Scotland’s Books by Robert Crawford

The poetry of literature…

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In this lengthy and detailed tome, Crawford sets out to describe the development of Scottish literature from the earliest times to the present. It is clearly expertly researched, and laid out in a linear timeline that demonstrates how the writers of each generation were influenced by the ones before, as well as by the events of their own time.

Since I feel constantly ashamed of my ignorance of the literature of my own country (for which I blame the education system in force during my schooling) this sounded like the ideal read for me to discover new authors and to understand the various literary movements over the centuries. And to some degree it did achieve this, although it had the odd effect of showing me that actually I do already know most of the Scottish writers of note and have read many of the most revered books – an unexpected surprise, and a rather unwelcome one, since it made me realise the relative paucity of great fiction our nation has produced over the centuries. Of course, there are great books and great names, but nothing like the tradition of fiction writing in Ireland or England, for example.

In fact, though, despite the title and the blurb, both of which suggest firmly that this book will be mostly focused on fiction writing (the names mentioned in the blurb are Robert Louis Stevenson, James Kelman, Irving Welsh and Ali Smith), the majority of the book is a history of the poetry of Scotland, which Crawford, himself a poet, seems to suggest has a much more vibrant past and present than our fictional prose. He also talks about the philosophers of the Enlightenment, but doesn’t extend the non-fiction side to the present day, so that we hear nothing, for example, of the excellent work of modern Scottish historians, like Tom Devine or Jenny Wormald, to name but two.

There is, of course, no reason not to include poets and philosophers in a history of Scottish literature, but since Crawford had already written a history of Scottish poetry to which this book is described as a companion piece, I was surprised that this volume was so heavily weighted to poetry too. And since – go ahead, hiss if you must – I’m not terribly interested in most poetry, especially poetry written in either Gaelic or Latin since I can’t read either language, I found much of the book rather tedious, and found myself eventually skipping over large sections devoted to poets whom even Crawford himself was describing as not terribly good.

On the fictional side, Crawford takes us through from the earliest novelists, such as Smollett, to those writing at the time he published the book – 2007, I believe. He discusses the continuing exodus of Scottish writers over the centuries since the Union (1603), mostly to London but also as part of the diaspora throughout the empire. This is where unfortunately I found myself in disagreement with him again, although I accept that his stance is as valid as my own. Crawford feels that if one is Scottish by birth or heritage, then one’s books count as Scottish even if one chooses to live, work in and write exclusively about another country. I don’t. I spent a long time coming up with my own definition of a “Scottish Book” at one point, and here it is:

A novel written by an author who is Scottish by birth or choice and who has lived in Scotland long enough to assimilate its culture; and either set in Scotland or saying something significant about Scottish society or history. This means a novel may be set in a different country but must still be speaking to the Scottish experience, thus including the Scottish contribution to the British Empire and the Scottish Diaspora.

Therefore, for example, I do think Ali Smith and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle are Scottish writers, but I don’t think that many of their books are Scottish books. Crawford thinks they are. This meant that many of the books he discussed were outwith my own definition of Scottish, so didn’t add much to my quest to read more Scottish fiction. On the other hand, I found his attempt to claim for Scotland some writers from elsewhere who happened to live here for a while, such as Byron, to be more than a bit of a stretch. I still found what he had to say quite interesting, though, especially the idea that it was largely Scottish Londoners who developed the literary imagery of fog-bound Victorian London.

As we got towards the present day, I discovered that our tastes are out of alignment – almost every time, authors he praised highly are ones I’m not enthusiastic about, like Welsh and Kelman, while he is completely dismissive of anyone who veers too far from the heights of literariness, such as McIvanney, Rankin, McDermid. Since Scotland is much better known in the modern world for its influential crime fiction than its literary fiction (or its poetry), this felt like intellectual snobbery to me. One doesn’t have to like all the grim and gritty contemporary crime novelists – I don’t always myself – but any history of Scottish fiction has to recognise their importance in our literary culture.

Also I fear Crawford’s clear pro-Independence stance and membership of the Edinburgh literati began to cloud his objectivity as we came right up to the present, and he became rather nauseatingly complimentary about writers with whom I’m certain he will hob-nob regularly at Edinburgh literary events. It would probably have been better if he’d stopped just prior to his own time as a Scottish poet.

Robert Crawford

Overall, then, this was a mixed bag for me. The extensive coverage of poets may be of more appeal to others, and I did like the way he tied the various writers to the events and cultures of their times. He had a good deal to say, and said it well, about the gradual Englishing of the Scottish language after the Union, and the depressing effect this had on our literature for many decades, perhaps centuries, thereafter. But I found much of it a rather tedious read, concentrating too much on listing names of forgotten poets, and not enough on prose fiction, though perhaps there just isn’t much of a Scottish hinterland in prose beyond our few weel-kent stars.

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Furious Hours by Casey Cep

Harper Lee, Truman Capote and the Reverend Willie Maxwell…

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In June, 1977, a man walked into a funeral home in Alabama during a service, accused one of the mourners, Reverend Willie Maxwell, of murder and shot him dead. When the shooter, Robert Burns, was subsequently tried for the murder of Maxwell, everyone wanted a seat in court. Harper Lee got one. Years after helping Truman Capote with the research that lay behind his best-selling In Cold Blood, Lee had decided to write her own true-crime book, and the Maxwell case promised to provide plenty of material. In this book, Cep tells both stories: of Maxwell, the crimes of which he was suspected, his own murder and the trial of his killer; and of Harper Lee and her failed attempt to turn the Maxwell story into a book.

Cep starts by describing the still racially divided area of Alabama in which Maxwell operated, a place of black poverty and strong religion. The son of a black sharecropper, Maxwell received only a basic education. He served in WW2, then when he came home he married and worked in various jobs but found it hard to keep them. He took to preaching and gained a following, but he was hardly a good man even then – he used his preaching as a way to find vulnerable women he could seduce. After twenty years of marriage, his wife, Mary Lou, was brutally murdered. The evidence pointed to Maxwell and he was duly indicted. Between the indictment and the trial, with the breathtaking hubris that he would show time and again, Maxwell claimed on the insurance policy he’d bought not long before Mary Lou’s death. Despite this, he was found not guilty. Over the next few years, several of his relatives would die suspicious deaths, and Maxwell would make many insurance claims, but somehow he continued to evade the law, until Robert Burns, a relative of the girl assumed to be his latest victim, took justice into his own hands.

Rev Willie Maxwell

As with all great true crime, Cep uses this basic story as a jumping-off point to look at various aspects of the society of the time. First she looks at the birth and growth of the insurance industry and how it became open to abuse by both buyers and sellers. Amazingly, it was perfectly legal for someone to take out a policy on the life of another person without that person’s agreement, or even knowledge. It gave me a real insight into why so many American crime novels and movies of the mid-twentieth century feature insurance as a motive, especially in noir.

One of the reasons Maxwell continued to evade justice was that often it wasn’t possible to determine the cause of the deaths associated with him. Everyone suspected him, everyone feared him, but no one could prove his guilt. This led to rumours that he was practising voodoo, and Cep uses this aspect to look at the history of voodoo in the South, referencing Zora Neale Hurston’s anthropological efforts to record rituals and practices.

Zora Neal Hurston beating a hountar, or mama, drum in Haiti 1937.

