Posts Tagged ‘Daniel Defoe’

Amin Maalouf: Balthasar’s Odyssey

December 26, 2021

     I’ve just re-read another of my favourites by Amin Maalouf, and find myself wondering what it is I find so captivating in his writing. The socio-cultural and historical essays such as Adrift I find very interesting not just because his analyses largely concur with mine, but because they are far-sighted and take me out of my limited Western perspective and comfort-zone. With the novels, it’s different, and I’m beginning to wonder if this is to do with the nature of storytelling being different in other cultures; I’m not widely-enough read to judge at the moment.

I cam to Maalouf via Samarcand, then Leo the African, then this book. The settings are exotic, in the sense of a historical past, either in what we would have called mediaeval times, or else the Renaissance, and located in the Middle East, and the European parts of the Muslim world at those times. There are also usually characters from all three religions of the book, living together reasonably peacefully and tolerantly (within the parameters of their age), so perhaps Maalouf is looking back to a golden age in more ways than one, compared with our times. There is obviously an overlap – wishful thinking? – with his non-fiction.

This story is set in 1665-66, with overtones of the year of the Beast (666) and end times; there is a mysterious book which comes into and leaves the possession of the narrator repeatedly, which allegedly tells how to learn the mysterious hundredth name of God (according to the Qur’an there are ninety-nine) which will bring about transformation. Our narrator ranges the known world in obsessive pursuit of the book, which brings calamity in its wake; even in his possession and open in front of him, somehow it is impossible to read more than a few pages…

Maalouf’s characters in many of his novels are seekers, wanderers about the world; they are thinkers and they meet other kindred spirits on their travels and discuss religious and philosophical notions. Not only questing after truth, they are also on personal journeys of self-discovery and seeking happiness. Balthasar is 40 – significant, perhaps – seeking a book, love, a purpose for his future. I think this is one of the aspects of this novel, and Maalouf’s writing in general that appeals to me: there are real ideas and insights woven into the fiction.

There’s also something in the style of the story-telling: it’s first person, done through dated journal entries, so at one level there’s the potential for it to be fairly dull in terms of no suspense or changing viewpoints. But it’s not, it works in the sense that it’s the mind of his character that Maalouf wants us to know, and there is suspense via the gaps between the journal entries, and the unexpected changes of location of our narrator. It’s definitely not a Western novel as most of us might understand the term. In a way, it’s how some of the earliest English fiction was crafted; perhaps Maalouf is deliberately imitating something like Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year?

Finally, there’s a kind of meta-fiction here too, a book about a book or books, such as we find in Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, in various of Jorge Luis Borges’ short stories, in Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s The Shadow of the Wind or in Gilbert Sinoué’s Livre de Saphir. There are books containing hidden or arcane knowledge for those who care to look or seek it, although perhaps not with the obsessiveness of the hero of this novel.

There’s a lot here. It’s not the average, evanescent stuff of much contemporary fiction – this is the third time I’ve read and enjoyed the novel, and it’s gone back on my shelves for the future.

One year later

March 21, 2021

One year into the pandemic. One year ago, we decide to isolate ourselves: not officially lockdown yet, but then our PM never has managed to act in a timely fashion… Then, I re-read Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year and thought to myself, I’ll write a contemporary journal. It wasn’t long before I gave up: there was nothing to write about, with so much of my ‘normal’ life disappearing: no U3A language groups, no weekly yoga classes, no Quaker Meeting for Worship, no holidays, no seeing family. And there was no point in recording the tergiversations of useless, lying, corrupt and venal politicians because there’s public record of that wherever you look. I was full of intentions of reading other plague-related literature such as CamusLa Peste – which I still haven’t gone back to – and I did manage Jack London’s The Scarlet Plague recently. There’s still Mary Shelley’s The Last Man, and George Stewart’s Earth Abides to reread.

Of course, some of those lost activities soon resumed on that tiring platform which is Zoom. Our French conversation group still meets fortnightly to talk about anything and everything, although with life as curtailed as it is, there’s actually far less for us to talk about. And I know I’m not the only one to notice how group conversations on Zoom and other platforms are different: much harder to pick up visual and body language cues with such small pictures, and one is inevitable distracted by one’s own picture in the corner of the screen. Our German group opted not to continue on Zoom, and I don’t know whether it will recommence; our Spanish teacher finally decided to retire from teaching. Quite a gap in my routines and my learning.

Our elders at local Quaker Meeting have done sterling work in enabling Zoom meetings every Sunday, for which I am very grateful, and again Friends agree that it just isn’t the same as being gathered together in the same room. Modern technology has meant it’s been easy to be in touch with friends and family, and at various points it was even possible to meet up under carefully defined circumstances. I have sorely missed my weekly yoga classes: our teacher carefully followed guidance and we managed to have some smaller, fortnightly classes but these inevitably fell at the first hurdle when things had to be tightened up again…

Travel – which has been one of my major retirement activities, with usually a couple of serious road trips to Europe each year – disappeared almost completely, although I did manage a week’s walking in Scotland late summer.

