Archive for the 'rambling about reading' Category

Bildungsromane

October 27, 2021

The idea of the bildungsroman – the novel that shows a character’s development through childhood to maturity, with a focus on the influences that shape the personality, is an interesting one, that has fallen out of favour: I think it was a creature of the earlier days of psychology when it was not only scientists but also writers who explored, in their different ways, how we become who we are.

And we can look at our own lives from that perspective, too, although it seems to have become easier as I have grown older, and have a greater span of time to look back on, as well as some greater clarity about the sort of person I’ve turned into. I can perceive all sorts of influences, first from my parents, obviously, and then from significant friends and acquaintances at various points in my earlier life. And I suspect there comes a point where I cease to be strongly influenced by anyone any more; perhaps I am now ‘fixed’ as it were…

I realise that Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre comes from the days before psychology, yet it’s surely a novel about the formation and development of Jane’s personality, from the malign influences of her early days to the kindlier ones of her friend Helen Burns, and some of her teachers at Lowood School. Her strength of character is tested by her feelings for Rochester, as is her moral sense; her acquired wisdom happily leads her to refuse the wiles of St John.

I can now remember very few details from Samuel Butler’s later and now sadly neglected novel The Way of All Flesh, but there is a clear picture of the malign influence of his overbearing father, and his struggles to break away from him, become a separate individual, and make his own choices about his life, which may have a chance of leading to happiness.

And then there’s the modernist James Joyce, and his marvellous A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, autobiographical in places, and using the stream of consciousness to explore the inside of the character’s head. Here it’s the suffocating combination of the small-mindedness of Irish patriotism and Catholicism combined that leads to breakdown and the decision that the only way to escape is exile… The oppression of the child Stephen is evident in that novel, and it’s explored further, and differently, in parts of Ulysses.

Various other titles occur to me, and also the idea that all of these novels about the development of an individual into their own person, finding themselves and creating their lives, came along at a similar time in my own personal development and growth: I first read almost all of these texts avidly, and maybe not all that critically, in my later teens and early twenties. I remember being powerfully moved by the search for meaning undertaken by the hero of Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge, by various of Hermann Hesse’s heroes, perhaps particularly Siddhartha, and even by some of D H Lawrence’s characters.

I often return to Socrates’ famous dictum, ‘the unexamined life is not worth living’, at times like this, and realise that perhaps not everyone does look back and consider the ways in which their lives have been shaped in key ways at certain times. Parental influence is perhaps the most powerful, given that it lasts the longest; then there is that of certain friends at particular moments, and perhaps later in life of people whom we might describe as mentors, maybe at crucial moments in the development of a career. You can’t undo your past, of course, but seeing clearly can be useful, as well as realising the moments where the choices made were actually one’s own, and therefore acts of conscious control over one’s life. And there is Umberto Eco’s (I think) observation, that one who reads lives hundreds or thousands of lives…

Shakespeare: Henry VI Part 1

September 30, 2021

I always feel a little outfaced whenever I tackle Shakespeare’s history plays, because so much background information is needed to follow them in any detail, and there are so many characters – and I’ve never been wildly interested in the historical periods he brought to life, and the squabbling, entitled upper classes. But I try and remind myself of context: the relatively recent end of decades of civil wars, as well as the chaos of the Reformation, and Shakespeare telling a national backstory which for him ends up with the relative peace and quiet of his present, and the ongoing emergence of England as a power on the international scene. It reminds me quite a bit of our own, current messy situation and the wish of so many people who ought to know better, to live on our past glories, empire days, and ‘winning’ the Second World War…

Here, in the first part of Henry VI, Shakespeare contrasts the divided and factious England, with its squabbling nobles and interfering bishops after the death of the great hero Henry V, with the French, united and rebellious and inspired by Joan of Arc, determined to throw off the English yoke. It’s pretty much a hotchpotch of random scenes and events with no real thread except the background of the Hundred Years’ War, and the only unity coming through the character of Talbot on the English side and Joan on the fRench. We can see the Wars of the Roses shaping up in the future.

It’s interesting that the English immediately picture Joan as a witch, a whore, in league with satanic powers; towards the end of the play Shakespeare confirms this in a bizarre scene where she calls upon various devilish powers for assistance as her campaign finally unravels.

