Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens

The root of all evil…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

our-mutual-friendOld Mr Harmon has been a tyrannical father to his children, so that the odd terms of his will are in keeping with his character. He has left the bulk of his fortune to his one surviving son, John, on condition that he marries a girl his father has chosen for him – a girl he has never met. Bella Wilfer is a mercenary young lady, quite willing to go along with this scheme. But when John drowns on his way home from foreign parts, Bella finds herself in the unsatisfactory position of having to go into mourning for a man she didn’t know, without the benefit of receiving any of the wealth she was expecting. The money passes to the Boffins, who decide it is their duty to do something to help Bella.

Jesse Hexam is the man who dragged the body identified as John Harmon from the Thames. This is how he makes his living, rowing up and down the river looking for corpses, often taking his daughter Lizzie along to row for him. But during the identification of this corpse, Lizzie catches the eye of a young and rather unscrupulous lawyer, Eugene Wrayburn. Eugene’s pursuit of Lizzie will affect many people around them, leading to jealousy, resentment and dark deeds. But, as always with Dickens, there are possibilities for redemption too…

It was a foggy day in London, and the fog was heavy and dark. Animate London, with smarting eyes and irritated lungs, was blinking, wheezing, and choking; inanimate London was a sooty spectre, divided in purpose between being visible and invisible, and so being wholly neither. Gaslights flared in the shops with a haggard and unblest air, as knowing themselves to be night-creatures that had no business abroad under the sun; while the sun itself, when it was for a few moments dimly indicated through circling eddies of fog, showed as if it had gone out, and were collapsing flat and cold.

Hexam and Lizzie look for corpses
Hexam and Lizzie look for corpses

Much though I love Dickens, considering him the greatest writer of all time, I’ve never been blind to his faults. It’s always been a balancing act for me – the anger beneath the social satire, the wonderfully created and unforgettably caricatured minor characters, the brilliantly atmospheric descriptive writing; all offset against the parade of nauseatingly saccharin heroines, the occasional descent into an archness I try hard not to call twee, and the fact that sometimes the plots don’t quite gel – a result of them being serialised, I assume, and Dickens not really having decided on an ending when he published the beginning.

In this book, the seesaw falls slightly more to the side of the weaknesses than the strengths. I believe this was the last complete book he wrote, and he was involved in a serious accident in the middle of writing, when he was on a train that became derailed, leaving many people injured. He was unhurt physically but apparently the experience left him shocked. Perhaps it was that, or perhaps age was simply tiring him, but for me, this books lacks some of what makes his great books great.

The Boffins
The Boffins

The major theme of the book is money – how possession of it corrupts, and how lack of it causes great suffering. He satirises the class of society that hangs around the rich, especially the nouveau riche. Mr and Mrs Veneering seem to have come from nowhere, but their lavish hospitality wins them a whole host of new “oldest friends”. The Lammles show the pitfalls of marrying for money, each believing the other is wealthy till after the wedding, when they discover that they have each married a mirror image of themselves – another person on the make. Having inherited the Harmon wealth, kind old “Noddy” Boffin finds himself the target of conmen and would-be thieves, and begins to admire and emulate some of the great misers he finds in books. And, through old Betty Higden’s story, Dickens shows the iniquities of the Poor Laws of the time, and how many people would rather starve than end up living on the state’s merciless mercy.

That night she took refuge from the Samaritan in his latest accredited form, under a farmer’s rick; and if – worth thinking of, perhaps, my fellow-Christians – the Samaritan had in the lonely night “passed by on the other side,” she would have most devoutly thanked High Heaven for her escape from him.

All good, and all typically Dickensian, but it seemed to me that the old anger wasn’t there; especially with the Poor Law stuff, I felt his tone was resigned, almost defeated. The characters are well-drawn to serve his purpose of showing the shallowness and greed of this portion of society, but on the whole they’re not caricatured enough to make them unforgettable, in the way that, say, Sairey Gamp is, or Uriah Heep. In fact, I can’t think of a character from this book whose name has really become part of the general public consciousness, as, for example, Fagin has, or Mr Micawber, or Scrooge.

