Posts Tagged ‘Charles Dickens’

How writers write changes with time…

January 21, 2019

 

One of the things I really valued about my studies of literature at university (both English and French) was that they helped me to gain the beginnings of an overview of literature over time, and to a lesser extent in space, that is, different countries. Slowly and gradually, I began to put together the jigsaw of how people had written, what forms they had used, and what their subject-matter had been, and how these had changed and developed over the centuries. I think that this was probably part of the design of the course, at a fairly traditional redbrick university in the nineteen-seventies.

So people initially wrote verse because that was how stories were most easily remembered in the days before printing and mass literacy; otherwise stories were re-enacted onstage in the theatre, so poetry and drama as forms long pre-dated prose fiction, which required individual literacy, printing and sufficient income to purchase books before it became widespread and eventually dominant.

Perhaps it is because prose was the way in which academic ideas and discourse were expressed, that the earliest prose fiction sought to convince readers of its veracity and presented itself almost as documentary: in English, I’m thinking of Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (based on a true story) and A Journal of the Plague Year (referring to the events of 1665, before Defoe’s time) and Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, where the author is keen to situate geographically the location of each of the eponymous hero’s adventures.

Adventures in the realm of sex and love soon followed in novels like Fielding’s Tom Jones; eventually becoming rather more genteel in the search for the ideal partner, as evidenced in the novels of Jane Austen, perhaps. Character development came to interest many writers and then came the development of what is best summed up in the German word bildungsroman, or novel of education. Obvious examples in English are Jane Eyre and Villette, or Samuel Butler’s The Way of All Flesh: we see the early life of characters, and the people and events which influence them in their development and the formation of their character as they gradually mature into adults. In a sense we are seeing literature here preceding the development of the science of psychology in looking at what influences form and shape individuals as they grow, although this aspect of the novel flourishes later in the nineteenth and into the early twentieth century as that science develops.

Because there was a strong faith in human progress and a dream of the gradual improvement of people and their society, society itself comes under the literary microscope later on in the nineteenth century, in the novels of writers such as Dickens and George Eliot: Middlemarch attempts a wide-ranging portrait of the different classes of English society in a provincial town at the time of electoral reform in the 1820s and 1830s. Society is also under the microscope in the detective fiction of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories: here is Victorian London, the largest city on the planet, home to crime and criminals of all classes, presented in a sanitised version for its readership, at the same time as the ghastly Jack the Ripper murders were actually happening.

Writers become more interested in the workings of the human mind as the century moved to its close and into the twentieth; writers like Joseph Conrad and James Joyce are experimenting with ways of showing us inside humans’ heads: Joyce takes us through five different ages and stages in the development of Stephen Dedalus in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, using the stream of consciousness technique.

There are times when I feel that the novel reached its limits in the late twentieth century, running out of new avenues to pursue and new aspects of human experience to explore. I have found a great deal of recent and contemporary fiction (in English, at least) to be rather dull, repetitive, self-indulgent even.

But three new strands do emerge with a fair degree of clarity, I think. As the pace of – particularly technological – change has accelerated, science fiction or speculative fiction has come into its own. Much of it may perhaps not count as literature, but the notion that as a species we shape and may perhaps destroy our world, is a logical avenue for writers to pursue. Then there is that very elusive genre magic realism, perhaps embedded in the real and yet definitely not realistic, as exemplified by the novels of Gabriel Garcia Marquez or Günter Grass, to name a couple. I still can’t really nail down what exactly it is doing, but I love it. And finally there is what I suppose we may call gender fiction, writing that explores the experiences of a particular gender – feminist fiction or women’s fiction – or sexuality – gay fiction. Who can say where literature will turn next? Have you come across any pointers?

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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?

Why do writers hate school?

February 9, 2018

I’ve been reading quite a bit about schools and education recently, and started to think about how writers treat the topic in literature, too. Although I’ve been retired from the profession for over six years now, I still keep in touch with some former colleagues, and my impression is that things have got worse, in terms of pressure, stress and workload since I left; there is less trust in teachers, and the notion of teaching as a profession, where teachers have been trained and acquired specific skills, rendering their work and opinions worthy of a certain respect, has diminished considerably.

Partly I feel as a society we are unclear what we want from schools: I’d suggest literacy, numeracy and oral communication skills to a level where people can understand the possibilities open to them, and have the opportunity to develop themselves further, when and how they wish, as a minimum… many people settle for school as a free child-minding service. I think it’s important that opportunity for education is available life-long: I’ve picked up two new languages and yoga, to name a couple of things, since leaving school.

