Posts Tagged ‘Philip Pullman’

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…

Reading time…

March 23, 2020

I’m not ill. And being officially classed as ‘elderly’ we are self-isolating at the moment. When I’m ill, I have lots of time on my hands, and this means lots of reading time. Isolation is also offering a lot of reading time, so I have been taking stock of what will be occupying my eyeballs over the coming months.

There’s comfort-reading: revisiting the familiar old favourites for the nth time – and why not? Jane Austen never pales, so I feel a Mansfield Park coming on. And detective fiction too: let’s re-read all of Sherlock Holmes, Raymond Chandler, Agatha Christie too. It’s easy to hoover the stuff up, and comforting in times of stress.

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There’s a different kind of re-reading which is currently calling to me, a re-visiting of books I’ve wanted to go back to for a while, and for various reasons. Last year was a great year for new fiction for me, and having devoured the new Margaret Atwood and Philip Pullman quite quickly, it really is time for a more thoughtful and considered read of The Testaments and The Secret Commonwealth, without the lure of plot-line urging me on. Such writers deserve reflection.

I’ve wanted to re-read Umberto Eco’s Baudolino again, and I now have a copy of it in English, so I can see how good it is compared with the French version I have, bought because it appeared a full year before the English one. Addicts can’t wait that long. Incidentally, did you know that there are apparently some differences between the English and French versions of The Name of the Rose? I have been wondering if life is too short to try and discover what they are…

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I have also taken down Joseph Roth’s The Radetzky March from the shelf again. It is truly a wonderful book, with an ending so powerful I am regularly drawn to re-read the book just for the experience of that ending. And I have strong memories of another, utterly different novel which I have also added to the re-read pile, Neal Stephenson’s doorstop Cryptonomicon, all about ciphers and code-breaking.

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Finally, there are the treats which I’ve not read yet, of which I have great hopes and high expectations. There are a couple of history books, Christopher Bayly’s The Birth of the Modern World, and Jürgen Osterhammel’s The Transformation of the World. And the doorstopper to beat them all – The House on the Embankment, by Yuri Slezkine, a tale of life in the upper echelons of Moscow society in Soviet times, that comes in at a shade under 1100 pages. And, having been shocked by the power of Vassily Grossman’s newly published Stalingrad last summer, I was intrigued to find a novel on the same subject but from German perspective, Heinrich Gerlach’s Breakout at Stalingrad.

And I must overlook travel writers, of course, so I hope to reread the four volumes of the travels of the great Ibn Battutah, who travelled longer and further than Marco Polo in mediaeval times.

I shall, of course, report on my reading during isolation. And do not be surprised if read completely different books…

Nicholas Tucker: Darkness Visible

January 20, 2020

I’d forgotten how long it was since Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials first appeared; this slim and rather curious volume reminded me. Tucker provides an introduction and potted biography of Pullman; his tone is rather strange, at times almost lecturing his reader and at other times addressing him almost as a child. I found the way he was making judgements and apparently telling me that was the only interpretation rather off-putting at times, too. But he clearly had access to Pullman when he was writing the book.

What is both interesting and useful is the way he links Pullman’s life story and his writing, although again he can be rather sketchy here. He certainly canters through the early novels in an unsatisfying way, delivering rather pat judgements on them. However, Pullman does come across as a very political and a very moral writer, and consistently so.

Tucker’s best section is his very compact and succinct summary of the plots and action of the three novels in the trilogy, which makes and reminds us of all the necessary links and connections between them; it surprised me how much detail it is possible to forget, overlook or simply lose track of in over 1300 pages of superb story-telling. Finally, Tucker explores some interesting parallels between Pullman’s trilogy and C S LewisNarnia novels, which will be of interest if you like the latter – I don’t.