The plot takes an age to get going and I found myself wondering exactly where the focus was – again not a thing I usually find with Dickens. There are always multiple sub-plots and meandering detours, but generally it’s clear where the plot is heading. I found Bella’s story too light to hang a whole book around, while Lizzie’s story, much more darkly satisfying, keeps disappearing for large parts of the book. But the real problem with the plot is the end, so here goes with a major spoiler….

Betty Higden flees from the tender mercies of "the Parish"
Betty Higden flees from the tender mercies of “the Parish”

* * * * * * * MAJOR SPOILER ALERT * * * * * * *

The idea that Mr and Mrs Boffin together with Mr Rokesmith keep up a charade for literally years to teach Bella a lesson is simply too unbelievable even for this reader who happily swallows most of Dickens’ amazing coincidences and contrivances without blinking. The thing is, Noddy’s descent into miserliness is one of the more interesting parts of the book, so that when it turns out to have been an act, it takes away much of the book’s substance. Furthermore, I feel I have to point out that the eventual division of the money represents a major fraud on the Crown, to whom it in fact belongs!

It feels to me as if Dickens had intended the miser storyline to be “true”, and then, having written himself into a corner, had to hastily contrive this twist to get himself back out – the major peril of publishing in instalments.

* * * * * * * END OF MAJOR SPOILER * * * * * * *

Bella and Lizzie are both good heroines, though. Lizzie in particular shows herself to be strong and self-reliant, and the scenes where she resists her own inclinations in the matter of love, or where she sees her brother’s selfishness clearly but still loves him, make her one of his most likeable. Bella’s redemption from mercenary little madam to loving little wife and mother has its nauseating moments, but on the whole she’s rounded and believable, and her alteration is given a proper foundation. Jenny Wren is also intriguing, and perhaps the most traditionally Dickensian caricature in the book – although Dickens clearly liked her, so that the caricature is kind with none of his occasional cruelty. But what on earth was Dickens playing at with all this daughters treating their fathers as children stuff? It was silly enough when it was only Jenny who kept referring to her father as her ‘bad child’ but when Bella started doing it with her father too… well, I’m still wondering what was going on in Dickens’ mind! Though perhaps I don’t really want to know.

Jenny Wren and Mr Riah
Jenny Wren and Mr Riah

I was delighted with the positive way Dickens portrayed Mr Riah, his one Jewish character. Not only is Mr Riah shown as kind and generous, but Dickens takes the opportunity to discuss anti-Semitism and the unfairness of how minorities are often judged by the behaviour of the worst of them. This is Dickens at his best, when he tackles an injustice head on, and I felt it went a long way towards making up for Fagin – a great Dickensian character but not exactly flattering in its portrayal of Jewishness.

“I reflected – clearly reflected for the first time, that in bending my neck to the yoke I was willing to wear, I bent the unwilling necks of the whole Jewish people. For it is not, in Christian countries, with the Jews as with other peoples. Men say, ‘This is a bad Greek, but there are good Greeks. This is a bad Turk, but there are good Turks.’ Not so with the Jews. Men find the bad among us easily enough – among what peoples are the bad not easily found? – but they take the worst of us as samples of the best; they take the lowest of us as presentations of the highest; and they say ‘All Jews are alike.’”

Nobody does dark and wicked deeds quite like Dickens, and happily there’s plenty of evil to make us shiver. The filthy and polluted Thames runs through the heart of the book, appearing again and again as the place where the foulest acts take place, and Dickens uses it to great effect as he builds up an atmosphere of tension and horror. I’ve included enough spoilers, so I’ll just say that these river scenes are up there with the best of Dickens’ writing.

The white face of the winter day came sluggishly on, veiled in a frosty mist; and the shadowy ships in the river slowly changed to black substances; and the sun, blood-red on the eastern marshes behind dark masts and yards, seemed filled with the ruins of a forest it had set on fire.

