Posts Tagged ‘Daniel Defoe’

Josef Skvorecky: An Inexplicable Story

April 21, 2020

51ECHZPYPGL._AC_UY218_ML3_     This was a really strange one to come back to; apart from the Roman setting I’d completely forgotten the plot, which is presented in the standard ‘mysterious manuscript found’ trope, with all sorts of spurious annotations and authentications.

A mysterious set of decayed scrolls in Latin, from the years of Tiberius, has been found in Mexico, in a settlement where the Maya civilisation once existed. Translated, it provides a very scrappy and disconnected tale of a Roman who was perhaps in some way related to the poet Ovid and who is interested in the poet’s exile and final disappearance, and who also seems to have been an inventor of some kind who may have invented a steam engine which assisted a ship across the ocean…

It’s obviously an exercise in constructing a plausibly fake manuscript and story, and meshing it in an already known reality, in the way such writers and Defoe, Eco and Conan Doyle have successfully done, along with many others. I should have recalled Skvorecky’s interest in, and writing of, detective stories among his other novels, and his particular liking for Edgar Allen Poe (he weaves in the latter’s Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym very cleverly).

The story is nested in many layers to give it a semblance of authenticity: a corrupt manuscript, introduction and detailed commentaries and annotations from academics, which weave in many well-known details and figures from Roman history, and supporting documents provided by others… and yet, in the end the author’s dedication to his wife of forty years makes clear it’s basically a very elaborate hoax he’s devised to refer back to their mutual admiration of Poe. It also links nicely into my favourite Skvorecky novel, The Engineer of Human Souls, in which the hero is a teacher of American literature to college students, and one of the chapters focuses on Poe.

It’s a short read, a diverting one, and a clever one, and a reminder of how much I have long admired this under-rated Czech dissident writer.

The phenomenon of Sherlock Holmes

April 5, 2020

Having been under the weather recently (nothing sinister!) I returned, as I frequently do in such circumstances, to Sherlock Holmes, but this time not to the stories themselves, but to the small collection of books about Holmes that I’ve acquired over the years, and they got me thinking. Is Holmes the only invented, fictional character who has gradually, over the years, built up such a ‘real’ existence? By real existence, I’m referring to the fact that people actually write to him with their problems, asking for help, despite the fact that, even fictionally, he ‘died’ a century ago. And that tourist seek out the mythical 221b Baker Street address, which apparently never existed. Enormous amounts of ‘research’ has been done, attempting to establish when and where each of the cases took place, to iron out supposed discrepancies which are due to Conan Doyle’s carelessness, and so on… even the belief in Santa Claus doesn’t go quite this far! And I have to confess to having been marked for life when at the age of seven I first heard Carleton Hobbs as Holmes on the BBC Home Service, and bought my first collection of stories with a Christmas book token (remember those?).

There are a lot of cracking good yarns in the canon of four novels and fifty-six short stories, and Conan Doyle was careful to weave the cases into the Victorian and Edwardian England setting; novelists have been attempting to convince us of the veracity of their fictions ever since Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year, which I wrote about quite recently.

E J Wagner’s The Science of Sherlock Holmes is a very interesting and quite detailed account of the history and development of forensic science and medicine in the nineteenth century, closely linked to the stories; there are fascinating chapters on insects, decay of corpses, poisons, fingerprints and disguise, among other topics, and it’s certainly a useful book to have along side the complete works.

71YSYrG8pbL._AC_UY218_ML3_    Probably the most useful of books is Christopher Redmond’s Sherlock Holmes Handbook: its very name implies utility. There are brief summaries of all the novels and stories, with links and connections between them, and some analysis, all very helpful reference if, like me, no matter how often you’ve read the stories, small details elude you. There’s an extremely helpful collation of all the ‘biographical’ details about Holmes and Watson which are dotted throughout the canon. There’s also a biography of Conan Doyle if you need one, and a useful chapter on the publishing history.

Most useful are the excellent sections on Victorian context and background, again collating all sorts of useful stuff from throughout the canon, as well as material on crime and punishment and the legal system in England in the nineteenth century. Likewise, the analysis of the history of the detective story genre, its conventions and structure are very good. It’s an American production, so there is the occasional solecism about a detail of life in England, but I’ll excuse those. One thing I took away from re-reading this book was the possibly even greater popularity of the stories in the USA, given the nature of the links and connections between the two nations when the stories were first published.

