Archive for the 'literary criticism' Category

William McGonagall: The Tay Bridge Disaster

July 27, 2018
Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silv’ry Tay!
Alas! I am very sorry to say
That ninety lives have been taken away
On the last Sabbath day of 1879,
Which will be remember’d for a very long time.

Twas about seven o’clock at night,
And the wind it blew with all its might,
And the rain came pouring down,
And the dark clouds seem’d to frown,
And the Demon of the air seem’d to say-
I’ll blow down the Bridge of Tay.”

When the train left Edinburgh
The passengers’ hearts were light and felt no sorrow,
But Boreas blew a terrific gale,
Which made their hearts for to quail,
And many of the passengers with fear did say-
I hope God will send us safe across the Bridge of Tay.”

But when the train came near to Wormit Bay,
Boreas he did loud and angry bray,
And shook the central girders of the Bridge of Tay
On the last Sabbath day of 1879,
Which will be remember’d for a very long time.

So the train sped on with all its might,
And Bonnie Dundee soon hove in sight,
And the passengers’ hearts felt light,
Thinking they would enjoy themselves on the New Year,
With their friends at home they lov’d most dear,
And wish them all a happy New Year.

So the train mov’d slowly along the Bridge of Tay,
Until it was about midway,
Then the central girders with a crash gave way,
And down went the train and passengers into the Tay!
The Storm Fiend did loudly bray,
Because ninety lives had been taken away,
On the last Sabbath day of 1879,
Which will be remember’d for a very long time.

As soon as the catastrophe came to be known
The alarm from mouth to mouth was blown,
And the cry rang out all o’er the town,
Good Heavens! the Tay Bridge is blown down,
And a passenger train from Edinburgh,
Which fill’d all the peoples hearts with sorrow,
And made them for to turn pale,
Because none of the passengers were sav’d to tell the tale
How the disaster happen’d on the last Sabbath day of 1879,
Which will be remember’d for a very long time.

It must have been an awful sight,
To witness in the dusky moonlight,
While the Storm Fiend did laugh, and angry did bray,
Along the Railway Bridge of the Silv’ry Tay,
Oh! ill-fated Bridge of the Silv’ry Tay,
I must now conclude my lay
By telling the world fearlessly without the least dismay,
That your central girders would not have given way,
At least many sensible men do say,
Had they been supported on each side with buttresses,
At least many sensible men confesses,
For the stronger we our houses do build,
The less chance we have of being killed.

You may have heard of the nineteenth century Scots poet William McGonagall, the one often described as the worst poet ever, the man whose public performances were packed by people who went to laugh at him and his poetry. His is truly a very sad story, although he does seem to have been largely oblivious to what really went on…

But remembering him set me thinking about good and bad poetry

When I was first teaching, practical criticism was a full two-year course, preparation for a single unseen paper at A level, where the student would meet two texts, one poetry and one prose, and would have to write an analytical and appreciative essay on each. Only once was a text set that I’d used with some of my students a couple of years previously.

So preparation for this paper involved exploring poetry and prose from the sixteenth to the twentieth century, looking at language, poetic techniques, styles, form and structure; it involved learning how correctly to use the language of literary criticism and how to express opinions; it involved learning to evidence one’s analysis and response. Not easy, but interesting, and two years was a decent length of time for a student to become as proficient as they were going to be.

I came to use McGonagall’s famous poem as one of my final pieces of practice with my students. By then, I would give them a text, and ask them to read it to themselves, and to think about and jot down brief notes on particular aspects, preparatory to beginning discussion. After ten minutes or so, we would be ready to begin work together. Usually, a student would be asked to read the text aloud. There were times when students would tie themselves in knots trying to say positive things about the poem, taking things like rhyme, rhythm and metre seriously. (Try it.) How quickly they were able to realise how bad the poem was, was a touchstone of how competent and confident they had become in their analytical abilities. I tried to keep a straight face through all this. I wish I could remember which student it was, who, at the end of the few minutes of silent study looked up and said, ‘Sir, this is crap, isn’t it?’