In the end, I think this book has been overtaken by time, and Pullman’s public role and reputation; no doubt someone will write (has written?) a more serious and detailed biography, and criticism of his literary output…

nb I re-read the 2003 edition; apparently there is a second edition from 2017

2019: my year of reading…

December 30, 2019

I’ve not done anywhere near as much reading this last year as I normally would, for a number of reasons, and recently have not felt able to settle down to anything as demanding as a full-length book, so for the last couple of months it has been magazines and online articles, mainly. I have acquired 30 new books this year – so some success on cutting down how many I buy – disposed of a good many more than that, and actually read 53 books in total, so just over one a week. I never imagined the total would drop so low…

I realise on looking through my reading log that I’ve spent a fair amount of time re-reading this year. At the end of 2018, I began working my way through the novels of Philip K Dick again, and got about half-way through them before I got side-tracked; I also re-read some Raymond Chandler, some Garrison Keillor and quite a lot of Ursula Le Guin, prompted by her death earlier in the year. Her work remains as powerful as ever for me, in many different ways. I’m looking forward to tacking her epic Always Coming Home next year.

Why so much re-reading? Looking at my shelves I see that there are so many old favourites still there, which have survived the annual cull of books which head their way to Amnesty International, and I feel drawn to revisit them, and the pleasure I recall in the past. I used to have the feeling, “well, I’d like to re-read that one day…” and move on; nowadays, something follows that thought up with, “get on with it, then!” So I have.

Like many of you, I have a fair number of what might loosely be called “coffee-table books” in a dismissive sort of way: I mean the kind of large format, illustrated books that don’t necessarily lend themselves to a cover-to-cover read, but are for deep browsing; I’ve spent a good deal of time revisiting those this year, too, especially the ones on travel and exploration. Very satisfying.

But it hasn’t been completely a year of re-reads. New discoveries have included R H Mottram’s The Spanish Farm Trilogy – there seems to be a good deal of First World War fiction out there that I still haven’t discovered – and John Barton’s marvellous book on the history of the bible, which I really enjoyed and found very thought-provoking, too. And I really liked the French writer Gilbert Sinoué’s Le Livre de Saphir .

Now we come to statistics and awards. For some reason – and I do wish readers would enlighten me – the most popular post of the year by far has been my brief and instant reaction to Carol Ann Duffy’s poem The Wound in Time, which she wrote to mark the centenary of the end of the Great War. Other posts on poems from that war have also been pretty popular, along with my thoughts on Ismail Kadare’s novel about Stalinism in Albania, Le Grand Hiver. I’m pleased to be reaching such a wide variety of readers, and I still wish I head more from you…

My biggest disappointment this year has been my re-reading of Philip Reeve’s Mortal Engines series; I wish I hadn’t bothered and then I might have retained more of my original admiration for his achievement. When researching for the post I just published on him, I noticed there were some prequels and linked short stories, which I will not be bothering with.

Once again, there is no award for weirdest book: obviously I’m not reading weird books at the moment…

I’ll give Philip Pullman my award for best new novel for The Secret Commonwealth, the second in his Book of Dust series. It is on a par with the first one, and I know I’ll have to wait another couple of years for the last in the series.

I’m cheating a bit here, but my award for best novel goes to Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments, which is coming up for a re-read pretty soon, so that I can dig a bit deeper than just the plot, and admire what she has done in writing a sequel to a novel no-one imagined there could ever be a sequel to. It’s clever, it’s serious, it’s thought-provoking, and for me everything that a good novel should be.

I haven’t read a great deal of non-fiction this year, but John Barton’s A History of the Bible was outstanding in its erudition, its clarity and its honesty. He isn’t afraid to dig deeply or to ask awkward questions, and yet the Christian scriptures are not diminished or undermined by his forensic examination.

Vassily Grossman’s Stalingrad is easily my Book of the Year: it’s not a new novel, having been written before I was born and published in a number of incomplete versions in Soviet times. What we finally got this year was a very careful edition which is probably as complete and as accurate as can be with a work completed in such challenging circumstances, excellently translated and introduced, and superbly annotated: a work of love by Robert Chandler. It’s the prequel to the astonishing Life and Fate, which has rightly been called the twentieth century’s War and Peace. Only a Russian could have written it, and it is a tragedy that the horrendous experience of Russians during the Nazi invasion and occupation is not better known and understood in the West.

