Posts Tagged ‘John Milton’

More books to get you through a lockdown…

April 14, 2020

Women get a look-in on this particular list of novels originally written in English; only three out of ten, but it’s a start.

Jane Austen: Mansfield Park. People discuss, argue even, over which is the best of Jane Austen’s novels. For me it comes down to one of the two on this list: ask me tomorrow, and the other of the two will be the best. Mansfield Park is the most complex of her novels, and one that for me is full of politics and ideas, and shows a depth to Austen that’s harder to find in her other works, as she subtly reflects on some of the enormous changes taking place in English society at the time she was writing, with the country in the middle of the Napoleonic Wars, early industrialisation and enclosures of the common land to name but a few. Her heroine is not someone to easily warm to, the hero’s choice to follow the vocation of the church is hardly thrilling, and the Crawfords, though attractive, are Satanic tempters… Or, if you want something simpler, there’s Persuasion, which is about the survival of love in adversity and how the hero and heroine finally do get what they deserve. The final section is as tense, powerful and nerve-wracking as it’s possible for Austen to be.

Charlotte Bronte: Villette. I like Jane Eyre, but have always found Villette more gripping and compelling, partly because of the complex relationship between hero and heroine, and partly because of the exotic setting. Writing that last sentence I’m struck with how it is just as true of Jane Eyre. Evidently I prefer how Bronte works it all out in Villette! And the ending of Villette is just marvellous, perhaps the first ‘open’ ending in the English novel, certainly very daring, and for me incredibly moving…

Joseph Conrad: Nostromo. Conrad has always called to me because of his Polish ancestry; he has always astonished me by his literary production in what was actually his third language. I like the complexity of the narrative structure of Nostromo, and the way the author manipulates his reader; the setting of this novel also reminds me of Marquez’ masterpiece I wrote about a couple of days ago, One Hundred Years of Solitude. There’s also a subtle psychological depth to Conrad’s characters which fascinates me, and we are thinking about a writer who was active at the time that psychology and psychoanalysis were coming into the mainstream of people’s lives.

Evelyn Waugh: Brideshead Revisited. I realise I’m back with the ‘vanished past’ novels that I was listing in my earlier posts, and an English take on the idea this time. It’s quite easy to forget Waugh’s framing of the main story while one wallows in the luxury and decadence of the earlier years, and perhaps you need the experience of being or having once been a Catholic for the utter sadness of the central relationship to have its full effect on you. For me, not necessarily a great novel, but a small and perfectly formed gem, and one wonderfully brought to television many years ago now.

Lawrence Sterne: Tristram Shandy. I’ve read a goodly number of experimental and just plain weird novels in my time – search for posts on Ben Marcus in this blog if you like – but this takes the biscuit, written by an English country clergyman two and a half centuries ago. You can still visit his church and home if you are in my part of the world. It’s the world’s longest shaggy dog story, wandering all over the place and getting nowhere, as well as exposing, in one of the earliest of novels, the limitations of any pretence to realism in that form.

Henry Fielding: Tom Jones. It’s rambling, it’s fun, it’s vulgar, and the boy and the girl get each other in the end. That sounds really trite, and you really have to look at it from the perspective of it’s being one of the very first novels in English. And Fielding’s dialogue with his readers is superb.

James Joyce: Ulysses. This one has to be in here. Sorry if you’ve tried and failed, but it really is worth it finally to get through the whole novel. The stream of consciousness is a fascinating idea: you can do it with yourself if you concentrate hard enough, but to have a writer take you inside the mind and subconscious of another person is a different experience. And then there’s the cleverness, the mapping of Bloomsday onto Dublin, onto 24 hours, onto Homer’s epic poem. I know it’s not for everyone. I’ll confess: having read Ulysses, I thought I’d be brave and attempt Finnegans Wake. Fail.

Sebastian Faulks: Birdsong. I taught this a few times, and it took a good while for its cleverness fully to sink in: so many of the poems of the Great War, and so many events and places, and also writers who took part, are so carefully and subtly woven in to this amazing novel, and when I do finally go back to it, I’m sure I will spot some more. And then there’s the clever framing of the story, and the subplot as the grand-daughter rediscovers the past. It’s not flawless, but as a way of linking current generations into a traumatic past, I think it surpasses anything else I know of.

Philip Pullman: Northern Lights Trilogy. Highly-rated and very popular, but still underrated, in my opinion. I think it is an absolute masterpiece on many counts. Pullman’s imagining of the alternate and parallel universes, the wealth of detail – which was lost in the recent TV series – creating Lyra’s Oxford, the huge cast of characters and more fantastical creatures, many brought to life in great detail, unlike the wooden or cardboard characters that people a lot of fantasy. And then, the philosophical ideas that Pullman draws in, as well as the many parallels with Milton’s epic Paradise Lost… I’m blown away each time I come back to it. I’ve listened to Pullman himself narrating the entire work a couple of times, read the novels several times, seen the poor film The Golden Compass, and watched the amazing recent TV series – I can’t get enough.

There’s a couple of lockdowns’ worth of suggestions there; to be continued…

Christmas in literature

December 18, 2019

As I grow older I find Christmas more and more difficult; nothing seems to remind me more clearly of just how old I am, and the tree and the decorations each year bring a sadness as I recall the innocent happinesses of the past years, of my own childhood and then that of our children, moments that can be remembered but never re-experienced, times, meals and presents I particularly appreciated, people who are no longer here…

I love the idea of a midwinter festival, marking the solstice, and the time when the days cease to grow shorter, but actually begin to lengthen in preparation for the renewal of life and the eventual arrival of spring. The worst is over. It’s right that there should be a time of rest and recuperation, some feasting, and the sharing of food and gifts with those we love and care about is surely part of that. The Christian festival, for those who celebrate it as such, is clearly part of that ancient idea of new life and new hope; even if older ideas and festivals were colonised and annexed by the new religion, that doesn’t really seem to matter to me; everyone recognises the same new beginnings in their own ways.

I find it sad that every year there is the commercial urge to an ever more crass blow-out of binge-eating, drinking and spending, in which certainly the religious and spiritual aspects of the festival are totally lost, but even the symbolism of marking midwinter.

I racked my memory for instances of Christmas festivities in literature, but was surprised at how few I could summon up. Obviously there is the maudlin and sentimental Dickens – although I can happily watch the Muppets Christmas Carol every year! There is the one Sherlock Holmes story where Conan Doyle also cashed in, The Blue Carbuncle; the over-rich Christmas pudding which the boy is not allowed to eat, in Peter Carey’s Oscar and Lucinda, and the feast and squabbles and the presents of air rifles in To Kill A Mockingbird. And I can’t omit Milton’s poem On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity, nor the episode in Emma where the valetudinarian Mr Woodhouse is worried about going out in the snow… Finally, to return to the Great War with which I have been quite preoccupied with in this blog over the years, there is the story of the 1914 Christmas truce on the Western Front, not repeated in subsequent years as far as I’m aware. Overall, not a lot from a lifetime of reading, although perhaps I’ve forgotten a few other mentions. Perhaps you can prompt me, dear reader…

Norman Douglas: Old Calabria

July 6, 2019

81wSI-iJP9L._AC_UL436_  Here was a disappointment, especially since the blurb on the back promised one of the best travel books ever written…

I’d heard of Norman Douglas a good while back and meant to try some of his writing. He was writing earlier than I’d imagined, in this case shortly before the First World War, as he makes his way around southern Italy, describing places some fifteen years before Carlo Levi’s masterpiece, Christ Stopped at Eboli. Douglas is much more interested in the places and landscape than the people, it seems, and indeed at times is quite vituperative against the locals. His sceptical and mocking tone often belies his love of the charm and peacefulness, and the decaying beauty of the past.

His prose is often lyrical, his attitude leisured, and yet there is not enough to retain the reader. He treats all sorts of subjects in this omnium gatherum of a book; I loved the entire chapter on the supposed plagiarism by Milton of the story of Paradise Lost from a sacred Italian tragedy, and went off to do further research forthwith; I also loved the entertaining chapter of utterly bonkers stories about the supposed lives and escapades of various saints, especially those who could fly (although some, apparently, could only fly ‘a little’…)

Douglas clearly loved the places he wrote about, and knew the country extremely well, but ultimately I’m afraid I found the book rather a ragbag of disconnected pieces, with an evenness of tone that led to dullness, monotony even. Nothing really stood out as special in any way, and I found myself rushing towards the end of this disappointing read. I cannot decide whether it’s rambling and self-indulgent, or if it has just dated rather too much. However, there are many travel journals from much earlier times that I have read and found much more gripping and entertaining.

On Shakespeare worship

May 23, 2018

Is Shakespeare that good? How good is he?

I’ve recently come back from my annual week with a group of a couple of dozen like-minded folk where we’ve sat and studied and explored Shakespeare and been to Stratford to see a couple of his plays at the RSCRomeo & Juliet and Macbeth this year. The first performance was not bad, the second was brilliant. And at some point we find ourselves sitting in a room all saying in different ways how wonderful Shakespeare was… and sometimes I find myself feeling uneasy.

Can we step back and judge the man objectively any more, or has he been canonised in such a way that it’s impossible to be critical? Or is he clearly brilliant every which way and that’s that?

His language is wonderful: it’s hard to challenge that, particularly in his plays. I was particularly aware of this first re-reading and then watching Macbeth in performance. But when I’m reading or listening to his sonnets, wonderful as they are, I’m always reminded of his contemporary John Donne, whose poetry I’ve always preferred, who breaks out of the restricted and constraining sonnet form when he feels like it (quite often), who often writes as he would speak, with great power and freshness, contrasted with which Shakespeare can seem a bit trite, and same-y – all those sonnets! But when I read or see plays, yes Marlowe occasionally matches Shakespeare’s language in range and scope, as does Webster too, at times… but Shakespeare just does it so well, so consistently, so effortlessly, time and again.

Many people pay tribute to the way Shakespeare contributed to the development of our language, his coining of new words to suit divers occasions and situations; it’s true. But so did Milton, just as much and as powerfully, but people don’t read Paradise Lost any more, and so they never see or hear Shakespeare’s equal in this field.

We are fortunate that so much of Shakespeare’s oeuvre has survived – a couple of plays are known to be missing – and perhaps many plays by rivals did not. Shakespeare wrote in all the genres – historical plays, comedies, tragedies and romances, so there is a breadth to his work we do not have in his rivals. His themes are the same as those used by everyone else, and the judgement seems to be that he just outdid the rest.

I have never really been interested in any of the so-called controversies about Shakespeare’s identity, or his authorship of the plays or not: I don’t think it will ever be possible to have incontrovertible proof of anything that happened four centuries ago, and every generation produces its crop of theories. It would be good to have more information about the man and the gaps in his biography, but then, it would be good to have a lot of things…

Shakespeare is ‘for all time’, said friend and rival Ben Jonson. This may well mean the subject-matter of his plays and how he develops his ideas and characters. Writers are always going to write about the same issues – love, hate, jealousy, rivalry, death, ambition, friendship… but does Shakespeare inevitably have the last or the best word on all these topics? Maybe he enjoys an advantage as a dramatist, in that he brings it all to life, in front of us onstage: there is an immediacy and an intensity that few novelists are able to achieve in what is a totally different literary form.

What do you think?

Philip Pullman: Daemon Voices

April 8, 2018

511FXYXfj9L._AC_US218_

A writer writes about his craft, his inspirations, and how he works: fascinating, in the same way that Ursula Le Guin doing just that was fascinating. He doesn’t disappoint in the way he writes, either – there’s more of the fluent clear language and sentence-crafting that one experiences in his novels. Pullman is a very readable writer, accessible, communicating effectively. You may think, well, yes, he would, but that’s not always the case…

He’s very strong and forthright on a writer’s responsibilities, fascinating on how stories work, and challenges literary theorists. He writes about his experiences as a teacher and rages against the insanities and inanities of our ‘National Curriculum’. He’s forcefully and coherently atheist, anti-God; this I found quite challenging myself, and though I appreciated his stance, decided to continue to differ with him there…

Out of his atheism there arises a sense of wonder: for Pullman, the more we discover, the more wondrous the universe seems to be, an approach which chimes in with my own ever since my childhood excitement at looking at the skies and learning about other worlds.

Clearly I was looking for further understanding of the genesis of, and intentions behind, the Dark Materials trilogy, and I was not disappointed. There was a detailed personal response to Milton‘s Paradise Lost, and how the Fall story and his anti-religious stance worked together to create a story in which the Fall was a good thing: the loss of innocence and a knowledge of good and evil is what makes us human; that knowledge of evil does not imply that all humans therefore embrace it. There is a myth of the Fall in the world of the mulefa in The Amber Spyglass; it both resembles the one in our world and is very different from it, and Pullman’s clarification was very interesting.

Pullman is interesting on the craft of the writer, too, and open about his need and desire to make a decent living out of it. He’s scathing about Tolkien‘s trilogy, which he compares with Middlemarch (!) from the perspective of characterisation, and finds seriously wanting, and he has no time for C S LewisNarnia books either, because of their reactionary, anti-human, anti-life and pleasure content. I didn’t disagree with him there, either. Perhaps the most eye-opening section for me was a chapter on the nature of the narrator, where he raises a whole raft of issues with which I was familiar as a life-long student of literature, but to contemplate them from the perspective of a practising writer was really illuminating. He also takes issue with the current trend for people to write stories in the present tense and demonstrates clearly how limiting a choice this is.

Pullman shares a good deal of himself with his readers here. Most of the pieces in the collection were originally lectures or talks; a few are introductions he has written to various books. The whole is a book full of surprises; I found him reflecting on a wide range of books I had also known and loved in the past, and also came across a few recommendations for my to-read list. As an insight into the mind and art of one of our best living writers, it’s really good: challenging and thought-provoking.

La Belle Sauvage – again…

October 22, 2017

If you think about it, the Dark Materials trilogy is a self-contained work that cannot itself be added to or extended: the events of those novels span multiple universes, made possible by the operations of Lord Asriel, and also by the use of the subtle knife, and when the novels end, the doors between the universes must all be sealed up, and the knife broken, so no further movement between worlds is possible: this is what makes the separation of Will and Lyra at the end of The Amber Spyglass so moving and painful – as well as necessary.

So, any subsequent books, including La Belle Sauvage and whatever the second and third parts of The Book of Dust is to be called, are additions: La Belle Sauvage happens in Lyra’s world, which we all know and love, but does not extend outside of it. The machinations of the Church, and Asriel, and others researching the Rusakov particle, will lead to the fantastic events of the trilogy ten years later, and the ten years after those events, the following books may be set in Will’s or Lyra’s world (or both) I imagine, but without connection between them.

What these limitations leave Philip Pullman with, it seems to me, are his ideas, which for me were always at the heart of the Dark Materials trilogy anyway: questions of innocence and experience, the notion of good and evil, original sin, and the role of God, if there is one.

The world of the Church and the Magisterium is a cruel and Calvinistic one, it seems to me, and its evil has been clarified for me by some of the reading I’ve been doing lately that has been prompted by the 500th anniversary of Luther‘s ninety-five theses and the start of the Reformation. One of the things which came from the Reformation was a stronger emphasis on what can only be called predestination: the idea that, in religious terms, or if one accepts that particular Christian doctrine, most people are born with no hope of salvation, doomed to damnation, and the small (smug?) band of the elect, or the saved, are saved through no effort of their own. Obviously I oversimplify, but it’s a pretty cruel God that some people have invented, and one that my own Catholic upbringing makes me find repellent.

The idea that we must try to build the Republic of Heaven here and now, in the world we are actually living in, is not a new one, though Pullman has made it clear and concrete in a different way in HDM. The choice to rebel against an arbitrary power (God, if you like) was evil, wrong, Satan-prompted, in traditional Christian terms, although even Milton in his epic Paradise Lost cannot help turning Satan into some kind of hero. But Pullman emphasises that the choice to reject control, to assume power oneself, is a positive and liberating one, as well as being the one that makes us fully human; again, it’s this final point that Milton cannot avoid in his poem. So, ultimately, is this choice to be human wrong – a sin – or inevitable, given our free will, and also liberating: this is what we are, and can be?

Free will is the problem, of course, for us humans now: many can and do choose evil, make wrong choices that harm and oppress others. Predestination removes the problem: we don’t have free will if we are predestined to damnation from the moment of birth, with no hope of changing our fate through our own actions, and what follows then is that nothing that happens in this world is of any ultimate significance or consequence at all: the elect get heaven anyway, and everyone else ends up in hell…

Back to Pullman, who nails his colours clearly to the mast in HDM: the Fall was a felix culpa, but not in the traditional Christian sense: the Fall liberates us to be human. Will and Lyra made many choices, considered and with the help and advice of many wise creatures, on their epic journey. Having read and enjoyed La Belle Sauvage, but thought further some of its inevitable limitations, I now realise that it’s the next two books that I’m really waiting for: what did happen next?

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

On a sadly neglected epic

March 27, 2017

I was reminded by a magazine article I read a couple of days ago that next month marks the 350th anniversary of the publication of John Milton‘s epic, Paradise Lost. It deserves a post here, as it’s one of my favourite works of literature, and, as most critics seem to agree, sadly neglected nowadays.

Why sadly neglected? Firstly, it’s poetry, which doesn’t get much of a look-in nowadays, especially after some of the death-by-poetry onslaughts to which many school students are subjected by exam boards at the moment. And it’s epic poetry, which means it’s very long – twelve books, each of some thousand lines or so – remember, we are in pre-novel days here. Though prose narratives of a kind had been written by 1667, a subject like Milton’s deserved verse, and got it. That’s how stories were told.

Once we are past poetry and length, then there’s the subject-matter: religion. Specifically, to ‘justify the ways of God to Man’, as the poet himself put it. And religion does not figure large in many people’s lives nowadays. In Milton’s theology, everything, but everything centres around the felix culpa, that ‘happy fault’, the Fall, which allowed God to manifest his love and mercy to humans and the Son of God to offer himself as a sacrifice to atone for that original sin. The whole of human and cosmic history revolves around the events of Book IX. And of course, for Milton, it was all Eve’s fault, a silly woman deceived by a talking snake, who then tricks her gullible partner into repeating her sin… truly in this twenty-first century Paradise Lost doesn’t seem to have a great deal going for it.

Why do I like it? For me, the Adam and Eve story is at the level of a legend, but it’s part of our cultural past in the West, whether one is Christian or not. And it’s a good story. I don’t buy the Son of God sacrifice and redemption story either, but again, the Bible stories, whatever your take on them, are all part of our past, out history and cultural heritage, whether or not one accepts them as true. And to lose our past is just that, a loss.

But it goes deeper than that. Whether intended or not, Milton explores and shows us just what makes us human: our free will, our choices, our wish not to be limited or confined by others’ rules. The Adam and Eve after the Fall, after their comfort sex, are people like us, with our flaws and faults; before the fall they were not human as we know it. And in the cosmic story which surrounds the little, human story of Adam and Eve, the same issues are fought over: good and evil, and the origins of evil in the world; freedom and servitude; the very purpose of existence. It’s no surprise to me that as brilliant a writer as Philip Pullman has offered a contemporary take on this story and its implications for human beings nowadays, in his Northern Lights trilogy, and in the up-coming Book of Dust. Pullman celebrates the liberation offered by what Milton the Christian must condemn…

And, for me, these philosophical arguments are reinforced, if not surpassed, by the poetry. It is stunning, and a work of true genius: Milton’s style matches the subject-matter. There is the grandeur of God in his Heaven, the magnificent defiance of Satan and his cohorts, and the human intimacy of out human forebears. There is magnificent description on a cosmic scale, warfare in the heavens, the beauty of Paradise: the rhythm of Milton’s verse captures it all, as he extends the scope and scale of the English language with far more newly-coined words than Shakespeare (though more of Shakespeare’s have survived into contemporary usage). I will admit that it’s a challenge, nowadays, to read on the page, though well worth it; this is the reason why I usually recommend the outstanding, unabridged audio recording by Anton Lesser on Naxos Audiobooks as the way to enjoy the poem. It deserves to be enjoyed by more people…

Philip Pullman: The Book of Dust

March 1, 2017

51c3yuum9ll-_ac_us218_51sf-9svtul-_ac_us218_No, I haven’t had access to an early copy – I wish! I’m really looking forward to when this comes out in the autumn, and hope that it doesn’t take five years for the whole trilogy to be published, like the last one did. I can’t wait to read more of Pullman‘s ideas, to revisit the people and places he invented, to read another story from a real master…

I am now well into the final volume of the Dark Materials trilogy again; I’m listening to it in the car as I travel, and the full version, narrated by Philip Pullman himself, is marvellous, though it’s hard to stop myself picking up the books in the house and racing on with the story. So, what’s actually so good about it?

What has always struck me is the depth and the detail, both of the plot and the structure, of the trilogy, its time and scope, which equals the ambitiousness of Milton when he set out to write an epic that would outdo all those of the past, and took as his theme the creation of the world, the Fall and Man’s redemption, in Paradise Lost. And the parallels with Milton’s story are evident. Milton was a master and an inventor of language, and so is Pullman, though in different ways. Both writers invent unseen, imagined worlds and describe and populate them.

But it’s where Pullman goes with his ideas that has always fascinated me, through my several readings and listenings. In Milton’s version, the Fall is a good thing, a felix culpa, because it allows something far greater, in Christian theological terms, which is Christ’s sacrifice of himself to redeem humanity from its fallen condition. But Milton also has a problem, which is that Satan comes across as the hero of his poem, not intentionally, not deliberately, but nevertheless inevitably: the angels in heaven are dull and boring, and we know that the omnipotent God is going to come out tops, so there’s no narrative suspense there. In Paradise, Adam and Eve are as dull as dust, dutifully spouting a party line as they do the pruning and talk with the animals. The sex is boring, too. As humans, stasis is not our natural condition.

Some fundamentalist Christians have ranted and railed against what Pullman has suggested in his trilogy, which to me seems to be that it’s precisely through the Fall that we are human as we now recognise ourselves to be, that being fallen makes us what we are. Religion and authority limit and restrict us, attempt to deny us our full potential. In other words, our fallen condition is often pretty good fun and we enjoy it. And Will and Lyra re-enact that Fall, joyfully, unashamedly.

The issue, I think, is a similar one to that raised by Aldous Huxley in his challenging novel Brave New World, way back in the 1930s. I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to teach that novel a number of times, and students’ reaction to the world Huxley visualised in AF 632 was very interesting: many very much liked the idea of living in it; others were appalled. In our discussions of the novel, we edged towards the discovery, not that there was anything wrong per se with the hedonistic life of that world, but that its inhabitants were not actually human as we understood the term. We are back to the old trope of innocence and experience: we prefer the ‘experienced’ world, and it’s just as well, since turning the clock back is not an option.

Both Milton and Pullman raise all sorts of philosophical and theological questions for us to consider, not to fear: what sort of a God tests his creatures thus? and punishes them thus? What is the origin of evil in the world, given that everything in existence was created from nothing by a supposedly good God, including the seeds of evil? The Cathars had a different answer from the Catholic Church, and the idea of free will is all very well, but is not a complete answer, if you think about it more deeply. If I have a faith, it is one which encourages me to think deeply, to be myself, to work and struggle towards what to believe in; it does not give me easy answers. I’m really excited to see where else Pullman will take us with his stories and ideas… roll on autumn.

My A-Z of reading: A is for Atlas

October 13, 2016

41x19xixdpl-_ac_us160_Some of my readers may have realised I have a long-standing fascination with maps. I remember asking for, and receiving, an atlas for Christmas when I was seven or eight: that’s what comes from hearing about all sorts of faraway and fascinating places from a well-travelled dad (though not all the places were visited freely, thanks to Stalin, but that’s a different story); it was replaced with a larger one a few years later, and then when I was feeling flush, with the full-on, full-size Times Comprehensive Atlas, and I’m now on my second one of those…

So what is it about atlases and maps? Well, there’s a weightiness and therefore a seriousness to a proper atlas, and I find maps a real thing of beauty: the care, neatness and accuracy of the lines, and the different colours for different types of land and depth of sea. And then there is the magic of all those place names, whether it’s the crazy-sounding village names of our our West Country (Queen’s Camel, Mudford Sock, anyone?) or the unpronounceable towns of Eastern Europe (Szekesfehervar? Dniepropetrovsk? Szczecin?)… Milton had a field day in Paradise Lost with faraway placenames: they made wonderful poetry. (And I have a map with them all on!)

There’s a ridiculous amount of information contained in a map, and depending on how well-drawn and coloured it is, you can do a pretty good job of visualising an area, although I will admit that Google Earth does a just as good if not better job pretty instantly. Town, street and metro maps are different, and just as fascinating. And then there are the maps in other languages… early Arabic maps of the world which look wonderfully familiar until you look at the writing. A Polish relative, back in communist times, gave me a road atlas of the Soviet Union, not because it was something that I’d ever use, but because it was something he’d managed to buy, and could offer as a gift, when finding presents for people was really hard. I treasure this volume, on shoddy paper, in Cyrillic script, with vast tracts of the country missing because there are zero roads there (can you imagine that?) and places where you can follow a dirt track for 500+ kilometres until the road just stops, and then have to turn round and head back the way you came.

Atlases have also become excellent at conveying much more than just geographical information, as new generations of cartographers have developed the art: conflicts, migrations, wars and much more can be very clearly represented. I’m thinking of some of the remarkably informative maps published in papers like Le Monde Diplomatique, which occasionally publishes a thematic atlas devoted to a topic like the environment… There’s the astonishing Peters projection atlas, which presents the entire world at exactly the same scale throughout, and manages to equalise the land areas visually too, so that although parts of the world look rather distorted (and we all know that putting a spherical word onto flat paper can’t really be done) the whole world is fairly and equitably represented, with none of the bias to the West, or the US or the developed world that we see in all other atlases.

51tqjsxm65l-_ac_us160_

I love old atlases especially, too, although too expensive for my pocket. I do have a 1919 Daily Telegraph Victory Atlas which is colossal, and built in the old-fashioned manner where every double-page spread is individually pasted and sewn into the binding so there are no minute gaps or discrepancies at the centre where nowadays two pages join… and I think of the incredible labour involved in redrawing so many maps and re-labelling so many towns and cities at the end of the Great War as new nations were born.

My biggest treat is probably Taschen’s marvellous reprint of (selected sections) of Joan Blaeu’s humongous seventeenth century Atlas Maior. It’s a work of incredible colour and beauty, and you get a picture of a half-discovered world, with the lands Europeans knew well delineated in great detail and accuracy, and those half-known, unexplored areas sketched in vaguely, half-accurately – but they are there and you know that there were intrepid explorers hurtling about the globe eager to fill in the gaps.

51qxzq4dbpl-_ac_us160_

I’ve never been able – or wanted to – sit and read a dictionary or an encyclopaedia, but I’ll happily spend an entire evening turning the pages and poring over a good atlas.

%d bloggers like this: