Archive for the 'fiction' Category

Hippy days are here again…

January 17, 2021

   Most of Richard Brautigan’s novels have been sitting, slowly decaying, on my bookshelves since the mid 1970s when I had a phase of reading them. I’ve often wondered about them and finally decided to renew my acquaintance with them, which was a most perplexing experience: if I’d bought them all and read them all, some a couple of times, why had they lain there so long undisturbed? I read some bizarre stuff back then in my full-on hippy days, a phase of my life that I’ve never rejected or dismissed, but which I have certainly moved on from long since…

There is something dream-like, druggy, in Brautigan’s writing, and in his completely off-the-wall imagination too, which temporarily attracts and delights, but never lasts long, never attaches; it’s eminently readable – when there’s enough plot to carry you along – and equally eminently forgettable. The characters and settings are fantastical; I’ve wondered about magic realism, but I don’t think any of the texts are substantial enough to be classed in that genre. Many of his characters are misfits, failures in different ways

Willard and his Bowling Trophies is a weird yarn, with several mostly disconnected plots and inoffensive but largely uninteresting characters. The Hawkline Monster (A Gothic Western) was better in that the plot gripped me, and I enjoyed the characters and the poetical language too. I had great expectations of Dreaming of Babylon which was billed as a private eye novel and ought to have been reminiscent of Chandler or Hammett, but was in the end basically plain silly, apart from the caricature hard cop character. I re-read Trout Fishing in America, and A Confederate General from Big Sur too, but a couple of days later I couldn’t tell you a thing about either of them. The one exception, really, was The Abortion: An Historical Romance 1966, which gripped me rather more. The premise of a mysterious library which accepts and archives any book anyone has written and cares to deposit was interesting enough, and the rather sad, misfit character who finds himself in charge had some substance; hooked up with a new partner unexpectedly, and in the pre-Roe vs Wade days needing to head to Mexico for the inevitable termination brought in a more serious strand which Brautigan developed with some sensitivity as well as beauty…

     Brautigan can do decent poetical language in prose, with the occasional delightfully striking simile or metaphor, and witty turn of phrase, but this isn’t enough to sustain entire books. I kept reading hoping for something more substantial, and most of the time was disappointed by the sameness of it all.

Is this really how we thought, and what we enjoyed way back then? Obviously there was a lesson for me about how our tastes change over time, whilst our memories of something are tinged by those nostalgic spectacles. Brautigan briefly took me back to the 1970s and I could reminisce about the joy of visions, images, the surreal in the everyday; he writes about the joy of carefree sex, although very much in a seventies masculine way… there are things in his writing that I didn’t expect to see in print in those days. Mostly druggy, hallucinatory eye-candy, though, and ultimately eminently forgettable. I wonder if anyone reads his books nowadays?

2020: My Year of Reading

December 29, 2020

No need to remind you what a weird year it has been. When lockdown arrived, naturally someone like me thought, “Well, OK, time to hunker down and get on with lots of reading..” Only it didn’t turn out that way. I found myself dithering a great deal, unable to choose what to settle down with. So I ended up reading quite a lot of magazines, and articles I’d saved offline on all kinds of different topics, tidying up my reading loose-ends if you like, but also, I increasingly felt, frittering away useful reading time. Overall this year I have actually completed slightly fewer books than usual. And the tidying up of my library, and the weeding out and disposing of many books that I know I’m never going to open again, has proceeded apace and some 250+ books have made their way to benefit Amnesty International at some point in the future. I think I’m now down to only 1700 or so books now!

You may not be surprised that I went back to Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year, which I taught once, many years ago; nothing new there, so I didn’t bother with revisiting CamusLa Peste

When I did manage to settle on a book, I found I did quite a bit of re-reading – Sherlock Holmes, Hermann Hesse, Josef Skvorecky, science fiction. I have read 51 books this year, and acquired 25 new ones. After some reflection I have decided I’d like to spend some of 2021 re-reading some of my favourite classics. We’ll see how far I manage to get with that one… but it is somehow comforting to return to a book I have previously enjoyed a number of times. It’s a sort of anchor in a very turbulent world.