Somewhere I acquired a copy of Michael Hardwick’s The Complete Guide to Sherlock Holmes. It’s a curious book: he provides a ‘summary’ of all the stories, with often very lengthy extracts, interspersed with commentary and biographical details about Conan Doyle. He is deliberately careful not to give away story endings… this struck me as weird, given that presumably only an enthusiast would want this book, and they would have read the stories anyway… The biographical information about Conn Doyle was interesting, but it’s not an essential book by any means.

A Sherlock Holmes Compendium, edited by Peter Haining, is another curiosity, definitely not essential to my library. The most interesting thing in it is an often referred-to essay by Ronald Knox on the stories, where he light-heartedly analyses and mocks all sorts of discrepancies between the stories and theories about them.

The Sherlock Holmes Handbook, by Ransom Riggs, is a lightweight and superficial book that looks nice. It purports to offer explanations of various of Holmes’ detective skills but is vague and random (!) with material not always linked to Holmes or particular tales. It’s also stylistically annoying, full of American contractions and solecisms. Can be avoided.

81om2J72RtL._AC_UY218_ML3_    The final book on my list was compiled by Alex Werner for the Museum of London: Sherlock Holmes – The Man Who Never Lived and Will Never Die. It’s really good and detailed and sumptuously illustrated, too. The complexities of Conan Doyle and his creation are both explored: London is portrayed in detail, both the place and how people lived, with many links to real people from the Holmes era. There’s a wonderful selection of photos from those times, too, as well as illustrations from artists who painted the city. I learned that Conan Doyle was never a Londoner, and that a third of the stories are not set there but in the outer suburbs, so that the picture of London is actually quite an idiosyncratic one.

It’s an excellent contextual companion to the stories, a very full, detailed and atmospheric portrait of a place and an era supported by an impressive amount of research. It’s an early 21st-century vision of Holmes, Conan Doyle and Victorian/Edwardian London, which demonstrates that each generation re-views, re-writes and re-creates the past in a slightly different guise, for its own particular purposes.

81nn3WfQ72L._AC_UY218_ML3_    I have two editions of the canon, both of which I would recommend to any serious enthusiast: now only available second hand are the two volumes published by John Murray many years ago, the Complete Long Stories and Complete Short Stories. They are nice hardbacks, and manageable. The other is the sumptuous and weighty Norton edition on some fifteen years ago in three volumes, edited by Leslie S Klinger, The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes, which, as the title suggests, supports the canon with all the extra information and detail a person might want while they are reading, and like all good quality American books, they are beautifully produced. I cannot end this lengthy post without also recommending very highly indeed the audio recordings on the Naxos label of the entire canon by David Timpson: they are superb for listening to in the car.

Plague in literature

March 17, 2020

Way back in the seventies, I vaguely recall reading a novel called The Andromeda Strain, by Michael Crichton, a competently-written thriller among lots of other similarly well-written ones of the time, which depicted humanity threatened by a deadly virus. I remember nothing else about it, and it has vanished as so many other best-sellers do over time.

51wnFk+aO6L._AC_UY218_ML3_    As a student I also remember reading a rather better novel by Albert CamusLa Peste, or The Plague. Set in Oran, in the then French colony of Algeria, in the 1940s during an outbreak of the plague, it focused on the life and work of a doctor in the beleaguered city, and the psychology and behaviour of a population subjected to such a threat. Humans do not generally come out well in those circumstances; Rieux does his human best.

41kh7MYOOaL._AC_UY218_ML3_    I can remember teaching Daniel Defoe’s novel (note that, novel) A Journal of the Plague Year, which recalls the dreaded year 1665 in London. Again, people behave very badly, very selfishly, and irrationally in the circumstances; in those days there was almost no knowledge of how disease originated or spread, so the effects of the outbreak – almost an annual occurrence but far more devastating in that particular year are particularly horrible.

Defoe’s book is interesting on a number of counts. It is a work of fiction, written by a man who was only a small child in the actual year of the plague outbreak, yet it is presented as a diary account by someone who lived through the events of that year in London, with all sorts of details to emphasise its verisimilitude. Defoe was a journalist by profession, and so knew how to use and present his source material to great effect, and yet this book also has a claim to be one of the very first novels written in the English language.

