Posts Tagged ‘Cold Mountain’

The five senses in fiction

January 21, 2019

When I wrote about Rupert Brooke’s poem The Great Lover, I referred to his use of the five senses in that poem; since then I’ve been thinking about writers’ use of their five senses more generally in literature, trying to remember novels where sensual experience has featured particularly powerfully.

Taste: the instant response was obviously Marcel Proust, of course, and that famous madeleine dipped in his tea, with the taste bringing back a whole world of childhood experiences and memories in A la Recherche du Temps Perdu. Which of us hasn’t experienced a similar moment at some time? It’s harder to think of a more powerful gustatory moment in literature. But then I recalled Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain, set in the Confederacy during the American Civil War, and the importance of food throughout that novel, as a symbol of fellowship and sharing, especially when the recipient is in dire need. The descriptions of the preparation of food, the smells and tastes as well as the sensory pleasure enjoyed in its consumption and sharing are evident on numerous occasions in that book.

The sense of sight and its importance is brought home for me in two novels that deal with the loss of it. Firstly John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids, where it’s the blinding of almost the entire population by a very powerful meteor-shower – that may have been a malfunctioning space-based weapons system, we never find out – that leaves everyone so vulnerable to the stings of the mobile plants which kill and then feed on decaying flesh. The powerlessness of the blind is evoked in many different ways, as is the reluctance of the few sighted ones left to be of help to their fellow-humans. But the shock of this novel pales into insignificance against the Portuguese writer Jose Saramago’s novel Blindness, which I honestly do not think I would have the courage to read again, so horrific a picture of depraved human nature does it paint. I have wondered if Saramago was influenced by Wyndham. Nearly everyone is temporarily blinded in Saramago’s novel, and the viciousness and brutality of some of the blind in the ways they capture, maltreat and abuse the sighted ones, as well as their weaker fellow blind humans, is truly horrendous, and leaves one with very little faith in human nature.

The revolting smell of boiled cabbage permeates the world of Airstrip One’s London in George Orwell’s well-known Nineteen Eighty-four. It epitomises the poverty and deprivation of Big Brother’s world of rationing and control, along with the sickening smell and vile taste of the Victory gin. Indeed, I have found that Orwell is particularly attuned to the smells of poverty and deprivation in his writings. Tristram Shandy’s nose, and the unfortunate accident which happens to it during his birth, is at the centre of the eponymous novel by Laurence Sterne, and the whole of Patrick Süsskind’s novel Perfume centres on the central character’s olfactory skills. It’s also stunningly effectively translated to film.

Sound and hearing was rather more of a problem, and the only thing I could come up with was the character of Oskar in Günter GrassThe Tin Drum: his voice, singing or screaming, can easily shatter glass, and does so with various humorous, alarming and dramatic effects at many points in the novel.

Touch I found even more problematic, the legend of King Midas aside, partly as my acquaintance with erotic literature is somewhat limited, although I was again reminded of The Tin Drum: readers familiar with the book will know what I am referring to when I mention the episode of the woodruff powder…

I would be interested to hear from my readers if there are any novels I’ve either forgotten or don’t know about, in which particular senses feature strongly… I’m also wondering if some of our senses are more conducive to literary exploration than others.


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.


Permission not to like

May 30, 2016

When teaching, I often formed the impression that students were in some way in awe of books, literature, writers and poetry, and that they needed to be reassured that it was all right for them to have their own personal reaction to a text: there was nothing wrong with them if they didn’t like something. I realised that it was part of my role to give them ‘permission’ to dislike something, often leading by example, sharing my own likes and dislikes. When students saw that I both liked and disliked certain books and writers, they were able to be more honest in class: obviously, I never knew what they said outside the classroom…

What I wanted was for students not just to like or dislike (or, indeed, to love or loathe) but to be able to explain why, to give reasons for their reactions, and hopefully to illustrate those reasons so that I and the rest of the class could share them, and argue with them.

