Posts Tagged ‘Harper Lee’

On children’s literature and children in literature

April 20, 2019

I’m more than a little surprised it hasn’t occurred to me to write on this theme before; perhaps it’s grandchildren that have turned my thoughts in that direction and prompted me. There are many marvellous classic children’s books out there that I’m hoping one day I will have the chance to share with the next generation: Winnie the Pooh, The Wind in the Willows, The Borrowers and The Phantom Tollbooth to name but a few. Wonderful new stories appear with each generation but the old favourites will endure too, I think.

However, it it books that feature children that I am particularly interested in here. I regularly introduced my classes to Mark Twain’s wonderful The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and I think most of them got something from it; it has a lot of those things that children fantasise about: skiving chores, school and duties, running away from home, finding treasure, as well as scarier things such as witnessing a murder and being lost in a dark cave. It may be set more than a century and a half ago, but the themes still appeal. Sadly, only a couple of opportunities arose to teach The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which is in some ways an even greater achievement, treating as it does the cusp of childhood to adolescence and adulthood, and showing us the learning that can take place at that time. Huck’s symbolic journey with Jim on the raft down the Mississippi is at times humorous, fantastical, true to life and very moving.

Elsewhere I’ve written about To Kill A Mockingbird, where once again two children have two grow up and grapple with adult issues rather earlier than they may have wished; I have no time for those who carp and cavil about this novel for whatever reason; Harper Lee creates people, time and place brilliantly to explore a whole range of ideas.

I’ve also waxed lyrical in many posts about Philip Pullman’s masterly achievement in the His Dark Materials trilogy, and also in the first volume of the new Book of Dust trilogy. There is something very refreshing as well as thought-provoking about having children as the central characters in such astonishing books, and the adults merely taking subordinate places. The process of growing up, the realisations and the learning that take place gradually or suddenly as we pass from innocence to experience are well worth contemplating again as adults; I can only wonder what the experience of reading these books first as a child, and then returning to them as a grown-up, might be like: I will never know, of course. Philip Reeve’s Mortal Engines tetralogy – which I’m working up to re-reading – also has children as its central characters, although their adventures are not cosmos-changing in the way that Will and Lyra’s are in Pullman’s books.

It’s a truism that our childhood years form us and shape the adult that we eventually become; we don’t realise this is happening whilst it is actually happening, and we are perhaps rather more eager to leave childhood and childish things behind for the more exciting and ‘real’ world of adults. Only as we grow older do we realise the meaning of the true innocence of those childhood years which we can never have back. Perhaps it is the experience of raising our own children, and enjoying our grandchildren, that provoke us to contemplate what our past did to us; understanding and acceptance are all that we can acquire now, as time marches on…

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Garrison Keillor: Lake Wobegon Days

March 22, 2019

21E6JZ4N4TL._AC_UL436_I used to have quite a soft spot for Garrison Keillor, but after revisiting his most famous book, I do think it has palled a little.

Lake Wobegon is an utterly invented place, as are its inhabitants; no different from other fiction so far. But whereas other writers may invent a place and some characters as the background for a story, here the place and people are the story, and the question arises, is there enough to be interesting, or is our author merely being self-indulgent?

The invented history of the foundation of the town in the depths of Minnesota, down to its location being obfuscated by supposed errors made by drunken land surveyors, is a direct lift from the much briefer and more relevant account of the origins of Maycomb, in Harper Lee’s classic To Kill A Mockingbird; Keillor is far more long-winded. His aim is to get the place populated by Norwegian and German immigrants, whose antics he will then hope to amuse us with.

And this is what the book depends on – light, humorous mockery of small-town USA, in the way that Mark Twain did so well in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. But again, Twain used his settings as the background to interesting stories. Never having visited the USA, I’m obviously dependent on all the different accounts of the place I’ve read to form my impressions of the place, and I do have a mental picture of the vastness of the country allowing such communities quite cut off from the mainstream of US life to exist and accumulate a certain type of character who isn’t, or doesn’t have time to be, interested in the outside world.

So is Keillor wanting to make a more serious point about the isolationism of a large part of American society, towns without any real intellectual life, where homespun wisdom is at the heart of everything? The portraits are often affectionate, but often equally deeply worrying if they bear any resemblance to reality. I can certainly understand the deep-seated desires of some to escape…

Keillor mocks the religious extremism of the Exclusive Brethren that his character’s family belong to: I found myself mentally comparing his version with the rather more real horrors depicted in Jeanette Winterson’s fictionalised account of her upbringing, Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit.

Maybe it’s times that have changed – I first came across Keillor some thirty years ago, and the mentality of small town USA and the effects of that world-view seem rather more pernicious nowadays than I recall it then. His laconic tone and close observations of the mannerisms and language of his characters produce a good number of laugh-out-loud moments, but overall the book came across as quite long and rambling at times, and I found myself wondering, will I ever want to come back to this again, and will I even bother to look at the other books of his I have on the shelves?