Shakespeare’s inventiveness is restricted by the actualities of history, and his chronicle sources. I find the language fairly pedestrian, and the tone pretty monotonous, to be honest; there’s little sense of drama or suspense: it feels like a school history lesson. Necessarily it ends without a resolution: there is more chaos, more warfare ahead, and the audience can easily see that the leading characters’ fine words are just that. But the dramatist is just setting out on the road to his present, showing a real nation emerging from all this chaos at the end of Richard III

Shakespeare: The Taming of the Shrew

September 29, 2021

The induction is a practical joke by a bored nobleman, in which a poor yokel’s world is turned upside down; in my attempts to make sense of this play, especially its problematic ending, I’m reflecting on whether the whole thing is about the world turned up side down.

Compared with the Two Gentlemen of Verona, the plot is a good deal more complicated, with layers of subplots; we can see the master’s progress as a dramatist, perhaps. There’s more humour, though still a good deal of over-the-top wordplay and punning, and there’s more of a sense of a dramatist and a play with ideas to explore here.

The problem is the ending, and specifically Katherina’s “submission” speech: what does it say, what does it imply? I’ve always found it rather hard to judge that she is playing a game in that speech, that she has somehow won and is putting one over on Petruchio and the others. It’s a play of its time, and there was a hierarchy of people in the famous Elizabethan world order, and no evidence that Shakespeare ever really challenged or went against this. So Kate has a place, a status, and it’s below her husband’s.

And yet, it’s Shakespeare, and entertainment, and so it seemed in the twentieth century that there had to be an explanation or interpretation that would make the ending acceptable somehow to a contemporary audience. The Arden Shakespeare second series is now regarded as pretty old, but it has always been my go-to text, and the introduction, which comes from the 1980s, is quite interesting on this issue and I recommend it to any others who may be puzzling in the same way as I have been.

What we need to notice is the love that has emerged between Katherina and Petruchio, more than anything else, and to remember that for Shakespeare, real love is paramount in so many of his plays, as opposed to pretences. So there is a solid base to their relationship in sixteenth century terms, which will probably not be played out in the simplistic dominance/submission trope implied by a superficial reading of the speech. Equally, I found myself remembering my comment to students that Shakespeare does not offer simple and clear-cut solutions or endings: there are often several strands/ideas/opinions being played out, as one might expect from a dramatist of his calibre. There are several different balls being juggled here, and you can’t necessarily keep your eye on all of them at the same time, but that doesn’t mean they’re not up there… and I found that helpful.

Shakespeare: Two Gentlemen of Verona

September 29, 2021

The wit and wordplay of early Shakespeare nowadays feels over-contrived and overdone, tiresome even, and it’s certainly the case for me in this play. And the wooing is stylised, not really reflecting any genuine feeling or conviction. To me it’s as though Shakespeare is ‘getting there’ in what’s probably his first play, but hasn’t quite got the measure of how he will succeed…

Don’t get me wrong, it’s entertaining enough, light and frothy with plenty of misunderstandings, contretemps and confusions. What struck me most strongly on this re-read, is just how much of the later Romeo and Juliet is foreshadowed in Two Gentlemen, even though this is a comedy, not a tragedy, and this is because of his source material, apparently. There are similar love tropes, there’s a plotted elopement using a rope-ladder, there’s the need for a lover to flee because he has been banished, there’s a scheme for passing letters to-and-fro, there’s even a Friar Laurence. But it is predictable, light-weight, geared to a comic ending; there’s no seriousness here.

Another thing is how easy early Shakespeare is to read, on the page, for me: I fairly rattled through this one. The more tortuous language and syntax of the later plays is by no means as straightforward. I had decided that it was time to do some revisiting of the plays after my encounters with the sonnets over the summer. I’m not offering any academic analysis, just a personal reaction to my readings…

Narrative, truth and lies

September 14, 2021

The idea that all narratives are lies surfaced during a discussion (of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas) in our book group recently, and has been preoccupying me since then. The notion quickly needed some qualification. I think it’s clear we refer to fictional narratives here, to describe which we might use the words ‘invented’ ‘untrue’ ‘lies’, all of which have certain connotations. At one level it’s clearly a matter of semantics, but we normally overlook the invented-ness of fictional narrative and the implications thereof. The word fiction itself means something made, as in invented, and this should lead us, as I recall frequently reminding my students, to reflect on the author, the maker, as well, and her/his purposes and choices as s/he made their narrative. What had they chosen to include, exclude, emphasise? How had they ordered their invented artefact, and how did that affect the ways we received, understood and interpreted it?