This became quite easy at GCSE in my final years, where, in the compulsory poetry anthology, and among the compulsory pre-twentieth century poems (yes, you foster a love of poetry by government edict, forcing it down their throats) there featured a positively dreadful poem by Wordsworth called The Affliction of Margaret. It droned on for two large pages, overblown verse and sentiments, awful rhyme, very repetitively. I hated it with a great loathing, and would share this with my class, often before we read it, pointing out to them that we had no option but to spend a little time on it. Then we would read it, explain it, make some notes, and discuss how they might need to use it in the exam, and how they might avoid using it. All of this made life a great deal easier and kept the students on my side.

We often discussed what we read; students were curious about what I read, and were sometimes surprised about what I owned up to: it wasn’t wall-to-wall Dickens and Hardy. Again, these are two writers I have not grown to like during my lengthy life of reading; I let my students know this, and am proud to be able to say that I never inflicted either of these writers on 14 year-olds. At that age most students will find them long and dull. I did point out that they might choose to read and even enjoy them later on in life. I tried – within the usual constraints – to choose books with which the students might feel some connection.

I never taught a text I didn’t like. When it came to sixth form, we often argued. It took the best part of a year to persuade a certain student (who will know who I’m referring to if they ever read this) that there was some literary merit in Charles Frazier‘s Cold Mountain. The recognition was grudging and hard-won.

Readers will realise that there’s quite a lot of literature I don’t bother with, or actively dislike; life is too short to waste eyeball-time. I am open to being persuaded to read things I express reluctance about, and do sometimes change my mind. In the classroom, however, students tend to regard their teachers as experts, which to an extent we are, though it’s also important to let them know our limitations: we are not the fount of all wisdom, though they may well learn something from us. What, in the end, I wanted was for everyone to be able to speak openly and honestly, but also to learn that it was easy to just dislike something, harder to explain and justify their point of view; that was where the learning lay… they even came to anticipate my one-word response: ‘Evidence?’

Gosh, I miss it…

On teaching literature (2)

March 20, 2014

Unlike many other subjects, with the study of literature a personal reaction is both inevitable, and also desirable. As I suggested in my previous post, we usually start with a gut reaction to something, and to develop our personal response and be able to articulate it is a key part of the study of literature. I often found it necessary to give students ‘permission’ to dislike a text. Because something is labelled literature doesn’t mean we have to like it. You’ll find my confession of disliking and/or ignoring various classic authors here.

I think the important trait to develop is that of maintaining an open mind for as long as possible. I’m reminded of teaching Charles Frazier‘s Cold Mountain to a groups of sixth form students, one of whom developed a loathing for the novel (which I really like) almost at the outset: it was quite a struggle, but by the end, there emerged a (grudging) admission that there was much that was worthwhile and clever in that text.

Poetry was always a particularly difficult form to teach successfully. There’s inevitably a gut reaction, and I find it harder to get beyond this than with other literary forms. My first rule was never to teach a poem that I didn’t like, or couldn’t find something to appreciate in, or, failing that, (exam syllabi are prescriptive!) I would openly dislike a poem and explain why, even as I taught students about the technical devices and ideas it contained. And yet, there was always a richness to poetry which it was a joy to see students gradually tuning in to… language used in so many different ways, often the use of rhythm and rhyme, the imagery, and all that before one even got on to the ideas. I’m particularly reminded of classes where we explored the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins or John Donne, where there is just so much cleverness packed into a short space.

Everyone’s response to poetry is very different and you can’t get very far without allowing and encouraging this. Drama presented different issues: it’s obviously written first and foremost for performance, and teaching it in a school in a small city quite  some distance from live productions was hard. I found that a quick read in order to grasp the outlines of plot, character and important ideas first worked well, if possible followed by a film or TV performance to bring it all to life; then one could begin to explore the detail of the dramatist’s craft and evaluate her/his success. The text can be brought to life in the classroom in different ways, but the entirety has to (at least) be read aloud.

With novels, one was often hampered by time constraints: ideally the entirety would be read aloud in class. This was possible until one reached sixth form, when there was just too much to get through in too little time; then, one had to be selective, using representative extracts to explore the whole.

Literature needs to be read, to be heard, to be discussed. It needs to be the subject of argument and disagreement, because it’s clearly open to individual response and judgement; there can be no ‘party line’, no ‘received opinion’ to which everyone has to subscribe. I felt that my job (for that is what it was, in the end!) was to enable as many students as possible to explore and articulate their response to as wide a range of reading as possible. And I loved it…

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