For years, Maxwell was represented by Tom Radney, a lawyer who not only defended him at trial but who assisted him with his insurance claims. Radney was a well known Democrat, and Cep goes into his biography in some depth too, expanding out to discuss the Wallace era in Alabama – segregation, white supremacy, etc. I found this very interesting, though I found it hard to reconcile the decent young liberal Tom Radney with the one who would assist Maxwell so enthusiastically a decade later. In an even more interesting twist, Radney would later defend Maxwell’s killer and become a friend of Harper Lee as she researched the case. A man of contradictions, and I’m not sure Cep managed to fully explain him.

In the second section of the book, Cep concentrates on Lee’s story, starting with a look at her childhood and student years, and her friendship with Capote. To be truthful, Lee came across to me as eminently unlikeable at this stage, rather arrogant and thinking she was above the common herd (which, of course, she was). Cep then goes into detail on the writing of To Kill a Mockingbird, including a discussion of how the book evolved from what we now know as Go Set a Watchman under the advice and guidance of her agent and publishers. Once the book was finished, there was a long wait until publication and it was during this period that Lee worked with Capote on the research for In Cold Blood. Cep gives her a lot of the credit for it, suggesting that it was she rather than Capote who was able to persuade the townspeople to open up to her.

Truman Capote signing copies of In Cold Blood with Harper Lee in 1966.
Photograph: Steve Schapiro/Corbis

Cep next talks about Lee’s life after Mockingbird. Burdened by success, grieving for her father and always complaining about punitive taxes, her friends and family worried about her mental state, and this would continue for most of her life. She wrote constantly but, never satisfied with her work, then destroyed the manuscripts. She drank to excess, often turning up drunk unexpectedly at friends’ houses. Then, after meeting Capote again and becoming acquainted with Tom Radney, she decided to try her hand at her own true-crime book.

Cep gives a brief but interesting account of the rise of true crime reportage in the US, from early pamphlets to the modern day. She discusses In Cold Blood and its impact in creating the “non-fiction novel”. She highlights the factual inaccuracies in In Cold Blood and reports some of the adverse reaction to it. She suggests that Lee was unpleasantly surprised by Capote’s fictionalising of the story, and that this fed into their growing coolness and separation. So when Lee decided to write her own book, she intended it to be true and based strictly on the facts.

Harper Lee

Cep also highlights Lee’s continuing desire to write a book showing that white segregationists could still be good people but, as now, that view didn’t fit the liberal consensus and would have been unpublishable at the time. (This made me think for the first time that perhaps she actually was happy to see Watchman finally published, and changed my reluctance to read it into eagerness.) Cep then tells of Lee’s research into the Maxwell case and her long and ultimately failed attempt to bring it together into a coherent book.

Casey Cep

The section on the Maxwell case is very good true-crime writing in its own right, but what makes this one stand out from the crowd is the association with Harper Lee. The whole section of analysis of Mockingbird and In Cold Blood is excellent, succinct and insightful. It’s not so much a literary analysis as an examination of the two authors’ creative processes, casting a lot of light on their personalities; all of which would be sure to make this book appeal to admirers of either of those works as well as anyone interested in true crime for its own sake. An excellent book – highly recommended.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Random House Cornerstone.

(If you want to go for total immersion, my suggested reading order would be: first Mockingbird, then In Cold Blood, then this, then Watchman.)

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Sleeping with the Lights On by Darryl Jones

Just when you thought it was safe…

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Since I started reading more classic horror and revisiting some classic science fiction, I’ve come across Darryl Jones many times, as the editor of various anthologies and as the writer of entertaining and informative introductions for some of the Oxford World’s Classics series. So when I discovered he had written a book on the history of horror, I felt there could be no better guide to a genre in which I’ve dabbled but still don’t know well. Jones is Professor of English Literature and Dean of the Faculty of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences at Trinity College Dublin.

The book is deceptively small, but it’s packed full of concentrated juicy goodness and, as I always find with Jones, written in an engaging and accessible style that avoids the tendency towards lit-crit jargonese so beloved of so many academic authors (and so hated by me).

It begins with a great introductory chapter that discusses how horror has been around since at least the beginning of written records. Jones then gives manageable definitions for all the terms used in describing horror literature – horror, terror, Gothic, uncanny, weird, etc., (a true boon for the struggling amateur reviewer!). He talks about how horror in popular culture reflects the anxieties of its time: fear of invasion, nuclear armageddon, climate change, etc. Along the way he cites zillions of examples from both books and film, and what I really loved about it is that the ones he cites are the popular and familiar ones, rather than obscure ones known only to specialists and hardcore fans. This meant that I had the pleasure of knowing enough of them to enhance my understanding of what he was saying, while at the same time adding loads more to my must-read/watch list. He gives a clear idea of where they fall on the spectrum, so that I found it easy to decide which ones would be too gruesome or graphic for my moderate tastes.

The following chapters are themed, again each packed full of examples. Starting with monsters, he discusses the origins of vampires and how they changed over time from aggrieved peasants into the aristocratic version of today, narcissistic, sexualised and romantic. Zombies originated as a response to plague fears, were later used as a commentary on slavery, and now, Jones suggests, as a response to extreme capitalism, especially after the crash.

Next up, he discusses the supernatural – ghosts and the Devil. I found this chapter particularly interesting as he discusses the modern (i.e. 19th century and on) rise of the ghost story as a response to the shock to the Victorian psyche brought about by Darwin’s evolutionary theories – a theme I’ve become aware of in so much writing of that era. Likewise, the modern surge in stories starring the Devil and his worshippers, he suggests, may have risen out of Catholic attempts to redefine evil for a modern age and of Protestant beliefs in impending apocalypse.

The next chapter looks at the use of the human body in horror, from werewolves and other forms of metamorphoses, through to pain, sadism and torture porn. Although this is the aspect of horror that appeals least to me – not at all, in fact – I still found the discussion interesting and was happy not to add too many new items to my to-be-read list.

Horror and the mind is much more my kind of thing again, and Jones takes us into a world of madness and asylums, with Poe’s succession of insane narrators leading the way. He discusses perceptions of madness and how they have changed over time – is madness a symptom of evil, or is it a social and political construct? He mentions the prevalence of highly-qualified fictional madmen and muses as to whether madness is seen as a symptom of intelligence or over-education. He talks about the double – for example, Jekyll and Hyde – and how this has been used to portray a fracturing of the individual. And he leads us on to the serial killer, perhaps a response to the terrors of the anonymity of suburbia and of fractured communities, leaving people vulnerable to victimhood.

No history of horror could be complete without the mad scientist. Jones takes us on a jaunt through the impact of Darwinism – Frankenstein, Dr Moreau, etc – and onto more modern iterations – the fear of nuclear holocaust, then evil machines, out-of-control androids and, most recently, the perils of artificial intelligence and the online age.

In his afterword, Jones looks at how horror is faring in the new millennium. Though he is critical of the tendency towards remakes of old classics, he gives many examples in both book and film of original horror arising from today’s concerns – the economic crash, the environment, the continuing racial divide in America, etc. He discusses the rise in popularity in the West of horror from Asia, particularly Japan and Korea, and hints that this is perhaps an indication of the beginning of the decline of American cultural domination. He finishes with a brief look at horror moving online, into podcasts and memes and creepypasta*– a word I had never before heard but am now determined to use at every opportunity.

(*Urbandictionary.com tells me that creepypasta are “essentially internet horror stories or a myth passed around other sites, to frighten readers and viewers”. The above image is The Slenderman, a creepypasta star.)

