Posts Tagged ‘Jane Austen’

On death in literature (1)

September 4, 2017

I hope readers will bear with me, and not find the following posts too gloomy, but occasionally in a novel I come across a death which strikes me deeply. Characters die in novels all the time, in all manner of ways, and most of the time, because we are plot-driven, we register the death and then continue with the remaining characters and the rest of the story.

We are the only species that know about death, in that we must one day die; at that time, everything ends for us (pace those believers in an afterlife) and yet everything also goes on for everyone else, as if we had never been. What, if anything, comes next, we know not, as Hamlet once told us about ‘that undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveller returns’; everyone is the first person to die. It has long struck me that we devised religion as a way of coping with these awful certainties, and until relatively recently religion has done a fair, if obscurantist job; however, as the twentieth century progressed, and with it the gradual disappearance of religion from the lives of many, especially in the West, we have been inevitable brought to face our end unsupported, and our main response seems to have been to try and ensure we live as long as possible…

We are (mostly) creatures endowed with reason, and memory; we can think and reflect, and we develop attachments to people, places and things which can go beyond the merely instinctive, beyond the emotional, to another level, and here is our problem. Often we avoid, and novelists are not exempt from this ostrich-posture.

Jonathan Swift, in his Gulliver’s Travels, satirised the idea of living for ever, or even living as long as possible, far better than anyone has done since. The Struldbruggs are immortal; some of the ones met in the third part of Gulliver’s voyage are over six hundred years old, and they are the unhappiest creatures alive. Because, of course, for everyone life goes on: children want inheritances, younger folk want and need jobs; language changes over time and after six hundred years who will understand us and the way we speak? The immortals are an encumbrance. Does this remind you of anything today?

At the other end of the spectrum of taste and decorum, let’s put Jane Austen for a few moments. There are deaths in her novels, but only passim, at the very edges of the story, of minor characters, in order to facilitate an inheritance or shift the plot in a different direction, usually financial or marital: nowhere is such an unsuitable subject allowed to impinge with any depth. Eventually, at some vague point long after the end of the novel, the valetudinarian Mr Woodhouse will ‘pass away’ and Emma and Mr Knightley will finally move to Donwell Abbey…

Religion long determined artistic responses to death. In Marlowe‘s Doctor Faustus, the eponymous hero’s death must accompany Lucifer’s taking of his soul at the end of the contracted twenty-four years, but what horrifies Faustus and creates the terror at the end of the play is not so much the devils tearing Faustus limb from limb as his realisation of what eternity in Hell means; he thinks he could put up with damnation if there were an end in sight, but of course this is just what there is not. Similarly the young Stephen Dedalus, in Joyce‘s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, is driven to distraction by the famous hell-fire sermon delivered during a school retreat: the walls of Hell are four thousand miles thick, and eternity is more years than all the grains of sand on all the seashores of the world… and it’s his destination for his sexual sins.

To be fair, religion recognised how difficult it was for the individual mortal to contemplate and prepare for death and did its best to help; in mediaeval times there was the Ars Moriendi, a treatise on how to die well, and, recognising that such help is still needed in our secular age, the Catholic church in England and Wales has just launched a new website The Art of Dying Well, which offers much careful and thoughtful advice, obviously from its particular perspective. But for religion, of course, death is a beginning – mors ianua vitae – which many cannot now credit.

Adam and Eve, in Milton‘s Paradise Lost, are the only humans who don’t know what Death is. In the Garden of Eden, there is no death, all are immortal, but Death is a latent threat which will be actualised by their disobedience of God’s command not to eat of the forbidden fruit. And the fallen pair are aware that they will die, that Death is part of their punishment, but still don’t know what it actually is. Will it come immediately and strike them into oblivion, or is it to be feared and awaited at some distant moment? Genesis has Adam live for several hundred years… But the point is, Milton recognises, understands and explores this psychological fear, this existential angst, which struck those first two mythical humans, our ancestors.

to be continued

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On Jane Austen

July 18, 2017

It’s two hundred years today – 18 July – since she died. I’ve visited the house she lived in at Chawton, places in Bath where she lived and stayed and went to balls, I’ve stood outside the house where she died in Winchester and stood by her memorial in the cathedral and mused. What is is about her that is so attractive, and so important?

