Archive for the 'rambling about reading' Category

Some thoughts on sex in literature

September 25, 2018

I’ve thought about this topic for a long time, and also about how to write sensibly about it.

Literature at different times has reflected all of life, and that inevitably includes the sexual side; the age and its attitudes have determined what it was acceptable to write about. The earthiness of Rabelais does not approach the depth and sophistication of the novel; not does the bawdiness of Shakespeare and his times. But when we get to the 18thcentury and the beginnings of the novel, the potential for exploring sexual experience is there.

51-h9ana0tL._AC_US218_512-zoayHzL._AC_US218_Sex and seduction are there in Fielding’s Tom Jones, though not described in any detail but we are left in no doubt as to what takes place; similarly the earthiness of Defoe’s Moll Flanders accepts a full and very complicated sexual life for the heroine. There is also the famous Fanny Hill, by John Cleland. Here the focus is completely on sex and sexual enjoyment: must we therefore class it as pornography? That’s another question which the entire subject raises: what is the primary purpose of any description of sexual activity: is it an integral part of the story, or is it primarily there to arouse the reader?

51myrirOQhL._AC_US218_51UfiU57zXL._AC_US218_The late 18th, and the entire 19th century took a very different approach, by eliminating the subject almost entirely. Some of the female characters in Jane Austen’s novelshave babies, so there must have been sex. Sometimes characters exhibit what we might today call desire in the presence of someone of the opposite sex (of course) but this is so hidden in convoluted language that a reader may well miss it. In the later Victorian novel, sex produces children out of wedlock – Adam Bede by George Eliot, and Tess of the d’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy immediately spring to mind, and both of these novels explore the terrible consequences of sexual ‘sin’. And yet during those times erotic fiction was certainly written, published and circulated – such matter seems to be one of the items on sale in Mr Verloc’s shop (along with condoms) in Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent, and I think it’s Molly Bloom in Ulysses that enjoys reading the novels of one Paul de Kock (!).

Admission that humans have sex and enjoy it becomes clearer as the 20thcentury progresses. The horrendous guilt felt by Stephen Dedalus in Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man after his nocturnal visits to prostitutes is displayed in detail; as are Molly Bloom’s sexual fantasies in the famous final chapter of Ulysses, and Leopold Bloom’s furtive self-pleasure as he watches girls playing on the beach in an earlier chapter. And then there is D H Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, subject of the famous obscenity trial in 1960. I remember my astonishment at reading it as a teenager: the openness about sex and pleasure, and the earthiness of the language and the experience. And, a little later, how toe-curling it all really was: innocence and experience…

51hZouI7EcL._AC_US218_51Bo55QmNrL._AC_US218_Nowadays it seems anything goes in the land of fiction, except writing well about the subject, so much so that there are the famous Bad Sex Awards, given annually to particularly bad writing about love-making.

51cxBPbzYKL._AC_US218_I’ll mention one novel that I found interesting in its approach to sex: Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain. There’s an oddity about a novel set in the mid-19th century, butwhich was written towards the end of the 20th, with the feel of those times, the attitudes of those times and characters clearly part of those times and yet, unlikecharacters in novels actually written in the 19thcentury, openly having sexual thoughts and experiences. I think that Frazier does it all very well. The flirtatiousness between Ada and Inman is convincing, as is his desire for her; it makes the characters so much more real. At one point later in the novel, while she is waiting for news of him, Ada masturbates while thinking of him. It’s not described in detail; indeed, without careful reading a reader misses it, yet this reads like the genuine Ada we have come to know through the novel. So does the consummation of their mutual desire when they are finally reunited in the final pages of the novel. It’s clear, yet not flaunted, almost in the manner of a genuine 19thcentury novel that did encompass its characters’ sexual acts, if you see what I mean; Frazier gets it just right, in my judgement.

There’s an interesting contrast in matters sexual – as well as in so many other areas – between two 20th century dystopias, Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four and Huxley’s Brave New World. In the latter, sex is so commonplace, communal and consensual, having been completely separated from pregnancy and reproduction, that it’s almost meaningless in our terms (for the characters in that novel are not humans, surely); in Orwell’s novel sex, at least for Party members, has been overlaid with such revulsion and obscenity, and the Party is supposedly working on how to abolish the orgasm, that  Winston and Julia’s furtive sexual pleasures become acts of rebellion against the Party.