There is perhaps a certain relative innocence to fiction, in contrast to the benefits from making things up, or lying in other contexts. Untruths in the personal and the imaginative spheres are not qualitatively the same thing… we may tell untruths for personal gain or advantage: consider almost any politician you care to name (said he cynically).

We like and enjoy made-up stories, and this reflects a higher stage of development and mental operation, that we can imagine, visualise, and create things which are not. Even in our prehistory, humans created art, music, poetry, story. It is deeply hard-wired into us.

Stories we read, as well as entertaining us, broaden our knowledge and experience of the world vicariously: we can explore situations and emotions we may not have experienced personally, and learn something from them. Someone – I have a suspicion it may have been Umberto Eco – pointed out that a reader lives thousands of lives as well as their own. And narratives – factual ones, based on real events we have experienced ourselves – are also surely a way we use to make sense of our own lives, as we see progressions and developments, and become aware of connections between events and experiences.

Mitchell was trying to make a point about other narratives, too, I think: the narratives that we, as a species, the human race, tell about ourselves: our histories. And these may be based on facts, have facts behind them, but are nevertheless made, shaped and interpreted by those who write them, and there are agendas and effects that we need to be aware of behind such narratives. In some ways, I think he was saying, the created narratives can over-write the realities they sprang from…

If, for instance, we read a narrative of ourselves as basically a selfish, or a warlike species, or a cruel species, do we unconsciously accept and integrate those interpretations unthinkingly? Do we believe we are innately competitive, that it’s about the survival of the fittest because we have been told this so often? In which case, who told us, and why? And if so, what if we tried different narratives, ones which focused on co-operation, on mutual self-help, on our capacity for good? Might this affect our future behaviour, might it be capable of changing subtly our lives and our world for the better? Interesting stuff…

Sonnets, sonnets, sonnets

September 12, 2021

     I’ve come across a couple of good ideas – which of course I borrowed – during the various states of lockdown over the past year and a half. Someone wrote about listening to all the Bach cantatas, one a day, an excellent idea even if, as in my case, some days it was none and other days playing catch-up… And then someone was reading through Shakespeare’s sonnets one a day. I’d never read them all, just the usual dozen or so well-known anthologised ones that were important in teaching literature and criticism.

My reading of the sonnets was never one a day, either, just like the Bach cantatas weren’t. But it was an interesting exercise, now that I’ve reached the end. I’m glad I’ve done it, and I intend, if and when I can find the time, to spend more time studying them carefully. It’s hard to frame an overall response, really. There are a lot – 154 – too many? The sameness is rather daunting, the same structure and rhyme-scheme, apart from the single curious twelve-line one, and I’ve often used that as a way to be somewhat dismissive, especially when I’ve set Shakespeare alongside his contemporary John Donne, whose poetry I’ve always preferred for its variety of form and astonishing boldness and inventiveness.

But this reading has had me reflecting. Shakespeare’s sonnets are a tour-de-force because there are 154 of them, and even within the restrictions of that form he is both incredibly inventive, and also far wittier than I’d ever expected… again, this had been one of the areas where I’d compared him unfavourably with Donne, whose wit I still find matchless. There’s variety in Donne, but there’s an amazing number of variations on a theme in Shakespeare, which becomes captivating after a while. And then there is the inventive interplay between and among the sonnets themselves…

The other thing about the writer who set me off on this, was that they read the sonnets out loud. I loved this idea (in the privacy of my study), and parsing them as I read so that they scanned correctly and made sense was a serious challenge, which this retired English teacher rose to and enjoyed.