I managed to avoid her at school – but then, at a boys’ boarding school, that wasn’t hard. No-one ever suggested reading her. So my first encounter with a writer that I had vague notions of being romantic and dull came in my first year at university, where we were faced with Mansfield Park. Not the easiest start… and yet, I really liked it. Perhaps because it’s more complex, with a wider range of characters and locations, a heroine who’s a prig, political issues: I don’t know, but it was a good one to begin with: I went on to read all the other novels, and have been coming back to them regularly, ever since. And once I was drawn into the many subtleties of her written style, I began to realise just how clever she was.

Looked at baldly, there’s not a lot there: a few families in a village or small town. Intrigues which lead up to the heroine getting Mr Right. Happy ever after. Things that seem quite bizarre to a twenty-first century reader: Emma Woodhouse marrying the man who played with her on his knee when she was a baby? Fanny Price marrying the man she has grown up with for over ten years? Marianne Dashwood ending up with Colonel Brandon, who is twice her age? And then there’s what’s not said – slavery, warfare, enclosures…

My two favourite novels are Persuasion and Mansfield Park, so I’ll concentrate on them, and try and explain why Austen is so brilliant, at least to me…

Mansfield Park has a wonderful range of characters. There’s the vile Mrs Norris, who makes Fanny’s life hell, penny-pinches, and who bears some responsibility for Maria’s final disaster; the wonderfully laid-back and air-headed Lady Bertram who is so horizontal she even manages to forget her lap-dog’s gender; the ridiculously rich and brain-dead Mr Rushworth; the exciting and attractive – almost Satanic – Crawford pair, and the wonderful Portsmouth family that Fanny is eventually so toe-curlingly ashamed of. Issues are raised: the Bertram family money comes from plantations in the West Indies; the changing English countryside with its many ‘improvements’ reflects the enclosures of the time and the gradual and inevitable move from an agricultural to an industrial society, and Fanny is wistful about what is being lost; the Portsmouth scenes are set in the nation’s largest naval port against the backdrop of the Napoleonic Wars. Austen knew what was going on, but she wasn’t writing War and Peace, or Middlemarch

The Napoleonic Wars are even more obvious in Persuasion: they’re the whole background to Wentworth’s success and the reason he’s a suitable match for Anne Elliot eight years after their first parting; there is poverty in Mrs Smith, Anne’s friend, her background and where she lives: Sir Walter is horrified by Westgate Buildings as an address…

Jane Austen wrote about the world she knew, as a woman and of her times. Never in her novels do men converse apart from women: she had no idea what they might speak of. But she knew, and her life story shows, that a woman’s position depended on finding a (suitable) man, and early enough, to ensure her future security. The novels are full of women who have found men and suffer for it; Charlotte Lucas’ sad tale exemplifies that sort of an ending. Austen leads her heroines along difficult paths before they eventually end up with men who love them – a relative novelty in those days – and who therefore do have a chance of living happily ever after. And in none of her novels is the denouement as powerful as at the end of Persuasion, where the love and desire is evident and the heroine acts – in so far as she is able – to secure her happiness.

Just because the novels are not realistic – and I’ve written often about the slipperiness of that word – does not mean that real questions are not confronted and explored in the novels. And there’s fantasy and wish-fulfilment, too. Readers who have revisited the novels repeatedly (and there are many of you out there, I’m sure) will recognise Austen’s amazing command of, and facility with the English language, as well as her wit, her irony, her ability to make you stop short at an opinion or idea to wonder and re-read ‘who’s speaking there?’ Ah, the shifting sands of authorial (un)reliability…

Like Shakespeare, for me Jane Austen is a writer for all time: she observes closely and sharply, yet creates a cosy world which we perhaps unconsciously aspire to, and she places striving for love and personal happiness at the heart of the world, with which we cannot disagree.