Young children need the opportunity to play, mix with peers, and learn to be sociable. Older children need to have the opportunity to use their imagination, and to be creative; they need to be give freedom, and trusted as far as it’s possible. Such approaches foster open-mindedness and tolerance, and our entire society suffers – has suffered over recent decades – when we lose sight of these important values.

So I found myself wondering why school and education seemed to have by and large received such an appalling press in the books I recalled! Did all these writers have such awful memories of their schooldays? Charlotte Bronte‘s account of Lowood School in Jane Eyre is horrendous, and partly autobiographical, I understand. Mark Twain paints a ridiculous picture of small-town US schooling in Tom Sawyer, and the teachers in Harper Lee‘s To Kill A Mockingbird don’t come off very much better.

Looking more closely, we have Dickens‘ satire of English education in Hard Times, with Mr Gradgrind as a cannon waiting to fire facts into the little girls and boys; no room for feelings, emotions, creativity there. A horse is a graminiverous quadruped, we are informed; Sissy can’t have pretty wallpaper in her bedroom with animals on it because in reality miniature animals don’t walk up and down walls… And although by the end, we see where such attitudes and practices get you, I often have the growing impression we’re headed back in that direction today…

Then there’s the truly evil account of Stephen Dedalus’ schooling in A Portrait of the Artist As A Young Man, James Joyce‘s thinly-disguised autobiography. There’s the vicious physical punishment with the ‘pandy-bat’ for something that was no fault of the boy’s, and there’s the horrendous hell-fire sermon which sends the adolescent into something verging on insanity, or at least a nervous breakdown.

I racked my memory for positive accounts of school and only came up with Josef Skvorecky‘s The Engineer of Human Souls, which hardly counts anyway, as we are with Canadian high school students studying literature for goodness’ sake, and anything and everything is grist to the mill in the author’s classes, although some of what we encounter there also testifies to the stultifying nature of education in earlier years…

At the moment I put it all down to the opposition between the creativity that is so embedded in the soul of a real writer and the rigidity of so much of schooling in the past. And yet, isn’t school where writers learn at least the rudiments of their craft?  I can see that a necessary drilling in the basics is necessary for survival in a relatively complex society can be – but doesn’t have to be – rather soul-destroying and dull. And this is one of the reasons why I really feel it’s time there was a proper, dispassionate consideration of what we want education to provide for our future citizens. I’m not holding my breath…

English Literature and me

August 28, 2015

A friend has reminded me of the tricky territory which is the distinction between English and British. We don’t (often/usually) talk about ‘British’ literature, but when we speak of ‘English’ literature, what do we mean, exactly? Not literature written in English, but sometimes it seems to include writers from other areas of the British Isles than England. So, for instance, James Joyce was on my ‘English’ Literature syllabus at A level, and at university. It gets more complicated the more I look at it, so I will try and be as careful as I can with terminology…

English is my language, and I love it, and always have, its weirdnesses and idiosyncrasies, its vastness and its splendours, the ways it sings in the writings of Shakespeare and Milton, to name a couple of my favourites. And yet I can only claim to have scratched the surface, as far as our literature is concerned: yes, I met all the usual greats at school and university, and taught a fair few of them during my time as a teacher. But there’s so much that no-one can now claim really to know it all: the broad sweep, perhaps, but no more. Because I did a joint degree, I never had to go further back in time than Mediaeval English, so the joys of Anglo-Saxon are unknown to me, other than through translations of Beowulf.

How brilliant is Shakespeare? How does one get beyond centuries of hagiography, and academia? I found myself wondering this summer, when I saw a Marlowe play (The Jew of Malta) and two Shakespeare plays (Othello and The Merchant of Venice) at the RSC: there’s some wonderful language in Marlowe, but the play was let down by wooden characterisation and unsubtlety of plot in comparison with Shakespeare. Shakespeare is pretty consistently powerful across his entire career, and there’s clear and evident change, development and experimentation over time. And yet, though I enjoy his sonnets, as a lyric poet I find him somewhat limited in comparison with his contemporary John Donne, who is much more experimental and bold, as well as more wide-ranging in style and subject-matter.

My love of Milton is a minority taste nowadays, I find, when I wax lyrical about Paradise Lost to anyone. The language flows beautifully, he experiments and invents words as much as Shakespeare does, he tells a marvellous story, bringing his characters to life in a way that the book of Genesis does not.