Overall, an excellent read – short enough to be approachable but with plenty of breadth and depth in the discussions. And with five million (approximately) titles for me to follow up on… isn’t that a truly horrifying thought??

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Oxford University Press.

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Space Odyssey: The Making of a Masterpiece by Michael Benson

Caution: Geniuses at Work

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This year marks the 50th anniversary of the release of 2001: A Space Odyssey, the masterpiece science fiction film that grew out of a collaboration between two creative geniuses, Arthur C Clarke and Stanley Kubrick. In this book, Michael Benson tells the story of that collaboration, and of the making of the film, its release and its impact at the time and since.

A couple of years ago, I had the amazing experience of reading Clarke’s book and then immediately watching Kubrick’s film, and discovering how wonderfully they enhance each other. Until then, I hadn’t realised they arose out of a joint venture – I had assumed Clarke had written the book first and then Kubrick had decided to turn it into a film. Benson starts by telling the story of how Kubrick wanted to make the first “really good” science fiction movie and, as research, immersed himself in the SF literature of the day, including reading Clarke’s Childhood’s End. This led him to approach Clarke with a view to them working together. At that stage, the plan was to make a kind of future history of man’s experiences in space. Throughout his book, Benson shows how this initial plan grew and altered stage by stage until it became the book and film that were ultimately released, and gives a fascinating picture of two creative giants working together, mostly in harmony, each inspiring the other so that the end results were greater than either could have achieved alone.

Kubrick and Clarke on set

Benson is clearly a huge admirer of the film and of both men, but he’s not so starry-eyed as to be uncritical when it’s deserved. Clarke was struggling financially as the project began, while Kubrick was riding high on the back of the success of his previous film, Dr Strangelove. This meant Kubrick had disproportionate power in the making of the deal between them, and he wasn’t hesitant in making sure the lion’s share of all profits and credit would come his way. He also retained control over every aspect, including when Clarke would be allowed to release the book. Since the making of the film fell years behind schedule, this caused Clarke considerable financial woe. But Benson also shows that the two men managed to survive this kind of friction without it dimming their appreciation of each other’s genius. Benson’s book is a warm-hearted portrayal of both men and it seems to me he tries hard, and succeeds, in giving due credit to both.

The book is an excellently balanced mix of the technical geekery of film-making with the human creativity behind it. Not just Clarke and Kubrick, but all of the major members of the crew come to life, as Benson illustrates their personalities with well-timed and well-told anecdotes about life on the set. The quality of Benson’s writing is first-rate, and I loved that he would break up the more technical side of the story by introducing “voices” for some of the people to whom he introduces us. For example, when a young lad looking for his first break in movie-making goes off to meet Kubrick, Benson tells the story in a kind of Holden Caulfield voice, while the filming of the scene of Kubrick’s little daughter talking to her on-screen daddy is told charmingly, as if from her six-year-old perspective.

Kubrick and his daughter Vivian

Clarke fades a little from the story once his book is more or less written, although the two men continued to consult and communicate throughout the project. But once the filming gets underway, Benson concentrates more on Kubrick and his crew. He shows the innovative techniques they developed as they went along to create not only the special effects but an entire overarching style. Kubrick is shown as demanding, a perfectionist, always pushing a little further than his crew believed they could go until they discovered that they could go further after all. Although he had his faults – a willingness to risk his actors’ and crew’s safety in pursuit of his art, for example – the impression comes through strongly that the people around him admired, respected and even loved him. Benson gives generous praise to each of the other creatives who contributed to the movie, detailing each innovative technique and who was involved in achieving it. As he describes it, it felt to me like an orchestra full of individually brilliant musicians, with Kubrick as the genius conductor melding their talents into a wonderfully harmonious whole.

Kubrick setting up a shot

In the final section, Benson describes the release of the movie, initially panned by all the middle-aged men (and occasionally women) in suits in movie world, from studio chiefs to movie critics. He explains how Kubrick watched audience reaction minute by minute to see what worked and what didn’t, eventually cutting nineteen minutes from the original running time. But he and others also noticed that young people in the audience seemed to “get” it in a way that the movie professionals didn’t at first. Despite the critics, audience figures gave an indication that word of mouth was making the movie a success. Gradually, even the original critics mostly came round, and admitted that on second and third viewing they “got” it too. The film’s success was crowned with a raft of Oscar nominations, though in an extremely competitive year that included Oliver! and The Lion in Winter amongst others, eventually it took only one, rather fittingly for Best Special Visual Effects.

I haven’t even touched on a lot of what is included in this comprehensive book, such as how Kubrick decided on the music for the film, or how the man-apes were conceived and created. The quality of the writing and research together with Benson’s great storytelling ability make this not only informative but a real pleasure to read – as much a masterpiece of its kind as the original film and book are of theirs. Highly recommended.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Simon & Schuster.

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The Golden Age of Murder by Martin Edwards

Detecting the Detection Club…

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During the Golden Age of crime fiction in Britain – between the two world wars – some of the leading authors got together to form the Detection Club, an organisation that’s still going strong today. At the time of writing this book, Martin Edwards had been elected to membership and was the archivist of the club, although he has since become President, following in the prestigious footsteps of such luminaries as GK Chesterton, Dorothy L Sayers, Agatha Christie and, more recently, HRF Keating and Simon Brett.

Although the Club was largely social in nature, Edwards sets out to show how the interactions of its members helped to define the style and direction of detective fiction in these early years. He suggests that in fact the existence of the club may be part of the reason that the Golden Age style of detective fiction lasted longer in Britain than elsewhere. Membership was by election only, so that existing members decided which writers could get in, and, as a result, exerted considerable control over which types of book were highly regarded within the community. Over the years several of the original members had a go at defining the “rules” of detective fiction, usually half-jokingly, but clearly indicating their own opinion of what fell within the definition.

Ruler: Do you promise that your detectives shall well and truly detect the crimes presented to them, using those wits which it may please you to bestow upon them and not placing reliance on, nor making use of Divine Revelation, Feminine Intuition, Mumbo-Jumbo, Jiggery-Pokery, Coincidence or the Act of God?
Candidate: I do.
Ruler: Do you solemnly swear never to conceal a vital clue from the reader?
Candidate: I do.
Ruler: Do you promise to observe a seemly moderation in the use of Gangs, Conspiracies, Death-Rays, Ghosts, Hypnotism, Trap-Doors, Chinamen, Super-Criminals and Lunatics; and utterly and forever to forswear Mysterious Poisons unknown to Science?
Candidate: I do.
Ruler: Will you honour the King’s English?
Candidate: I will.

Extract from the initiation ritual for the Detection Club in the Thirties.

The book is clearly very well researched – not an easy task since apparently many of the records of the Club were lost during the years of WW2. It’s written in what I’ve come to see as Edwards’ usual style for non-fiction – conversational, feeling as if one were having a discussion with a knowledgeable friend – and is therefore easy and enjoyable to read. It covers a lot of the same ground that he covers in his introductions to the various British Library Crime Classics and in his most recent The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Novels. By their nature, those other books force a structure on the way he gives information. In contrast, this one struck me as much looser in structure, often going off at tangents – one chapter, for example, starts with Agatha Christie meeting her second husband, then goes on to talk about séances in various writers’ work, then ends up with a discussion on the Depression and the formation of the National Government! Personally, I enjoyed the structured style of The Story of Classic Crime more, but I think this is very much down to reader preference.