On the genius of Jane Austen

May 31, 2017

A documentary on TV the other night, about the places where she had lived, reminded me that this year is the 200th anniversary of the untimely death of possibly the greatest English novelist. And the year seems to be passing quite quietly so far: there have been a couple of new books – one of which I reviewed here – not terribly exciting, because there’s a limited amount of information about Jane Austen available and no sign of any undiscovered material, so academics are reduced to what they often do, which is to recycle what has been said already, for a new generation, in a rather more demotic and sensational language this time around…

I knew Austen’s name but had disdainfully avoided reading any of the novels in a teenager-ish sort of way, until I got to university and was faced with Mansfield Park in my first term: dutifully I read and really liked the novel, which is often described as both dull and difficult compared with the others, as well as having the priggish and unlikeable Fanny Price as its heroine. Lectures and seminars opened my eyes to the wit, the language and the social issues Austen addresses; I’ve never looked back. Since then, I regularly re-read the novels every few years, enjoying their familiarity as well as noticing new details. And, as my other half is at least as enthusiastic about Jane Austen as I am, often detailed discussions and conversations ensue. We’ve enjoyed watching many film and TV adaptations of the novels, traced Austen’s path through Bath, and visited her home at Chawton and her tomb in Winchester Cathedral. I’ve enjoyed teaching all the novels save Northanger Abbey (which I avoided), particularly relishing the occasion when we had to compare Mansfield Park with Pride and Prejudice; I still haven’t fully decided whether Mansfield Park or Persuasion is my favourite: the former I find intellectually engaging, but the latter is truly about mature love and the sense of Ann and Wentworth re-finding each other and finally being united is still very powerful and moving at the nth re-reading.

So, what is so good about Jane Austen? What attracts me to her world? It was a very narrow world in terms of physical scope and also future prospects, but she was clearly a highly intelligent and well-educated woman, with a keen eye, a sharp wit and a great sense of humour. She writes about what she knows about, which is both a limitation and an advantage; there is a narrowness to the settings, and her choice of characters; she never presumes to present a conversation between men where no women are present; servants are backgrounded, as is the aristocracy; because she knows the rest, she observes minutely and nothing escapes the sharpness of her eye or her comment. And, quite early on in the development of the novel, she brings in the marvellous indirect authorial comment: we are following the heroine’s thoughts, ideas, comments… or are we? who is actually thinking or speaking there… is it the author herself? because we can’t be sure… and we’ve noticed we can’t be sure. It’s very clever, and very effective.

Austen manages to engage with real political issues: slavery lurks in the background in Mansfield Park (pace Edward Said) war overshadows Persuasion – the Napoleonic Wars are part of the entire second half of Austen’s life, as her family history shows. Social change is afoot in England, with agricultural changes and enclosures, again alluded to in Mansfield Park. Austen seems to me to be at the same time conservative (with that important small ‘c’) as Fanny wistfully notes how the countryside is changing – of course, Fanny does not speak for Austen, but… – and also quite radical, particularly in the other novels, where she is quite forthright about the limitations placed on women’s lives by the need for financial security, and in her endorsement of love as crucial for successful relationships, an idea which we take for granted nowadays…

I feel a need coming on to re-read Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility. As readers may gather more generally from my blog, I don’t generally feel that England has very much to be proud of at the moment, but I do think we do literature very well…

On re-reading

April 11, 2017

I know there are people who never read a book twice; I’ve never been able to understand why, since, if I’ve really enjoyed a book, I always want to come back to it again and again. We often used to discuss this in class at school, and I was happy that most students would agree with me; they also liked to return to a story once enjoyed, and when we looked more deeply, we found ourselves agreeing on the reasons why, too.

I think most of us would probably accept that on a first reading, it’s the plot that we are most interested in, and depending on how gripping or exciting it is, we perhaps find the pace of our reading increasing, and our attention to other details falling off. And, although I find I can forget quite a lot of the details of a plot, depending on how much time has elapsed since I read a particular book, I never forget everything; there has to be something left in my memory to trigger the pleasurable memory that drives me to eventually pick the book up again.

