of the Night. I did not know she could be funny, but she had me laughing out loud several times during her first piece. This collection offers fascinating glimpses into the real Ursula Le Guin, her life and her past, and what has influenced and impressed her. It’s an obvious truism to say she writes well; it’s her humane and respectful but wise tone and manner that I appreciated. But I could not share her enthusiasm for J R R Tolkien or Cordwainer Smith

There is an excellent and quite technical chapter on stress and rhythm in poetry and prose which is exemplary in its clarity of explanation and illustration; I wished I’d had access to it when I was teaching practical criticism. She also makes a strong case for the importance and value of reading aloud as opposed to mere reading, when thinking about how writers use language, as well as being thought-provoking in opposing read stories to viewed ones, and the different effects they have on the consumers of those stories.

She explores the blurring and blurred boundaries between fiction and non-fiction writing, which I had never really thought about in depth until I came across the writings of Svetlana Alexievich, which some have criticised for doing precisely this. And I am wondering how serious an issue it is when what is presented as fact or reality is permeated by artistic licence. As I recall, Alexievich hints that this is what she occasionally does, but even so… should fiction and non-fiction be kept strictly apart? or is this only an issue for us now, in the times of fake news?

Le Guin is a committed and feminist writer who writes from her long life and experience, which has given her much wisdom; she writes thoughtfully about body image and how we think about ourselves, and although I have read a fair amount on this topic, I’ve not encountered anything so measured, reflective and meaningful as her contribution. Similarly, she reflects on and analyses the nature of communication between humans; she offers no answers, but asks the right questions, enabling an intelligent reader to move forward.

There is also a good deal of reflection on her life as a writer, and advice and suggestions to would-be writers. I did find myself musing several times on whether, after a life of only writing non-fiction, I might try and do some creative writing. I won’t say the collection is an easy read, but it was a very satisfying one, particularly because at the end of it, I felt that I knew one of my favourite writers in a different way.

Mary Shelley: Frankenstein

February 21, 2018

51GET68hBaL._AC_US218_41oH4CCckML._AC_US218_It’s 200 years this year since Mary Shelley‘s ground-breaking novel Frankenstein was first published. I have memories of teaching it at GCSE, in an interesting coursework task that involved students having to compare a pre and post-1914 text, so I paired Shelley’s novel up with Daniel KeyesFlowers for Algernon and had students explore the question of scientists’ responsibilities, as well as how the narratives were presented and developed.

I have always thought Frankenstein counted as science fiction: the writer explores an idea that does not exist in our world but that perhaps might one day; scientists were already experimenting then with the effects of electric currents on limbs and muscles. Shelley creates the scientist’s excitement at achieving something never done before – the creation of life in the laboratory. She was treading on sensitive and controversial ground, just as Darwin was to do a couple of generations later, meddling in God’s territory, as it was then thought to be. But the centre of her novel is not what the scientist does and achieves, but what he overlooks…

Victor Frankenstein forgets – or doesn’t even begin to think about – the fact that when he creates new life he creates a human being that will have wants and needs, hopes and desires just like any other, and when that creature is limited in what he can do and have by his physical repulsiveness to others, he resents this bitterly and reacts against it in unexpected ways…

Shelley realises, early on in the days of scientific progress, that a scientist does not work in a vacuum, that scientists change the potential of our world, and that responsibilities are attached to such changes. Scientists today are very much apt to be ignorant of just this; scientists prostitute themselves in the service of governments and multinational corporations without regard to the consequences of what they do. There is the excitement of pushing forward the boundaries of human knowledge and capability, which I can understand and sympathise with, but knowledge is not value-neutral. And there is the rather pathetic response often proffered: well, if I didn’t do it, someone else would…

And so there are scientists who earn their daily bread by developing undetectable anti-personnel mines in bright colours that attract children to pick them up, scientists that work on ways of making highly profitable edible goods that bear no resemblance to food and we know it and are positively bad for people’s health… I could go on.

And yet, Shelley forces her hero to interact with his creation: the two cannot be separated, as the creature pursues its creator, demanding that he take responsibility for what he has made, who he has made, and Victor Frankenstein is brought to face the complexity of what his creature has asked him to do, its repercussions, his full responsibility. We know how it ends: I often wish some of today’s scientists and engineers might share the consequences of their work..

Frankenstein is a novel, and for me it has its flaws: the pace and the written style is hectic and exhausting to read, with the emotional pitch sustained at a very high level for too long. It is, however, very cleverly structured, with layers of narrative nested within each other like the layers of an onion, as the reader is distanced from characters and events. And it has that superb and haunting ending, so brilliantly filmed in the original screen version in the 1930s, of creator and creature inseparable in the Arctic wastes…

Mary Shelley’s foray into what we now call science fiction did not end with Frankenstein: for me, The Last Man is much better, a novel which looks two centuries into the future to late twenty-first century republican Britain, laid waste by a disease which wipes out all of the human race except one man.

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