Blog report:

Once again, my posts analysing various poems of or about the Great War have been the most visited. A logical deduction is that the poetry appears on examination specifications in various countries and students are perhaps tuning in for some insight, or else coming across the blog in search engine results and opening it by mistake. I do wish I got more feedback from visitors, and once again record my gratitude to those readers who take the time to like my posts and to occasionally comment or engage in discussion.

Other popular posts this year have included (again) Theodore Kröger’s The Forgotten Village, and Alexandra David-Neel’s With Mystics and Magicians in Tibet.

This year’s awards:

My biggest disappointment of the year: re-reading Christopher Priest’s The Space Machine, of which I’d carried positive recollections for quite a few years. It palled, it dragged, it was simplistic and it went on the ‘I don’t need to read this ever again’ pile. Ditto Harry Harrison’s A Transatlantic Tunnel, Hurrah!

The weirdest book I’ve read this year is definitely the Strugatsky brothers’ One Billion Years to the End of the World.

The best novel of 2020: re-reading Joseph Roth’s The Radetzky March, which never fails to disappoint in its poignant picture of a long-vanished age.

The best new novel of 2020: not awarded this year as I haven’t read any new novels!

The best non-fiction book of 2020: after a fair amount of hesitation, I decided on Alberto Angela’s Pompeii, which I’d wanted to read for quite a while, after really enjoying another book of his on daily life in the Roman Empire. His formula for telling the story of those dreadful days in 79CE worked really well, and sent me back to the catalogue from the major British Museum exhibition a few years back, the closest I’ve actually got to Pompeii itself (unless you count passing through a train station just south of Naples – Ercolano – many years ago and realising ‘hey, that was Herculaneum!’)

My book of the year award goes to a book I ought to have read years ago, Adam Mickiewicz’s Polish national epic poem Pan Tadeusz, which was a gentle and lyrical revelation and took me closer to my Polish roots.

Travel book of the year: in a year when not a lot of travelling could be done, reading about travelling was a substitute. A review sent me to Sophy RobertsThe Lost Pianos of Siberia, which was a surprisingly thoughtful, interesting and well-written variation on history and travel in Siberia. And I’ve read a good deal of that.

Special mention – because there isn’t really a category for it: Yuri Slezkine’s doorstopper of a book about the inhabitants of a building which housed the ruling elites of the Soviet Union over many years: The House of Government. If you’re interested in a deeper insight into the machinery of how the country worked and its ruling classes, this is the one. It felt like an obligation, but it was worth the effort.

Here’s to 2021: may it be a better year for everyone in every way, and may we all get lots of good reading done!

His Dark Materials: series 2

December 21, 2020

Last night saw the final episode of the second TV series based on Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials. It was something I’d looked forward to all year, and it did not disappoint, although apparently COVID prevented the filming of one stand-alone episode, I read somewhere: I hope we get this eventually! In fact, it was some of the best TV I’ve watched in years, all things considered.

The special effects are superbly done, so well that everything about the parallel universes feels quite natural. More work seemed to have been done on the daemons in this series, and they were very effective. Casting was strong: the creepy leaders of the Magisterium, with their sinister daemons; Mrs Coulter and her perverted relationship with her daemon underlining her conflicted but ultimately evil nature; Will and Lyra’s companionship and development of trust I found utterly convincing.

The screenplay is adapted from three long and complex novels, and whereas in the first series they stuck to The Northern Lights, in this series elements from both the second and third books have been introduced and carefully interwoven; it’s clear that in the translation from novel to screen changes and simplifications were going to be required, but the strong characters and the essential plot-lines have been retained, and developed effectively.

Conceptually, Pullman’s key ideas are well-anchored; the idea of dust has been clearly explained, the link to original sin brought out, and the innocence and experience/ Adam and Eve element of the Will and Lyra pairing was made evident in the final episode. These ideas are crucial to the novels and obviously fully explained in them, but it’s to the scriptwriters’ credit that they have neither laboured these ideas nor written them out of the plot.