Detection Club Dinner 1932

Where this book differs is by going much more deeply into the personal lives of the various authors who were members of the Club during the Golden Age – Sayers, Christie, Berkeley, the Coles, et al. I’ve said this before, but I’m not keen on knowing a lot about the authors whose books I enjoy since, if I end up not liking them on a personal basis, it can affect my enjoyment of their books. There were undoubtedly aspects of this that I found verged on the intrusive – tales of secret love affairs, unacknowledged illegitimate children, etc. But for the most part, Edwards is warm and affectionate towards his subjects, so there’s no feeling of a hatchet job being done on any of them. Edwards also shows how these hidden episodes of their lives may have influenced their writing, which I suppose is a justification for revealing things they tried hard to keep private while they were alive. (Do I sound somewhat disapprovingly judgemental there? I tried hard not to, but I think I failed…)

Two important Club members – Dorothy L Sayers and Eric the Skull.

To a degree, the book follows a linear timeline although with a lot of digressions. Edwards talks informatively about how detective fiction was influenced by current events, such as the Depression of the ’30s, or the rise of the various dictatorships in the pre-WW2 years. He also discusses and rather argues against the idea that Golden Age crime fiction was culturally snobbish – I disagree – but suggests that it was often intellectually snobbish – I agree. I do find that just occasionally Edwards comes over as somewhat dogmatic in his opinions – he has a tendency to be a little dismissive about anyone who holds a different point of view. He also clearly has favourites amongst the authors – Sayers is mentioned more often than everyone else put together, I suspect! But that all adds to the personal, conversational feel of the book. I’m sure if I knew anything like enough to write a similar book, Christie would appear just as often.

Martin Edwards (left) taking over from past President, Simon Brett, 2015

Overall, then, an enjoyable and informative read, maybe more geared towards people who enjoy personal biographies of their favourite authors, but with plenty of stuff about the history of the crime novel for the rest of us. And because there’s quite a lot of crossover between this and The Story of Classic Crime, they could easily be read either as companion pieces, or the reader could select the style that would most suit – more biographical about the authors in this one, more concentration on the books in the other.

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Seduced by Mrs Robinson by Beverly Gray

So here’s to you…

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The Graduate was released in 1967 and won an Oscar for its director, Mike Nichols. Beverly Gray was at the same stage of her life as the young hero of the movie, Benjamin Braddock – just leaving college and part of a generation that was seeking something different to the plans their parents had made for them. This book is partly about the making of the film, partly about the influence it has had on later culture, but mostly about the impact it had on Gray herself and her peers. Because of the type of book it is, it’s of course full of spoilers for the movie, and so will be this review.

I’m maybe a decade younger than Gray and The Graduate didn’t have the same impact on me when I first saw it, on TV probably in the late 70s (and quite probably with some bits cut, I’d imagine – British TV was like that back then). I liked it well enough and loved the Simon and Garfunkel soundtrack, but it didn’t speak to me about my life. I thought of it as an enjoyable rom-com – a bit racy, perhaps, but by the late ’70s, frankly, what wasn’t? So I was intrigued to see if Gray would deepen my appreciation for it.

Gray starts by discussing her own reaction to the film on its release, and how those reactions have changed somewhat as she has swapped the optimism of youth for the realism (or cynicism or pessimism, depending on how you look at it) of experience. The ending in particular – seen at the time as a hopeful rejection of their parents’ values – seems more ambiguous looking back. OK, so they’d run off – now what?

She then goes back in time a little to discuss the origin of the film and its production, She introduces us to the writer of the original book, Charles Webb, and tells us about his own life on which he drew somewhat for the plot (though his affair with his parents’ friend was purely wishful thinking). The book didn’t take off at first – reviews I’ve read of it suggest it’s not terribly well written. Gray says it was compared in style to The Catcher in the Rye and clearly was in the same vein of trying to capture that generational shift that happened in America during the ’60s. Although the film came out in ’67 at the height of Vietnam, the book places it closer to ’62, which is why Benjamin is not living in fear of being drafted. Despite its relative lack of success, it attracted the attention of an aspiring movie producer, Larry Turman, who managed to get Mike Nichols interested, and also persuaded backer Joe E Levine to put up the money.

Gray then takes us through the making of the film, though more from the perspective of the people than the technical side of it. We learn how the young Dustin Hoffman got the role, how Nichols got the performances out of his stars, whose leg it actually is in the rolling up the stocking scene. (Admit it – you’re intrigued now, aren’t you? Send me chocolate and I might tell you…)

Then she takes us through the film scene by scene, pointing out some of the techniques and effects Nichols used. I found this was the perfect stage to re-watch the movie. This is an interesting section, done well, getting a nice balance between detail and overall impression. It’s done from the perspective of the viewer rather than the film-makers, so she points out what has been done rather than how it was done. For example, she points out the use of mirrors, glass and reflections throughout the film, or tiny details like Ben being anti-smoking before his rebellion and then taking up smoking at round about the same time as he… ahem… takes up with Mrs Robinson. These are all the things I never notice, so I found this added a lot to my appreciation of how Nichols achieved his story-telling effects.

The final section tells us how the film impacted on the later careers of its stars, not always positively, and how it has been referenced in popular culture in the decades since its release. Some of this made my eyes glaze over a bit, partly because a lot of the references related to specifically American things, like ads, and partly because, not being an avid movie watcher, I hadn’t seen a lot of the films she mentioned. However it would work better for American cinema enthusiasts, I’m sure.

Gray writes lightly and conversationally, with a good deal of fairly waspish humour sprinkled over the pages, and the book is enjoyable to read. It doesn’t have the depth of a deeply researched production critique (like Citizen Kane, for instance), but that’s not its aim. The personal aspect of how it touched Gray and her generation adds interest, though occasionally she has a tendency to dismiss any interpretation of it that differs from her own. And of course it relates directly only to a small subset of that generation – well off, college educated, white – something Gray doesn’t really acknowledge, at least not explicitly.

I enjoyed the read and the re-watch it inspired, and I found, like Gray, that my advancing years had made that ending look a lot deeper than my young self had spotted. In fact, the final scene of Benjamin and Elaine on the bus feels much less victorious to me now. Gray explains how Nichols managed to catch the ambiguous expressions on the actors’ faces, almost by accident, and yet it gives the film a depth and poignancy it might not otherwise have had.

If like me you haven’t watched it in years, treat yourself to a movie night – it has more than stood the test of time. And if you’re a fan of the film, then I happily recommend the book.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Algonquin Books.

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The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books by Martin Edwards

Books, books, glorious books…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Having fallen deeply in love with the whole British Library Crime Classics thing, this book was bound to be right up my alley – a dark alley, full of sinister shadows and red herrings, of course! Martin Edwards has done a lot of the introductions for the novels in the BL collection and is the editor of all the great themed short story anthologies, so he knows his stuff. Here he looks at the rise of the crime novel and its development throughout the first half of the last century.