So what is wrong with the poem? There are some terrible rhymes – Edinburgh and sorrow, for instance, and some forced rhymes, as in think of a word that will rhyme with x and it will do, forced into the poem anyhow. There is no sense of metre, so that rhyming pairs of lines jar appallingly. There is needless repetition of phrases and lines, perhaps with the hope of a refrain-like effect. The poet strains to covey a sense of tragedy but fails completely, partly because the metre he’s trying to use is a rather jolly one, when he sticks to it for long enough. And then there’s the civil engineering moral tacked onto the end…

I remember, from my time as a school pupil, being told to write a poem. God, how I hated it. I didn’t understand metre, couldn’t get the right number of syllables to a line, got the stresses all in the wrong places, thought it had to rhyme. It was a peculiar form of torment, which I tried very hard to mitigate when I was teaching (see here). I firmly believe that the starting point of a poem is inspiration of some kind – which you either have or don’t – the ideas or sensations produce the words and images, which are then either worked over, tweaked and improved or not, and then offered to readers or not. A good poet, and a good poem, can make me see something I’ve never seen before, or look at something in a way I’ve never thought of, for a (brief) moment taking me away from myself and my pedestrian reality.


Rereading Sense and Sensibility

June 17, 2018

However often I return to Jane Austen, there is always something new to notice, and to reflect on. Sense and Sensibility is not my favourite of her novels, and it’s quite a while since I last read it. I’ve usually found the main characters rather tiresome, people that I could not really care very much about, and my reactions were similar this time around.

Austen always goes into great detail about the minutiae of financial arrangements in bourgeois families, especially insofar as they affect the female characters and their future prospects, and this is particularly the case here, from the very outset, where the dire situation of Mrs Dashwood and her daughters, and the penny-pinching meanness of her relations, is outlined. Austen, of course, was particularly aware of such financial issues in her own family. What does a woman do, if she has no money of her own, and cannot attract a suitable match?

But the whole novel is about the pursuit of money, in a way that the other novels are not, and Austen seems much sharper in her criticism of those characters who pursue wealth, John Dashwood and his immediate family especially; he is unable to contemplate any situation or potential relationship without instantly doing his sums, and rates people solely on their financial worth. This time around he struck me as a far more repellent bean-counter than I’d ever judged him previously, as also did Lucy Steele, for whom I’d previously had a certain – though limited – sympathy.

Austen also provided me with rather more laughing out loud moments than I remembered, especially when the Palmers are in shot, and was rather more vicious in her putting down of Lucy Steele through her appalling grammar than I recalled, too.

I noticed a certain symmetry in the situations of Elinor and Marianne, despite the ways they are also very much contrasted in character: both have devious and secretive lovers – Willoughby who leads on Marianne so that everyone thinks them secretly engaged, and then ditches her for the wealthy Miss Grey to solve his money problems, and Elinor, with whom Edward Ferrars falls in love in spite of the fact that unbeknown to her, he is secretly engaged to the dreadful Lucy, who is also on the make. So there is actually a very interesting and elaborated contrast in the ways in which the two of them confront and come to terms with disappointment (even though things turn out fine for Elinor and Edward in the end).

It also struck me that this is the novel in which the villain is give some redeeming touches, even though he must be terminally damned by his treatment of Colonel Brandon’s ward. He does come to realise that he loved Marianne and has irretrievably lost her; in the detailed conversation he forces upon Elinor at Cleveland this is made clear and even Elinor warms slightly to him, but in the end, the conversation is all about him, rather than the damage he has caused by his behaviour. Yet, compared, say, with Wickham in Pride and Prejudice, he comes off reasonably, and surely the morally reprehensible Crawfords in Mansfield Park are far worse in their attitudes and behaviour?