51w+CUWfm2L._AC_UY218_ML3_    And finally, a novel with which I’m a little more familiar, from having read or listened to the audiobook rather more recently, Mary Shelley’s The Last Man, set in England in the 21st century, when the world is devastated by an illness which clears the planet of its human inhabitants. Here is another novel with disease – or rather, the effects of disease – at its centre, but in the romantic vein in which she writes, Shelley is actually far more interested in the picture of a gradually emptying land and its exploration and traversing by a shrinking band of the nation’s elite. It’s as limited a work of science fiction as is her more famous Frankenstein in terms of detailed imagination of the future (although her vision of England as a republic has a certain charm), but absolutely marvellous in the way it can draw the reader into the solipsistic vein of imagining her/himself as the sole survivor of the species with the entire world as their oyster…

Apocalyptic literature is a genre mainly from the second half of the twentieth century onwards, although writers have tended to imagine humanity wiping itself out through warfare rather than being taken unawares by a disease it cannot cure or master.

L0030701 London's dreadful visitation ..., 1665

 

I’m wondering whether to revisit Camus or Defoe at the moment…have gone with Defoe.

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?

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.

 

On buying experiences…

August 25, 2017

A few years ago I noticed that it was possible to buy a cardboard box in W H Smith, which ‘contained’ the gift of an experience that you could present someone with: a balloon flight, a day as an F1 driver, and suchlike. At the time I though this was a fairly barmy idea, but recently something linked the purchase of such a box with the purchase of a book – both of which can be done in the above-mentioned shop – in my mind, and set me thinking.

For, what am I doing when I buy a book, if not purchasing an experience? True, I don’t actually go up in a balloon (Gott sei dank!) or onto a racetrack, but I do experience, through the mind of a skilled writer and the characters s/he creates, or indeed through their own travels, something which I may not have been through myself, or indeed would not wish too. And it can be a one-off experience, too, if I only choose to read the book once, or it can be repeated over and over again at no extra cost if I wish to re-live it…

I’ve always been fascinated when following Robinson Crusoe‘s adventures on his island, often pictured myself in his place, as I suspect some of you may have: how would I arranged my island, its caves and fortifications if I were to be marooned on a desert island? what would I do with my time? Similarly, when I read Mary Shelley‘s The Last Man, I imagine myself as the sole survivor of the species on the planet… where would I travel? what would I do with the treasures of my species? where would I finally choose to spend my days? And there are lots of similar examples. On the other hand, I’ve only ever read once Knut Hamsun‘s novel Hunger, which describes in meticulous detail the feelings and experiences of a man as he starves to death, or Andre Schwarz-Bart‘s The Last of the Just where the last of a centuries-long line of Jews perishes in the gas chamber at Auschwitz: experiences I’ve no desire to revisit.

Yet I’ve read and re-read numerous novels involving characters involved in all sorts of warswars, imprisoned in Stalin’s gulag, concentration camps, enduring various apocalyptic scenarios… but I have always recoiled from watching horror films. I have asked myself what’s going on here, and can only think that I don’t mind horrific experiences at several removes; safely away from the visual, or actual involvement of course, I’m quite content to explore a whole range of experiences… so basically a coward, then.

The end of the world

August 12, 2016

Mary Shelley’s The Last Man is, I suggested in my last piece, possibly the first disaster novel. I found myself wondering why it should appear at that particular moment, why she should come to consider the prospect of something more powerful than humankind bringing our species to its end.41VpTTxE6aL._AC_US160_

H G Wells did something similar when he faced the world with Martians in The War of the Worlds; humanity was saved not by our efforts or powers but by microbes. M P Shiel considered the destruction of the human race in The Purple Cloud near the beginning of the twentieth century. But it’s only really since the invention and first use of nuclear weapons that the apocalyptic novel has come into its own.51qfsKHY-yL._AC_US160_51gGBhD5N6L._AC_US160_

And Shelley’s novel is different in another way: she kills off all of humanity bar one: Verney is the last man and has the two final chapters of the book to try and begin to come to terms with this; even Shiel’s hero, if my memory serves me correctly, eventually finds a companion, of the opposite sex, too, so that all can begin again. But to be the last one? Of course, never to be certain, too, for in the vastness of the world how could a single man ever check the entire rest of the planet to be sure? Why would one waste time and sanity searching?

