Posts Tagged ‘Go Set A Watchman’

Reading in a rush…

August 30, 2017

I know there are people who only ever read books once; there are books I only ever read once, but, as many of my readers will know, there’s greater and added pleasure in going back to a favourite novel over and over again as the years go by. Every time, there’s something different that we can latch on to, observe, follow, and our appreciation of an author is undeniably enriched by such re-reading.

I can remember introducing this idea to students at school, pointing out that our first read-through of a novel is inevitably plot-driven, as we are keen to know what happens, and how everything turns out; when we know that, we will slow down and be capable of noticing different things on a second and further subsequent reads. Clearly, this is also a helpful tactic when it comes to revision.

And now I find myself victim of that first read, gripped by a novel so that I’m conscious of cantering through it, and aware that I’m missing quite a few things, but at the same time happy with this in the knowledge that I’ll re-read the book again soon, more slowly and carefully. That novel is Ursula Le Guin‘s Malafrena, which I should have read years ago and have finally got around to. It’s not a science fiction or a fantasy novel as one might have expected, but a historical one, and I’m keen to see where she gets with both plot and characters in a novel that’s far from predictable. I’ll write about it when I’ve finished.416GC-gCGbL._AC_US218_

So, this ex-teacher and something of an expert on literature is, in the end, no different from any other reader, despite my knowledge and skill-set: plot grips me just like anyone else. And, preparing this post, I remembered other books I’ve raced through: all four books of Philip Reeve‘s Mortal Engines series – it’s time to come back to them – and both of Anthony Horowitz‘s Sherlock Holmes pastiches, both of which I re-read within weeks, Harper Lee‘s Go Set A Watchman, which it’s also time to go back to and reflect on with a bit of hindsight. And, of course, when the new Philip Pullman comes out early in October, I shall have my copy on Day 1 and set aside everything else to rattle through it… can’t wait!61f7iyJLzGL._AC_US218_

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On vicarious experience

April 11, 2017

When my father used to get infuriated by my referring to books I’d read when I was arguing with him, he would point out that you can’t learn everything from books, and nor can you believe everything you read in books. What he was referring to was the importance and the value of lived experience, and the lessons that you learned from it, and I belatedly have to admit that he was right. His outlook on life was irrevocably shaped by very harsh experiences in his younger years, and yet, at the same time, he sowed the seeds in me at a very early age of the desire to study and learn, and to go off to university eventually: he very much wanted me to have the education he’d never been allowed to have.

And recently I came across a quotation which I know I’d have thrown back at my father in those younger days, had I known it then – the idea that if you don’t read, you only live one life, but if you are a reader, then you live thousands of lives. Yes, I know that’s vicariously, but it’s still a very powerful notion. Of course, I’ve forgotten where I came across the quotation and who said it…

This got me thinking. Of course, there are history and geography books, and films, television and documentaries that can teach us about other times and other places, but they are not the same as living through a character in a novel set in another country or century, where you can get inside the mind, thoughts and feelings of a person – admittedly fictional, but carefully and consciously created to be convincing – and the point is that, until time travel is invented, that’s the closest any of us is going to get to living in another age. Yes, we could move to another country rather more easily, but would we want to, and could we experience and understand life as, for instance, a Russian, having been born and brought up as English? A skilful writer can take us as close as it’s possible to get to that experience; perhaps we might enhance it with a visit to that country.

Then, of course, we might think about emotional experiences: how many different kinds of love, relationships and affairs, happy and tragic, have we encountered? And do we, can we learn anything from reading about such things, does our reading make us any the wiser in terms of managing our own lives? Can I, as a man, really learn and understand anything about the life and experience of being a woman, from reading? I’d argue that I can and have, even though it is inevitably rather limited, and obviously cannot be the real thing. Does reading about madness help us know or understand anything about different mental states?