The conclusion to the novel I always found rather unsatisfactory, financially and emotionally, and Colonel Brandon is another of the cradle-snatcher heroes as I like to call them, like Mr Knightley in Emma, whose marriages to women only half their age today feel distinctly odd… Ultimately I feel Sense and Sensibility is a satire on greed…

Herbert Asquith: The Volunteer

June 6, 2018

Here lies a clerk who half his life had spent
Toiling at ledgers in a city grey,
Thinking that so his days would drift away
With no lance broken in life’s tournament
Yet ever ‘twixt the books and his bright eyes
The gleaming eagles of the legions came,
And horsemen, charging under phantom skies,
Went thundering past beneath the oriflamme.

And now those waiting dreams are satisfied
From twilight to the halls of dawn he went;
His lance is broken; but he lies content
With that high hour, in which he lived and died.
And falling thus, he wants no recompense,
Who found his battle in the last resort
Nor needs he any hearse to bear him hence,
Who goes to join the men of Agincourt.

Hindsight means it’s hard for us nowadays to get our minds around the idea that anyone might volunteer for the hell that was the trenches of the Great War, and yet we know that hundreds of thousands did, before conscription came in, and went to their deaths, doing what they believed to be their duty for King and country. Asquith’s anonymous subject is one of them: in a careful and regularly structured poem, we get the before and the after, the volunteering and the death.

The man is bored with his humdrum life: no difference here from the feelings expressed in Brooke’s sonnet Peace: Now God be thanked who hath matched us with his hour… war offers a change, the potential for being really alive, not toiling (note the choice of word: why is it better than working, which would also fit the metre? Listen to that oi sound in the middle of the word: what does it do?). And yet his imagination is back in an Arthurian or mediaeval world, thinking of lance and tournament. Look at the repetition of of the g sound in gleaming, eagles, legions (almost!) – and what is the effect of the assonance in the long ea sound in each of those words… emphasising eagerness and excitement to get involved, perhaps? There is a stunning and colourful visual picture conjured up in the clerk’s mind, to contrast with the city grey

And now: a subtle shift of mood here, at the start of the second stanza, hinted at in those two words: we know it was an illusion and the man is dead. But in the mediaeval setting of his imagination, he is a hero, for the halls of dawn are surely Valhalla, where the Norse heroes went after death. The man is content with what he did, the poet tells us, having done what he wished: fought and died. We may feel he needs no hearse because there may be nothing left of him to put in it, but that is our hindsight and twentieth-century cynicism speaking; the mention of Agincourt links him immediately and irrevocably with that speech in Shakespeare’s Henry V, and there is a slight sense of irony – or appropriateness? – because the village of Azincourt is in Picardy, on the edge of the Somme battlefield.

What is the poet’s attitude, in the end? What is the tone of the poem: is the volunteer mocked for his futile actions and innocent beliefs, or is his choice and his deed accepted for what it was? I find it hard to judge: I am so far from those times and the ways they thought back then, and the text reflects the times. But I do think this poem had to have been written in the early months of the war.

Sara Teasdale: There will come soft rains

June 5, 2018

There will come soft rains and the smell of the ground,
And swallows circling with their shimmering sound;

And frogs in the pools singing at night,
And wild-plum trees in tremulous white;

Robins will wear their feathery fire,
Whistling their whims on a low fence-wire;

And not one will know of the war, not one
Will care at last when it is done.

Not one would mind, neither bird nor tree,
If mankind perished utterly;

And Spring herself, when she woke at dawn
Would scarcely know that we were gone.


When I first came across this poem, my instant reaction was that Teasdale was imagining the aftermath of nuclear war, and the subsequent disappearance of humanity. However, much later, I discovered two things: that she died in 1933, and that the poem was a response to the Great War.