Second time around then, plot isn’t so important, and I can focus more closely on a different aspect: perhaps development of character, or the writer’s intentions, or her/his use of language; there will be something else to hold me as I relive that first pleasurable reading. And the same will be true in subsequent re-reads. My favourite novels have been re-read up to half a dozen times, I think – certainly Jane Austen, Gunter Grass, Umberto Eco and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. And in my science fiction collection, the novels of Philip Dick and Ursula Le Guin. Philip Pullman is catching up with them…

These well-loved books sit on the shelves in and among less-popular tomes; sometimes they are replacement copies because my first one has actually worn out and fallen to bits. But what actually triggers a re-read? Sometimes it’s a conversation – perhaps some aspect of Jane Austen’s work comes up, or we watch a film of one of the novels, and it will come to me that it’s several years since I last read a particular book, so I pick it out and read it. Sometimes I’ll be in a certain mood and feel a need for some science fiction, and go and pick out three or four Philip Dick novels – I rarely read only one when I go back to him. I may be gazing vaguely at the shelves when something will suddenly strike my eye. One novel may suggest another: I certainly find it difficult to have a plan of what books I’m planning to read over a certain period of time. Something else will always push itself in… There are some novels that do feel like old friends, needing to be visited every now and then, and there are others which are like nurses and come to look after me when I’m under the weather.

The other side of the coin, of course, is those novels that have been read once and put back on the shelves with the thought, “I’d like to re-read that one day…” and that day never comes; after some years I will realise that the moment has past, that I don’t actually want to read it again, and if I have the self-discipline at the time, I’ll put it on the pile to donate to the next Amnesty International book sale. And don’t mention the books that I’ve bought thinking, “That will be a good read one day…”. They sit there, calling and reproaching, elbowed aside by something else.

My A-Z of Reading: Z is for Zeitgeist

December 28, 2016

Warning: this post is political, and I make no apology for that.

The spirit of our times is selfishness. Thatcher’s Britain – me, me, me; there’s no such thing as society. For two generations now, this mantra has been dinned into everyone; the neoliberal tentacles have spread in every direction so that even to suggest that some things are better done by the state on behalf of everyone in society is to seem to exhibit signs of lunacy, and one is treated as if one is somehow wrong in the head. Writers such as Noam Chomsky or John Pilger, to name but a couple, who challenge such orthodoxy, are regarded as being on the extremes of politics.

The US is the individualist society par excellence, with power and influence far beyond its shores. The individual self-fulfilment preached by the hippy movement of the sixties and seventies was soon co-opted by consumerism, the pendulum swung far in the opposite direction and the balance between individual and collective was lost, to everyone’s cost. Britain suffers perhaps more than any other nation because we have the misfortune to share a similar language with the US, which means that every crackpot idea from that land can reach us virtually instantly, unmediated. Not that we aren’t short of home-grown crackpots, mind…

Where is the literature in all this, you may wonder, as that is supposedly the driving force of my blog? Two novels spring to mind. The first I must go back to soon, as it’s more than thirty years since I last read it: Robert Tressell’s masterpiece from the early twentieth century, The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists, which reduced me to tears when I read it; it makes an irrefutable case for socialism being a fairer way to run society in the interests of the vast majority of people. And then there’s a utopian, science-fiction classic from the 1970s, Ursula Le Guin’s magnificent The Dispossessed, which shows us how an anarchist society might be run, and what it might feel like to be part of one. Life isn’t easy on Anarres, but people feel that what they have is worth working for, struggling for. In different ways, both these writers take us outside the mainstream bubble and show us how things might be very different.

In my younger days, as a student, I mingled with all sorts of political groups on the left, and the communist party analysis then, straight from Marx, was that the class struggle was the paramount struggle, and if that was won, the other issues in society, which did exist, such as racism, sexism, ageism, environmental issues and the like, could then be resolved. Other interest groups, however, chose to prioritise their struggles in their particular areas, dividing the opposition exactly as the hegemony wanted.

In my older years I’m coming to think that Marx was right, and that over the years energies have been diverted from the main problem: look at what has happened in the recent US election, where one might say that the struggles by people of colour, women, environmentalists and others, kept the Democratic Party fragmented and led to its losing, while somehow Trump managed to present himself as the champion of an impoverished and disenfranchised class… and won… There are two classes, however you look at things, and what is vague is where the dividing line between them is drawn, but there are the wealthy few who take money from the many ordinary people, the few who enjoy a far greater share of wealth and property than they have right to or need of, right across the world, and are prepared to use violence of all kinds to keep things as they are.