Dark deeds by the river...
Dark deeds by the river…

To sum up, then, there are too many weaknesses in this for it to count as one of Dickens’ absolute best, but then he sets the bar so high. Even as one of his second-tier novels, it’s still a greater book than the vast majority out there, and its strengths still justify a five-star rating. When you’re the greatest writer the world has ever known, you can get away with an occasional clunky plot device or two…

Book 5 of 90Book 5 of 90

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Animal Farm by George Orwell

“Fake news” and “alternative facts”…

🙂 🙂 🙂

animal-farm-2Inspired by a dream had by Old Major, the white boar, the animals of Manor Farm rebel against their human master and throw him off the land. They agree to work the farm for their own mutual benefit, sharing the work and the produce fairly, each according to his ability and need. Being the most intelligent animals, the pigs take over the planning, both of how to maximise the farm’s yield and of how to protect themselves from outside hostility. But, as we all know, power corrupts…

Of course, this fable is an allegory of the Russian Revolution and the rise of the Soviet Union. First published in 1945, Orwell apparently wrote it as a warning to the nations of the Allies, who had been united with the USSR in fighting Nazi Germany and who therefore had been motivated to overlook some of the horrors going on under Stalin. He also felt there were many in the West who were happy to fool themselves that the USSR was a successful experiment in socialism, so he wanted to draw attention to the fact that the regime had become totalitarian, with a hierarchical power structure that Orwell saw as not altogether dissimilar to the power structures in the capitalist Western democracies, with an entrenched ruling class putting its own interests first. (All of this is paraphrased from Orwell’s own introduction to the Ukranian edition of the book, which is reproduced as an appendix in my Penguin Modern Classics edition.)

animal-farm-poster

I first read this as a school text, when I was about thirteen, I think. I remembered it as having rather blown me away at the time, but truthfully because of the Boxer storyline rather than the politics. At that time – the early ’70s – here in the UK, public opinion had largely caught up with Orwell’s interpretation of the regime, and the USSR was seen by the majority as evil and scary, with it and the US facing off against each other over Europe’s head, each building bigger and bigger weapons. (There was a fairly significant minority view, too, that the USSR was indeed successfully socialist and a good thing, and that anyway, whether it was or wasn’t, pacifism and unilateral disarmament were the way to go.) So the message of the book wasn’t really shocking or new as it may have been to those first readers back just after WW2.

animal-farm-boxer

Now, another 40 years on, older, possibly more knowledgeable and certainly more critical, I found I had some issues with Orwell’s portrayal.

The reason Orwell gives for the pigs becoming the leaders is their intelligence. The other animals are fundamentally stupid. Is that, then, Orwell’s view of the leadership and people of the USSR? Are the leaders all brainy while the proles are basically thick? It’s not simply that the other animals are uneducated – in the first flush of enthusiasm after the rebellion, all are given the opportunity to learn to read, but only the pigs and the donkey succeed. Poor old Boxer the horse, the backbone of the revolution, hardworking and utterly loyal, never manages to get past ABCD in learning the alphabet. I fear it smacks of a kind of utterly misplaced intellectual elitism to me, a suggestion that those who become totalitarian dictators do it through superior intelligence. Later, the pigs resort to intimidation, misinformation and propaganda, but not till after the intelligence/stupidity divide has allowed them to take a stranglehold on power. But there’s another aspect to it too, which sat uneasily with me. In this fable, all intelligent animals become corrupt despots, while stupidity seems to equal loyalty and a sense of fairplay and sacrifice.

Good Heavens! Has Napoleon taken to Twitter...???
Good Heavens! Has Napoleon taken to Twitter…???

My second problem is with the idea that the pigs become more humanlike as they become more corrupt. Assuming Farmer Jones represents Czarist Russia, then OK – I can go along with that for the sake of the fable. But if you factor in the other humans on neighbouring farms, with whom the pigs sometimes form alliances and at other times fight, then presumably these other farms represent the countries neighbouring the USSR. So, if the humans in the allegory represent corrupt leadership, the message seems to be that all leaders of all forms of government are corrupt and abuse their proletariat just as much as the USSR does. Even if for the sake of argument one accepts this as true (which I struggle to do even hypothetically), I can’t help but feel it means Orwell undoes his own argument about the unique corruption of power in the USSR. If democratic governments are just as bad as totalitarian ones, then… what’s the point he’s trying to make? Orwell says in his introduction that he didn’t mean for the pigs and humans to appear to fully reconcile at the end, and indeed they don’t, but they have become so similar that it’s hard to say which ones are the more morally or politically acceptable.