I have grown to love Jane Austen‘s novels as time has passed, despite being faced with the most demanding one for close study at university (Mansfield Park, since you ask, and it’s still my favourite); her style and command of the nuances of the English language is masterly, particularly given the narrow focus of the world of her characters. Somehow she is quintessentially English (and what do I mean by that?). I have developed avoidance strategies for a great deal of nineteenth century English fiction over the years – Dickens really does (over)-write by the yard (though I make an exception for Hard Times) and Hardy is just too laden with heavy symbolism which gets in the way. I can cope with Charlotte Bronte, and love Villette even more than Jane Eyre. At the turn of the century I have plenty of time for Joseph Conrad, perhaps partly because he was Polish, and certainly out of admiration for the fact that he was writing in his third language. The characters and atmosphere of Nostromo are wonderful, and seem to lay the foundations for the worlds of Gabriel Garcia Marquez several generations later.

I haven’t found a lot to admire in the twentieth century. Joyce I’ve mentioned earlier: Ulysses is a masterpiece, though some of it has to be endured rather than enjoyed or marvelled at; I find his skills with our language astonishing, on a par with Milton’s, though very different. Lawrence we had to study at university and I now find him absolutely toe-curling in his approach to sexuality – almost unreadable, and I do wonder how much longer he will be widely read, if at all. Graham Greene I admire for the moral dilemmas he explores with such nicety, and keep meaning to go back and re-read his oeuvre but haven’t so far; I like what I’ve read of Anthony Burgess, and I really enjoyed Anthony Powell‘s Dance to the Music of Time, but other than those, I haven’t really read that much…

For me, the golden days of English Literature are past: we developed the drama and more or less invented the novel, but have passed the baton on to other writers and nations, at least at the moment; my perception is that currently we are very uncertain of ourselves and our place in the family of nations, and this shows in many ways, including our literature…

Fail!

March 3, 2014

Occasionally I give up on a book. And there are some writers I cannot be bothered with! Time for some confessions, as well as a few reasons…

As a student of English Literature, I had to read a Dickens novel (Hard Times) and a Hardy novel (Tess of the D’Urbervilles); I’ve never bothered with either writer since. Hard Times was short(er) and political and moderately interesting, but I have never once wanted to engage with one of the written-by-the-yard doorstoppers that are sometimes televised as costume dramas. What I’ve read about Dickens suggests he’s over-sentimental and rather maudlin at times. Similarly, Tess was just about OK, but I felt oppressed by the ridiculous sense of fate and doom hanging over the eponymous character all the time, and I have gathered that a lot of Hardy is like that, so I haven’t bothered. It may sound shocking, and surely arrogant, but I don’t have the eyeball time to waste. I’ve managed to get away from the feeling of ‘ought’ and don’t feel guilty.

I tried a Thomas Mann novel once (I think it was Doctor Faustus) and was bored, and gave up. I’ve persisted as best I could, three times now, with Lolita, and failed: as a teenager, in middle age, and more recently, and have given up again; I find the characters so creepy, weird and in the end uninteresting. Sorry.

I’ve read a lot of Soviet fiction, and enjoyed it, challenged by the themes and issues, and the writers’ attempts to write their ways around the censor; the post-Soviet Russian fiction I’ve read (yes, I have finished some novels) I have found tiresome and tedious in the way they revel in gratuitous violence, crime and sex; when they have got this out of their newly-liberated (?) system, then maybe there will be something worthwhile…

Arnold Zweig‘s The Case of Sergeant Grisha – a novel set on the Eastern front in the Great war I began several years ago and then got side-tracked from; I ought to go back to it and probably will. Hermann Broch‘s The Sleepwalkers intrigued me but in the end lost me; Hazlitt‘s essays have been reproaching me from the shelf for over ten years; I want to read Robert Musil‘s epic The Man Without Qualities, but have yet to find myself in the mood; I began Herodotus and then got waylaid by something more gripping, but must go back to it.

I often wonder what is going on. Clearly there is a ‘reading association’ issue here for me: one book may suggest another, so I acquire it with the best intentions, but an association leads me on to something else, and the moment passes, the book remains on the shelf, perhaps never to be opened. Then I do feel guilty, but I know there’s actually very little I can do about it; I cannot programme my reading schedule and stick to it. I have noticed that if it’s a book  I’ve downloaded to my e-reader, I find it easier to give up; owning a physical book makes me feel a bit guiltier.

Why do I give up on a book? And how do I decide? Sometimes the decision is  a deliberate one: I’ll give a book about an hour, or sixty pages or so, to get me really engrossed, and if it doesn’t, then I will give up, usually because I know there’s something else waiting that I will enjoy. Sometimes, as I’ve suggested above, the moment just passes.

When I was planning retirement, I fantasised to myself that I would spend a year reading Shakespeare, and a year reading science fiction, and a year reading travel writing, and somehow deepen my acquaintance with different writers and genres: well, it hasn’t happened, and I don’t see it happening.

Next: growing up? or out of?

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