The book is split into themed sections, and is arranged roughly chronologically, although with some crossover in dates between the different groups. It starts with A New Era Dawns, which takes us back to look at some of the authors and books that pre-dated the Golden Age but influenced it: for example, Holmes in The Hound of the Baskervilles and Edgar Wallace’s The Four Just Men. The next chapter looks at The Birth of the Golden Age, then on to The Great Detectives, and so on; through to The Psychology of Crime, as straight mystery novels began to give way a little to the more character driven books, like those of Patricia Highsmith, which formed a kind of bridge to the more psychological crime novels of today. Some of the chapters look at particular sub-genres with chapter titles that often mirror the themed short story collections – Capital Crimes (London based), Continental Crimes, Miraculous Mysteries (locked room mysteries), etc. And, although the vast majority of the books listed are British, Edwards takes a brief look at what was happening Across the Atlantic and also a few from Europe and elsewhere around the world.

The main aim of detective stories is to entertain, but the best cast a light on human behaviour, and display both literary ambition and accomplishment. And there is another reason why millions of modern readers continue to appreciate classic crime fiction. Even unpretentious detective stories, written for unashamedly commercial reasons, can give us clues to the past, and give us insight into a long-vanished world that, for all its imperfections, continues to fascinate.

Edwards writes knowledgeably but conversationally, so that it never feels as if one is being lectured by an expert – rather it’s like having a chat with a well-read friend. He starts each chapter with a discussion around its theme, in which, I feel I have to warn you, he routinely mentions umpteen books which aren’t part of the hundred but all sound like must-reads! He shows how the genre and various sub-genres developed, and gives a clear impression of how back then crime writers were as much of a community as they are now, feeding off each other and often referencing each other’s work. Several of the authors were also critics and reviewers, and Edwards draws on their work to show how particular books and authors were thought of at the time. He discusses how the books reflect and were influenced by contemporary society and events, putting into context the “snobbishness” of some Golden Age writers that can sometimes be off-putting for the modern reader.

With relatively few exceptions, they [Golden Age crime writers] came from well-to-do families, and were educated at public school; many went to Oxford or Cambridge. . . .

Theirs was, in many ways, a small and elitist world, and this helps to explain why classic crime novels often include phonetic renditions of the dialogue of working-class people which make modern readers cringe. Some of the attitudes evident and implicit in the books of highly educated authors, for instance as regards Jewish and gay people, would be unacceptable in fiction written in the twenty-first century. It is worth remembering that theirs was not only a tiny world, but also a very different one from ours, and one of the pleasures of reading classic crime is that it affords an insight into the Britain of the past, a country in some respects scarcely recognisable today.

Following these interesting introductions, he lists the books he has selected for each section. He makes it clear he doesn’t necessarily think they’re all brilliant – rather, he feels they’re either an important link in the development of the crime novel, or a good representative example of the sub-genre under discussion. There are some well known classics here – The Lodger, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, The Franchise Affair, The Dain Curse, etc. But there are also zillions that I had never heard of. Talking of zillions, I should mention that the 100 Books are actually 102 Books – a baffling mystery in itself! Edwards gives a brief spoiler-free preview of the plot of each book and then discusses why he’s included it. He also includes some biographical details of the author, mainly more literary than personal, but often including interesting anecdotes about them. Edwards is the current President of the Detection Club amongst other things, and he tells us quite a lot about the history and membership of that organisation as he goes along too.

Martin Edwards

So you can tell the book is positively stuffed full of info, which left me with a much greater understanding of the development of the genre and an uncontrollable desire to pop off and search for all 102 books. And the good thing is that, following the BL’s lead, lots of publishers are bringing these old books back into print, or at least into e-books, so of the sample of 20 or so that I checked, the vast majority are available at prices that won’t require me to defraud a bank or poison a rich relative. Though I’m pretty sure that I’m knowledgeable enough now to do either and get away with it…

Highly recommended to anyone who’d like to know more about the history of the crime novel, or who’d like to read some of the classic books but doesn’t know quite where to begin. But I’d say this book would also be great for people who already know quite a bit about the genre – it’s so packed with goodies I can’t imagine many people wouldn’t learn something from it as well as being entertained by some of the stories about the authors. Personally, I feel a new challenge coming on… watch this space!

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Poisoned Pen Press (who publish the Kindle versions of the British Library Crime Classics series).

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Citizen Kane by Harlan Lebo

Geeky, but in a good way…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

citizen kaneAs a casual and totally unknowledgeable movie watcher, I’ve never appreciated Citizen Kane as much as I feel I should. I’ve always been aware that the reason for this is that largely I watch films on a pretty superficial level, for the plot and acting, whereas often with these films that are designated as ‘great’ it’s as much for cinematography, innovative technique etc. So this looked like the perfect book to help me understand just what it is I’m missing about a film that is often cited as the greatest movie ever made.

In the introduction, Harlan Lebo explains that the book is based on source documents and conversations with some of the participants in the making of the film. He points out that there are a lot of myths around the film, many of them created by Welles himself for the fun of it. He proposes to debunk at least some of these myths (none of which I knew anyway) at the same time as getting to the truth behind the mythology. He recommends having the film set up ready to watch each scene as it’s discussed. I heartily agree with this advice – it added a lot to my understanding of the more technical side of the book to be able to see what Lebo was describing. I also watched the film all through to refresh my memory of it before I began reading, and that was useful too.

The "intimate" surroundings of the Great Hall at Xanadu
The “intimate” surroundings of the Great Hall at Xanadu

Lebo starts with a brief biography of Welles’ achievements on stage and radio before he was given a contract by RKO. His notoriety following the famous War of the Worlds broadcast had made him hot property, with every studio wanting to sign him. RKO won the bidding war by offering him unprecedented artistic freedom to produce, write, direct and star in his own movies – all this when he was just 25. He was granted things previously unheard of, such as the right to determine the final cut. Hollywood was agog, and split between those who were pleased to see artistic control handed over in this way and those who resented the meteoric rise of this inexperienced and as yet untested young man. Lebo gives a good idea of how, at this time, Hollywood studios were throwing money at people they hoped would bring a good return.

Once Welles is installed at RKO, Lebo takes the reader through the entire process of the making of Kane in painstaking and pretty geeky detail. But geeky in a good way – written so that even I, who wouldn’t recognise a movie camera if I tripped over it, was able to easily understand. No detail is too small, no aspect too obscure to be included here, from budgeting, casting, direction, production, even what days particular scenes were filmed on. Sounds dreadful, huh? And yet, I found it increasingly fascinating – I had no idea of all that went into producing a film and began to feel a much greater admiration for the strange and wonderful people behind the camera, sometimes far behind it.

Lebo explains how the newspapers were produced and translated inot various languages, with 'real' stories even though they mostly can't be read except in stills...
Lebo explains how the newspapers were produced and translated into various languages, with ‘real’ stories even though they mostly can’t be read except in stills…

One of the bits I found most interesting was the creation of the script, over which there is apparently some debate about who should have had the major credit. By examining the various drafts, Lebo shows how the idea originated out of a kind of brainstorming between Welles and scriptwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz, who then went on to produce a very lengthy and wordy script. Lebo then shows how Welles went about paring this down and down, partly for budgetary requirements, but mainly because he intended to use the camera to tell the story as much as the words. I found reading the original extracts and then watching the final version gave a real idea of how Welles’ directorial skills enabled him to keep the thing lean without losing the intrinsic essence of it.

Lebo also goes into huge detail on the cinematography of Gregg Toland, who was thrilled to be working for a director who wanted to try out new things. He made me aware of things my usual careless watching would never have let me notice, such as the, for then, unusual fact that the rooms have ceilings, or that many of the shots are filmed from unusually low angles, or that the focus is entirely different from many movies of that time by having everything in focus simultaneously.