A few years ago I calculated that I’d probably read upwards of three thousand books so far; that seemed both rather a lot and not very many. Where have I lived, and when? Some books that I feel have given me some profound insights: what day-to-day life in Nazi Germany was like: Hans Fallada’s Alone in Berlin; living in the time of Stalin’s purges: Anatoly Rybakov’s Arbat Trilogy; a utopia I think I’d quite like to live in: Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed; some understanding of life in a totally different culture: Naguib MahfouzCairo Trilogy; an insight into the mind of a committed Nazi intellectual: Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones; what if the Soviet Union had succeeded: Ivan Yefremov’s Andromeda; an insight into the meaning and power of patriotism and loyalty: Joseph Roth’s The Emperor’s Tomb and The Radetzky March; a vivid impression of the Deep South: Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird and Go Set A Watchman…

I could find more examples with a bit more searching, I’m sure, and there will surely be people who can tell me, “But it was nothing like that!” But I maintain that literature – reading – has broadened my horizons immensely, and given me insights into people, places and times I would otherwise never have begun to understand.

Harper Lee

February 19, 2016

So, what did she achieve?

She painted a wonderful, if romanticised, picture of the Deep South, in which her love of the place shone through clearly. However, she was also very aware of its troubled past and present. She brought childhood innocence to life in the children she created, again perhaps romanticised, but that is what most of us do to our childhood memories. And she showed how that innocence is often cruelly dispelled.

She wrote an engaging story, that unfolds initially in a very leisurely manner, reaches one  conclusion, but then continues, to an ending which takes us back to childhood, and to the cusp of adulthood, first shocking and then comforting and reassuring her readers.

Because I taught it so often, and always insisted on reading every word aloud in class, it’s probably  the novel I’ve read more times than any other, and I know it extremely well. Its lessons – about racism, about childhood, about families and parenting, have never palled, and with every class I taught it to, raised different questions and discussion points. Sometimes it took a while for some students to grow to like it, but I think they all did.

Some people have carped and cavilled about this or that aspect of her novel. It’s not perfect. She wasn’t Jane Austen or Tolstoy. But she wrote a novel which has endured for over fifty years, more than can be said about most of the other novels from that time. It’s a novel which countless thousands of school students have enjoyed, and Michael Gove – philistine idiot – has deprived English schoolchildren of that possibility now.

I’m saddened by her death, and very grateful for what she gave us. RIP Harper Lee.

Go Set A Watchman and To Kill A Mockingbird compared

January 23, 2016

51CC2jfysbL._AA160_51A6rmAqknL._AA160_Anyone who looks at the two books side by side (which probably means every reader) will be shocked and surprised by the changes to and differences from what we have always been familiar with. We have to remember that GSAW was written first, and that Harper Lee was sent away by her editor to rewrite it. And we need also to remember that TKAM is set in the 1930s, whilst GSAW is set in the early 1950s. Finally, it does no harm to recall that the time of the writing of GSAW – the first novel – was much closer to the time when the novel is set, and the complex racial politics of the US at the time. Nowadays those political arguments are remote, perhaps half incomprehensible: what informed the editor’s reaction to GSAW all those years ago?

I remember (and perhaps some of my readers may, too), a GCSE oral coursework task that I occasionally set, which involved a hot-seating monologue about a chosen character from TKAM twenty years after the events of the novel. Varied and interesting as the students’ performances were, none approached the power of GSAW’s arguments.

Congenital heart disease kills Scout’s mother in both novels; it explains the non-appearance of Jem in GSAW. Sexual abuse and incest, only alluded to in TKAM in Mayella Ewell’s courtroom testimony, is clearer and plainer in GSAW. Both Scout and Jean Louise visit the negro quarters; the encounter with Cal in the 1950s is far harder and more upsetting in the 1950s context. The disapproving Aunt Alexandra is there, as is the mad Cousin Joshua; the isolation of Maycomb and the strange history of the county is there, almost unchanged; missionary teas happen in both novels, though much more carefully choreographed and bitingly satirised in TKAM.

The visit to the black community’s church is a powerful episode in TKAM: the white church service in GSAW falls rather flat; there is a flashback to Atticus’ successful defence of a black man accused of rape by a white woman during the children’s childhood in GSAW; the courthouse scenes are obviously right at the heart of TKAM, whereas the courthouse is the focus of a racist gathering, Atticus’ attendance at which triggers the explosions that shape the conclusion of GSAW. Epsiodes from the children’s lives (Jem, Scout, Dill) figure in both novels.

The focus is different: GSAW is Jean Louise’s novel, whereas TKAM belongs to a whole raft of characters, shifting subtly as we get inside the skin of so many of the characters.