So, what have I particularly noticed and liked about this series? The development of Mrs Coulter’s character has been really well done, and through the use of the monkey daemon the aspects of a person’s nature or soul that the daemon represents becomes very clear. She is conflicted in her relationship with her daughter: maternal instinct crosses a sense of philosophical or religious conviction of what is right and wrong, and this torment has a long way to go yet.

The relationship between Will and his father has been forefronted, at least compared with my recollection of the novels, and this is a welcome development. On screen I have experienced a much clearer picture of a boy on the cusp of adulthood wrestling with all kinds of inner demons. Mary Malone has been an interesting character thus far, and I shall be very interested to see what the scriptwriters do with her in the next series. Her spiritual side is important: we’ve had a single brief reference to her being an ex-nun, and the casting of the I-Ching has been shown several times.

I will be intrigued to see how both the scriptwriters and the SFX people cope with creating and making the mulefa work; they are crucial to the story and yet are surely the creatures furthest removed from familiarity in Pullman’s text. Equally, how the replay of Armageddon will be performed… lots of opportunity for spectacular effects, but how much of the significance of the battle can be conveyed? Even in the book I felt that some of this was a little unclear.

But, in this weirdest of years, I am grateful to have been so fully and grippingly entertained for seven consecutive Sunday evenings, and I can’t wait for the next series…

***You can read my review of the first series here

On feeling oppressed by time…

October 31, 2020

I have realised it’s an aspect of growing older: the further I get in life’s journey, the more oppressed I feel by the very idea of time. At one level, it’s a personal thing. I look back to my early life and my parents, and realise how long ago all those memories are now; when I can say it’s half a century since I did my O levels, that feels overwhelming in a way. I look back to my own children’s early lives – they’re grown, now – and that feels an age away, looking at photographs and thinking, ‘thirty years ago?’…

Literature is interesting (though not particularly helpful) at this point in my reflections. Think of Shelley’s Ozymandias, and how much time has gone by between the making of the statue, now ruined, and the visit of the traveller who brings back the account of what he has seen. Even the situation, in the sands of the desert, feeds into our notions of time measured in the sands of an hourglass, remorselessly slipping away.

Ursula Le Guin is very interesting in the way she presents the pain of the passage of time. In the Hainish stories and science fiction novels, faster-than-light travel and communication is possible, and the officials of the Ekumen, the collective of known worlds peopled by human-like creatures that are sprinkled across the universe, often travel between worlds on journeys that take centuries in real time. This means that a person leaves their world knowing that even if they ever do return to it, their return will be centuries later, and everyone and everything that is familiar to them about home, will no longer exist, or will be radically changed. Ivan Yefremov, in A for Andromeda, takes us a thousand years into the future, to a world where communism and the Soviet way of life rules the planet, has created a utopia for humanity and abolished religion completely, and yet has his characters contemplating similar themes.

Socrates said that the unconsidered life is not worth living, and anyone who spends time reflecting on their life will surely at some time experience how hard it is being aware of both the enormity of the universe in time and space, and the brevity of their own personal existence. For some, religious or spiritual beliefs offer solace; for others, not.

We can look back over centuries, millennia even, of literature, and see same these preoccupations voiced: Horace’s poignant ode to his friend Postumus (even his name evokes mortality!), reflections on life and death in Chaucer, Shakespeare (Hamlet’s famous soliloquy!), Tolstoy… nothing has changed. And I have admired the way that somehow Tolstoy managed to capture the sense of the broad sweep of history and the individual’s place within it, in War and Peace. But, given that better minds than mine have wrestled with time over so much time in the past, I’m not sure I will ever resolve anything… What was one our present becomes our past, the past; becomes history, and then we are part of it. As an Arab sage once said, ‘One day you will only be a story. Make sure that yours is a good one.’