In the end I’m not at all sure what I think about the whole topic. I’m aware I’m a man writing about the subject and therefore my presentation here, and my take on these matters may only speak for half of the human race. I can see that there’s clearly a dividing line – though fairly obscure – between literature and pornography. Even if not pornographic, I can see descriptions of sex in novels working on the reader’s imagination, in different ways dependent on their innocence or experience, perhaps. And then the myth of realism, about which I’ve written in the past, comes in to play too: much of the ordinary stuff of daily life is in fact omitted or edited out of the most ‘realistic’ works of literature, where characters are usually not described cleaning their teeth, shaving (pace Joyce), going to the toilet (pace Joyce again), cooking and eating (and again) or having sex… unless there is a specific and particular plot or character-linked reason for including such mundane activity. So sex in a novel must have some significance rather than merely being gratuitous – perhaps.

Once again, I will be interested in my readers’ comments.

 

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Confession time

September 16, 2018

Do you have a – perhaps guilty – secret? Is there a classic novel that all your friends adore and rave about which you can’t stand? Are there books you feel you ought to have read that you haven’t, and are ashamed to admit? Can you bear to confess now?

There is a certain reverence, respect attached to the classics, whatever they are. It may be just about OK not actually to read some of them, though we probably wouldn’t openly admit it. And we are likely to feel awkward, if not actually wrong, if we don’t like a particular novel, or writer. Why is this?

I always wanted my students to express responses and opinions about what they read, and felt comfortable encouraging them to openly dislike something, as long as they could explain what it was that they disliked, what turned them off. If you were one of those students, you will possibly remember my cry of ‘Evidence?’

I will make a few admissions now, no doubt horrifying some of my readers. I’d like to hear from you if what I say shocks and appals you, and you are welcome to try and persuade me that I’m wrong in my judgement.

I have just got rid of my copy of Wuthering Heights. I read it once, twenty years ago, and hated it. What was the point of that, I thought, and I do not have any spare eyeball time to go back to it. Although I had to study Tess of the D’Urbervilles at university, I’ve never re-read it since, and can’t see that I ever will: it’s too maudlin and fate-ridden to be truly convincing to me, and that’s the overall impression I’ve gleaned of Thomas Hardy, too. I bought Jude the Obscure a long time ago and thought I might read it; I got rid of it a while ago, unread. And Charles Dickens you can keep, too. I did actually enjoy Hard Times – again, compulsory study at university – and have gone back and re-read it. I enjoyed an adaptation of David Copperfield on the wireless as a child, and a no doubt bowdlerised version of Oliver Twist too. I haven’t read Great Expectations, although I did enjoy Peter Carey’s reworking of the story, Jack Maggs. It didn’t make me want to go back to Dickens, though.

I suppose those are my big admissions about the classics: Hardy the miserable and Dickens the verbose. I’ll admit to a pretty strong loathing for Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, too, even though I did see a very good theatre production in the sixth form, but all that magic and fairies gallivanting around I really can’t be doing with. One of my biggest mistakes as a teacher was to try and read it with a year eight class. I’m not sure which of us hated it more…

Along with active dislikes such as those I’ve mentioned above, there is then the whole raft of stuff I’ve read once, either because I had to as a student or because I mistakenly took a recommendation from someone. And the – rather fewer – books I started but gave up on. Time was when someone might have been able to be familiar with all of the canon of Eng Lit: not any more. Choices have to be made, time is short – especially when you realise you are getting on in years – and there is no law that says you have to like everything.

What’s your guilty secret?

August favourites: coda

August 31, 2018

That was an interesting month; hard work but enjoyable, and if you’ve read all those posts, you know a lot more about my choices and preferences than you did before (probably). It’s been quite a popular month in terms of visits, comments and likes, which is good. Thank you to everyone who visited, especially if you also commented. However, I also discovered, as I was writing, that not all my chosen subjects lend themselves easily to adequate treatment in a single paragraph or so; perhaps I will return to some topics in greater depth in the coming weeks and months.

Meantime, thank you all for reading and commenting; normal (?) service will now be resumed…

August favourites #31: Donne poem

August 31, 2018

Another cheat here: I already awarded Donne my favourite love poem award, and here he is again with a category all to himself. He deserves it for the marvellous variety of his poetry: in later life a very religious and holy man, Dean of St Paul’s and so famous for his sermons that apparently people travelled from all over Europe to hear him preach. He wrote some profoundly moving religious poetry, one of which you will encounter in another of these posts. But before his religious days, he was a man of the world writing very secular poetry: the Elegy on His Mistress Going to Bed is a wonderful poem. His philosophical meanderings in A Nocturnal Upon St Lucy’s Day take some unpicking, but for sheer cleverness I’ve always admired The Flea. Men have always been trying to persuade women to go to bed with them, with varying degrees of subtlety and success, and that will surely continue, but in Donne’s time it was the mark of any half-decent poet that he could write a poem to persuade a reluctant female. Andrew Marvell’s To His Coy Mistress is probably the most famous example of the genre but I think Donne’s poem is wittier, with the would-be lover lecturing the woman, taking her through a series of arguments, and refuting her (unheard) grounds for refusal… and basing it all on a flea, and flea-bites? How romantic! But clever, certainly.