How do you know when your marriage is on the rocks? When your wife is reading your competitor's paper at breakfast...
How do you know when your marriage is on the rocks? When your wife is reading your competitor’s paper at breakfast…

In similar vein, Lebo shows how budget restrictions led in part to the empty look of some of the sets, especially in the Thatcher archives scene and the Great Hall at Xanadu, giving the film a distinctive and unique look enhanced again by Welles choosing to put in echoes to emphasise and use rather than hide the vast bareness. And he contrasts that with the detail of, for example, the props in Susan’s various rooms all of which add to her character almost subliminally – the rather childish stencilling on the walls, the dolls on the bed and so on. These are just some examples – every aspect of the making of the film is covered in similar detail: music, special effects, editing, etc., etc.

In the final section, Lebo covers the controversy that nearly stopped the film from being released – the suggestion that it was based on the life of the newspaper magnate, William Randolph Hearst, whose organisation and supporters did everything they could to have it suppressed and very nearly succeeded. To be honest, initially I thought this would be the bit of the book that intrigued me most, but actually I found all the production stuff much more interesting.

To create poor Susan's opera-singing disaster, they used a real opera singer and then Bernard Herrmann pitched the music at a level that was all wrong for her voice. (Herrman's music also provides clues to the central mystery if you listen closely...)
To create poor Susan’s opera-singing disaster, they used a real opera singer and then Bernard Herrmann pitched the music at a level that was all wrong for her voice.
(Herrmann’s music also provides clues to the central mystery if you listen closely…)

So the burning question is – did it all make me like the film more? Well, I waited a few days and then watched it again. And… I fear not! I now have much more appreciation of the work that went into it, I admire a lot of the innovation, I see the stuff about the cinematography, I’m impressed by the dissolves between scenes, I hear how the music is being used. But… nope! It still just doesn’t do it for me. Oh well, never mind! I still thoroughly enjoyed the book. Recommended for Kane buffs, movie buffs, and people with a weird penchant for detailed geekiness. I think we all know which category I fall into…

One last word: “Rosebud!”

citizen kane snow
Such a sweet child too. Ah, where did it all go wrong…?

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, St Martin’s Press.

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Book 8
Book 7

London Fog by Christine L Corton

london fog coverThe story of The Smoke…

😀 😀 😀 😀

From the early 19th to the mid 20th century, London spent large parts of the winter months shrouded under dense and dirty fogs, so thick that people quite literally could walk into the Thames without seeing it. Corton sets out to tell the two stories of the fog – the actual one of what caused it and how it was eventually defeated, and the artistic one, of how it was used atmospherically and metaphorically in the literature and art of the period.

As the Industrial Revolution got underway, factories began belching their coal smoke into the air of a city that was already at the heart of a great Empire and, for its time, huge – a mass of people, living cheek by jowl, often in intolerable conditions of poverty. And in winter, these people would huddle round their coal fires adding to the polluted atmosphere. As the population grew, so did the smoke. The location of London meant that it was already prone to mists and with the addition of all this coal smoke, the mists became fogs – fogs that worsened throughout the 19th century, reaching their peak in the 1880s and 90s, but remaining significant for several decades after that, until finally legislation and health concerns abated the worst of the pollution.

The Thames above Waterloo Bridge by JMW Turner 1835
The Thames above Waterloo Bridge by JMW Turner 1835

Corton tells us that Herman Melville coined the expression “pea-soup” to describe the thick consistency and colour of the London fog – yellow, as pea-soup was commonly made from yellow peas at that time. But it was Dickens who first made use of the fog in literature, descriptively at first but later, as he developed as a writer and as fogs worsened, as a metaphor for the corruption and social degeneracy of the city.

Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights. Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier-brigs; fog lying out on the yards, and hovering in the rigging of great ships; fog drooping on the gunwales of barges and small boats. Fog in the eyes and throats of ancient Greenwich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides of their wards; fog in the stem and bowl of the afternoon pipe of the wrathful skipper, down in his close cabin; fog cruelly pinching the toes and fingers of his shivering little ’prentice boy on deck. Chance people on the bridges peeping over the parapets into a nether sky of fog, with fog all round them, as if they were up in a balloon, and hanging in the misty clouds…

… And hard by Temple Bar, in Lincoln’s Inn Hall, at the very heart of the fog, sits the Lord High Chancellor in his High Court of Chancery.

Bleak House, Charles Dickens

Gradually the fog became such an all-pervasive feature of London life that other writers began to use it in similar ways. Corton gives many examples, from writers famous or forgotten, showing the different ways they used fog in their work. Sometimes it would be used as a cloak for hideous crimes, sometimes as a tool to show the poverty, not just physical but also a poverty of aspiration, in society. Some writers used it as metaphor for the restrictions placed on women, while others allowed their female characters a freedom they could only have when shielded by the anonymity that the fog gave. And as the fogs worsened, a sub-genre developed of apocalyptic fiction – the fog shown as finally sucking the life from the inhabitants, or as a cause for moral corruption so severe that it and the inevitable destruction of the city that followed took on almost Biblical proportions.

Cartoon from the magazine Punch showing how fog could make even an innocent scene seem frightening
Cartoon from the magazine Punch showing how fog could make even an innocent scene seem frightening

Artists, too, became increasingly fascinated by the fog – the colours in it depending on the type of pollution and the invisible sun above. And not just local artists – famous artists travelled from Europe, America and even the Orient to try to capture this phenomenon. (I guess once they managed to pollute their own cities enough, they were able to stay home!) The book is wonderfully illustrated with examples of this art – I read it on my Kindle Fire which is good for colour illustrations, but I wished I’d been reading the hardback.

Alongside this, Corton tells the story of how the fog impacted on people in real life and of the long fight by reformers to have the use of coal smoke regulated and reduced. The story of the beginnings of the fog and the various theories that were propounded as to its cause fascinated me, as did the descriptions given in journals and newspapers of how it actually felt trying to get around during a fog. Corton shoes how real-life criminals could use its cover for their activities, including the linklighters – the boys who carried torches to light people as they travelled – who were notorious for their criminality. The dangers for women in particular are emphasised, with a feeling that they were unsafe in the fog without the protection of a man.

Ivor Novello in Hitchcock's The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog 1927
Ivor Novello in Hitchcock’s The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog 1927

At first, I also found the tale of the political fighting to do something about the fog interesting but, after a while, I began to find the telling of it too detailed, especially the Parliamentary side of it, and it began to drag. I found I was increasingly glad to get back to the literary and artistic sections. The problem of the fog decreased gradually over the 20th century, but wasn’t finally resolved until the 1950s. As a result, Corton continues her story of how it was used in literature and art well beyond the Victorian era, but as the fog faded, so did its usefulness as a metaphor. Corton makes the point that writers such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, though writing well into the 20th century, often based their stories back in the 1880s and 90s so that they could use the fog to its fullest effect.

Overall, I found this great in parts and rather dull in other parts. The effect of reading for review is that I have a tendency not to like to skip, otherwise I would fairly early on have been jumping the sections relating to the various politicians and reformers. The sections on writers and artists were of much more interest, to me at least, although here I did feel that sometimes Corton was stretching too far, and drawing conclusions about fog as metaphor that aren’t always justified by the reading of the books. But then this is a fault I routinely find in literary criticism. Despite that, one that I am sure will be enjoyed by anyone interested in either crime or literary fiction of the period. And it occurred to me it would be great as a research tool for any writer out there wanting to set their book in the London of that period…

Waterloo Bridge Sunlight Effect No. 4 by Claude Monet
Waterloo Bridge Sunlight Effect No. 4 by Claude Monet

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Harvard University Press.