Philip Pullman: Serpentine

October 19, 2020

     It’s another of the slim volumes complementary to His Dark Materials, like Lyra’s Oxford, and Once Upon A Time in the North, with a chapter’s worth of narrative and some good illustrations in a nicely-produced little volume, a sort of taster to keep readers alert for the next big volume, which will probably be the final volume in the Book of Dust series, as well as the end of Lyra’s adventures…

We’re back in the frozen north, as Pullman and Lyra explore the interesting idea of humans able to separate from their daemons, which of course Lyra and Pan have been able to do since she and Will travelled through the world of the dead. How many others can actually do this? Witches can, but evidently there are more humans with this ability, and of course the situation in Will’s world is quite different. And what about the effect on both the human and the daemon of separation? How can Lyra manage her changed relationship with her daemon? There is now the potential for each to know and experience things that the other does not…

This also sent me back to thinking about the enforced separation of human and daemon – intercision – for which the centre at Bolvangar was set up.

If you’re a fan of Pullman’s alternate universes, then this little book, which time-wise sits between the end of the Dark Materials trilogy and The Secret Commonwealth, then you won’t want to miss this one. And you get an afterword where Pullman explains the genesis of the story…

Hermann Hesse: The Journey to the East

October 17, 2020

     I decided to take this one down from the shelf – last read 1975! – partly because I’m in the mood to revisit Herman Hesse at the moment, partly prompted by a fellow-blogger. My edition has a pretty weird introduction by Timothy Leary (!) who wants to persuade us that Hesse must have taken psychedelic drugs because of some of the experiences he writes about… I found this weird, and was then rather surprised by my reaction; I’m getting old.

A mysterious League enables various people to engage in a journey to the east, which appears to involve movement through space and time, too, and also links in various personalities from the early twentieth century with whom Hesse was familiar (I was surprised to find Ferdynand Ossendowski in there as a possible ‘fellow-traveller’). It’s obviously a metaphorical journey – perhaps too obviously – and as I read on, I found the story mirroring the rather more comprehensible journey we read about in Siddhartha. But the focus is different. And a strange distancing effect is created by the shifting sense of time and space.

Perseverance and steadfastness in the journey are stressed, but Hesse seems to be rather more concerned about becoming lost on the way, and the fact that he fairly obviously writes himself into the narrative through his initials is an autobiographical hint, at least to this reader.

The entire narrative shifts suddenly when certain objects and documents apparently vital to the travellers are misplaced, stolen or disappear, and I found myself thinking of Siddhartha’s wariness of teachers, in the sense that one should find one’s own way rather than someone else’s; the absence of these papers throws the narrator completely off course, and we suddenly find him engaged in a clearly futile attempt to write an account of his journey: why must he do this? Would he become a teacher, one of those whom we have learned that we should become wary of? HH’s realisation of his utter failure at this point leads him to suicidal thoughts, and I realise we are at the same point reached by Siddhartha after his years of enjoying worldly success and wealth, and then perceiving that he has completely lost sight of the journey he is supposed to be on.

The story’s ending becomes increasingly hallucinatory and Kafkaesque (and we should remember that Kafka was also writing in the early twentieth century), and the final moments of revelation are an obvious reprise of the final pages of Siddhartha.

I’m glad I came back to it; equally I’m glad it only took up an evening of my time, and I can mentally file the knowledge that Siddhartha is a far better representation of our journey to meaning and purpose…

Hermann Hesse: Siddhartha

October 13, 2020

     I’m not sure what exactly it is that occasionally but regularly draws me back to a couple of Hermann Hesse’s novels. It’s probably the idea that the whole of life is a quest for meaning and understanding. Hesse was a very popular writer in my student and hippy days – oh so long ago now! – and I acquired almost all of his novels and short stories, most of which have sat untouched on the shelves since then. Only Narziss and Goldmund, and yesterday again, Siddhartha are the ones I return to. And in some way, I find them both very hard to read, not in the story sense, but because they confront me so forcefully with my own life and yearnings and search for understanding…

Siddhartha is short, readable at a sitting, and there is also a good librivox recording I’ve listened to a couple of times whilst on my travels. As the title suggests, it focuses on the Buddha and his followers, but with the focus on the spiritual quest of a single individual. As I read this time, I tried to plot out what he actually derived from his different life experiences.