I thought I’d get loads of reading done, but this was not to be; I couldn’t settle on what to read, and frittered time away. Much gardening, and much tidying and decluttering happened. Things are different now, in that I’ve lately got a reading fit on and am revisiting lots of books I haven’t opened for many years, which has been very satisfying.

In and among all this, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking and reflecting: what have I learnt over the past year?

I have learnt a good deal about people, and can see that we have not yet reached peak stupidity. People swallow the lies of politicians, and the lies spread on social media. People do not listen to advice, especially that of the experts in the field who advise us carefully. Too many joggers thud selfishly past, not putting distance between themselves and others, too fixed in their own little achievement bubbles; a lot of cyclists are the same; dog-walkers can be worse. People don’t wear masks properly, or pretend that they can’t. They clap for the heroes of our NHS and then vote for the politicians who have starved it of resources for years and pretend there’s no money for wage increases for nurses: people don’t want to pay taxes.

I have learnt how corrupt the UK actually is. We have a mental picture of endemic bribery and corruption which we associate with the Third World, when actually the same things are happening right here at home, and with our tax-payers’ money. Our NHS has done astonishing work tackling COVID and planning and carrying out a massive and apparently successful vaccination programme that’s the envy of many other countries: our shameless government is basking in the credit for this, and people are lapping it up. I’ve learnt how undemocratic the US really is, despite all those lectures to the rest of the world about its being a light shining on a hill, an example to the rest of the world.

In and among all this negative stuff, I’ve learnt how caring and thoughtful neighbours can be, with a word or a chat, a note through the letterbox or a message on social media. I’ve realised how important social contact is, especially now I’m retired. Retirement has made staying safe easier, although my greater age brings greater risks along with it. I’ve renewed contact with many friends and acquaintances with whom I’d lost contact for years. I’ve learnt the importance of sustaining regular exercise – the same boring circuit every day – and even made new friends, chatting briefly at a distance with total strangers whilst out for my daily walk. And I’ve learnt that being financially comfortable makes all these things much easier. We’ve wrestled with click and collect at supermarkets, and learned how much we don’t need to go shopping.

I’m a different person; tidier, more organised, somewhat more wary. I’m nervous about what happens when we’re ‘allowed’ to do things again: will I have lost my nerve? Self-confidence is one of those things that does wane as one ages… I am fervently hoping that I will still have the nerve to get behind the wheel of my under-used car and drive off to the forests of Luxembourg again when that is allowed once more.

2020: My Year of Reading

December 29, 2020

No need to remind you what a weird year it has been. When lockdown arrived, naturally someone like me thought, “Well, OK, time to hunker down and get on with lots of reading..” Only it didn’t turn out that way. I found myself dithering a great deal, unable to choose what to settle down with. So I ended up reading quite a lot of magazines, and articles I’d saved offline on all kinds of different topics, tidying up my reading loose-ends if you like, but also, I increasingly felt, frittering away useful reading time. Overall this year I have actually completed slightly fewer books than usual. And the tidying up of my library, and the weeding out and disposing of many books that I know I’m never going to open again, has proceeded apace and some 250+ books have made their way to benefit Amnesty International at some point in the future. I think I’m now down to only 1700 or so books now!

You may not be surprised that I went back to Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year, which I taught once, many years ago; nothing new there, so I didn’t bother with revisiting CamusLa Peste

When I did manage to settle on a book, I found I did quite a bit of re-reading – Sherlock Holmes, Hermann Hesse, Josef Skvorecky, science fiction. I have read 51 books this year, and acquired 25 new ones. After some reflection I have decided I’d like to spend some of 2021 re-reading some of my favourite classics. We’ll see how far I manage to get with that one… but it is somehow comforting to return to a book I have previously enjoyed a number of times. It’s a sort of anchor in a very turbulent world.

Blog report:

Once again, my posts analysing various poems of or about the Great War have been the most visited. A logical deduction is that the poetry appears on examination specifications in various countries and students are perhaps tuning in for some insight, or else coming across the blog in search engine results and opening it by mistake. I do wish I got more feedback from visitors, and once again record my gratitude to those readers who take the time to like my posts and to occasionally comment or engage in discussion.

Other popular posts this year have included (again) Theodore Kröger’s The Forgotten Village, and Alexandra David-Neel’s With Mystics and Magicians in Tibet.

This year’s awards:

My biggest disappointment of the year: re-reading Christopher Priest’s The Space Machine, of which I’d carried positive recollections for quite a few years. It palled, it dragged, it was simplistic and it went on the ‘I don’t need to read this ever again’ pile. Ditto Harry Harrison’s A Transatlantic Tunnel, Hurrah!