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The Year of Lear by James Shapiro

the year of lear“Let every man be master of his time.”

😀 😀 😀 🙂

In 1606, Shakespeare wrote three plays – King Lear, Macbeth and Antony and Cleopatra. James Shapiro sets out to show how this burst of creativity reflected the events and concerns of the times and to reveal what Shakespeare may have been thinking as he wrote.

Shapiro reminds us that Shakespeare was as much a Jacobean playwright as an Elizabethan one, and suggests that these later plays show how the English world had changed since James I came to the throne in 1603. For most of the latter part of Elizabeth’s reign, the major concern of the political classes had been the question of succession, but now that question had been resolved. Not only had James succeeded peacefully to the throne but he had two sons, securing the continuance of his dynasty for at least another generation. There was now a new question – as King of both Scotland and England, James was eager to create a union between them, a plan that was less attractive to the powerful elites in either nation. It was in this context that Lear was written, though Shapiro makes the point that it’s unclear whether the play is pro- or anti-Union – apparently scholars have continued to argue it both ways over the intervening years.

Derek Jacobi playing King Lear at the Donmar Warehouse Photo: Johan Persson
Derek Jacobi playing King Lear at the Donmar Warehouse
Photo: Johan Persson

As well as the contemporary context, Shapiro looks at Shakespeare’s use of sources. In the case of Lear much of the play is based on an earlier play, King Leir by Samuel Harsnett. Shapiro shows how Shakespeare retained the basic structure and some of the language of the earlier work, while changing much of the text and creating a considerably darker ending. He speculates on how these changes would have played with the expectations of a contemporary audience familiar with the earlier play, making Shakespeare’s ending even more shocking in its unexpectedness.

The end of 1605 was marked by the Gunpowder Plot which, though it failed, revealed the rising anxiety over religious divisions and led to an atmosphere of fear and tension. Shapiro shows the links of the plotters to the Midlands and hence to the society that Shakespeare knew well. Following the plot, there was a threatened uprising near Stratford with friends and neighbours of Shakespeare on either side. Shapiro gives a good picture of how small the world of the gentry was at this time, and how Catholicism may have gone underground but hadn’t gone away. All of this would have meant that Shakespeare would have felt more than interested – involved almost – in the plots and their aftermath.

This was also a time obsessed with tales of witchcraft and demonic possession, subjects in which James himself was deeply interested, becoming personally involved in investigating some of the cases of alleged possession. Shapiro shows how both these contemporary concerns – plotting and the supernatural – fed into the writing of Macbeth.

Ian Mckellen and Judi Dench in Macbeth For me, the definitive production - and available on DVD!
Ian Mckellen and Judi Dench in Macbeth
For me, the definitive production – and available on DVD!

Shapiro’s own writing is very readable and it’s clear he has researched both the period and the plays thoroughly. However, I feel the book sometimes lacks focus, becoming more of a history of the year than an analysis of the plays. While he ties contemporary concerns well into both Lear and Macbeth, I felt the section on Antony and Cleopatra was looser and therefore less successful. He also discusses some other aspects of the year, such as theatre closures due to plague, which, while interesting in themselves, didn’t seem to have much relevance to the creation of these specific plays. I feel the book rather falls between two stools – the attempt to tie everything back to the plays makes the history feel a bit superficial and occasionally contrived, while the lack of information about Shakespeare’s life means that a lot of Shapiro’s analysis is necessarily based on assumption rather than fact. In terms of interest, I found parts of it fascinating and other parts frankly rather dull – of course, I realise that much of that is subjective. But I felt that a tighter structure focused more clearly on the plays would have worked better. Or alternatively perhaps, a structure that focused exclusively on the events and concerns of the year with less of an attempt to show their relevance to the plays. Trying to do both somehow left me feeling a bit shortchanged on each.

Patrick Stewart and Harriet Walter in Antony and Cleopatra Wow! I wish I'd seen that one!
Patrick Stewart and Harriet Walter in Antony and Cleopatra
Wow! I wish I’d seen that one!

However, there is certainly enough of interest to make the book well worth reading even if it didn’t quite meet my expectations. In amongst the other stuff, Shapiro gives a good picture of contemporary theatre, from Ben Jonson’s masques to the collapse of the boys’ companies as a result of the plague. He discusses how Shakespeare’s own company was ageing by this period, allowing Shakespeare to write some older parts. He shows the pressure that companies were under to produce new plays to feed the appetite for performances at court. But he also goes off at a tangent at times – for example, discussing how Kings were traditionally expected to ‘cure’ the King’s Evil (scrofula) – leaving me wondering about the relevance to the subject of the book.

A bit of a mixed bag then – I’d be tempted to recommend it more strongly to people with an interest in the society and culture of the period than to people primarily interested in Shakespeare. And, since I am interested in the period, in the end I got enough from it to feel my time had been well spent.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Simon & Schuster.

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Huck Finn’s America by Andrew Levy

huck finn's americaLooking beneath the mythology…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Not so long ago, I re-read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn for the first time since childhood, and came away from it puzzled as to why, firstly, it has such a reputation as a literary masterpiece and, secondly, and more importantly, it is seen as a great anti-slavery/anti-racist tract. My own feeling was that the portrayal of the slaves was hardly one that inspired me to think the book was in any way a clarion call for recognition of racial equality – I said “…the slaves really do come off as almost terminally stupid. It felt almost as if Twain was really highlighting something more akin to animal cruelty than endorsing any suggestion of true equality between the races, and as a result it left me feeling quite uncomfortable.” The blurb for Huck Finn’s America promised that Levy would be taking a fresh look at the book, arguing that “Twain’s lifelong fascination with minstrel shows and black culture inspired him to write a book not about civil rights, but about race’s role in entertainment and commerce, the same features upon which much of our own modern consumer culture is also grounded.” As you can imagine, I was predisposed to find his arguments persuasive.

Andrew Levy is Edna Cooper Chair in English at Butler University, Indianapolis, and it’s clear that he knows his subject thoroughly. He also has the gift of writing in a style that is enjoyable and easily accessible to the non-academic reader. His position is that Huck Finn must be seen through the double prism of Twain’s own experiences and the questions that were exercising society at the time he was writing, so the book has elements of biography as well as literary criticism, and also takes an in-depth look at the cultural and political debates that were going on in the public arena.

Jim_and_ghost_huck_finn

The other main aspect of Huck Finn is, of course, childhood, and here Levy argues that, rather than being some great paean to the joys of a childhood freed from the constraints of education, it is actually a reflection of the concern of society around bad-boy culture. He looks at contemporaneous news reporting to show that there was a huge debate going on around adolescent criminality, and the state’s role in tackling this through education. There was concern that boys’ behaviour was being influenced by the pulp fiction of the day, that bad parenting was a contributing factor, and there was a split between those who believed that more regimentation in education was the cause or the cure. If this all sounds eerily familiar, Levy suggests that is partly Twain’s point – that history goes round in circles – nothing ever really changes because man’s nature remains the same.