I’m doing something different for the holiday month of August, writing about some of my favourites: poems, plays, music, art and other things, a short piece on a different topic each day. The categories are random, as are the choices within them, meaning that’s my favourite that day, and is subject to change… And I will try and explain why each choice is special for me. As always, I look forward to your comments.


 

August favourites #30: Wilfred Owen poem

August 30, 2018

This one is a bit of a cheat, if you’ve been following this series, as I already named Owen’s poem Disabled as my favourite war poem, and yet I’m about to name another, and different poem by Owen in this post. But hey, it’s my blog so I can do that. And I wrote about it last year, so I shall suggest that you have a read of that post

So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,
And took the fire with him, and a knife.
And as they sojourned both of them together,
Isaac the first-born spake and said, My Father,
Behold the preparations, fire and iron,
But where the lamb for this burnt-offering?
Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
and builded parapets and trenches there,
And stretchèd forth the knife to slay his son.
When lo! an angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him. Behold,
A ram, caught in a thicket by its horns;
Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.

But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

 

Why this one? Because it shows a different side from the usual Owen, a more thoughtful and a cleverer one, in playing with what would have been a very familiar story to his contemporaries from their Sunday school Bible stories, and making a powerful message out of it.

I’m doing something different for the holiday month of August, writing about some of my favourites: poems, plays, music, art and other things, a short piece on a different topic each day. The categories are random, as are the choices within them, meaning that’s my favourite that day, and is subject to change… And I will try and explain why each choice is special for me. As always, I look forward to your comments.

August favourites #29: SF writer

August 29, 2018

512pFI-ABRL._AC_US218_Somewhere there had to be a space for my all-time favourite science-fiction writer, Philip K Dick. I think I have managed to collect all of his published works but cannot be sure: I need to check this one day. A troubled and tormented mind, with a brilliant imagination, an astonishing range of ideas and a gift for putting the little man, the ordinary person, at the heart of so many of his novels and stories. Picking his best novel is pretty difficult: I hesitate between The Man in the High Castle, an alternative universe plot where the Axis powers won the Second World War and German and Japan occupied the United States between them; a writer in that world imagines an alternative universe in which the Allies won… do you have a headache yet? – and Ubik, which is almost impossible to summarise, except that Ubik is a magic panacaea for almost all ills. Then there is Do Android Dream of Electric Sheep? which became the stunning film Blade Runner… In the end I cannot choose from all the literally dozens of novels and stories; I could make a list of the not so good ones, but that’s not what this series is about. So let’s just have Philip Dick as my favourite science fiction writer.

I’m doing something different for the holiday month of August, writing about some of my favourites: poems, plays, music, art and other things, a short piece on a different topic each day. The categories are random, as are the choices within them, meaning that’s my favourite that day, and is subject to change… And I will try and explain why each choice is special for me. As always, I look forward to your comments.

August favourites #24: French writer

August 24, 2018

I’m going for a slightly unusual choice here, a writer who is of Lebanese origin, but writes in French and is a member of the Academie FrançaiseAmin Maalouf, whose work I have long enjoyed and admired. With my obsession with the Silk Road, I could not resist a novel called Samarcand, which links Omar Khayyam, Arab astronomy and also the famous poem, The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, and was then hooked. But my favourite books of his are those set in the Renaissance world, such as Leo the African, which is an imagined account of the life of the real Arab traveller Leo Africanus, expelled from Spain as a child at the time of the Reconquista, captured by Christian pirates and employed by the Pope as a traveller and geographer, whose Description of Africa remained one of the most detailed and trusted accounts of that continent for many years. And then there was Baldassare’s Travels, in search of a mysterious lost book in the seventeenth century, and there’s another which goes back to very early times and tells the story of Mani, a prophet, seer and philosopher who came into conflict with established religion and paid for it with his life, at some time in the second or third century, as I remember.