There is a power and an attractiveness in the concept, surely, as Shelley realises, for every reader can and surely will substitute her/himself for the hapless hero of her novel: what would we do in the circumstances? Where would we go? Would we travel or settle? How might we retain our sanity? At the end of the novel, Verney sets off in his little boat to circumnavigate the Mediterranean, clinging for safety to the coastline, hoping against hope that he might meet someone…

When I was teaching, there was a novel (written for teenage readers) by Robert O’Brien called Z for Zachariah, about a young girl who is perhaps the only survivor of a nuclear and biological war which destroys the USA, apart from her small valley with its own isolated microclimate which protects her from fallout and the rest: she must survive on her own, and the focus is on the practicalities of this, a factor which occurs not at all to Mary Shelley: everything in her novel is there for the taking… In class we would explore for a while the logistics of survival – water, food, clothing, shelter, health and sanity, and whether it would all be worthwhile; we had some very interesting discussions; no two classes ever reacted in the same way, and there were many interesting and creative responses to the end of O’Brien’s novel.51YZEEACBYL._AC_US160_

There is wonderful material for fantasy in the idea that one could have the whole world to oneself: choice of house or home, country; one could go anywhere and help oneself to anything one needed, indulging oneself materially, at least. One could go on an orgy of destruction as did Shiel’s hero… and one would have, in the end, to face the same question as did Defoe’s isolated hero with only a small island for his home: what is the point of it all? Defoe’s hero turns to his God for help and reads his Bible – which of course he rescued from the wreck – nowadays we, I think, are probably more likely to revel in playing God in such circumstances…

Henry Fielding: Tom Jones

June 20, 2016

51DKBemKOJL._AC_US160_For a couple of years or so, I’ve felt it was time to revisit Tom Jones, Fielding’s masterpiece and a landmark in the development of the English novel; I saved it up for a holiday, when I knew I wouldn’t be dragged away from it by daily routine and trivia.

I’ve always gone with Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719) being the first real novel in English; Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726) follows; Fielding is roughly thirty years later, and how far the novel has developed is astonishing. Fielding is constantly interacting with his readers, creating humour, and summing up various aspects of life and the human condition with witty aphorisms: I found myself thinking, ‘surely Jane Austen must have read Fielding?’

There is a real – and very complicated – plot here (someone, I have forgotten who, has called it the most perfect plot in all literature) unlike the linear narrative of Robinson Crusoe or Gulliver’s Travels; we follow characters then leave them and move on to another thread, then come back to it – here is a writer learning how to create suspense, to keep his readers hooked, to develop subplots. He’s also aware of how he is manipulating us, as he lets us into the secrets of an author’s choices, all of which writers eventually came to conceal from their readers under the mask of so-called ‘realism’, or verisimilitude, and it’s only later in the twentieth century that writers come back to this sort of conversation with their readers, and acknowledge openly that fiction is just that, a creation.

Characterisation is also being developed, through description, dialogue and continuity; good and bad characters emerge, likeable and detestable ones too. Stratagems and deception figure quite strongly. And conversation begins to come into its own. Differentiation between direct and reported speech still hasn’t clarified itself fully – and blurring this distinction can sometimes serve narrative purpose, as we eventually see Jane Austen doing to great effect the following century – but we hear characters having real conversations and arguments, and these, too, advance and develop the story in interesting ways.

In other ways, it’s still quite crude: the hero’s progress resembles picaresque narrative much of the time; the plot lines are tenuous at times, as quite early on we realise that the hero and heroine must eventually be allowed to marry; we follow Fielding’s whims through multiple epic Virgilian similes, which amuse slightly but are basically padding. And, it’s almost as if he gets tired of it all as we finally gallop at an incredible pace to the denouement, which smacks a bit too much of the deus ex machina, except that various subtle hints and pointers have actually been very carefully sown and then lost at various points in the story…

Whilst on holiday in Lyme Regis and reading the novel I learned that various aspects of the plot may well derive from Fielding’s own life story, as apparently he tried to seduce and then marry a young woman in that very town (there is a blue plaque on a wall to commemorate (?) him or the failed enterprise).

It’s a wonderful and relatively easy read, I feel; we see a writer working out how to bring his characters to a happy conclusion, and I can forgive Fielding his flaws and verbosity and almost anything else for the sheer brilliance of the character of Squire Western, perhaps the first and certainly one of the best comic characters in the history of the novel…

Daniel Defoe: Captain Singleton

April 18, 2016

51ZavNOKPtL._AC_US160_I’ve always had an interest in Defoe’s novels, mainly because in many ways he counts as the first English novelist, and it’s very interesting to see both how the novel began, and how much it has changed and developed since its earliest days.