He starts out with everything a young person could wish for: beauty, popularity, intellect but these are not enough: he rejects these, along with his father’s expectations of him. Already he has inklings that ultimately the answer to one’s yearnings must lie within oneself. He flees from his self, denying it and following the path of asceticism. He becomes suspicious of teachers: he has realised the importance of seeking one’s own enlightenment, not someone else’s. The parting from his lifetime friend Govinda, who makes a different choice, is painful to read, and yet the importance of fidelity to oneself is emerging. Alone-ness of the self, the utter aloneness of one’s individuality, is scary, and yet cannot be avoided.

He tries the worldly path of material success, wealth and beautiful women: self-gratification is shown to be both incredibly pleasurable and highly seductive, capable of permanently diverting one away from the quest. It is not the solution, for pursued to its end, even what you had previously learned will be lost. Finally, realising that this is happening to him, he walks away from it all. Indulging the self had repulsed him.

Water, a river becomes a metaphor, as he returns to a ferry crossing he used many years before, and attaches himself as an apprentice ferryman for the remainder of this existence, realising that time does not have to exist, and that the long search which has occupied his life in different ways, is actually an ongoing and unending preparation of the soul…

Or, that is what this novel said to me this time around. I hope I have another call to read it one day.

Dreams of utopia – part 2

August 26, 2020

81Ry5hSi3tL._AC_UY218_     I don’t pretend to have reviewed even a small number of all the different texts, or approaches taken, but I do note some similarities: the major issue that needs to be addressed in approaching a better world is the ever-present one of inequality – and it’s not always suggested that the answer is egalitarian communism. Rather it seems that the question of shortages of material or other goods is considered, with a view to removing such shortages by providing those in need with what they lack. In a world of plenty (like ours) this is basic fairness…

Writers nowadays do seem to be much more aware of the difficulties involved in getting there; it’s of little use presenting the reader with a vision of a perfect world, without a hint of how one might move towards it if we decided we really like the idea. So Le Guin’s presentation of the world Anarres (in The Dispossessed) and Callenbach’s Ecotopia – set in California – devote considerable time to how a transition was successfully effected. Not that we should regard these as road maps: we’re talking about works of fiction, after all, but an extension of the mental exercise that is the vision of the utopia in the first place.

Capitalism doesn’t work/isn’t a mechanism or system for getting there, so any utopia means replacing the current system, and herein lies the greatest difficulty: that the entitled, the rich and the powerful will do anything to stay at the top of the pile, including slaughter on a massive scale if necessary, and we should be under no illusions about that. Does this, ethically, draw a line under attempts to change things, or can there be another way? Here is a question that, in my reading, few writers have thoroughly explored.

Divide and conquer: as people have become a little better educated and aware and more politicised, those in power have focused on dividing people to retain and entrench control. This is my personal take on things from half a century or more of observing politics and world history. If you can convince – for example – women, that women’s issues are the most important, or people of other races, that racial issues are the most important, then you divide the potential opposition into smaller and potentially more fragmented groups, whereas things get much more dangerous for the elite if everyone unites and co-operates, in an understanding that the system itself is at the root of the problem. Then, once the system has been changed, addressing all the other issues becomes easier…perhaps. This, of course, is what Marx not only suggested, but perhaps demonstrated in a – fortunately for the powerful – almost unreadable lengthy tome. You need to find a different way of running the world politically and economically, and then seek to address all the other very real and demanding issues next. And the elites, the powerful, will do whatever they can to blur that message, to discredit it, to distract those who suffer, from it. They need to!

The closest any writer has got to addressing – in terms of getting her readers to realise and think about – these issues is, for me, the late Ursula Le Guin in her masterful novel The Dispossessed. She contrasts the rich, glitzy, successful capitalist planet Urras with the anarcho-syndicalist and poor separatist moon Anarres, which is attempting to explore different ways of being and organising. It’s effectively done through the standard utopian trope of having a visitor from one world visit another, and the utopia coming across as preferable by comparison. But Le Guin’s masterstroke is to do this in reverse: Shevek is an anarchist, from the utopian world Anarres which we are meant to admire, and becomes the naive visitor to be seduced by the bright lights of the capitalist paradise his forebears rejected some eight centuries previously. And he is tried, tempted, tested; we think he and his world emerge from the comparison as preferable, but oh the struggle, the constant hard work and alertness demanded to sustain the utopia (which is far from plentiful, far from perfect, but does at least offer equality of a sort). Le Guin leaves us under no illusion that human nature itself, perhaps perverted as it has been over millennia but whatever, craves the promise of stuff, power, wealth: there is a jackdaw primitiveness in us that craves the shiny-shiny… which is what got us and keeps us where we are today…

