Posts Tagged ‘Middlemarch’

How writers write changes with time…

January 21, 2019

 

One of the things I really valued about my studies of literature at university (both English and French) was that they helped me to gain the beginnings of an overview of literature over time, and to a lesser extent in space, that is, different countries. Slowly and gradually, I began to put together the jigsaw of how people had written, what forms they had used, and what their subject-matter had been, and how these had changed and developed over the centuries. I think that this was probably part of the design of the course, at a fairly traditional redbrick university in the nineteen-seventies.

So people initially wrote verse because that was how stories were most easily remembered in the days before printing and mass literacy; otherwise stories were re-enacted onstage in the theatre, so poetry and drama as forms long pre-dated prose fiction, which required individual literacy, printing and sufficient income to purchase books before it became widespread and eventually dominant.

Perhaps it is because prose was the way in which academic ideas and discourse were expressed, that the earliest prose fiction sought to convince readers of its veracity and presented itself almost as documentary: in English, I’m thinking of Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (based on a true story) and A Journal of the Plague Year (referring to the events of 1665, before Defoe’s time) and Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, where the author is keen to situate geographically the location of each of the eponymous hero’s adventures.

Adventures in the realm of sex and love soon followed in novels like Fielding’s Tom Jones; eventually becoming rather more genteel in the search for the ideal partner, as evidenced in the novels of Jane Austen, perhaps. Character development came to interest many writers and then came the development of what is best summed up in the German word bildungsroman, or novel of education. Obvious examples in English are Jane Eyre and Villette, or Samuel Butler’s The Way of All Flesh: we see the early life of characters, and the people and events which influence them in their development and the formation of their character as they gradually mature into adults. In a sense we are seeing literature here preceding the development of the science of psychology in looking at what influences form and shape individuals as they grow, although this aspect of the novel flourishes later in the nineteenth and into the early twentieth century as that science develops.

Because there was a strong faith in human progress and a dream of the gradual improvement of people and their society, society itself comes under the literary microscope later on in the nineteenth century, in the novels of writers such as Dickens and George Eliot: Middlemarch attempts a wide-ranging portrait of the different classes of English society in a provincial town at the time of electoral reform in the 1820s and 1830s. Society is also under the microscope in the detective fiction of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories: here is Victorian London, the largest city on the planet, home to crime and criminals of all classes, presented in a sanitised version for its readership, at the same time as the ghastly Jack the Ripper murders were actually happening.

Writers become more interested in the workings of the human mind as the century moved to its close and into the twentieth; writers like Joseph Conrad and James Joyce are experimenting with ways of showing us inside humans’ heads: Joyce takes us through five different ages and stages in the development of Stephen Dedalus in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, using the stream of consciousness technique.

There are times when I feel that the novel reached its limits in the late twentieth century, running out of new avenues to pursue and new aspects of human experience to explore. I have found a great deal of recent and contemporary fiction (in English, at least) to be rather dull, repetitive, self-indulgent even.

But three new strands do emerge with a fair degree of clarity, I think. As the pace of – particularly technological – change has accelerated, science fiction or speculative fiction has come into its own. Much of it may perhaps not count as literature, but the notion that as a species we shape and may perhaps destroy our world, is a logical avenue for writers to pursue. Then there is that very elusive genre magic realism, perhaps embedded in the real and yet definitely not realistic, as exemplified by the novels of Gabriel Garcia Marquez or Günter Grass, to name a couple. I still can’t really nail down what exactly it is doing, but I love it. And finally there is what I suppose we may call gender fiction, writing that explores the experiences of a particular gender – feminist fiction or women’s fiction – or sexuality – gay fiction. Who can say where literature will turn next? Have you come across any pointers?

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Philip Pullman: Daemon Voices

April 8, 2018

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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.

From page to screen

May 31, 2016

I suppose I’ve always been a purist when it comes to adapting a novel for television or the cinema: a book is a book for a reason, and converting it into something else – a play, a film, a TV series – always loses something. However, there are also times when something is gained…

Other forms (I’ll write more fully about significant form in a future post) add a visual element to something that was originally written to appear in print. It’s important to understand how it replaces a space that existed for the imagination to work in when we are reading: we visualise characters and places as we read, often working from our stock of memories of all the people we have ever met and the places we have been to. Thus, when we see a film after having read the book, we may feel that the casting or setting jars with what our imagination had created for us originally. Equally, if we watch a film or television adaptation first and then go on to read the book, our imagination may well be constrained by what we have seen. I do think that it’s important to allow free rein to the imagination, especially in a child’s formative years: if it’s fully developed, it will always be there; it’s a valuable and necessary part of us in so many ways.

Although adaptations add visual elements (which are often powerful and moving), they usually also necessitate trimming or cutting of much material that’s in the original text. Logically, if it takes us a total of, say, twelve hours spread over a few days to read a novel, then to turn it into a two-hour film inevitably means losing something, even though the visual elements are clearly a short-cut and substitute for many pages of written description. Even the first TV adaptation of War and Peace in the early 1970s, which lasted twenty hours (!) had to lose a great deal of Tolstoy‘s masterpiece.

So decisions are made, and can outrage us if we have read the book first and we feel that vital elements have been cut, or even worse, changed, for the sake of – what, exactly? a series suited to the US market, perhaps? However, if we come to the text after the film, we may well be enlightened by the richness of what the author offers us in the original.

What gets cut? Characterisation and location are relatively easy to do with visual support; action has the advantage of looking good on screen and keeping the viewer engaged; visual elements can create atmosphere very effectively indeed. What often suffers are the broader themes and ideas which a writer may have spent a good deal of time on: these may be lost, and their absence contribute to a more lightweight and superficial visual experience.

Things are added, too – and these are the kind of things that really jar for me. Examples: the marvellous adaptation of Jane Austen‘s Persuasion which works beautifully until the very end when the hero and heroine were instructed to kiss – for goodness’ sake! for the US audience. The adaptation of Mansfield Park where we were shown Henry Crawford and Maria Bertram in bed committing adultery. Colin Firth’s pool plunge and wet t-shirt moment. I could go on, but you get the idea, I hope. And please don’t tell me it’s all about making something relevant for a modern audience…

I have come across very good translations from book to film. I’ll cite the original TV adaptation of War and Peace again, because it was a masterpiece of its time; the early 1970s adaptation of Sartre‘s Roads to Freedom trilogy which many of my generation remember with great fondness, but which seems to have been lost forever; the TV adaptation of Middlemarch which did its best with a doorstopper of a novel; Volker Schlondorff‘s film of GrassThe Tin Drum, which, although only the first half of this epic novel, was stunningly faithful to the original.

Horrors include most adaptations of GCSE set books turned into theatre by companies desperate to milk the school market for cash, such as stage versions of To Kill A Mockingbird or Of Mice and Men.

Lastly, it occurred to me that science fiction comes off pretty well in the cinema, and I’m wondering why – perhaps it’s partly because of its emphasis on spectacle and imagination rather than ideas (gross oversimplification here, I know) but films such as Blade Runner and 2001: A Space Odyssey certainly managed to enhance their original novels, and I’m looking forward to seeing the series of The Man in the High Castle at some point…

The myth of realism (2)

January 17, 2016

continued]

One of the things that is interesting to follow in the history of the novel is how, over time, novelists collectively learned and developed their craft. They learned to write detailed description to create a convincing and vivid sense of place. Nowadays, in our much more visual world, equipped with a vast stock of visual images stored in our memory, many readers tend to find these sections of early novels dull or boring, tiresome or tedious, but in their day they were very necessary. Writers learned how to write life-like dialogue, getting the tenses right, separating out the verbs of saying from the actual words spoken, focusing on how people actually spoke with each other. Just ask yourself, did people in Jane Austen’s time really talk to each other like that? And, as psychology began to develop as a science, writers began to strive to create psychologically plausible characters, and to explore their inner worlds. (Did you notice how many times I avoided using the word ‘realistic’ in that paragraph?)

In some ways, George Eliot‘s Middlemarch strikes me as a decent example of a realist novel, in the sense of attempting to portray a full cross-section of the society of its time: there is a place, and people from all walks of life, all social classes. The focus narrows down when you turn to a more naturalistic novel like Zola‘s Germinal, where the detailed picture of nineteenth century miners’ life and working conditions is no doubt impeccably accurate, but rather more in isolation from the rest of society, apart from conflict with the bosses.

Twentieth century writers zero in on the psychological angle because it is something new, something which fiction hasn’t had the chance to explore before: they take us inside the minds of characters, trying to portray their motivations, and their darker sides, too. I have always found Joyce‘s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man a wonderful example of this. He successfully takes us inside the mind of a would-be artist, someone who sees himself as different from others around him, a Catholic boy wracked with torments about the penalties for his sexual sins. And the idea of the stream of consciousness, the mind pouring itself uncensored, unedited (which, of course, it isn’t) onto the page is a very powerful one.

Novelists are always in search of something new to explore, some angle on a story no-one else has yet developed. But is there anything left? Has the novel run out of steam and ideas? Avid readers of this blog (if there are any) will probably realise that I think it has. It’s a long time since I came across something genuinely new. Ben Marcus‘ superbly surrealistic The Age of Wire and String was probably one, but travelling too far down that route exposes a writer to the risk of becoming incomprehensible…

And then there’s SF and fantasy. The more into fantasy you stray, the fewer holds are barred, the more one can invent, but however fantastical the creatures or the location, writers are hemmed in and restricted by the fact that they are human. Thus, Stanislaw Lem‘s Solaris, wonderfully filmed by Tarkovsky, loses us in an alien world rather than exploring and enlightening us.

to be concluded]

 

The best British novel?

December 8, 2015

51a2J0Q2vbL._AA160_I’ve been reading today that international critics have voted George Eliot’s Middlemarch the best British novel. Interesting.

Such polls of British readers have always had one of Jane Austen’s novels at the top if the ranking: is she too subtle or too parochial for non-British tastes? And what criteria were used for these international critics and their reading: did they have to read in English, or have they read in translation?

Some of the other choices further down the list I also find rather surprising: far too much Dickens, which may have good plots, but was certainly written by the yard; Virginia Woolf in second and third place? And Tristram Shandy – I’m certainly glad it’s appreciated by non-British readers, but also more than a little astonished. What, exactly, determines which British writers readers in other countries come across? I have a cousin who teaches English Literature at a university in China, and some of the texts he has to teach his students certainly caused me to raise my eyebrows…

Back to Middlemarch, which I do think is a very good novel. It’s broad in its scope, painting a panorama of English society at a crucial point in the country’s history; there’s a good range of characters, plenty of plot, and the whole is sustained for eight hundred pages or so, very entertainingly. And there’s plenty beyond this, to make the reader think about issues, people, ideas, language. I suppose one might put it in a similar class to social novels by Zola or Balzac, though I think neither of them have the subtlety of Eliot. Her canvas is broader than Tolstoy or Dostoevsky, too.

Where does all this get us? Not very far, I feel. People from other countries also seem to have the picture of the nineteenth century as the great age of the novel. People love lists (shades of Umberto Eco here?) and league tables, and we can all get off on agreeing or pooh-poohing the choices in them. What would an English person’s list of the best French, or German novels look like, and what would a French or German person make of our choices? For that matter, what do you make of my choices in the ‘My lists’ section of this blog?

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