What strikes me first is its quietness, its unassuming-ness: half a dozen couplets, rhyming, completely anchored in nature. The whole poem is a single sentence, first picturing a world without humans and then pointing out, almost by-the-way our unimportance in the grander scheme of things. No fancy tricks with poetic devices, it moves with a calm pace, building up the picture in an almost Whitman-esque manner as the details are painted in. The soft s and c sounds dominate the first couplet, drawing in sounds and smells; the ands at the start of the next two lines develop the picture of rural tranquility.

War slips in subtly in the third couplet: don’t miss the hints, for that is all they are, really. It’s a robin, not any other bird; robins known for being aggressive birds fiercely defending their territory, with red breasts – the colour of fire and blood. The feathery fire clearly describes the robin, but might equally suggest machine-gun fire, particularly with the whistling in the next line, the alliterated w, and finally the fence-wire, not barbed in the poem but open to the suggestion.

The power of nature and the relative insignificance of humans comes in the fourth couplet: the idea that, despite our self-importance, the rest of the natural world would not actually notice our disappearance, does not notice that we are involved in an earth-encompassing war and equally does not notice when it ends… the triple not one emphasises our over-weening sense of self-importance as a species, as does the sentiment not one would mind – the phrasing there echoing the vagueness and relative triviality of our phrase ‘I don’t mind’ meaning I don’t really care either way. It is sobering that Nature can look at us in that way. There is a musicality to the fifth couplet that, for me, further emphasises this: the tree/-ly rhyme, and the cadence of man|kind |per|ished u|tter|ly.

There is war poetry that is in-your-face with grim and horrid details, there is poetry that springs from anger, and there is this more subtle third kind. It is also a good example of how a poem can have a significance beyond the writer’s original intentions, given that Teasdale wrote in the aftermath of the Great War; its meaning as a picture of our world after a nuclear war is still more powerful to me.

Philip Larkin: MCMXIV

June 3, 2018

Those long uneven lines
Standing as patiently
As if they were stretched outside
The Oval or Villa Park,
The crowns of hats, the sun
On moustached archaic faces
Grinning as if it were all
An August Bank Holiday lark;

And the shut shops, the bleached
Established names on the sunblinds,
The farthings and sovereigns,
And dark-clothed children at play
Called after kings and queens,
The tin advertisements
For cocoa and twist, and the pubs
Wide open all day;

And the countryside not caring
The place-names all hazed over
With flowering grasses, and fields
Shadowing Domesday lines
Under wheat’s ,restless silence;
The differently-dressed servants
With tiny rooms in huge houses,
The dust behind limousines;

Never such innocence,
Never before or since,
As changed itself to past
Without a word–the men
Leaving the gardens tidy,
The thousands of marriages
Lasting a little while longer:
Never such innocence again.

This is one of my very favourite (if that’s a useful word) of all First World War poems, and I can imagine it being inspired by the fiftieth anniversary of the start of the Great War, back in 1964. It is so good for many reasons, which I’ll come to as I write about the poem, but the Larkin’s great achievement lies in successfully capturing an era which has gone for ever, and the idea that the war irrevocably changed our nation’s consciousness…

In the first stanza he pictures the men queuing up to volunteer as if they were queuing up for a football or cricket match; there’s the touching detail of the hats and also the moustaches that were so fashionable in Edwardian times – hunt out any old family photo from the that era and you’ll notice it. The lightness of the idea of the August Bank Holiday lark is very touching, and accurate, as the traditional British holiday fell on the first rather than the last Monday of that month until relatively recently, and war was declared on August 4th, 1914.