From his position in one of the more conflict-ridden societies of the current Middle East, Maalouf also has interesting perspectives to offer on current affairs; Les Identités Meurtrieres I have found very insightful into what brings peoples, races and nations into conflict. Maalouf is clearly much better known in the francophone world than ours, and that is our loss.

August favourites #22: Essayist

August 22, 2018

Ask a school student about essays, and it’s likely their face will betray dread, or at least mild dislike, for it now suggests an imposition, an enforced piece of writing for assessment of some kind. In less Gradgrindian times, it was not so: an essay was a discursive, non-fictional piece perhaps on a single topic, perhaps wandering around the houses through several, perhaps referencing previous writers on the topic, especially from the classical past or the fathers of the church. Perhaps Montaigne, who wrote towards the end of the sixteenth century, was the father of the genre. He produced three volumes of essays which total more than a thousand pages; I have to admit that, although I did read late mediaeval or early modern French when at university, I tackled Montaigne in English…

He ranges widely. Perhaps, to his English readers, the one essay familiar will be On the Cannibals, which Shakespeare is thought to have read in a contemporary English translation, and which influenced the writing of The Tempest, and particularly the creation of Caliban. What I liked most about Montaigne, what endeared me to him, was his humanity, his decency and his sense of tolerance, characteristics perhaps not easy to sustain in the troubled and turbulent times in which he lived. And he loved his cat. I often think of him as I craft my modest pieces, and wish I could write that well.

I’m doing something different for the holiday month of August, writing about some of my favourites: poems, plays, music, art and other things, a short piece on a different topic each day. The categories are random, as are the choices within them, meaning that’s my favourite that day, and is subject to change… And I will try and explain why each choice is special for me. As always, I look forward to your comments.

Reflections on utopias (2)

August 21, 2018

Boring

There are other problems with utopian novels, in terms of their structure; certainly the novel which started me off raises a number of them. Utopian novels are often rather, or very dull. Rarely do they have more than the most basic of linear plots; there’s very little character development, almost no suspense or excitement; lots is left unexplained because it cannot be explained. What you have is a didactic text, not a novel as we know it, Jim. There’s almost no subtlety. Thus, it cannot be explained how our hero is escaped from the Paris blockade; he’s conveniently hypnotised to sleep while it all happens, after having promised he will never ask about it. When the author thinks we may have had enough of the Oxford student telling his linear story, he shifts to having his Cornwall vicar continue the same linear story. And then, in the mysteriously appearing manuscript, Aleriel himself continues his linear narrative. Subtle it isn’t, dull it becomes. We are never told why it’s so important that the Venusian doesn’t reveal himself to the Martians when he travels around their world…

Two exceptions

If you’re going to describe a perfect world, then what ought to have been a novel soon becomes a geography or history or sociology textbook. Some writers – better writers – realise that a real plot is going to make their novel rather more interesting. I’ll mention two examples. Austen Tappan Wright’s tour-de-force (over a thousand pages) Islandia has a wide range of characters including someone from our world who explores and comes to feel that the utopian society he visits is preferable to his own; he develops real, and romantic relationships with characters from that world, which is under threat in various ways, and he offers his help and skills in various ways as these plot strands beyond his own are played out… in other words there are plots and people to interest us

Ursula Le Guin takes a similar approach in her anarchist utopia The Dispossessed: the home planet Urras is our capitalist earth and Anarres its moon is the breakaway would-be utopia, here a work-in-progress rather than something complete, where everyone, and particularly anyone dissatisfied can see and if they choose reach the glittering alternative: there is a complex dynamic between the two worlds which moves the story along. Do you want the gritty, poor and hard-won utopia or the flesh-pots of capitalism? (I oversimplify, grossly); if you are living in one, does the other seem more attractive? Is it really? What can and should you do about it? Le Guin’s novel is possibly the supreme achievement in the genre, raising, as it does, so many real questions that pertain to us and our society, and making us think deeply about them. Furthermore both these authors succeed in creating a range of fully developed and convincing characters with whom the reader engages: their fates matter to us, played out against the backdrop of their fascinating worlds.

What is the point?

Many writers, including a fair number of cranks, have pictured their visions of a perfect society. As a form, the utopian novel often does not work, at least as a novel, for reasons I’ve listed above. They are of academic interest, perhaps. Some writers do better – see the last two examples. But ultimately, the visions are unachievable, it seems to me, without our giving up a great deal of what we cherish dearly as part of our human nature. Equally, though, we find it very difficult to imagine our species in any way radically different: Brave New World faces us with that possibility very forcefully: the inhabitants of that society are almost all completely happy. Why, then, do we recoil?