Reading differently

September 11, 2021

Just a few brief thoughts here as I realised the other day just how much the act of writing this blog for the last decade or so has changed the ways I read. Not in any dramatic fashion, because as a lifelong student of literature, once the bug had bitten me in my teens, through three different degrees at universities and a lifetime’s career, I feel that I have always sought to go below the surface. But for a long time, in the middle part of my life, I ‘just’ read books… one sometimes leading to another.

Now there is a greater deliberateness to my approach. Yes, I’ll allow myself to be sidetracked by a sudden discovery, but there’s more of a sense of planning to what I read and when, as I’m increasingly conscious of limited time. I’ve set some time aside this November for reading the new Olga Tokarczuk novel The Books of Jacob, which is finally scheduled to appear in English translation – and I’ve resisted buying the French version which is already out there because I like the work of her English translator Jennifer Croft – and there’s a part of me that remembers, every now and then, that I need to live long enough to read the final part of Philip Pullman’s Book of Dust trilogy…

So I read a little more carefully now, with a slip of paper and a pencil to jot down ideas and thoughts, links and comparisons and anything else that occurs to me as I read. And I rejoice in the modern technology which means that if my phone is with me, I can look up words and references instantly, without leaving the sofa, and I do look things up rather more than in the past.

I’m thinking more about what I’m reading, with the discipline of this blog in the back of my mind: my promise to myself was that every book I read would get a post, and I don’t think I’ve broken this rule. And, if I’m honest, I’m getting more out of the reading that I’m doing, which can’t be bad.

Olga Tokarczuk: Flights

July 21, 2021

     I’ve lately grown rather despondent about fiction written in English; either I’m not encountering interesting and innovative approaches, or there aren’t any. Certainly I find much greater satisfaction reading novels from other lands, normally in translation. For my money, Olga Tokarczuk really deserved the Nobel Prize: she pushes the boundaries. I returned to Drive Your Plow Over The Bones of the Dead recently, and now I’ve just re-read Flights. That’s not a particularly good translation of the title: the Polish title translates as ‘Extremes’ in the sense of from one place to another, and the French version is called ‘The Pilgrims’, which doesn’t really cut it either…

It’s about travel, movement, in place and time, physical and metaphysical. Much of it is fiction, some is digression, philosophical musing, if you like, some is historical documentary, almost. There’s no clear line from A-Z through the book; the sections are feel associative, if anything. And it’s fascinating! There is a goodly selection of weird maps illustrating or intervening in the text; I was astonished to discover that they came from the Agile Rabbit collection, which I was given for Christmas many years ago.

It takes a bit of work, because you don’t really have a framework or pattern to slot the book into from the start. It’s a challenge; it’s not compulsive, page-turning reading, yet you’re intrigued enough to carry on, rewarded enough mentally, curious enough to find out where Olga’s going with this one. Do the digressions intervene in the story-telling, or is it the other way around? The psychology of the fictional characters is certainly compelling enough. Where does the stuff about the plastination of bodies, or about dissection in the eighteenth century, actually fit in?

So, Olga Tokarczuk has done something new with the ‘novel’ here, with fiction, with writing itself, I think. This is welcome in the days when, as I said earlier, the form feels rather tired and hackneyed, and there seems to be a dearth of writers prepared to experiment and take risks with doing new things. Here is originality of form and approach, here is mental stimulus and thought-provoking, here is good writing, well-translated, demanding the reader’s input, engagement and attention.

Flights is enigmatic, indefinable, marvellous… definitely worth your eyeball time!

Men don’t read books by women (?)

July 16, 2021

I’ve written about and around the issue of books by men and women, and which I choose to read, before; an article in The Guardian last weekend prompted me to do some more thinking. The premise of the article was that men did not read books by women writers… roughly speaking.

I turned to my shelves and noticed just how large a proportion of the books, of all genres, were by male writers. I cannot deny this, so why is this the case? As someone who spent several years researching into feminism and science fiction as a postgraduate student, it was a sobering realisation. And what women writers have I allowed into my library, and why?

When I consider the classics of fiction, then women writers figure very strongly on the list: Jane Austen, George Eliot, Charlotte Bronte are right there are the very top and if I were pushed to choose between them and Conrad, Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, for example, I’d be hard pressed. And I note that that there are no English males in my list, for the simple reason (pace some of my readers) Dickens and Hardy and the like just aren’t up there for me.