I suppose that brings me to the second spirit of the times: violence. The world is a much more violent place now than when I was a student: you could feel safe travelling pretty much anywhere. I had friends who hitch-hiked to India, via Afghanistan… now even in the relative safety of Europe there is the risk of a terrorist outrage at any moment. How did we get here? Two things stick out, for me, based on what I’ve seen in my life so far. The first is the failure of the West to contribute to a resolution of the Palestine problem; in fact our attitudes and policies have made the situation much worse, and helped poison the feelings of much of the Middle East towards us. And secondly, we can’t stop interfering in the affairs of other countries. Capitalism needs unfettered access to their raw materials, and again this manufactures conflict. Nor can any country be allowed to offer a working alternative model to capitalism: far too dangerous a precedent for our system. See Isabel Allende’s The House of Spirits for further exploration of this idea, or just read up on modern history. Writers have always been political: Shakespeare explored contemporary political issues, as did Jane Austen.

Now that I’ve got that off my chest, this blog will return to dealing (mainly) with literature, teaching and travel…

My A-Z of Reading: Y is for Yesterday

December 27, 2016

There has long existed the myth of the Golden Age, the idea that everything was better in the past; it’s an infection that spreads through the brain as one ages, I am finding, and it’s one from which the world of literature is not exempt. Is Shakespeare the best dramatist, or the best writer, even, who ever lived? Has no-one since then approached him in brilliance, grandeur, stature? Is it really all downhill since then? Is Jane Austen the greatest English novelist? – and this is a question I’m sure we’ll be asked with considerable frequency next year, the 200th anniversary of her early death…

In the end such questions are surely pointless, as one is never comparing like with like; each age develops new themes and ideas and ways of exploring and illuminating them. Ibsen isn’t Shakespeare, he’s radically different; he challenges, too, and leaves us without easy answers: look at the ending of Ghosts, with the mother frozen in time forever. Should she offer her doomed son an easy death? And they wrote in different languages, at different epochs…

Each age produces an enormous amount of literature, of varying quality. Much of it vanishes fairly rapidly, without much trace: who now reads the novels of Dennis Wheatley, Hammond Innes, Arthur Hailey and their ilk, all best-sellers in my early days? How many people read D H Lawrence, touted as one of the twentieth century greats when I had to study him at university? Theodore Sturgeon, once a pretty well-known science-fiction author, once said, “95% of science-fiction is crap. But then 95% of everything is crap.” And he’s right, if you think about it. I’ve been in second-hand bookshops stacked with fading hardback novels from years ago, and thought, “No-one will ever buy any of this stuff. The shop belongs in a skip.” Most of the authors I’d never heard of, and I’m reasonably clued up on literature.

Which brings up another question: what will survive of what is being published and read today? I often initiated discussions about this with my sixth-form classes. What are the criteria which lead to writers such as Shakespeare or Austen surviving the test of time, and others not? Clearly, inclusion in university and school programmes of study help, but what leads critics to think that writer X deserves study by seventeen year-olds, whereas writer Y doesn’t? You can come up with such ideas as universal or timeless themes, but it’s not only Shakespeare who has written about sexual jealousy or filial ingratitude, for instance.

I’m not convinced that any of my favourite twentieth century writers will survive the test of time, even though I’d like to think so. How long will Umberto Eco or Gabriel Garcia Marquez enchant us? How long will readers be interested in Guenter Grass’ explorations of German war-guilt? My touchstone for current students has been Harry Potter: will the books still be popular and read in twenty, fifty, a hundred years’ time? I’m not convinced, anathema as it might seem to say such a thing.

What will survive? What ensures the survival of a particular writer or text? Answers below, please…

Helena Kelly: Jane Austen The Secret Radical

November 22, 2016

41-eofq1hel-_ac_us160_There are going to be a lot of new books on Jane Austen next year to cash in on the bicentenary of her death: this is probably the first of them. It’s a detailed collation of the evidence for Jane Austen’s radicalism, anti-establishment views and so forth, as found in the novels. Kelly is interesting on how Austen’s reputation was carefully crafted and shaped after her death to suit various different purposes and times; she also clarifies how little is really known about the writer’s life, and how much is gossip, hearsay, pure invention, or unevidenced anywhere. It’s therefore in the novels themselves that we might discover what the author’s real opinions were … (or not?) The point that Britain was by and large a totalitarian state during the time of the Napoleonic Wars, and that therefore we need to be reading between the lines just as Austen’s first readers would have done, is worth consideration..

