Posts Tagged ‘Robinson Crusoe’

On buying experiences…

August 25, 2017

A few years ago I noticed that it was possible to buy a cardboard box in W H Smith, which ‘contained’ the gift of an experience that you could present someone with: a balloon flight, a day as an F1 driver, and suchlike. At the time I though this was a fairly barmy idea, but recently something linked the purchase of such a box with the purchase of a book – both of which can be done in the above-mentioned shop – in my mind, and set me thinking.

For, what am I doing when I buy a book, if not purchasing an experience? True, I don’t actually go up in a balloon (Gott sei dank!) or onto a racetrack, but I do experience, through the mind of a skilled writer and the characters s/he creates, or indeed through their own travels, something which I may not have been through myself, or indeed would not wish too. And it can be a one-off experience, too, if I only choose to read the book once, or it can be repeated over and over again at no extra cost if I wish to re-live it…

I’ve always been fascinated when following Robinson Crusoe‘s adventures on his island, often pictured myself in his place, as I suspect some of you may have: how would I arranged my island, its caves and fortifications if I were to be marooned on a desert island? what would I do with my time? Similarly, when I read Mary Shelley‘s The Last Man, I imagine myself as the sole survivor of the species on the planet… where would I travel? what would I do with the treasures of my species? where would I finally choose to spend my days? And there are lots of similar examples. On the other hand, I’ve only ever read once Knut Hamsun‘s novel Hunger, which describes in meticulous detail the feelings and experiences of a man as he starves to death, or Andre Schwarz-Bart‘s The Last of the Just where the last of a centuries-long line of Jews perishes in the gas chamber at Auschwitz: experiences I’ve no desire to revisit.

Yet I’ve read and re-read numerous novels involving characters involved in all sorts of warswars, imprisoned in Stalin’s gulag, concentration camps, enduring various apocalyptic scenarios… but I have always recoiled from watching horror films. I have asked myself what’s going on here, and can only think that I don’t mind horrific experiences at several removes; safely away from the visual, or actual involvement of course, I’m quite content to explore a whole range of experiences… so basically a coward, then.

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Ibn Tufayl: L’Éveillé

May 3, 2017

In some ways this is an astonishing little book: an Arab writer in the twelfth century prefigures Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. It’s a little more complicated than that, however.

We are told the story of a child who grows up from birth entirely alone on an island; either he was spontaneously generated, or else washed up onshore having been set adrift by his mother after his birth (echoes of Moses in the bullrushes here), and is initially fed by a gazelle (!). He grows up and learns about his environment, how to feed himself, how to hunt and shelter himself. Alone, he has all the time in the world to think, to reflect, to contemplate and to figure things out. And he works out the differences between animal, vegetable and mineral, experiments to find out where life resides in living creatures, and eventually comes to reflecting on cause and effect, which leads him to the prime mover and the idea of God.

Having attained enlightenment, towards the end of the story he meets another human being, a man who moves to his island to become a hermit. The two of them return to the main island to offer their message of enlightenment to everyone and are rejected, and so decide to return to their peaceful isolation and contemplation.

It’s obviously fiction, and with a didactic purpose: man as a rational creature should be able to deduce the idea of a creator and offer due veneration. It’s a tale of a man alone on an island, and apparently Defoe had read an English translation which appeared towards the end of the seventeenth century, so about thirty years before Robinson Crusoe was published. It doesn’t really read like a novel, though: obviously it comes from a completely different literary tradition which does not need to be judged against or compared with western standards, and anyway was written some six centuries before the novel developed in the west. If anything it reminded me of tales like Rasselas or Candide, which aren’t really novels either; they are fiction as in made-up, but the message the author wishes to communicate to the reader is far more foregrounded than any other aspect such as plot or character. We are on the way to the novel, but not there yet, by any means.

I found it an interesting read, though over-philosophical in places, and it was another reminder of the wealth of learning, knowledge and speculation that developed in the Arab world during our so-called ‘Dark Ages’.