With more recent and contemporary fiction, males do dominate, without a doubt. But then I thought, actually it’s not the gender of a writer that attracts me, it’s the subject-matter, the themes and ideas. So Margaret Atwood is there for her speculative fiction and her feminism, Pat Barker for her brilliant imaginings and psychological insights about the Great War, Ursula Le Guin for her speculative fiction and feminism just like Atwood. And similar reasons for reading Angela Carter, Marge Piercy. Olga Tokarczuk and Agota Kristov are there because I explore Eastern European fiction. And although there are clearly traits that draw me to writers, both male and female, I do also appreciate the qualities of their writing, and what they bring to the human conditions they illuminate.

I looked at the non-fiction section of my library, and found Mary Beard, whose take on the classical period I like very much and have found a most interesting counterbalance to the picture of the ancient world I imbibed as a school student many years ago. And there was Karen Armstrong, whose histories of religion and theology I have found very thought-provoking over the years. I read those authors not because of their gender but because of the subject-matter: theology, religion and history have always interested me deeply.

Somehow I feel as though I’m offering excuses here, as much as explanations or reasons: are there really fewer women writing in the subjects I’ve come to find interesting over the years? I don’t know.

Then I thought about travel-writing, my major more recent area of exploration, and realised how much I have appreciated the women travellers of the last century of so. There’s Ella Maillart, the intrepid Victorian Isabella Bird, Mildred Cable and Francesca French, Edith Durham, Freya Stark, Gertrude Bell, Jan Morris… certainly men still dominate the shelves, but the women writers are the ones I’ve enjoyed the most. Here, I suppose, it’s because there’s not the macho posing and posturing a good many of the male travellers have gone in for at times. Instead there is the close observation, detailed description, sharing of the lives of those among whom they travelled, a sense of intimacy and belonging and appreciation of differences. Not that men travelling aren’t capable of those things, but that women do them better and more consistently and have left me with a fuller appreciation of their travelling…

I’m as confused as before. I don’t think any of my choices are gender-driven, though, and I’d be interested to hear what any of my readers think on this question.

Overrated

June 30, 2021

There are quite a few things in the world of literature that make me cross. For the life of me – and I’ve read it several times (because I had to!) – I cannot see what some people find to rave about in The Great Gatsby. It’s always struck me as being about superficial, trivial, privileged people who I couldn’t care less about and the narrator puts me off right from the start.

Equally, I fail to see why some think so highly of Lolita. I’ve had it recommended to me a number of times, by people whose opinions and tastes I rate highly. I’ve tried to read it at least three times, have never got beyond fifty pages or so. I’ve found it dull, and I’ve also found it toe-curlingly creepy, in a perverted sort of way. I shan’t be bothering again.

I shall also confess that I find Wuthering Heights grossly overrated. I read it, unravelled the complex plot at the time, and could now tell you almost nothing about the book or its characters, so deep an impression it didn’t make on me. Emily Bronte I can do without; her sister Charlotte, on the other hand, I rate very highly: the ending of Villette is an absolute master-stroke.

At least I’ve made the attempt with those books. There are writers I haven’t really bothered with – Dickens, and Hardy for instance: I had to read Hard Times in my first year at university, and Tess of the D’Urbervilles too. The former I quite enjoyed, the latter I found rather silly because of the leaden hand of fate that rested on the heroine’s shoulders throughout. Certainly, I’ve never felt called to use up any more eyeball time on those writers.

I have quite a large blind spot about British and American fiction of the last few decades: I haven’t read very much of it at all, because very little of it has recommended itself to me, and quite honestly, I don’t think I’ve missed much. My general feeling has been that writers in other countries and continents have found much more interesting stories to write. No recent English language writer has, for me, reached the heights of Gunter Grass, Umberto Eco or Amin Maalouf, for example.

I’ve enjoyed having a bit of a gripe here, and I can imagine some of my readers thinking, “Well, I never saw anything in Philip Pullman, or, what has Josef Skvorecky got to say to me?” So, what are the books or writers you consider overrated?

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