And, in Levy’s opinion, Twain is saying something similar about race. He is making the point that emancipation had failed to achieve its aims at the time he was writing. Slavery may have been nominally abolished, but black men are being imprisoned in their thousands for minor criminality and then being hired out as labour for pennies. The Jim Crow laws are on the near horizon – segregation in the South is well under way. Levy suggests that the problematic last section of the book, where Tom keeps Jim imprisoned despite knowing that he is now a free man, should be seen as a satire on the status of black people nearly thirty years after emancipation.

Sheet music cover featuring common minstrel show characters, including Jim Crow (top center), a wench (top right), Zip Coon (bottom left), black soldiers (bottom center), and Dandy Jim (bottom right).
Sheet music cover featuring common minstrel show characters, including Jim Crow (top center), a wench (top right), Zip Coon (bottom left), black soldiers (bottom center), and Dandy Jim (bottom right).

However, while Levy accepts Twain’s anti-racist stance in this last section, he also shows convincingly that much of the rest of the portrayal of race in the book comes out of Twain’s nostalgic love for the minstrel shows of his youth. Thus Jim is not exactly a representative of ‘real’ black people, so much as the caricatured version of the blacked-up minstrels. Levy tells us that in the early days of minstrelsy, in Twain’s childhood, the shows were less racist than they became later, and often were in fact used as vehicles for some fairly liberal views. But he also makes it clear that Twain was trying to recapture the ‘fun’ of this form of entertainment. He suggests that this aspect of the book would have been recognisable to contemporary audiences but, because minstrelsy has now become such a taboo subject, is generally missed by readers today.

Tying these arguments together, the fact that contemporary audiences would have recognised Huck as a ‘bad boy’ would have made it much more acceptable to associate him with a black man – both were seen as low down on the social scale, primitive even, and quite probably criminal. Levy acknowledges Twain’s intellectual anti-racism in his later years, but suggests that he retained a nostalgia for the slave-holding world of his childhood and always continued to think of black people as being there to ‘serve’ him. Rather than a call for equality, Twain was using black culture to entertain white people, and only those from the Northern states at that. And again Levy makes the point that black culture is often adopted by white people in much the same way still – as Twain suggested, history is a circle.

Andrew Levy  Photo Credit: Randy Johnson
Andrew Levy
Photo: Randy Johnson

I found this a very well-written and interesting book. Already having doubts about the extravagant claims made for Twain’s anti-racist credentials, I admit that part of my enjoyment was because it gives a solidly researched and explained base to my own instinctive reservations about Huck Finn. That’s not to suggest that Levy is doing some kind of hatchet job on either Twain or Huck – he clearly greatly admires both the man and the book. But he has brushed aside some of the mythology that has grown up around it over the last century and put it firmly back into its own context. Highly recommended.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Simon & Schuster.

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Failure and the American Writer by Gavin Jones

Dressed up in the language of academia…
(…or Where’s my Gobbledegook-English dictionary?)

🙂 🙂 🙂 😐

failure and the american writerIn recent years, in the fields of history and science, there has been a marked and welcome move towards academics writing books in language that makes them accessible to the wider public, while maintaining high standards of research and scholarship. Sadly, in my limited experience, this trend has not yet spread to the field of literary criticism. This book is so mired and obfuscated in academic gobbledegook language, that large parts of it are well-nigh incomprehensible to someone who only speaks standard English – which is unfortunate, since the glimpses I got into the author’s meaning suggested that the subject could be interesting.

As far as I could gather, the author’s argument seems to consist of three main points: that American literature of the 19th century and beyond tends to deal with the subject of failure; that the great writers of the 19th century struggled to find new literary forms in which to portray this literature of failure; and – it gets very unclear here and I may well be misrepresenting badly – that this struggle for form, combined with failures in the authors’ own lives, led directly or indirectly to their works themselves failing, especially in the eyes of contemporary critics and readers.

“Hawthorne and his Mosses” is Melville’s effort to account for Hawthorne’s relative lack of popularity, by laying blame on a market that purportedly valued literary trash over works of quality. Rather than studying the way to success, however, Melville’s essay offers an explicit theory of failure in a culture whose faltering standards of taste made failure seem a necessity, if not a condition of genius itself.

When I was a student, and even when writing policies in the workplace, I was always taught that you should “say what you’re going to say, then say it, then say what you just said”. If Jones had followed this simplistic but effective device, then his introduction would have made clear what his argument was going to be – unfortunately he leaps straight into his discussion of the works he has chosen to prove his argument without ever clarifying exactly what his argument is. And the conclusion, which I found I was eagerly anticipating, did little to elucidate. The result is that, having finished the book, I wasn’t much closer to getting Jones’ point than I was at the beginning. That’s not to say the book is uninteresting – just unfathomable in parts.

Critics have noted the “subjunctive” reality of Strether’s world, his enabling bewilderment and epistemological provisionalness. Placing this in historical context, Ross Posnock has described Strether’s groping and bewildered contemplation as a form of pragmatic fallibilism, which “emphasizes the self as contingent, inseparable from the process of experimental inquiry and interpretation…”

The first strand – that American authors tend to write about failure – seems clear and fairly indisputable. In each chapter, Jones concentrates on one author and usually on one particular work of that author. So in the chapter on Melville, for instance, while referring to many of his works, Jones concentrates on Moby Dick, while the chapter on Twain deals largely with Pudd’nhead Wilson. In each chapter, Jones sets the work into the context of the author’s life and the wider society of the time. His view is that the 19th century itself was felt to have been a failed century, with recurring economic problems, increasing mechanisation and subsequently urbanisation and the decline of the rural economy, and in particular the failure of the Civil War to lead to the kind of society that its proponents had envisaged.

…in Poe we see the glimmering of an attitude that looks forward to the modernist writers of the twentieth century: not a struggle with failure as a problem to be debated or transcended, but an acceptance of failure as an inevitable condition of identity, one of the necessitating qualities of a style.

The second and third strands are both more complex and less well-argued, in my view – certainly less clearly argued. Jones seems to be suggesting that it was the attempt to find ways to portray this failure that led to these great authors producing often messy books. He uses the authors’ own writings and contemporaneous critical and peer reviews of their works to back up his arguments, and to some degree he convinced me that some at least of the authors were indeed trying to find new literary forms. Where I found his argument completely unconvincing was that it was this that led to the contemporary failure of the books. Now, I have only read a handful of the books discussed, so I am basing my comments purely on Jones’ own analyses of them, but it seemed to me that in fact all he proved was that some of the books were simply badly written, and that the reasons for this varied from case to case. I also felt he proved indirectly that a form of intellectual elitism was creeping into the works of many of these authors which could be summed up as “if people don’t like my books, it’s because they’re stupid”, and that, in that sense, commercial and critical failure was almost seen as an endorsement of literary success (an attitude still very recognisable today, I fear). But his central argument, if I have grasped it at all, that the failure of the books was related to the authors’ attempts to find new forms to portray failure, remained unproven to me. But then maybe that’s not what he was trying to say at all!

In his phenomenological study, Paul Armstrong argues that James’ approach to man is most properly understood as ontic, not ontological: he is concerned with real existence, with experience, rather than with the properties of being.

Overall, I found the analyses of the various books and authors very interesting, but found the arguments so dressed up in the language of academia that they were hard to understand and, perhaps as a result, remained largely unproven, at least to me. I’m sure this book may be of great interest to other academics, but for the casual reader may prove a little disappointing, as ultimately it was for me.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Cambridge University Press.

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