I wonder what next year will bring? So far, press articles about what’s coming up in the next few months have been rather unpromising. And I don’t have any particular plans in terms of what I want to read, although I am currently enjoying re-visiting old favourites, so there will probably more of those…

Philip Reeve: the Mortal Engines series

December 29, 2019

71nGj+Yiq7L._AC_UY218_ML3_   Many years ago, while I was still teaching, Philip Reeve came to our school and did an inspiring writing workshop with our youngest students. This will have been at the time when this series of books was being published, and I remember thinking at the time that it was all rather in the shadow of Philip Pullman’s Dark Materials trilogy. I binge-read the Reeve series when I was ill at the time and really enjoyed it: having recently been laid up for a couple of days I decided to repeat the experience, and have to say that I was rather disappointed…

It’s a much easier read, with plots that are less complex, although still extremely convoluted and confusing at times, and there are no deeper, underlying meanings for the interested reader to seek out, as there are throughout Pullman’s novels. The idea of constant warfare – Municipal Darwinism – between enormous mobile and travelling cities, is a very imaginative concept and one that Reeve carries off with great verve. He also has child/ adolescent heroes and heroines, who engage the reader, although they do lack a lot of the depth and development of Pullman’s characters. The underlying message is one about the wrecking of the planet through competition: the fixed, mobile, submarine and aerial cities are all vying with each other, screwing the past and the planet in order to survive. Where have we met this before?

I’m aware I’m treating Reeve as in Pullman’s shadow here, but I feel the comparisons are inevitable really. True, the stories are very different: Pullman’s parallel universe echoes our own and develops in a different but recognisable way and gains from the Brechtian effect of involving both alongside each other, whereas Reeve’s universe is set in a fantastical far future which sets his reader in a very different situation.

The target audience is rather different, too, I think. Pullman’s work is clearly accessible to younger readers, who will engage with it at the level on which they are capable and comfortable, and be challenged to grow up through their interaction with his ideas and characters; it’s equally accessible to adults who will be provoked by it in rather different ways. Reeve’s novels are certainly aimed at a young adult readership, but I’m not sure how challenging or satisfying they can be to an adult audience: I read them as pure escapism, and second time around I was rather underwhelmed. Pullman challenges us through encounters with violence and sexuality where Reeve, though acknowledging these aspects, skirts around them somewhat.

Mortal Engines is fast-paced, with multiple and interconnected storylines, and lots of cliff-hangers; shifting from plot to plot keeps use entertained and engaged; Reeve writes well. But there is nothing to slow down mere consumption of the plot: characterisation, apart from the main ones, is rather sketchy. At times I felt he lost control of the story and almost seemed to be making it up as he went along, but in the end I thought he was just about in control of his material: what it all lacked for me was depth.

I also found it hard to cope with the unevenness of tone: the comic character Professor Pennyroyal was annoying throughout and the episodes involving him detracted from Reeve’s attempts to be more serious, emphasising the far-fetched nature of the plot, and involving characters which never engaged our sympathies or loyalty. By the time I reached the final volume I was confused and itching to reach the end: Reeve was no longer master of so many plots and characters, even though he did manage to pull things together in a way in the closing pages, where he briefly explored the notion of humanity as a plague on the planet, and one worthy of being finally eliminated…

So, for me it bears one reading, for the originality of its conception and for being highly entertaining. But the notion of humanity as a scourge on the planet is insufficient to sustain four lengthy novels, and the notional utopia he establishes in the closing pages does not convince. However, he wasn’t writing for me…

His Dark Materials – the TV series

December 28, 2019

I’ve just finished watching the first series, so it’s time for a few reflections on how well the BBC and its collaborators have done with the first volume of Pullman’s trilogy. After the dire film The Golden Compass – of which my DVD has mysteriously lost itself – the bar was pretty low.