Dreams of utopia – part 1

August 25, 2020

41CQ2tBHymL._AC_UY218_     I’ve written about utopias (and dystopias) before, in a number of places, and if you’re sufficiently interested you can track down the posts. I’ve been thinking again, in the current incredibly dire and grim state of the world, about our likelihood of ever getting anywhere near one before the planet hawks us up and spits us out for good…

There have been religious utopias, economic utopias, feminist utopias, political utopias, rural utopias, ecological utopias. Writers have visualised happiness for an elite, for the many, for most or even for all, and with or without slaves. They have imagined utopias on this planet and on other, imaginary worlds.

A quest for an ideal or perfect world or society presupposed imperfection of and or dissatisfaction with the current one – a permanent given – and a picture of something better; more thoughtful writers also attempt the really difficult bit, which is to explain how we get/got there, and this always raises another question: why don’t we do it?

I find myself going back in time, to ancient days, when society first settled, became agrarian and was able to accumulate surpluses of food. At this point it seems to have been possible for more powerful individuals to take over and arrogate the surpluses to themselves, and thus to also control the labour that produced food, goods and surpluses. Here we have inequality emerging, and we have to think about whether this was inevitable or necessary. Yet, once it happened it will almost instantly have become a permanent feature of our world and its organisation, for what person or group, having seen what it is possible to do with power and more stuff than others, would not strive to keep things that way? And so it has gone on…

When did this start? In my imagination, I see an equality in the builders of something like Stonehenge, for example, which seems to have been constructed to answer to primitive spiritual needs of a society. But even then, in that lost past, was there not a privileged and powerful priestly class to insist on its construction, and make it happen? And when we come to consider the Pharaohs and their pyramids, it’s clearer that a ruling class used enforced labour to create monuments to themselves.

For me the crux is the point where the inequality emerges, where the lower classes are unable – for whatever reason – to resist or counter its emergence and consolidation. N centuries later, inequality is everywhere rampant, entrenched, and condemns countless millions to misery and impoverishment.

71J-9IfLqQL._AC_UY218_     Utopian visions, nowadays certainly, take issue with inequality and see equality of wealth and opportunity, sharing and co-operation rather than competition as the way to ensure maximum happiness or contentment for the greatest number. And we live in a society which has now shown that it can create sufficient abundance for their to be enough for everyone were it shared out more fairly (not even equally). Nobody needs the wealth of a Bill Gates or Jeff Bezos; they could never spend even a part of it.

Utopias usually imagine a world where warfare is part of the past. A rational consideration demonstrates that war is an obscene waste of money and resources (I refer you to this astonishing graphic if you want concrete evidence) without even thinking about the ethical issue of killing other human beings. Weapons are an ideal capitalist consumer good, for, used as directed, they immediately need replacing with more. And the idea that people make their livelihoods from inventing and constructing ever more horrendous devices for killing and maiming their fellow humans is too sick to think about.

Utopias have imagined technology as capable of providing plenty, a life of comfort and ease for all. Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward (or Life in the Year 2000) was published in 1887 and combines production and socialist distribution to imagine a marvellous future for humanity. More recently, writers have been aware of technology, production and pollution coming together as more of a threat: I offer Ernest Callenbach’s Ecotopia, and Ecotopia Emerging, as examples of how continuing on our current track is not such a good idea. And he was writing 40 years ago, before the horrific state of plastic pollution or the enormous threat presented by climate change and global heating became so obvious…

71FUig5zsTL._AC_UY218_     Some recent utopias (and dystopias) have looked to sexual politics as an issue that needs to be addressed. Charlottle Perkins Gilman created a women-only world in Herland a century or more ago. In the 1970s Suzy McKee Charnas first visualised a dystopia from a woman’s viewpoint (Walk to the End of the World) and then proceeded to construct a response (Motherlines). And Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time is a particularly good example of the genre from this perspective, as is Ursula Le Guin’s science fiction generally.