Both books are, in their different ways, about growing up, the loss of innocence; I found myself initially judging that this is less skilfully done in GSAW, but then I was less sure. It’s done very differently, to be sure, and perhaps the young Scout’s adventures in TKAM are cosier and more endearing, less challenging and threatening than those undergone by an adult. Certainly GSAW is much bleaker: Jean Louise has lost Cal, and fears she has lost her father and the rest of her family, too.

In the end, I did feel that GSAW is a much cruder novel, and I can see why an editor would have said ‘go away and do a lot more work on this book’. The initial set-up is rather bald: Jean Louise the outsider returns home to be shocked by how racist her home town seems to be. There’s a great deal of preachiness about the racial problems of the 1950s, and at times I felt the novel slipped into didacticism. And yet, I can accept that this may have come from Harper Lee’s genuine love of the Deep South as her home, and a picture of it very different from the rest of the US which was still, a century after the Cival War, trying to impose its values and methods on the region. Special pleading? But certainly an editor might judge it a barrier to its success as a novel. The more romanticised picture which emerges in TKAM certainly guaranteed success.

My perspective is also probably different from others’: having taught TKAM so many times in my career, I feel I know it like the back of my hand. And GSAW is both a fascinating insight, and thought-provoking complement to its – much better – successor.

 

Harper Lee: Go Set A Watchman

January 23, 2016

51CC2jfysbL._AA160_I finally got round to acquiring and reading this book, and I’ve thought about it quite a bit. I think it’s impossible to write about without the shadow of To Kill A Mockingbird hovering in the background, as I can’t imagine anyone who has picked up this book to read without having read the world-famous best-seller. Nevertheless, I will try… (Cue usual spoiler alerts, if needed!)

Firstly, after reading it myself, I cannot recall a single review or article about the book (which henceforth I will refer to in these posts as GSAW) which did it justice: it’s far more interesting and complex than has been allowed. Like TKAM, it’s a novel about growing up.

The heart of the novel is a lengthy, complex, powerful and sustained argument about the racial politics of the Deep South in the early 1950s, that rages between Jean Louise Finch, a woman in her early twenties who now lives in New York but who has returned to Maycomb for a vacation. She argues with her childhood sweetheart (who would be her fiance), her Aunt, her father Atticus and her Uncle Jack. As a young adult she realises that her father and family are not the people she thought they were when she was a child but judges them hypocrites; innocence must be shed, painfully, as part of growing up and becoming a person in one’s own right.

The structure of the novel feels rather loose, especially in the early stages, which are the build-up to the argument outlined above. I didn’t really find Hank, her childhood sweetheart, terribly convincing, either as a character or as a potential husband for Jean Louise, and, interestingly, he almost seems to fade out as the novel works towards its powerful denouement.

The elderly Atticus is crippled by arthritis and looked after by his sister Alexandra; his brother Jack lives close by: Maycomb is a place where you belong or don’t belong, and Jean Louise doesn’t know whether she fits any longer: do you inevitably become an outsider once you leave a place?

Throughout GSAW – though it is in many ways a rougher and less well structured and shaped book than TKAM – there is evidence of real subtletly in character portayal and development; one is aware of the beginnings of the talents that would shine through more clearly in TKAM. The real origins of that successful novel are here, and one is left with the impression of Lee learning on the job.

The tone of the novel is livelier, less leisurely and dreamy than TKAM; there is already some of the dry humour and folksy wisdom that we perhaps came to know and love in that novel. I read it quickly; I couldn’t put it down (I refer you to my remarks on plot in my previous post!); I know I shall go back to it and re-read much more carefully soon.

Next post: Go Set A Watchman and To Kill A Mockingbird compared.

On not reading a certain book…

July 24, 2015

97800995494829781785150289It has occurred to me that some of my former students may be a little surprised that I do not seem to have rushed to read and write about Go Set A Watchman, Harper Lee’s ‘new’ book.

I read the first chapter while away on my travels, because it was published in The Guardian; I was intrigued, and though that at some time I would probably read the book. Since then I have read a number of articles about, and reviews of, the book, with people reflecting on Atticus Finch the crusty old racist, and the disappearance of Jem…

I’ve read To Kill A Mockingbird more times than any other book, through having taught it so many times as an English teacher, and if I taught you it, you will recall that we read every word of the novel aloud in class: I wouldn’t have had it any other way. Most students came to like, if not to love the book, and I have a soft spot for it; it is a very good book. It’s very carefully structured and well-written; it makes readers think, quite deeply, about a whole range of different and, I think, important things, and that is the hallmark of a good book for me.