Larkin carefully paints the picture of those days in the second stanza. The shops are shut (all businesses used to close on bank holidays until recently); they have the old-fashioned pull-out roller blinds to provide shade and keep the sun off the goods displayed in the windows, and shops would proudly display how long they had been ‘established’, perhaps as a mark of enduring quality. Farthings and sovereigns, two coins roughly the same size, one copper, the other gold: the vanished money of a vanished era. The children are dark-clothed – cheap colourful dyes and pigments were not yet invented. Very occasionally even now one may still see an ancient advertisement board in enamelled tin on the side of a building in long untouched areas of a town or city; a visit to Beamish museum would show you all the scenes Larkin describes so carefully and economically; back in the 1960s the details he mentions would, like Proust’s madeleine, have brought back quite vivid memories to many of his readers. Cocoa and twist (tobacco); pubs today are open when they choose, but strict licensing laws governing their opening hours were first introduced during the war to prevent key workers getting drunk during the working day when their work might be vital to the country’s war effort. As a student I remember my evening entertainment being quite strictly curtailed by those troublesome licensing hours…

After that, in the third stanza, we move out into the countryside not caring, unchanged for hundreds of years, it is suggested, the alliteration of all the s sounds evoking the wind gently blowing the crops ripening for harvest. The servant class that helped Edwardian England to function vanished almost completely with the war. Dust behind limousines because most roads were not yet metalled…

The title is interesting. Why Roman numerals, which I have discovered are now as impenetrable to younger generations as Sanskrit? I often used to ask my students this, and we ended up deciding that it was another device Larkin uses to take the poem into a distant and vanished past, which the Arabic numerals ‘1914’ would not do.

Consider also the way the poem is structured: four even stanzas of eight lines each, that we only gradually perceive to be actually a single, carefully structured and punctuated sentence… why? What is the effect of this? It means that the poem flows, but reads quite slowly, that pace creating a kind of dreamy feel to the images, again suggesting glimpses of a vanished past: so many different elements are working towards this single purpose. You need to read the poem aloud fully to appreciate this. The second and third stanzas both begin with and, contributing to the effect. The poem starts with the queues of men and the holiday atmosphere, moves on to the town itself in the next stanza, then to the countryside, and then onto the gradual shock – if I may put it like that – of the final stanza, which is very different.

The lapidary repetitions of never, always in that powerful and emphatic position at the start of the line, and the idea of innocence, in the opening line and again at the very end are so effective, but it’s the ideas and the way Larkin only hints at such shocking events that we must notice: the idea of things changing, vanishing, present becoming past without a word – you don’t know it’s happened until it’s too late – and I find the image of the men leaving the gardens tidy so utterly chilling: “I’ll just cut the lawn, and then be off to the war, my dear…” sort of thing, and the thousands of marriages | Lasting a little while longer – again, nobody knew, and the heartbreak and loss so lightly yet so effectively touched upon… in this, as in so many of his poems, Larkin demonstrates such mastery of the subtleties of our language.

This is an astonishingly powerful poem in my opinion, and one that could not have been written until a long while after the war. Larkin pays tribute to those early volunteers, as well reminding his contemporary readers that things can vanish almost before our eyes, as it were.

Jan Kott: Shakespeare our Contemporary

May 31, 2018

downloadThere are times when I get cross with myself for not having read a book sooner: this one has been on my shelves waiting since 1995, and another reminder of it at my recent Shakespeare week finally convinced me to take it down and read it.

It was published in the early 1960s when Kott, formerly critic and professor of literature and drama at Warsaw University had left for the West. A foreigner’s perspective on our national dramatist is always very interesting, and Kott’s was an eye-opener, coming from a man who had experienced (and initially supported!) Stalinism, as well as a man from a country with serious links with Shakespeare. It’s known, for instance, that in the 1590s when London theatres were closed because of the plague, Shakespeare’s company toured Europe, including Poland – it’s not known that Shakespeare was with them – and after the construction of the replica Globe Theatre in London, there was a major project, recently completed, to construct a replica theatre in Gdansk, on the Baltic coast, where any ship would have docked in the sixteenth century, and which hosts a Shakespeare festival of its own each summer.