The end of the world

August 12, 2016

Mary Shelley’s The Last Man is, I suggested in my last piece, possibly the first disaster novel. I found myself wondering why it should appear at that particular moment, why she should come to consider the prospect of something more powerful than humankind bringing our species to its end.41VpTTxE6aL._AC_US160_

H G Wells did something similar when he faced the world with Martians in The War of the Worlds; humanity was saved not by our efforts or powers but by microbes. M P Shiel considered the destruction of the human race in The Purple Cloud near the beginning of the twentieth century. But it’s only really since the invention and first use of nuclear weapons that the apocalyptic novel has come into its own.51qfsKHY-yL._AC_US160_51gGBhD5N6L._AC_US160_

And Shelley’s novel is different in another way: she kills off all of humanity bar one: Verney is the last man and has the two final chapters of the book to try and begin to come to terms with this; even Shiel’s hero, if my memory serves me correctly, eventually finds a companion, of the opposite sex, too, so that all can begin again. But to be the last one? Of course, never to be certain, too, for in the vastness of the world how could a single man ever check the entire rest of the planet to be sure? Why would one waste time and sanity searching?

There is a power and an attractiveness in the concept, surely, as Shelley realises, for every reader can and surely will substitute her/himself for the hapless hero of her novel: what would we do in the circumstances? Where would we go? Would we travel or settle? How might we retain our sanity? At the end of the novel, Verney sets off in his little boat to circumnavigate the Mediterranean, clinging for safety to the coastline, hoping against hope that he might meet someone…

When I was teaching, there was a novel (written for teenage readers) by Robert O’Brien called Z for Zachariah, about a young girl who is perhaps the only survivor of a nuclear and biological war which destroys the USA, apart from her small valley with its own isolated microclimate which protects her from fallout and the rest: she must survive on her own, and the focus is on the practicalities of this, a factor which occurs not at all to Mary Shelley: everything in her novel is there for the taking… In class we would explore for a while the logistics of survival – water, food, clothing, shelter, health and sanity, and whether it would all be worthwhile; we had some very interesting discussions; no two classes ever reacted in the same way, and there were many interesting and creative responses to the end of O’Brien’s novel.51YZEEACBYL._AC_US160_

There is wonderful material for fantasy in the idea that one could have the whole world to oneself: choice of house or home, country; one could go anywhere and help oneself to anything one needed, indulging oneself materially, at least. One could go on an orgy of destruction as did Shiel’s hero… and one would have, in the end, to face the same question as did Defoe’s isolated hero with only a small island for his home: what is the point of it all? Defoe’s hero turns to his God for help and reads his Bible – which of course he rescued from the wreck – nowadays we, I think, are probably more likely to revel in playing God in such circumstances…

Buccaneer Explorer: William Dampier’s Voyages

July 5, 2016

516mwIMxYxL._AC_US160_I’m still unclear exactly what a pirate or a buccaneer is, even after reading this book, and it’s evident that the boundaries in the past were a lot more fluid and vague than we think nowadays. A good deal of William Dampier‘s career was official, and a certain amount of it was not. What comes out from this book, an abridgement of several that he wrote, is that he was an interesting and learned character, as well as, for someone allegedly piratical, a touch cowardly… He seems not to have been a good commander of men, and a fairly disastrous privateer, although some of these aspects of his life are rather open to dispute among those that research such things.

The book I read is a reprint of an earlier Folio Society volume that annoyingly only reproduced three of the five maps accompanying that volume.

Dampier travelled widely in the lawless and not very knowledgeable late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries; he’s the first recorded Englishman to have set foot on and recorded his visit to New Holland, the landmass that we now call Australia.

The most striking thing about this pirate – if he really was one – is his observant nature: he observes and describes carefully, in a scientific manner, all sorts of unknown flora and fauna he encounters in various lands whilst travelling: sloths, alligators, various sorts of monkey, hummingbirds… there is much new knowledge in what he records, which was taken seriously by savants back home. He discovered, by observing its production, what cochineal really is. And, it is clear that, in the days before Harrison‘s famous clocks and the later work on longitude, that what he was best at was navigating; various of his charts and observations were in use long after his time. His writings on navigation and his other scientific research influenced later scientists like Charles Darwin and Alexander von Humboldt. He also wonders about time zones…

Dampier was living in very interesting literary times, too, and his accounts of his voyages certainly seem to have precipitated the eighteenth century interest in travel writings and stories of desert islands; he encounters Alexander Selkirk, whose true story is the origin of Defoe‘s Robinson Crusoe; shortly after that novel came Swift‘s Gulliver’s Travels. The line between true and invented was very blurred in those days. Not a terribly exciting read, but fascinating from a number of angles.

Henry Fielding: Tom Jones

June 20, 2016

51DKBemKOJL._AC_US160_For a couple of years or so, I’ve felt it was time to revisit Tom Jones, Fielding’s masterpiece and a landmark in the development of the English novel; I saved it up for a holiday, when I knew I wouldn’t be dragged away from it by daily routine and trivia.

I’ve always gone with Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719) being the first real novel in English; Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726) follows; Fielding is roughly thirty years later, and how far the novel has developed is astonishing. Fielding is constantly interacting with his readers, creating humour, and summing up various aspects of life and the human condition with witty aphorisms: I found myself thinking, ‘surely Jane Austen must have read Fielding?’

There is a real – and very complicated – plot here (someone, I have forgotten who, has called it the most perfect plot in all literature) unlike the linear narrative of Robinson Crusoe or Gulliver’s Travels; we follow characters then leave them and move on to another thread, then come back to it – here is a writer learning how to create suspense, to keep his readers hooked, to develop subplots. He’s also aware of how he is manipulating us, as he lets us into the secrets of an author’s choices, all of which writers eventually came to conceal from their readers under the mask of so-called ‘realism’, or verisimilitude, and it’s only later in the twentieth century that writers come back to this sort of conversation with their readers, and acknowledge openly that fiction is just that, a creation.

Characterisation is also being developed, through description, dialogue and continuity; good and bad characters emerge, likeable and detestable ones too. Stratagems and deception figure quite strongly. And conversation begins to come into its own. Differentiation between direct and reported speech still hasn’t clarified itself fully – and blurring this distinction can sometimes serve narrative purpose, as we eventually see Jane Austen doing to great effect the following century – but we hear characters having real conversations and arguments, and these, too, advance and develop the story in interesting ways.

In other ways, it’s still quite crude: the hero’s progress resembles picaresque narrative much of the time; the plot lines are tenuous at times, as quite early on we realise that the hero and heroine must eventually be allowed to marry; we follow Fielding’s whims through multiple epic Virgilian similes, which amuse slightly but are basically padding. And, it’s almost as if he gets tired of it all as we finally gallop at an incredible pace to the denouement, which smacks a bit too much of the deus ex machina, except that various subtle hints and pointers have actually been very carefully sown and then lost at various points in the story…

Whilst on holiday in Lyme Regis and reading the novel I learned that various aspects of the plot may well derive from Fielding’s own life story, as apparently he tried to seduce and then marry a young woman in that very town (there is a blue plaque on a wall to commemorate (?) him or the failed enterprise).

It’s a wonderful and relatively easy read, I feel; we see a writer working out how to bring his characters to a happy conclusion, and I can forgive Fielding his flaws and verbosity and almost anything else for the sheer brilliance of the character of Squire Western, perhaps the first and certainly one of the best comic characters in the history of the novel…

Daniel Defoe: Captain Singleton

April 18, 2016

51ZavNOKPtL._AC_US160_I’ve always had an interest in Defoe’s novels, mainly because in many ways he counts as the first English novelist, and it’s very interesting to see both how the novel began, and how much it has changed and developed since its earliest days.

Defoe is famous particularly for Robinson Crusoe and Moll Flanders, but his Journal of the Plague Year is also worth reading, and Captain Singleton (which I didn’t actually read, but listened to – unabridged – courtesy of the excellent Librivox website) is a good yarn, too. Early novelists were keen to persuade their readers that their novels were true, factual accounts of real people’s lives, that they – the authors themselves – were therefore journalists rather than fictionalists. A Journal of the Plague Year is particularly convincing in this respect, given that Defoe wasn’t even alive at the time of the 1665 outbreak.

Captain Singleton is a notorious pirate, writing his memoirs – a very modern-seeming enterprise. But that’s about all the book has in common with twenty-first century confessions. For starters, it’s very monotonous. By this I mean that the entire story is written in the same, even, calm, matter-of-fact tone of voice: there’s no variation to this, no tension, no suspense, no excitement. Here is someone learning to write the novel from scratch.

There’s no characterisation to speak of, either: the narrator emerges sketchily through his own first person narration, and the best-drawn character is ‘Friend William’, a Quaker surgeon who is ‘voluntarily’ captured on one of Singleton’s piratical exploits and becomes his true friend, confidante and advisor: Singleton eventually marries Friend William’s sister at the end of the novel. Just a tad far-fetched, I hear you say. Perhaps, but an interesting early attempt at characterisation, anyway.

There’s no real plot to speak of, either: it’s a linear narrative of Singleton’s life from his childhood escape to sea and abandonment on an island with other rebel crew members who eventually escape, undertake an epic trek across the entire African continent aided by tame natives, finding huge amounts of gold lying around on their way… back in England he fritters the money away in dissipation, and is embezzled, so sets off on a life of piracy. This all seems very mundane apart from one engagement at sea described in some detail, and a spectacular storm somewhere around Java, which awakens the idea of it’s being punishment for his sins, and we’re on the way to our conclusion. Money, of course, is the devil’s temptation: having titillated his readers with sinful exploits, in the same way that he did with the adventures of Moll Flanders, Defoe now has to redeem his hero in his readers’ eyes.

Repentance and reformation are supported by his Quaker friend; Singleton renounces piracy and crime, and the pair eventually make their way back to Europe with their ill-gotten gains, helping the poor on their way. And Singleton even leaves the way open for a sequel: now there’s a nice modern touch, too!

The novel clearly didn’t hatch fully-formed; it had to grow to maturity, if that’s where it has got to now. And it had plenty of adventures along the way. Writers quickly learned how to develop plot, add dialogue and conversation rather than report it, introduce variation in tone, suspense and excitement, real characters and much more. They learned how to experiment with time, to explore the inner life of a character, to see into the future. In less than three centuries the genre has come a long way: another interesting game is to speculate where it may go next…

The myth of realism (1)

January 17, 2016

I’ve often found myself thinking about this idea or concept; it sometimes came up when I was teaching. It’s a very elusive term, which we often use without really thinking, vaguely, to mean that something is life-like, true to life, convincing. And then the discussion will move on, without really engaging with the idea at all.

What we might mean by realism has changed with time, too, particularly since the advent of photography, cinema and television: these visual media have shifted our imagination from the verbal and auditory: far fewer portraits are painted, and most art has shifted to experiment with being less representational (sweeping statement, yes, but sufficient for my purpose here); what we call realistic often means a true but superficial representation.

When I was studying literature, I was introduced to a more political definition of the term, which made some sense politically, though was also rather tortured, in a Marxist sense, to mean a work of art or literature that somehow truly represented the class structure and struggles of its time; this was later developed into the concept of socialist realism that deadened a lot of creativity in Soviet times…

Finally, the term becomes confused with naturalism which developed towards the end of the nineteenth century; superficial representation seemed to become even more important.

Writing and literature is my interest, so from now on I’m thinking and writing about realism as it relates to fiction. Here again, its meaning and intentions shift. At the start of the rise of the novel, with Robinson Crusoe (1719) and Gulliver’s Travels (1726), authors were very keen to convince their readers that what they were writing (which was obviously made up) was true fact, a kind of journalism, if you like (and Defoe was a journalist). So their books are supported with maps, diagrams and other apparatus which might convince the reader of that time that Robinson’s story was true. Defoe had based it on a real story. Similarly, Swift would convince us that Laputa, Brobdingnag and the other places Gulliver visits are actually out there in some unexplored part of the globe. And even nowadays, anyone reading Journal of the Plague Year is perhaps surprised to learn that the events related took place long before Defoe’s time; separating out the fact and fiction in this documentary novel is immensely difficult.

to be continued]

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