So, I’m more than a little wary of having my impressions of the characters disturbed or altered. Yes, I hear you saying, as I said to you often enough, it’s a novel, they are characters, they don’t really exist! Harper Lee can do what she likes with them… I’m aware that there’s been no little controversy about the elderly author’s control of her writings, and uncertainty about the provenance of this new volume. The picture I have in my mind at present is that Go Set A Watchman can be seen as the precursor or To Kill A Mockingbird, the novel that she wrote first, that didn’t quite come up to the mark in the eyes of her editor, who sent her away with some feedback and ideas, that Lee went away and worked on until she gave birth to To Kill A Mockingbird, the book we all know and love.

Atticus as a racist, and apologist for segregation, seems to be the big shock. Perhaps this says more about Americans, or Southerners, than about anyone or anything else. Because if TKAM is a retro-fit of GSAW, then Lee went away and had her Scout in her twenties retell her childhood through the eyes of an innocent – an absolute masterstroke – and she refocused an ageing ex-liberal lawyer into a younger man who was forced to walk his talk and who challenged a town to confront – briefly – its racism. But even here, I think Lee is clear that no magic occurs in Maycomb: the novel is about Scout’s growing up, about her realisation that the world is not a nice place and that your father cannot sustain the idyll of childhood for you…

I shan’t say any more until I’ve read it, which I do intend to do.

Harper Lee: To KIll A Mockingbird

May 2, 2015

9780434020485It’s curious, coming to reflect on a book which I taught every other year throughout my entire career; I haven’t opened it for four years now, and wonder if I’m developing a different perspective on it. The world and his wife know that a ‘new’ novel in some way related to it is due to be published in the summer (Go Set A Watchman) and there has been controversy over whether this involves some sort of exploitation of the ageing writer who may not be fully in control of what is going on.

I have found myself wondering who the book is aimed at (target audience, for all my ex-students!). Dozens of millions of copies have been sold, and they cannot all have been to UK schools preparing students for GCSE. I’m not sure how English departments across the land are going to cope since Secretary of State Gove’s ukase removed it from the specification on the grounds that it’s not English litereature.

Because I’ve always taught it to young people, I’ve come to see them as the ideal audience for the novel (so I would be very interested to hear from anyone who disagrees). To me, it has seemed to speak to them, and deals with issues that have some significance at their stage in life. A main theme is clearly parenting and relationships with parents, and the way in which this links into the need for mutual respect; we see a parent striving to live by his principles, and surely, young people spend some time trying to make sense of their world and they way they feel it should work, as well as the ways in which they propose to relate to it.

The children in the novel are gradually working their way towards self-actualisation and self-realisation in the world, and we see how they are helped by their peers, neighbours and experiences. Most importantly, I think, they come to realise that the world is not always a good and safe place, and that there comes a time when parents cannot protect you from the horrors and nastiness of the world, they are not all-powerful, as young children need to believe: Lee explores a crucial phase of growing-up through the trial and its aftermath, where even Atticus’ faith in the world is badly shaken by the attack on his children.

Because I’ve loved teaching the novel, I’ve found myself looking for its flaws. The lengthy introductory section has often been an issue, with students wanting the story to get a move on, when there are a hundred pages just introducing characters and the town; on the other hand, this has offered the possibility for exploring writer’s choices in terms of how they construct a novel, and after the event, students have been able to accept how Lee has been working as a writer, and the effects she has striven to achieve.

The framing of the storytelling (an older Scout remembering and relating her childhood many years later, perhaps through rose-tinted spectacles, where even the horrors are somewhat subdued) does not help, either, and perhaps allows a rather sentimentalised portrait of a black community through the eyes of a white child. And small-town US is not representative of the whole country.

But hey, it’s a novel! Perhaps semi-autobiographical, depending on what you read, involving characters, certainly places from the author’s own childhood. Lee has things she wishes to say, lessons she wishes to teach – and which I feel she does without becoming didactic – and students’ response was often along the lines of “well, it’s not the sort of book I’d have chosen to read myself, but I’m very glad we studied it”. It’s a novel, and it makes readers think and reflect on themselves and their own lives, which, if you’re a regular reader of these pages, you will know constitutes a good book by my criteria.

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