There is the issue of transition: whilst writers can imagine a utopia, to convince us that it’s possible to get to it from where we are now, is a much taller order, which fewer writers attempt. Instead we are parachuted into a new world. And no matter how desirable a new world might be, is it achievable without great violence, upheaval and bloodshed? Look at what happened with the Russian Revolution. That’s not to say that to make an attempt is not worth it, merely to underline the difficulties. My utopia will be someone else’s dystopia.

Finally there is the problem of stasis. For better or worse, so far in human history we have known intellectual and material progress, as our minds, understanding and knowledge have developed. There is a dynamism, a power in this which cannot exist in a utopia, which is by nature perfect: there is no further progress to be made. Venusians are eternal. Would we not then be faced with the problem of entropy? Would things not inevitably but slowly disintegrate? Can utopia only ever be a dream?

Further musings and reflections available here and here.

Reflections on utopias (1)

August 21, 2018

I’ve been thinking about utopias again, more specifically utopian novels and their flaws and defects, prompted by what I think I’d have to call the only really religious utopian novel I’ve come across. Driving around the country, I’ve been listening to Aleriel, or A Voyage to Other Worlds, by Wladyslaw Somerville Lach-Szyrma, a Polish-English nineteenth-century writer. (Yes, another of those Librivox audiobooks!) Very briefly, an Oxford student meets a mysterious person whilst travelling in France. He meets him several times in different places, and we quickly get the impression there is something uncanny or unusual about him. He’s eager to travel widely and learn as much as he can, and clearly knows very little about Earth, its people, nations and habits. He effects an almost miraculous, and never-explained rescue of the narrator from the Prussian blockade of Paris in 1870. He’s clearly a very spiritual creature and is given an introduction by the narrator to a friend who is a vicar in Cornwall, and who eventually uncovers the secret, that the mysterious person is a visitor from the planet Venus. Shortly after this, our visitor leaves Earth, after having allowed the vicar a glimpse of life on his home planet. Several years later a detailed communication is delivered, relating Aleriel’s travels to the Moon, Mars, Jupiter and other worlds.

Eternal life?

Venusians live for ever, and spend much time worshipping the Creator in huge temples; they do not know war, violence, famine or poverty, and so Earth clearly comes off pretty badly by comparison. Martians are not eternal, but they have a similar spiritual reverence for the Creator, and have at some point in their past been visited by the ‘Holy One’ who taught them how to live righteously; they have constructed themselves a utopian society of plenty and stability, and once again Earth looks poor by comparison: whilst Martians have heeded the teachings of their Holy One, the implication is that on Earth we have not responded to those of Jesus Christ. This idea of a Creator and a spirituality common to three planets (and, indeed, taken for granted) is quite well developed if a little overbearing and hectoring at times. However, because of the nature of utopian writing, fascinating theological issues that writer such as such as James Blish raised in A Case of Conscience are unvoiced.

I remember years ago being shocked by the utopian world of Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time because they made the choice to execute people who would not conform to the ways of their perfect society; the Martians do the same…

Kill the misfits?

And so I am back with all sorts of questions that utopias raise, that last moral one in particular. If you have carefully and painstakingly built a perfect society of equality and plenty, based on fairness and sharing and so on, and one or two people refuse to play, and challenge, or behave ‘anti-socially’ and thus perhaps endanger the future of that society, do you have any alternative other than to – in some way – remove such people? Huxley, in Brave New World, could not fully face up to this and their rebels were exiled to various islands where they could be supervised to ensure they did not contaminate the utopia. But if someone really does not want to belong…

The broader picture is that utopias do not do democracy, which we all know from our experience is flawed enough, but is supposed to be the least worst system we have available. Again, if you have constructed a perfect society, why would you give anyone the opportunity to vote against it, and downgrade it? There are arguments current that less democratic, or even authoritarian societies – the Chinese Communist one for instance – may have a better chance when it comes to dealing with the ecological and environmental crises the planet faces, because they can plan and act for the long-term and are not hamstrung by short-term electoral game-playing in the ways that our democratic Western societies are.

Can utopia be a human place, or are its citizens/members inevitably no longer humans as we know them, having lost various rights which we currently imagine to be crucial to our existence and our freedom? Look again at Brave New World, where the problem, it seems to me, is not that society’s control of its members per se, but the fact that a new race has been bred and conditioned, which we would not recognise as human if we met them. Whether or not we might like to live there, and whether or not we could live there, are two additional avenues of speculation. To be continued…

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