There have been utopias which have looked backwards in a different way, taking refuge in a quieter agrarian past, a rural idyll. William MorrisNews From Nowhere, W H Hudson’s A Crystal Age, and Austin Tappan Wright’s magnificent Islandia are all different examples of how this has been done. To be continued…

Jane Austen: Pride & Prejudice

June 24, 2020

4154mFOeD9L._AC_UY218_     Lockdown entertainment has been a little thin on the ground as far as we are concerned, and so we seized the opportunity to re-enjoy the famous BBC-TV production of Pride and Prejudice which was repeated over six weeks recently. It remains a superb adaptation of the novel which has stood the test of time, a tribute to the skills of Andrew Davies’ screenplay, and yet, it is just that – an adaptation – and it sent me back to re-read the novel itself, which I hadn’t done for quite a number of years, with a view both to evaluating Davies’ skill and detecting what he inevitably had to strip away to get Austen’s novel down to six fifty-minute episodes.

He retains as much of her dialogue as possible; this shows. And what we inevitably lose is Austen’s narrative style, in particular the difference between actual speech and Austen’s particular variety of reported speech, which at once feels like we’re inside the speaker’s mind or consciousness, but upon closer reflection makes us notice that Austen is actually commenting and shaping our response to the character and events. There are places where you have to recreate the dialogue yourself, to imagine actual words, from the slanted account Austen is actually giving of a conversation… this is very subtle and very clever, and easy to miss completely if you read too quickly, without reflecting.

Jane Austen was a good deal funnier than I remembered, and there was so much more depth and detail in the key conversations between Elizabeth and Jane, and between Elizabeth and her friend Charlotte Lucas. It became evident that the crucial development of Elizabeth, her coming slowly and maturely to greater self-knowledge and self-understanding cannot possibly be articulated on screen, and yet is perhaps the most important strand of the story. It is presented through her thoughts, whereas the similar growth in self-awareness of Darcy is revealed in dialogue, conversation between the two of them.

Then there is the difference between a novel, written to be read, consumed, enjoyed at one’s own pace, and a television adaptation, to be shown as a continuous episode (yes, I know you can pause and come back and rewind and all that stuff, but it isn’t the same!). There is a greater intensity of emotion and feeling which comes from reading the story, no matter how skilful an adaptation is for the small screen. You can pause and reflect, flip back to an earlier conversation, have a discussion with someone else about the situation…

I found myself looking out for and noticing small things as I read. There is the ‘will she get her man or not?’ which is paralleled in both Jane’s and Elizabeth’s stories, a trope which is brought to perfection in the later novel Persuasion. There is the cynical question, is it Darcy or Pemberley that Elizabeth falls in love with? This time, I felt convinced that it was Darcy at Pemberley, on his own home territory that she falls in love with. The place makes the man: Darcy is a fish out of water in other settings, along with other faults which Elizabeth clearly enumerates. Had she wanted to, surely Jane Austen could have had a character we liked less than Elizabeth fall in love with a place rather than a person, but it’s not what happens here… at least that’s my opinion this time around.

Proposals are done privately in Austen’s novels: we don’t hear Bingley put the question, nor Darcy. The happy outcome is reported, obviously, but this will not do for television, so dialogue (and a kiss) has to be scripted, and this is where screen adaptations inevitably (but briefly) fall down for me.

A final note: I was much more aware, this time around, of Mrs Gardiner as the matchmaker though her conversations with Darcy when Elizabeth is not around – subtly done. And ironical, in that it’s Mrs Bennet’s sister who helps to bring about what she herself singularly fails to do, her daughter’s happiness. There’s always something new in a Jane Austen novel, even at the n-th reading!

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