John Mullan reviewed this in last Saturday’s Guardian, just as I was getting into it: he basically panned it. What I’m gradually coming to realise it that every generation reinvents an awful lot of wheels: there wasn’t anything radically new or wildly exciting in this book. Most of the ideas I was familiar with from my studies at university and my preparation for teaching Austen’s novels: Kelly packages her material differently, contextualises better and writes in the style of the latest generation of academics…

That Jane Austen was in some ways quite radical was no news to me; she explores the incredibly limited possibilities for women, and their parlous financial position whether married or not; she is aware of the dangers to women of pregnancy and childbirth; she raises questions about the Church and the massive changes – particularly enclosures – taking place in the society of her times, and she is aware of the role of slavery in creating people’s wealth.

Kelly explains entails in detail, clarifies some aspects of how the Church of England worked and its involvement in slavery in the West Indies, and she’s good on family wealth and its transmission in general; it seems to me that the most useful aspect of her book is the detailed contextualisation of Austen’s society and its workings, the outlines of which are already known to many of Austen’s readers.

And yet, nowhere does Austen seem to be advocating the overthrow or replacement of the institutions of her time; she seems innately conservative in many ways, particularly in the complex social novel that is Mansfield Park, and Kelly’s analysis of that particular novel does seem to squash it to fit her thesis. If anything, Austen seems to be arguing for changes in behaviour, particularly in relationships, and highlighting perceived injustices: she is not a political novelist. Austen isn’t a secret radical, so much as a highly perceptive and intelligent observer of her times, whose gaze nothing escapes.

Mullan’s judgement on the book is a trifle harsh: I did find it interesting. But I also thought Kelly imposes rather too much of contemporary sexual attitudes onto Austen and her characters at times. I found the tone of what purports to be an academic work rather too chatty, and having both footnotes and endnotes was unnecessary. And, was it the author or her editor who decided that Beatrice was the heroine of As You Like It? Good grief...

My A-Z of reading: F is for Film

October 27, 2016

Novels get made into films. Sometimes we like the film version of a book we know well, sometimes it’s awful. But how much thought do you give to the transformation that takes place? The two media are so radically different. The printed text relies on verbal description to create place, setting, atmosphere: a film can do this in seconds, perhaps much more effectively, with added music and sound effects. A novel can take us deep inside a character’s mind and thoughts: how do you do this in a film? And what difference does any of this make, anyway?

I’ll start with Jane Austen. Her novels have been filmed numerous times, for the cinema, and as series for television. And here we find another difference: a film has a relatively fixed time duration – let’s say from an hour and a half to two and a half hours. A TV series could easily be twice as long. What is left in, and what is cut? Again, how does this affect the story – when does it cease to be the Jane Austen novel we know and love, and become something else? Film can do the settings, the houses, the costumes and the looks and interaction between the characters, but what about the thoughts, what about the irony, the subtle authorial interventions? These are lost. Some may be hinted at or suggested through refashioning dialogue, but… And what about the invented moments, Colin Firth‘s famous wet and clinging shirt in the BBC version of Pride and Prejudice, or the kiss at the end of Persuasion. These things may look good on screen, but are they not also doing violence to the original? No, a film is always a version of the original…

I have always liked the film of The Name of the Rose. Sean Connery works as William of Baskerville. The locations and the use of light create a very effective sense of atmosphere; the library is superb and the apocalyptic ending is marvellously done. And yet, only after watching it is it possible to grasp how much of Eco’s superb novel is missing: the stunning erudition, the theology, Adso’s reflections. The film is faithful to the original, but only so far. Similarly, Gunter Grass’ pre-war Danzig is superbly recreated, both visually and atmospherically by Volker Schlondorf in his film of The Tin Drum: the subtly growing Nazi menace creeps up on everyone, and we are not spared the horrors, but the film is only half the novel. It doesn’t matter whether you feel that it’s the better half, my point is, it’s hardly Grass’ novel!

There are more film and TV versions of Sherlock Holmes than you can shake a stick at. Some are passable, some truly dire, some hardly Holmes at all, but I’m of the generation that was captivated by Jeremy Brett’s mannered performances in the 1980s for Granada TV. Fantastic attention to period detail, some re-arrangement of plots for dramatic effect, but fidelity to Conan Doyle’s original is perhaps easier to achieve when we’re (only) dealing with short, detective stories.

I have singularly failed to watch Gregory Peck’s performance as Atticus Finch in the film of To Kill A Mockingbird. We set out to watch it in class one day, but found the opening so crass, so clumsy and so unconvincing after our reading of the novel that the class virtually booed it off-screen: I stopped the video after about fifteen minutes and we gave up… It was instructive to watch and compare the two versions of Lord of the Flies: the aged black and white version made with non-actors that was so faithful to the original yet so ineffective twenty years after it was made, and the horrendous ‘updated’ US version with swearing, rewritten plot and so many other pointless alterations bore almost no resemblance to the original.

Perhaps the most successful – or do I mean accurate? – film version of a novel that I can recall is Richard Burton’s last role as O’Brien in 1984, and John Hurt’s superb performance as Winston. Orwell’s vision of London is visualised stunningly effectively, apart from the smells, of course, which Orwell himself was only able to describe in the original. Fear, paranoia, menace all loom out of the screen; even excerpts from Goldstein’s book – often skimmed by reluctant readers – are read into the film. Brilliant; closest to being a film of the novel rather than a version of it. Unless you know better?

My A-Z of reading: E is for Ending

October 24, 2016

I wrote about beginnings under B and I imagine you would expect me to write about endings… and it’s a lot harder and more complex, I feel. For, as we read, we develop our own expectations of the way a story will go and how we think it should end, and those expectations do not always match those of the writer who produces the text and therefore gets her or his way. How many times did I hear someone in a class object to the ending of a novel?

My impression has always been that until relatively recently, readers expected both a tidy resolution of the story (loose ends tidied up) and a happy ending too, and for many years, that was what they got. More recently, though, writers have experimented with offering their readers open endings rather than closed and final ones: why should they have to tie up all the loose ends, and what right do their readers have to a feeling of happiness and satisfaction at the end of a novel? And if we do not like the way a novel ends, then surely the question to ask is, so why did the writer choose to have that ending rather than the one I wanted? I found it useful to point my students in that direction, as it reminded them once again that a novel is a work of fiction (that is, something made) where the writer is in control of everything, making choices all the way along the line, and thereby excluding other choices…

In some ways for me the ending of Persuasion is the perfect happy ending: Anne and Wentworth finally get each other after many years, in spite of so many obstacles; his letter is a masterpiece of genuine feeling, and what reader can grudge them their happiness as they walk together – united at last – through the streets of Bath? Jane Austen manages it perfectly, I think.

Contrast this with the ending of Charlotte Bronte’s Villette, some forty years later. The power of it blew me away when I first read it: Lucy’s passion for Paul and the way the ending is deliberately left open – does he return for them to live happily ever after or is he lost forever in that dreadful Atlantic storm? – is heart-wrenching in the way it leaves the lovers parted, or in suspended animation for a century and a half now. Amazingly daring then, I’m sure, such openness is often imitated now, to rather less effect. There’s a similar power for me in the ending of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment: after we and Raskolnikov have been churned by the psychological torment of the plot, we are surely happy that Sonya will be waiting for him to return after he has purged his crime and they will be happy together…

It’s hard not to fall in love with Huck Finn’s innocence and genuineness as his adventures unfold; the silly escapades after his reunion with Tom Sawyer are a blot on the book and his character, but his decision to abandon civilisation and light out for the territory at the end of the novel I find immensely moving and powerful. Nor can I get to the end of the n-th re-read of The Name of the Rose without a lump in my throat: the suddenly aged Adso at the end of his life, in some way shaped by his one experience of passion and sexual fulfilment, and noting at the end of his adventure with William ‘I never saw him again’. If a book is well-written, a good story that makes me care about the characters, then little details like that are extraordinarily powerful.

Other endings I have loved: the tour-de-force that is the final section of Ulysses, the return full-circle at the end of One Hundred Years of Solitude, the kick in the guts that is the end of Nineteen Eighty-four – that has to be the ending, no matter how much we loathe it. And most recently, in a trilogy that has become (and I think will remain) a classic, Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights: the relationship that develops and blossoms between Lyra and Will, that I cannot put a name to, and then their separation forever into their own respective universes, parallel but never again to meet…

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.

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