It’s a complex novel, both in terms of ideas and setting: Pullman makes his readers work reasonably hard, and it’s worth it. What the makers of the TV series threw out right from the start were the quaint alternative names – perhaps Victorian-sounding – for all sorts of objects and ideas. I hadn’t realised this initially, and on reflection I thought it was a pity, because in the novels it was one of the things that underlined the idea of Lyra’s Oxford and her world being a parallel universe that had evolved slightly differently from our own…

What I didn’t like: there was a lack of clarity, right until the final episode, as to what the aims of the Magisterium were, and who the Authority was, and quite a lot of vagueness about Dust. These are some of the complex ideas Pullman wanted his readers to be wrestling with, and obviously it’s easier to present them in the pages of a novel: it doesn’t make for very gripping television, and so there were clunky sections at various points where necessary information was dumped rather crudely to enable viewers to get with the plot… However, I was very pleased to see that no punches were pulled in that final episode, about the nature of Dust and its link to the awful Christian concept of original sin, and its malign effects on our society.

I also didn’t feel that daemons got a big enough look in. Perhaps it was very expensive and difficult technically to render them (I don’t know) but only the major characters seemed to be accompanied by theirs whereas everyone has one in Lyra’s world. However, the idea that a person can be separated from their daemon in a number of different ways, was clearly established.

There was far more that I admired than disliked, however. I thought the casting had been brilliantly done, especially shown in the complex and shifting relationship between Lyra and Mrs Coulter, her mother. I was also impressed by the multiracial nature of the casting and felt somewhat guilty that in my imagining of the novels as I had first read them, I had visualised all the characters as white… truly, stereotypes and conditioning run very deep. The sets, and the use of locations, were both superb throughout, I thought, and Lyra’s Oxford was a pretty good representation of an alternative universe.

The adaptation was really well done – it seems to have had Pullman’s imprimatur – and there were times when I was astonished, and reminded just how brilliantly a visual medium can telescope and replace many pages of textual description and explanation when it’s carefully and subtly done. Interweaving strands from both Northern Lights and The Subtle Knife was clever, and worked well, with the idea of both Lyra and Will moving into another universe in the closing moments of the final episode promising much for the next series, which I await eagerly.

For a number of reasons I wasn’t able to watch the episodes as they were transmitted, and, whilst not exactly bingeing to catch up, did find myself enjoying being able to watch a couple of episodes at a time back-to-back. I’m sure some will find aspects they did not like, and be far more critical than I have been. I cannot imagine the books better translated to the screen: I thought the series was truly marvellous.

Ten years’ blogging

December 10, 2019

Looking at the data that WordPress offers me, I realise that I’ve been running this blog for getting on for ten years, which feels like a bit of an achievement, and perhaps time to take stock, as well.

There are well over 900 posts, and I have about 350 followers, although no way of knowing how many of you drop by regularly or read every post. This last year, a lot more visitors seem to have been digging back into the archives and looking up specific posts. And I don’t know why certain posts are so popular – on Carol Ann Duffy’s The Wound in Time, her poem commemorating the centenary of the 1918 armistice, on John Danby’s Shakespeare’s Doctrine of Nature. Ismail Kadare and Josef Skvorecky are popular this year; Theodore Kroger’s The Forgotten Village is a perennial favourite post. I’d really like to know more about why people visit and what they think, but you seem to be pretty reluctant to post comments, so I guess I’ll never know… But it is quite satisfying to think that people are stopping by regularly to read what I have to say.

As I blog about every book I read, the activity of blogging has affected the way I read and think about what I read, in a positive way for me. Sometimes I wonder if it also affects what I choose to read, but nothing yet has shown me that this is the case: I read what I want to read, one thing leads to another, and each year is punctuated by certain books I’ve looked forward to. This year’s have been Margaret Atwood’s The Testimonies and Philip Pullman’s The Secret Commonwealth.

In the past I was also reflecting quite a lot on my experiences as a teacher, and the teaching of English, but as I’m now in my ninth year of retirement, there’s rather less of that. I’m still in touch with some of my former students, and pleased that they remember me, and often say appreciative things about the past. I’m aware that the nature of the teaching profession, and what teachers are expected to do, has changed quite radically in this country in recent years, even though the corpus of English literature hasn’t; to me, this means that a good deal of my experience is no longer relevant today. However, I’ve spent some of my time writing some study guides (on The Handmaid’s Tale, Antony & Cleopatra, and Journey’s End – if you’re interested in these you will need to visit the ZigZag website) which I’ve enjoyed doing, and which has helped to keep my brain in gear and use some of the accumulated knowledge and wisdom (?) of the years.

I’ve occasionally also written political posts, and sometimes have felt like writing more, but have not done so. I want to keep this a literature and reading blog above all else, and often think there’s too much political pontificating about without someone else adding more…

I shall keep going with this as long as I’m able to, as it currently feels like a useful discipline. There are dozens more books piled up waiting to be read, and somewhere I think I’ve accepted that I’ll never get to the end of them…

Thank you to all my readers, whoever and wherever you are. And do post a comment to let me know what you like or don’t like, what you agree or disagree with.

Corn in Egypt…

November 17, 2019

For some unfathomable reason, you wait ages for something decent to watch on TV – no, I’m not a streamer, except for catch-up TV – and then two all-time favourites come along at once. For me this has happened recently with the arrival on the BBC of The Name of the Rose and His Dark Materials. Neither has finished yet, so immediate reactions only for the moment, and more detail later.

The European co-production of Umberto Eco’s best-selling novel The Name of the Rose is definitely over-the-top. It’s one of my top novels of all time for its combination of detective story with astonishing erudition and philosophy, and so I have very high expectations. I was initially shocked when the film of the book, with Sean Connery in the lead role, first came out, but grew to like it, in spite of its limitations: Connery was extremely effective as William of Baskerville, the settings were stunning and the basic detective plot was well-presented, though obviously in a two-hour film all the philosophical and religious subtlety largely went by the board.

We now get an eight-part series, some six and a half hours. The set of the monastery I’m afraid I find tacky: the appearance from the exterior is of a cheap polystyrene model. The casting is superb, especially of the monks and inquisitors, a combination of unworldly weirdness and the sinister. William of Baskerville is again supremely effective, as he needs to be. More of the complexity of the novel’s plot is retained, there is more of the religious debate of mediaeval times, and the library is particularly well-created, and although I’d have liked less gloom and half-light throughout the production, I can see that this reflects those times well.

My main gripe is with the changes: a whole new plot-stand developed to incorporate romantic and sexual interest, with two comely females roaming the landscape and one of then entwining Adso, William’s novice, at far too great a length. Partly this is also to develop the background of the heretical uprisings of those times and add a bit more blood and guts, but the producers have taken liberties with Eco’s briefer, more subtle and more sordid presentation of the temptations of the flesh. Equally, I have no recollection of a dubious past for Adso and his potential to be a spy from the original novel. I had been tempted to give up after the first couple of episodes but didn’t, after it seemed to be getting into its stride, and will see it through to the end.

The long-awaited series of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials has begun very well for me, apart from the surfeit of generic sludgy mood-music, which seems to be the current fashion with TV producers. The original film of the first novel, with its clunky American title, was reasonable but eminently forgettable (I’ve actually managed to lose my copy of the DVD). Here we are instantly transported into the parallel universe, and rapidly encounter the several strands of the plot, although the fiendish Mrs Coulter is saved for the second half of the first episode. The setting is utterly convincing and the daemons are really done very well. I admired the way, too, that the multiracial and multicultural casting seemed so natural, and was momentarily taken aback not to have realised this potential when reading and listening to the original novels.

Lyra is really good: there’s the naturalness of a child on the verge of adolescence that I imagined might be very hard for an actor to capture. Lord Asriel was much more swashbuckling than the novel had suggested to me, and that also worked very well.

I’m not yet sure about the pace of the production, having only seen the first episode, which was very hectic, fast-moving, action-packed as a way to get the series off to a good start; my recollection of the novel was of a rather slower world than our own, but I recognise that all sorts of things shape our initial impressions of texts, which, once grounded, are hard to shake off. I’m certainly looking forward to the rest. One doubt I have, and which I can’t pronounce on, not being a child, is how accessible this production will be to children or adolescents: I think one of Pullman’s greatest achievements with the novels was his appeal to both younger and older readers…

Philip Pullman: The Secret Commonwealth

October 7, 2019

91hoRkijvXL._AC_UY218_ML3_   I am trying to avoid spoilers in this post, as it’s such early days…

Well, the two years’ wait for this, the second volume of the second Philip Pullman trilogy, has been worth it. And I assume there will be another couple of years to wait for the final volume: this one breaks off in medias res, ‘to be concluded’… Here are some of my initial reactions.

The broader picture begins to emerge with this second book. The first trilogy, His Dark Materials, wasn’t quite for children, but was centred on children approaching adulthood as central characters. The plot and the narrative style was appealing to a younger and an adult audience, with a huge canvas of different worlds and varied plot-lines; it seemed to be almost leading younger readers towards adult themes and ideas, centred on the power of religion and the difference between innocence and experience.

Readers passionate about that series will have hoped for more of Lyra and Will, and the many worlds. La Belle Sauvage, the first in the second series, was a curious bridge, in a way, taking us back ten years in time to Lyra and her importance even as a baby in the grand scheme of things, and as the Will-Lyra story was ten years in the future, not a word of it in that book. Here, in The Secret Commonwealth, we leap forward to ten years after the events of His Dark Materials, but remain firmly anchored in Lyra’s alternate universe. And eventually, various characters from La Belle Sauvage re-emerge and take their places in the story. Mrs Coulter is missing, but her brother is a key character in the plottings of the Magisterium…

And we are now most definitely not in younger readers’ territory: Lyra’s adult world is much darker, and the plot and events of this novel are much darker, even if we found the idea of the research station at Bolvangar separating children from their daemons quite spine-chilling. Part of me felt that I was losing out with the absence of the different universes, but I’ve accepted that Pullman is doing something different here, in this more adult alternate world, which is much more ‘real’ and less fantastical. Lyra is now a grown-up, in her world: it’s a different world from that of her childhood.

In this world the tentacles of the Magisterium are extending in every direction as they attempt to prevent what would seem to be the potentially liberating nature of the knowledge of Dust being known, researched, spread. And the semi-underground opposition known as Oakley Street work to thwart the Magisterium and to protect Lyra and others as they seek out knowledge. The Secret Commonwealth feels like a thriller at times, fast-paced and exciting, unputdownable on this first reading…

And yet, the ideas are still very much to the fore: Pullman wants his readers to think about their own world…

Daemon as soul? – personality? – consciousness? In His Dark Materials, children are horrified at the idea one might be separated from one’s daemon. In The Secret Commonwealth, the world of adults, we discover it’s not an unknown thing: people lose their daemons, fall out with them, separate voluntarily, sell them for money. There are even philosophers who would have you believe they do not exist. This is the new strand to this book: Pan and Lyra have fallen out, are estranged and go their separate ways, although seemingly on the same quest. He feels she has lost something, forgotten a key aspect of herself: are we back in the search for the meaning of Dust, the contrast between child and adult, innocence and experience? I think so, on this first reading. And everyone who is separated from their daemon seems minded to assist others like them.

Topical ideas germane to our own world abound: Pullman explores the idea of those in power undermining the nature of truth in order to disorient, confuse and ultimately disempower people, and also the notion that the enemy’s power comes from its absolute certainty of being right. And, as a good writer should be, Pullman provokes our reflection without wandering into being didactic.

I can’t wait for the final volume – but I’ll have to, obviously…

Anticipation: prequels and sequels…

July 24, 2019

I don’t often find myself eagerly awaiting the publication of a new novel, but this year is different. My last post, about Vasily Grossman’s Stalingrad, is about one of three novels I’ve been eagerly awaiting this year; the other two – still to come – are Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments coming in September, and Philip Pullman’s The Secret Commonwealth, which is due to be published in October. When I realised that all three of these books were either prequels or sequels, that got me thinking more deeply.

81R94tAIV2L._AC_UY218_QL90_      91hoRkijvXL._AC_UY218_QL90_    Sometimes writers set out with the deliberate intention of writing a series of novels; more often, they don’t, and are perhaps moved by commercial pressure to write a follow-on to a best-seller. Philip Pullman set out with the aim of writing a trilogy with His Dark Materials, but then along came the idea for the second trilogy, The Book of Dust. The first volume of this, La Belle Sauvage, is a prequel of sorts as it deals with the adventures of Lyra when she is a baby; the next volume (The Secret Commonwealth) which I’m eagerly awaiting, takes us ten years beyond the ending of the first trilogy, so Pullman is going forward in time, too. I have not yet heard anything about the third volume, and I’m also aware that Pullman has done nothing with the characters from our world, in his second trilogy. With the science fiction element of the parallel universe, clearly Pullman gave himself a lot of scope for developing his ideas in different directions, if he wanted to.

918hxxj0DOL._AC_UY218_QL90_    71y9LsU0HVL._AC_UY218_QL90_   Margaret Atwood’s feminist dystopia The Handmaid’s Tale also has science fiction elements, but it had seemed a one-off, completed story until recently. Offred’s personal story came to an ending which was open in a way, but the novel was then concluded with a chapter entitled Historical Notes, which looked two centuries into the future, after the collapse of the Republic of Gilead. The recent television series, based on the book and with the author’s approval, seem to have changed the game somewhat. I can’t comment on the TV series as I haven’t watched it and don’t intend to, but I am very interested to see how Atwood will pick up the strands of the original story which she laid down some thirty years ago, and where she will go with it in the new novel.

61LxMjuBImL._AC_UY218_QL90_    81OFxzyHYsL._AC_UL436_  Vasily Grossman’s novels are a rather different kettle of fish, for a number of reasons. Life and Fate, a complete novel in itself – or so we thought – was smuggled out of the Soviet Union and published in the West some thirty years ago. It took a long time and a BBC Radio adaptation for people to wake up and realise that they were reading a true classic and worthy successor to Tolstoy’s War and Peace. What was almost unknown was that Grossman had written what is actually a precursor to the story in Life and Fate, and had various censored and bowdlerised versions published in the Soviet Union in the 1950s, as a novel called For the Good of the Cause, and it’s this novel which has been carefully reconstructed from nearly a dozen different versions by Robert Chandler, and published recently under the title Stalingrad. So in a sense we actually have a single story which develops through two lengthy volumes, using the same events and characters: the ‘prequel’ always existed as a part of the whole, and it was the byzantine censorship policies of Soviet times which concealed this from us western readers, it seems.

When you’ve known a particular novel for a long time, read and re-read it and appreciated it for all sorts of different reasons, it’s a challenge when something comes along which adds to or develops it; it may not fit in with the version of the novel which, over time, we have made ours. So, I enjoyed Stalingrad but don’t feel that it made anywhere near as powerful an impression on me as Life and Fate did, and this is perhaps not surprising. Equally, although I avidly awaited and eagerly devoured La Belle Sauvage and it was very good, I found it nowhere near as powerful as Pullman’s original trilogy.

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