Kott offers first of all a convincing and unified vision of the History plays, with echoes and parallels in twentieth-century history. Then he considers the atmosphere of conspiracy and paranoia at state level in Hamlet. His analysis of the play, and particularly of the role of Fortinbras, is quite chilling and reflects the police states and secret police he knew so well, in this ‘drama of political crime’. This vision comes across strongly in Kozintsev’s stunning Russian film of the play from the same era.

Kott sees characters devoid of free will and the ability to choose, and playing parts imposed on them by outside mechanisms. His approach, attitude and style of analysis are most definitely not English, and this is a collection of essays that could only have been written after the Second World War, and by someone who had lived under Stalinism; his is a very dark perspective on the world and on human beings. The essays on Macbeth and Othello I found particularly thought-provoking. Overall, his knowledge and understanding of Shakespeare and his relevance in the modern world is masterly, and his scope wide-ranging.

There’s also a fascinating exploration of androgyny through the cross-dressing heroines of the comedies, Twelfth Night and As You Like It in particular, along with the subjects of the sonnets, strong and perceptive on the ambiguity, as well as considering the link between the need to use boy actors and the way Shakespeare framed his female roles. However, in some ways this section feels dated, particularly because of the old-fashioned, coded language when writing about homosexuality and homoeroticism in the early 1960s and from the background of a communist state… Approaches to Shakespeare generally have developed enormously in the intervening half-century, sparked by critics like Kott.

The book concludes with an essay on The Tempest which sees parallels between Prospero and Leonardo da Vinci, and focuses on the circularity of the play which for Kott ends where it begins; it’s an essay which could not have been written pre-Hiroshima either.

So, an eye-opener for me, a book to go back to, a book which I wish I’d read while I was still teaching, and a reminder not to let books sit on the shelves unopened.

Philip Pullman: Daemon Voices

April 8, 2018


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…

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.

Ursula Le Guin: The Language of the Night

February 8, 2018

517awu8bS6L._AC_US218_I’ve had this collection of essays for over thirty years, and finally dug them out to read after the death of the author, realising I’d never read anything other than her fiction. It’s an annoying book in many ways. Firstly, it’s a very bitty collection, of essays, speeches and early introductions to some of her novels; secondly, it’s broken up by numerous ‘introductions’ from the editor which do nothing other than add a little context, but fragment the whole, and lastly, the pieces are all from forty to fifty years old; some have dated badly.

Quite a lot of it is quite preachy, as in those long-gone days, the case still needed to be made for science fiction as a real branch of literature. Le Guin also makes a very strong case for fantasy, which is where she began, and I got rather fed up of her constant championing of Tolkien. I have problems with the entire genre, and whilst The Lord of the Rings was a cracking good read once (forty years ago, in two days, during a nasty dose of flu) I have never felt moved to return to it… She is good and interesting in analysing the language and style of fantasy.

Things improved as I progressed through the essays; she’s interesting on the genesis of Islandia, one of my all-time favourites, and a strong advocate for Zamyatin‘s We, which I must return to sometime soon. She also champions another of my all-time favourites, Philip K Dick, long before many thought him worthy of real acclaim. As a practitioner of the genre, Le Guin has a lot to say that is worth reading on the nature of the SF genre and its limitations, and becomes more personal and more revealing when she comes to reflect on her own creative processes and writing methods, which not many writers do.

Similarly, as a woman who wrote both before and after the advent of the new feminist consciousness of the 1960s/70s, she reflects thoughtfully on her own shortcomings as perceived by some feminists of the time, who took her to task for basically writing about men, even in androgynous societies she created, such as in The Left Hand of Darkness. The essay ‘Is Gender Necessary?‘ is a landmark. Such honesty and openness is rare in a writer, and for me is a mark of her greatness.

However, in the end I must say that a good deal of this collection is necessarily very dated, and if you are interested in any of her thoughts on either the genre or her own writing, skim-reading is recommended.

Astonished to notice this edition sells for £98 (used) on a certain website… make me a sensible offer!

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