Good intentions

January 2, 2019

A fellow blogger posted a list of books she intends to read in 2019: I was both impressed and challenged. Why could I not plan my reading like this? I have had epic fails in the past. Upon retiring, I though to myself right, let’s have a serious year reading Shakespeare, another studying history, another on science fiction… none of which have come to pass so far.

A little more thinking had me realising that at this stage in my life I’m more of a re-reader than a reader, with the proportion of new books gradually shrinking. And yet, my plans to re-read many old favourites have also come to naught: I would pile up the books I was itching to revisit, maybe tackle a couple of them and then six months later put the pile away back on the shelves, having been side-tracked by something else and the moment having passed.

So, either I lack discipline, or else (I say, to console myself) I follow my instincts and my nose, one thing leading on to another, a bit like the word association exercise allegedly beloved of psychoanalysts. Occasionally one of these strands works itself out completely and I find myself utterly at a loss for what to turn to next, as often the unread pile does not tempt me. At such moments I turn briefly to magazines.

Having said all that, I do have some good intentions for the coming year. I want to re-read all of Ursula Le Guin’s Hainish novels and stories, I want to re-read Philip Reeve’s Mortal Engines series, my collection of Raymond Chandler novels and stories… all of that after I’ve finished re-reading Philip K Dick. And to be fair to myself, I have stuck to that one pretty well so far. Also on the list is to revisit Harper Lee’s Go Set A Watchman, for a more considered take on it after a second read.

If I have time, I will also revisit some of Norman Davies’ history books. I also intend to pursue a relatively new interest, reading up on art history: I will try and finish E H Gombrich’s The Story of Art which I began several months ago when I was poorly, and I shall also look out something on the history of church architecture, which has always interested me.

Then there is always the pending pile, by the bed. At the end of this year, should I remember, I will update you on how badly I did….

Paul Theroux: Deep South

May 28, 2018

51mXwxzI4VL._AC_US218_This book annoyed me; it felt like a lazy book, in need of decent editing.

I’ve enjoyed travel writing by Paul Theroux in the past, but it has been about his travels in other countries than his own; here he travels through the Deep South of the US for a year, visiting and revisiting at different seasons of the year. He clearly feels deep affection for his country and this part of it, strives to know the region and its people and to understand it, strives to describe and report fairly about a region that has experienced many troubles. And yet, ultimately, I was rather bored.

The book began badly for me, with Theroux mocking a good number of other writers who have made road trips around the US, attempting to show them up to be fakes or imposters who hadn’t travelled properly, who took short-cuts, who pretended to have done what they hadn’t.

It’s very loosely written, rambling often: sketches, vignettes, cameos, all trying to build up an accretive picture of the Deep South. For a non-American reader, there were too many names and too much detail, and no map at all; perhaps some of the names and places may be familiar to an American reader, I don’t know. Perhaps one needs to be an American and to be familiar with the country to appreciate the book, in which case sorry, but the writer hasn’t done his job properly.

There’s much interweaving of references to the literature of the South as well; I failed once in an attempt to read a William Faulkner novel (not that I’m proud of that), and his caustic and snarky remarks about To Kill A Mockingbird came across as the words of a man who thinks he knows the South better, and ‘real’ Southern fiction better, than everyone else. Maybe he does, but Harper Lee‘s novel is far more than he allows it to be…

The country comes across as quite scary in many ways; there’s the inevitable racism and violence, the gun shows, the details of events from the past. I was deeply shocked, even though I have read about it before, by the details of the abject and grinding poverty and third world conditions he describes in so many small towns in the richest and most powerful nation on the planet. Shocked, too, by the stories about US military nuclear facilities, which fit into the Chernobyl pattern in terms of carelessness, sloppiness, lack of care for people and the environment.

I had been looking forward to reading the book and wanting to enjoy it, but didn’t; it needed editing to make it shorter and less shapeless, and a bit more thought for non-American readers, really. Sadly, it felt self-indulgent, in need of a bit more anger, perhaps…

Why do writers hate school?

February 9, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On death in literature (cont’d)

September 4, 2017

By way of contrast, I shall look at more recent encounters with death that have struck me in my reading, which I know is quite particular and in some ways obscure.

Two novellas focus on death itself, Victor Hugo‘s Last Day of a Condemned Man, and Leo Tolstoy‘s Death of Ivan Illich. This latter I found interesting both because of the hero’s perplexity as a seemingly trivial affliction turns out to be fatal, and also the strange withdrawal of his family and friends as they realised that he was terminally ill. I can understand both of these reactions, and yet it was quite unnerving actually to see them unfold as the story progressed. The idea that we do not know what do do about death or how to react it, is clear.

A play I studied at school for A Level, Eugene Ionesco‘s Le Roi Se Meurt, has never left me. The king learns that he must die – as must all mortals – but will not accept this; he is the king, after all. It’s an absurdist drama which nevertheless brings home real truths to all of us. He has two queens, one of whom insists he prepare himself for the inevitable, and the other who assists his refusal to accept it. Meanwhile, the kingdom physically disintegrates around him, ready for his disappearance. And he eventually realises that nobody can help him, because ‘tout le monde est le premier à mourir‘.

In Gunter Grass’ The Tin Drum, I have always found the suicide of the Jewish toyseller Sigismund Markus, because of the growing power of the Nazis and their anti-semitism, profoundly moving, precisely because it is presented through the eyes of the hero who is and who is not, a three year-old child. He describes calmly, almost lyrically, the dead body of the toy seller who has taken poison, and then proceeds to steal another of his beloved tin drums…

Umberto Eco leads us almost to love his young narrator Adso of Melk, the novice who accompanies William of Baskerville during his adventures in The Name of The Rose, who comes to know sexual love once, briefly, before a lifetime of chastity, and who says farewell to us in his dying days, having chronicled those events of his youth. He doesn’t die but we are saddened knowing the end is almost upon him.

Harper Lee teaches the children an important lesson about courage in To Kill A Mockingbird through the slow death of Mrs Henry Lafayette Dubose, who determinedly breaks her morphine addiction with their help before she dies. And Philip Pullman, in His Dark Materials, makes his readers think very deeply about life, death and the soul through his use of daemons in Lyra’s world, and the visit that Will and Lyra make to the world of the dead. To be sure, that isn’t our world, but there is much to lead us to reflect on the significance of our own eventual passing.

Readers will be aware of my interest in the Great War. The telephone numbers of casualties can only chill us so much; it takes the death of individuals to really move us, as great poets like Owen and Sassoon surely realised, in such poems as A Working Party and Dulce et Decorum Est. And the first time I read it I was shocked: in the finally volume of her Regeneration trilogy, Pat Barker imagines Owen’s death. It comes along quite suddenly, quite unexpectedly, and is over in a couple of paragraphs before we realise what is really happening – just like so many pointless deaths in war. A masterstroke of writing, though.

Literature allows us to experience things we would otherwise perhaps never experience, to think about things we might not otherwise consider. Some writers help us to confront the great unknown.

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_

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.

My A-Z of reading: B is for Beginnings

October 16, 2016

What’s the most effective and memorable beginning to a novel (or a play or poem, for that matter) for you? Many will perhaps default to the obvious ones, like the opening line of Pride and Prejudice… but what makes a really effective start?

I suppose there are the ones we remember, and the ones that actually work, the ones that have an instant effect, and the ones that creep up on us. I’ve always liked the opening of George Orwell‘s Nineteen Eighty-fourIt was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. That works for me partly because of the immediate shock – what sort of world is this, where clocks actually strike thirteen? And it takes me back to my childhood, at the end of the 1950s in the little village where I was born, where the next-door neighbour but one, a reclusive old woman, actually had a decrepit clock that did strike thirteen. This astonished me, and I used to love listening to that final, wrong strike.

But the one I remember most often is not actually an opening sentence, but the opening incident: the narrator of Lawrence Sterne‘s Tristram Shandy is telling of the Sunday night ritual in his parents’ household: Sunday night is intercourse night and he is about to be conceived, when in medias res his mother enquires of his father if he had remembered to wind the clock… for me, this sets the tone for the rest of this wonderful novel, the longest shaggy-dog story in the world as someone once called it.

When teaching To Kill A Mockingbird, I was often conscious of the long opening section – Part One – which is getting on for a third of the entire novel, and appears to go absolutely nowhere. Occasionally a class would become somewhat restless as we read, and this caused me to reflect on it as the opening to a novel; it was often only at the end of the entire book that we could go back and reflect on what Harper Lee had been doing with that lengthy introduction – “too much description, sir!” – creating such a vivid sense of place that we could actually fit ourselves into Maycomb. The book needed it, before the real story of Tom Robinson could start.

Plays are no different, and looking at what Shakespeare does is instructive. Often he hurls us head-first into the action – the witches in Macbeth, the storm in The Tempest: we are instantly gripped and cannot look back, and in different ways he develops the stories and sweeps us forward. And yet, he can do slow and subtle, too: the discussion of Antonio’s melancholy at the start of The Merchant of Venice, for example, or the gentlemen comparing notes about the king’s erratic behaviour at the start of King Lear.

John Donne has some wonderful opening lines in his Songs and Sonnets: Busy old fool, unruly sun (The Sun Rising), for example, or For God’s sake hold your tongue (The Canonisation), or When by thy scorn, O Murderess, I am dead (The Apparition), or Mark but this flea… as an exercise in seduction technique unequalled by any other poet I know.

So what works, and how? Something must intrigue us, either instantly and suddenly as in the Donne poems, or it must begin to insinuate itself, to sow a trail of loose ends and possibilities that we find sufficiently interesting to continue to pay attention, rather than go off to something else, as Shakespeare intrigues us at the start of King Lear. And whatever bait a writer or poet dangles before an audience or reader, it must go on to offer the promise of (eventual) satisfaction after that initial flash of inspiration.

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.

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