The weirdest book I’ve read this year is definitely the Strugatsky brothers’ One Billion Years to the End of the World.

The best novel of 2020: re-reading Joseph Roth’s The Radetzky March, which never fails to disappoint in its poignant picture of a long-vanished age.

The best new novel of 2020: not awarded this year as I haven’t read any new novels!

The best non-fiction book of 2020: after a fair amount of hesitation, I decided on Alberto Angela’s Pompeii, which I’d wanted to read for quite a while, after really enjoying another book of his on daily life in the Roman Empire. His formula for telling the story of those dreadful days in 79CE worked really well, and sent me back to the catalogue from the major British Museum exhibition a few years back, the closest I’ve actually got to Pompeii itself (unless you count passing through a train station just south of Naples – Ercolano – many years ago and realising ‘hey, that was Herculaneum!’)

My book of the year award goes to a book I ought to have read years ago, Adam Mickiewicz’s Polish national epic poem Pan Tadeusz, which was a gentle and lyrical revelation and took me closer to my Polish roots.

Travel book of the year: in a year when not a lot of travelling could be done, reading about travelling was a substitute. A review sent me to Sophy RobertsThe Lost Pianos of Siberia, which was a surprisingly thoughtful, interesting and well-written variation on history and travel in Siberia. And I’ve read a good deal of that.

Special mention – because there isn’t really a category for it: Yuri Slezkine’s doorstopper of a book about the inhabitants of a building which housed the ruling elites of the Soviet Union over many years: The House of Government. If you’re interested in a deeper insight into the machinery of how the country worked and its ruling classes, this is the one. It felt like an obligation, but it was worth the effort.

Here’s to 2021: may it be a better year for everyone in every way, and may we all get lots of good reading done!

Learnt in lockdown

July 15, 2020

I re-read Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year at the start of lockdown (no surprise there!) and thought I’d keep my own journal of this year’s experiences; that resolution lasted a few days, as there was so little to record. All the days were the same, melting into an endless fudge of time, so that frequently I cannot recall what day of the week it is, and end up at the end of a month wondering where the hell it went. However, after several months of nowhere near as much reading as I thought I might be doing, I have found myself taking stock with a longer-term perspective:

I miss: grandchildren very much, all the people I used to meet in my language classes (Zoom is there but no substitute for real interaction and company), my weekly yoga session – I’m getting stiffer – and the spiritual support of my local Quaker meeting (again Zoom to the rescue but see immediately above).

News: early on one of my daughters told me that now was the opportunity to get back in touch with all those people I’d lost contact with over the years. An excellent idea, as when you reach my age you’ve certainly managed to be out of touch with quite a few people, and the initial enthusiasm affected those I got in touch with, so we have made up some lost time. However, things are now quietening down again.

Stuck: initially to within a mile radius of our house, latterly we have been allowed exercise further afield, and this has compelled me to discover the walking possibilities near to where I live, which I have neglected for years in favour of further afield. But – first world problems, I know – I have sorely missed my travels overseas, my spring walking in the lovely Ardennes, and constantly making plans for my next adventure. As a solo traveller and walker it’s even harder: to perhaps fall ill a thousand miles and a couple of days’ drive away from home is not something to risk lightly. This has, for me, been the most frustrating part of the whole COVID experience.

People: I have been much heartened by the kindness of neighbours and their concern for whether we are OK – clearly we count as “elderly” – there are WhatsApp groups I can be in touch with and numerous leaflets have also offered help. I have also seen thoughtlessness, by those who ignore the concept of safe distancing when I’m out and about taking exercise, particularly some joggers and cyclists who are so wrapped up in their own little world that they don’t see others…

Shopping: I have explored new ways of getting those things we need, as well as new ways of doing without: lots of money has been saved as the realisation that I have enough has anchored itself even more firmly. And once I had sourced a home delivery of decent whisky, that was it!

Politics: I have always been pretty cynical here, but it has become even clearer over the last few months that there are some countries that seem to care about the welfare of their citizens and act accordingly, and others that don’t give the proverbial. When we are talking about about risks of life and death for many people, the sense of individual powerlessness grows very strong. Here in England, the wealthy and powerful are once again saying very clearly that they can and will do what they like, and the rest of us can fend for ourselves (polite version there!).

Planet: the news about the dire state of the planet and its future has grown ever worse over the lockdown months: vast mounts more plastic being used and thrown away in the name of being cleaner and safer, greater use of cars because public transport isn’t safe. What on earth are we going to do?

Gratitude: for being healthy and safe thus far, and more than anything for being able to be just that little bit further distanced from the world, and therefore perhaps safer, because we are retired. On the other hand, as we are frequently reminded, being older isn’t such a good thing here…

I wish you safety and sanity, dear reader.

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.

%d bloggers like this: