Posts Tagged ‘Lawrence Sterne’

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…

The five senses in fiction

January 21, 2019

When I wrote about Rupert Brooke’s poem The Great Lover, I referred to his use of the five senses in that poem; since then I’ve been thinking about writers’ use of their five senses more generally in literature, trying to remember novels where sensual experience has featured particularly powerfully.

Taste: the instant response was obviously Marcel Proust, of course, and that famous madeleine dipped in his tea, with the taste bringing back a whole world of childhood experiences and memories in A la Recherche du Temps Perdu. Which of us hasn’t experienced a similar moment at some time? It’s harder to think of a more powerful gustatory moment in literature. But then I recalled Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain, set in the Confederacy during the American Civil War, and the importance of food throughout that novel, as a symbol of fellowship and sharing, especially when the recipient is in dire need. The descriptions of the preparation of food, the smells and tastes as well as the sensory pleasure enjoyed in its consumption and sharing are evident on numerous occasions in that book.

The sense of sight and its importance is brought home for me in two novels that deal with the loss of it. Firstly John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids, where it’s the blinding of almost the entire population by a very powerful meteor-shower – that may have been a malfunctioning space-based weapons system, we never find out – that leaves everyone so vulnerable to the stings of the mobile plants which kill and then feed on decaying flesh. The powerlessness of the blind is evoked in many different ways, as is the reluctance of the few sighted ones left to be of help to their fellow-humans. But the shock of this novel pales into insignificance against the Portuguese writer Jose Saramago’s novel Blindness, which I honestly do not think I would have the courage to read again, so horrific a picture of depraved human nature does it paint. I have wondered if Saramago was influenced by Wyndham. Nearly everyone is temporarily blinded in Saramago’s novel, and the viciousness and brutality of some of the blind in the ways they capture, maltreat and abuse the sighted ones, as well as their weaker fellow blind humans, is truly horrendous, and leaves one with very little faith in human nature.

The revolting smell of boiled cabbage permeates the world of Airstrip One’s London in George Orwell’s well-known Nineteen Eighty-four. It epitomises the poverty and deprivation of Big Brother’s world of rationing and control, along with the sickening smell and vile taste of the Victory gin. Indeed, I have found that Orwell is particularly attuned to the smells of poverty and deprivation in his writings. Tristram Shandy’s nose, and the unfortunate accident which happens to it during his birth, is at the centre of the eponymous novel by Laurence Sterne, and the whole of Patrick Süsskind’s novel Perfume centres on the central character’s olfactory skills. It’s also stunningly effectively translated to film.

Sound and hearing was rather more of a problem, and the only thing I could come up with was the character of Oskar in Günter GrassThe Tin Drum: his voice, singing or screaming, can easily shatter glass, and does so with various humorous, alarming and dramatic effects at many points in the novel.

Touch I found even more problematic, the legend of King Midas aside, partly as my acquaintance with erotic literature is somewhat limited, although I was again reminded of The Tin Drum: readers familiar with the book will know what I am referring to when I mention the episode of the woodruff powder…

I would be interested to hear from my readers if there are any novels I’ve either forgotten or don’t know about, in which particular senses feature strongly… I’m also wondering if some of our senses are more conducive to literary exploration than others.

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.

Andrei Bitov: Pushkin House

December 15, 2015

51LvwcASCmL._AA160_This is apparently a Soviet post-modern novel. It’s extremely hard work, and I can see why the Soviets wouldn’t publish it. It’s chaotic, in a Joycean or Shandian sense, and parts of it recall the weirder bits of Ulysses; because it’s about literature and responses to it, it’s presented almost as an academic work, with sections and subsections and appendices and notes and footnotes…

The author is forever interfering, or deliberately intervening in his own narrative, sometimes interacting with his hero, offering variants of particular episodes, alternate endings and the like, so attempting to track a linear narrative is not really allowed or possible. The power of the author is obvious – he can do as he likes, and we are allowed at times to assume there is a direct identification between author and hero, and at other times not. He can also write himself into a corner with his hero’s mad antics, and then magic him out of it again.

Ultimately the plot isn’t sufficiently interesting to sustain this reader’s interest; it’s no doubt clever in its convolutedness and self-reference, but it doesn’t draw one along like Tristram Shandy or Ulysses do. Partly, I think, this is because so much of the detail and reference is Russian-specific; even my reasonable acquaintance with nineteenth century Russian literature didn’t help me wade through the mire of mentions of authors and quotations from their works, plus details of their biographies… and a novel that requires complex notes and glosses ceases to be a novel – though perhaps this is part of Bitov’s intention.

The one thing which did stand out as a consummate achievement was an astonishing drinking binge involving eight bottles of vodka being consumed by five people over a night or so; the weird states, hallucinations and outlandish behaviour are every bit as insane as the drug-fuelled ramblings of the late Hunter S Thompson, or the craziest section of Joyce’s Ulysses. Only Russians are capable of drinking like this, and if you do want to read a novel about epic drinking, then you should probably go for Benedikt Erofeev‘s Moscow Circles rather than this one, I suggest.

In the end, I’m afraid it wasn’t quite worth the eyeball time.

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