Posts Tagged ‘Samuel Butler’

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?


Philip K Dick: Dr Futurity

November 20, 2018

51tKs5cNy0L._AC_US160_My copy tells me it’s 35 years since I last read this one – what sort of a fan am I? And at that rate, will I ever find the time to read it again?

Once again we drop straight into the story and a future world is swiftly sketched in via self-driving cars (this was 1957, remember!) and a few other small details; Dickis particularly good at dropping in an unfamiliar name for a new object as a way of instantly moving time forward. Name the object and tell us what it does, integrate it into the narrative and assume the reader will just go along with it, in a reversal of a Brechtian verfremdungseffekt. It’s another technocratic society and the issue is who’s in control, just as in the previous novel.

However, this novel is where Dick plays seriously with time travel, and he doesn’t pussy-foot around as some writers do: we end up with multiple time-travel event and attempts to alter the past, potentially conflicting with each other. This is a trope familiar to all readers of science fiction, famously crystallised in a Ray Bradbury story The Sound of Thunder.

The plot is therefore complex and confusing at times, and if you sat down to analyse and make sense of it, it probably wouldn’t: here at work together are both the writer’s verve and his relative immaturity, I feel. In a way which resembles the satirical critique of society in Samuel Butler’s Erewhon, here we have a doctor transported into a future where being ill and healing the sick are criminal offences, a society where there is a sense of collective immortality and a constant drive to improve the species… in the end, I decided that the story itself was bonkers if I took it too seriously, and that it was the ideas and the scope of Dick’s imagination that was awesome. For instance, what would the present-day world be liked if white man had never taken over North America? Dare to imagine, as Dick does.

There are two groups in conflict, both going back in time and trying to alter the future – i.e. their present – it does become quite dizzying towards the end! And I also found, as in the previous novel, that as he moves towards his ending, Dick’s faith in ordinary humans and their inherent decency comes to the fore. I’m glad I revisited the novel.


July 23, 2014

I’ve been thinking about utopias for a few days, partly in preparation for a possible writing project in the autumn, partly because utopia is a genre to which I regularly return.

When teaching, I occasionally found myself asking a class what they would do if they became world dictator; I would usually throw in a few off-the-wall ideas of my own. It struck me that this is what an utopian vision is, in essence: a writer creates and describes her or his idea of a perfect world – it’s often deathly dull and boring, because it lacks the dynamics imperfection creates in our own, really-existing world.

Why do they do it? Obviously it’s an act of the imagination, wishful thinking, magical thinking in the face of the awfulness of the world we live in. How we get from here to there is almost always where the sticking point is; I have come to see that as an actual impossibility, rather than any of the societies and worlds described in fiction. A world of wars, of inequality, of racism is replaced by one of peace, harmony, equality. And we would all like to live there. Or not.

Democracy is clearly a flawed concept, in our multinational and highly complex world, but of all the options it is the least worst, it seems. But many utopias are based on coercion of some kind, perhaps not physical, but emotional or even chemical, and we need to ask ourselves whether the inhabitants are happy, or sometimes, are they human.

Let’s consider a few examples. An attempt at a taxonomy might slot them into categories such as religious, political, ecological, feminist… Aldous Huxley‘s Brave New World is an interesting place to start: is it a utopia or a dystopia (see next post)? Everyone has their allotted place, there is unlimited sex and drugs, even misfits and people who want to be unhappy are catered for. The society was imagined as a response to the chaos of the early twentieth century; Michel Houellebecq in Atomised points out that we now have the technological capacity to realise Brave New World if we choose to. And the people are happy. Yet, in my classes when I taught the novel, although some students decided they would be perfectly happy to live there, we also ended up deciding that the inhabitants of Brave New World were not human as we understood it.

Ursula LeGuin imagines an anarchist utopia in The Dispossessed. It’s one of the best I know. And it’s also grim, constant hard work, and when faced with the temptations a more unequal society can tempt you with, sometimes people opt out. But it’s very good for getting one thinking about the real issues involved in striving for perfection. Ivan Yefremov jumps hundred of years into a future where the whole world in now the Soviet Union: Andromeda portrays a utopia which might perhaps be liveable in – but how would we ever get there? Ernest Callenbach imagined an ecological utopia springing up in 1980s California in Ecotopia and Ecotopia Emerging; he tries to suggest how people got there, but looking back on the novels, this aspect seems naive in the extreme: the system would not allow it, full stop.

I must return to Austin Tappan Wright‘s monumental 1940s utopia Islandia which I love. As I recall, his focus is also on how one sustains a perfect society against an imperfect and therefore attractive outside world.

Various feminist writers of the 1970s and 1980s imagined utopias. Charlotte Perkins Gilman, much earlier, had created Herland, a society without men, as did Suzy McKee Charnas in Motherlines; Marge Piercy creates an attractive feminist utopia in Woman On The Edge Of Time, in which women and men do manage to co-exist on a rather different basis, but then we learn that they execute misfits… a measure of how difficult it is to deal with those who do not want to be part of your perfect world.

There are lot more which I haven’t mentioned: the ur-text, More’s Utopia from 1516, W H Hudson‘s strange and haunting A Crystal Age, and the satirical Erewhon, by Samuel Butler… it is a fascinating genre, which pushes us to reflect on our own world and its imperfections, and ought to make more of us realise that a good life, a good world has to be striven for, and is very hard work. it’s probably called heaven, probably a figment of our imagination, and when you reach a certain age, you choose to cultivate your garden instead.

Shchedrin: The Golovlyov Family

January 16, 2014

Jane Austen famously described Emma as a heroine her readers would not like very much; Shchedrin creates an entire family of repugnant individuals and yet manages to fascinate the reader with their lives.

The Golovlyovs possess a number of linked estates somewhere in the vastnesses of nineteenth century Russia, around the time of the emancipation of the serfs (1862). They are all obsessed with money, are greedy, wastrels, feckless – they have almost no redeeming features. The hero of the story is a hypocrite in the tradition of Tartuffe, using religion to bolster himself and persuade others of the rightness of what he does (although the author interrupts his narrative to explain to us that he is not a Tartuffe!) or a Bulstrode, who feels that God shines on him and blesses his ill-gotten gains.

Any yet, the successive generations of the family acquire wealth without gaining any happiness or contentment from it; ultimately (when it’s too late) they come to some vague realisation that there was no point to what they spent their entire lives doing; they die miserable, lonely, unloved deaths, or kill themselves.

I often found myself asking what Shchedrin wanted to achieve with this novel. Obviously, wealth does not bring happiness; obviously there are hypocrites everywhere; perhaps ‘look at these worthless people who inhabit our Russia today’? Not really the basis for a three-hundred page novel…

I wouldn’t want you to get the impression I didn’t enjoy the book. On the contrary, it’s compulsive reading: I wanted to know how low the characters would actually stoop in trying to score points off each other, would they eventually get their come-uppance, were there any decent people at all in the Golovlyov family? Shchedrin’s creation and development of his characters is masterly: they sink convincingly into obsession and mania.

I found myself again thinking: how very different from what English writers were producing at the same time; then I remembered Samuel Butler‘s The Way of All Flesh.

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