animal-farm-all-animals-equal

The book foreshadows the idea of “double-think”, later developed much more effectively and credibly in 1984, as the founding principles of the regime change over time while Squealer, the regime’s spokespig, blatantly denies the truth of the past, and disseminates the new “truth” through regime propaganda. (But at least Orwell doesn’t have the pigs go completely over the credibility line by claiming, for example, that Snowball the pig can’t be the leader because he was born on a foreign farm, or perhaps that Napoleon the pig would have won the popular vote if only five million illegal pigs hadn’t voted for his opponent… 😉 )

In summary, I really preferred the book when I was twelve, when the simplified allegory and emotional appeal of Boxer’s story worked better for me. My adult self found it a bit too simplistic and reliant on the reader not making any serious critical analysis of the underlying messages, when it all begins to lack coherence. An interesting and cautionary re-read though, especially in this troubled time of “fake news” and “alternative facts”.

rrr-challenge-logo-final

Book 1 in the RRR Challenge

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GAN Quest: Moby-Dick: or, The White Whale by Herman Melville

Call me baffled…

😐 😐

moby dickOur narrator (call him Ishmael) signs up for a voyage aboard the whaling ship Pequod, only to find that the Captain, Ahab, is pursuing a personal vendetta against the whale which caused him to lose his leg – Moby-Dick.

See, I still find that blurb quite appealing, even knowing what I now know – that that whole story is crammed into a few pages near the beginning and the last few pages at the end, and all the rest is filled with digressions, varying in degree of interest from quite exciting to cure for insomnia status. I should declare a pre-existing grudge against Melville – it was primarily being forced to pretend that his Billy Budd was in some way worth reading that led to my final breach with the Eng-Lit department at Uni. But surely a book that is touted as a Great American Novel contender couldn’t be as bad as that one, could it? Hmm! Well, after the last few books I’ve read or abandoned in the GAN Quest, I have realised that perhaps America and I have very different definitions of greatness…

My first complaint is that Melville clearly couldn’t decide whether he was trying to write a novel or an encyclopedia of whales. I would suggest that the bullet point list really plays no part in fiction, and that any time an author feels the need to use it, then he should step back and wonder if he’s on the right track. Pages of descriptions of all the different types of whales might be interesting if you happen to be interested in that kind of thing, but a novel isn’t the place for it.

Secondly, what’s with the cod-Shakespearian? The thing is, it makes perfect sense for Shakespeare’s characters to have spoken in poetic Elizabethan English, for obvious reasons – i.e., Shakespeare was an English Elizabethan poet. Ahab, on the other hand, was a 19th century whaling captain from Nantucket. One would therefore have expected him to speak like a 19th century Nantuckian. I’m guessing poor old Melville mistakenly thought that if he managed to sound like Shakespeare, people might be fooled into thinking that he was as good a writer as Shakespeare. Ah, well, the best laid plans…

moby-dick

Thirdly, and I grant you Melville is by no means the only writer guilty of this one, if you’re going to use a first-person narrative then you can’t suddenly tell the reader all kinds of things the narrator couldn’t possibly know – like what other people are thinking! Or verbatim reports of conversations when the narrator wasn’t present. Not if you want to be taken seriously as a good writer, at least.

There are bits that are good, when Melville stops trying to be stylistically clever and just tells a plain yarn: for instance, the story of the mutiny aboard another ship, or when Stubbs tricks the crew of the Rosebud into giving him the whale containing ambergris.

I also enjoyed some of his digressions (though there were far too many of them) – like when he philosophises at length on how the colour white is perceived as scary, ranging from polar bears to ghosts. This is well written, and although the argument is stretched and shaky, Melville shows that he knows it with some humorous asides. And the section where he shows each crew member’s different reaction to the gold coin is, I admit, brilliantly done, with him showing how each brings his own nature, his optimism or pessimism, his cultural beliefs and superstitions to his reading of the symbols on the coin. (Though again – first person narrative issue here, obviously.)

moby_dick_final_chase

The major problem, though, is the almost total lack of narrative drive. The book is nearly a quarter done before we even meet Ahab, the whole of that first section consisting of description after description, first of places, then of people. I was bored out of my head before the story even began. Then, having finally begun, it constantly stops again for vast swathes of time while Ishmael/Melville gives us all kinds of irrelevant information in what must be one of the earliest examples of info-dump: for example, when he gives us pages upon pages of him rubbishing all previous artists, writers and naturalists who have drawn or written about whales. The eponymous whale doesn’t appear until the book is 93% done.