Defoe is famous particularly for Robinson Crusoe and Moll Flanders, but his Journal of the Plague Year is also worth reading, and Captain Singleton (which I didn’t actually read, but listened to – unabridged – courtesy of the excellent Librivox website) is a good yarn, too. Early novelists were keen to persuade their readers that their novels were true, factual accounts of real people’s lives, that they – the authors themselves – were therefore journalists rather than fictionalists. A Journal of the Plague Year is particularly convincing in this respect, given that Defoe wasn’t even alive at the time of the 1665 outbreak.

Captain Singleton is a notorious pirate, writing his memoirs – a very modern-seeming enterprise. But that’s about all the book has in common with twenty-first century confessions. For starters, it’s very monotonous. By this I mean that the entire story is written in the same, even, calm, matter-of-fact tone of voice: there’s no variation to this, no tension, no suspense, no excitement. Here is someone learning to write the novel from scratch.

There’s no characterisation to speak of, either: the narrator emerges sketchily through his own first person narration, and the best-drawn character is ‘Friend William’, a Quaker surgeon who is ‘voluntarily’ captured on one of Singleton’s piratical exploits and becomes his true friend, confidante and advisor: Singleton eventually marries Friend William’s sister at the end of the novel. Just a tad far-fetched, I hear you say. Perhaps, but an interesting early attempt at characterisation, anyway.

There’s no real plot to speak of, either: it’s a linear narrative of Singleton’s life from his childhood escape to sea and abandonment on an island with other rebel crew members who eventually escape, undertake an epic trek across the entire African continent aided by tame natives, finding huge amounts of gold lying around on their way… back in England he fritters the money away in dissipation, and is embezzled, so sets off on a life of piracy. This all seems very mundane apart from one engagement at sea described in some detail, and a spectacular storm somewhere around Java, which awakens the idea of it’s being punishment for his sins, and we’re on the way to our conclusion. Money, of course, is the devil’s temptation: having titillated his readers with sinful exploits, in the same way that he did with the adventures of Moll Flanders, Defoe now has to redeem his hero in his readers’ eyes.

Repentance and reformation are supported by his Quaker friend; Singleton renounces piracy and crime, and the pair eventually make their way back to Europe with their ill-gotten gains, helping the poor on their way. And Singleton even leaves the way open for a sequel: now there’s a nice modern touch, too!

The novel clearly didn’t hatch fully-formed; it had to grow to maturity, if that’s where it has got to now. And it had plenty of adventures along the way. Writers quickly learned how to develop plot, add dialogue and conversation rather than report it, introduce variation in tone, suspense and excitement, real characters and much more. They learned how to experiment with time, to explore the inner life of a character, to see into the future. In less than three centuries the genre has come a long way: another interesting game is to speculate where it may go next…

The myth of realism (1)

January 17, 2016

I’ve often found myself thinking about this idea or concept; it sometimes came up when I was teaching. It’s a very elusive term, which we often use without really thinking, vaguely, to mean that something is life-like, true to life, convincing. And then the discussion will move on, without really engaging with the idea at all.

What we might mean by realism has changed with time, too, particularly since the advent of photography, cinema and television: these visual media have shifted our imagination from the verbal and auditory: far fewer portraits are painted, and most art has shifted to experiment with being less representational (sweeping statement, yes, but sufficient for my purpose here); what we call realistic often means a true but superficial representation.

When I was studying literature, I was introduced to a more political definition of the term, which made some sense politically, though was also rather tortured, in a Marxist sense, to mean a work of art or literature that somehow truly represented the class structure and struggles of its time; this was later developed into the concept of socialist realism that deadened a lot of creativity in Soviet times…

Finally, the term becomes confused with naturalism which developed towards the end of the nineteenth century; superficial representation seemed to become even more important.

Writing and literature is my interest, so from now on I’m thinking and writing about realism as it relates to fiction. Here again, its meaning and intentions shift. At the start of the rise of the novel, with Robinson Crusoe (1719) and Gulliver’s Travels (1726), authors were very keen to convince their readers that what they were writing (which was obviously made up) was true fact, a kind of journalism, if you like (and Defoe was a journalist). So their books are supported with maps, diagrams and other apparatus which might convince the reader of that time that Robinson’s story was true. Defoe had based it on a real story. Similarly, Swift would convince us that Laputa, Brobdingnag and the other places Gulliver visits are actually out there in some unexplored part of the globe. And even nowadays, anyone reading Journal of the Plague Year is perhaps surprised to learn that the events related took place long before Defoe’s time; separating out the fact and fiction in this documentary novel is immensely difficult.

to be continued]

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