But even aside from the main narrative, his style manages to suck the drama out of any bit of story he tells. We hear about a whale hunt that goes wrong, and it’s brilliantly told right up to the point where the crew are left in their damaged boat, with no oars, lighting their one small lamp against the huge darkness of the ocean… and then he stops and jumps to the biggest anticlimax of all time with a quick mention of a boringly straightforward rescue several hours later. And finally, the great showdown with Moby-Dick arrives – great stuff (if you ignore Starbuck and Ahab repeating themselves in endless asides), some fabulously horrific imagery and then… the end. Abrupt seems to be the appropriate word. However, on the upside, at least it is the end…

Herman Melville
Herman Melville

So, to conclude, well written in parts, badly written in others. Lacks narrative drive – by my reckoning the actual story part probably only takes up about 10% of the whole book. The mock Shakespearian language and pastiching of his style is a strange and, in my opinion, unsuccessful stylistic choice. I understand the book was first rejected by publishers and then failed to sell for decades after it finally was published, both of which sound about right to me. The bit that baffles me is why later generations have declared it “great”. My verdict – shows potential in places but requires a severe edit to rid it of all the extraneous nonsense and to improve the narrative flow.

* * * * * * *

great-american-novel-quest-2

So, is it a Great American Novel?

No.

* * * * * * *

Book 3 of 90
Book 3 of 90

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Passing by Nella Larsen

Colour me white…

😀 😀 😀 😀

passingWhen Irene accidentally meets her childhood friend Clare in a tea-house in Chicago, she’s not altogether surprised to discover that Clare is ‘passing’ as white. Clare had always wanted the good things in life and, when she disappeared from home as a teenager, her friends suspected she’d found a way to make use of her beauty. Now Clare is married to a rich white man, John Bellew, with whom she has a child. But John hates ‘niggers’ and Clare knows her marriage would be over if he ever found out about her mixed heritage. Irene rather despises Clare for, as she sees it, a kind of betrayal of her race, but nevertheless can’t resist the appeal of her charm. And so, their friendship is resumed – dangerous to Clare’s marriage, but as it turns out, dangerous to Irene too…

Despite the title and basic premise of the book, this is as much about marriage and status as it is about race. Irene is respected in her society in Harlem. Her husband Brian is a doctor and they have a relatively wealthy life. But we soon learn that Brian is discontented – he hates living in a country where he is treated as inferior because of his race. Irene on the other hand loves her life and wants nothing more than she has. Clare is the catalyst who brings this division into sharp focus, forcing Irene to question what’s important to her and to wonder if her marriage is as solid as she had always thought.

I appreciated that the book doesn’t focus exclusively on the race issues. Sometimes books become so polemical it feels as if the people are tokens rather than rounded characters in their own right – I’m thinking of Americanah, for example. In this one, none of the characters is defined entirely by race – the questions that absorb them most have little overtly to do with colour. In a way, that makes the incidents of racism feel all the more brutal and shocking when they do happen. Written in 1921 long before the civil rights movement really got underway, we see how white people felt it was totally acceptable to publicly and casually express views that many of us would now find repugnant (pre-Trump – sadly, it now appears to be the new normal again), and how black people, even wealthy ones, had no real recourse other than to accept it and try not to let it define their entire lives. Brian and Irene’s ongoing difference about how to bring up their sons encapsulates a debate that I’m sure must have been going on endlessly in the black community of the time – Irene wanting to shield them for as long as possible from the knowledge of how racist their society is, while Brian feels they should be taught early what to expect and taught to resent it.

Nella Larsen
Nella Larsen

The deeper question than simply colour is perhaps about the sense of belonging. Despite having wealth and a husband who loves her, Clare the risk-taker longs for the people and places of her childhood and is willing to gamble recklessly with everything she has for the fleeting pleasure of spending time back in that society. Irene on the other hand sees that same society as a place of security and contentment, and her sole desire is not to have her life disrupted. Both the women can tolerate the racism of their world so long as it doesn’t directly impinge on them. Brian, however, resents racism as a political thing, not just personal – a thing that makes him hate his nation and rather despise his peers for their acceptance of it. In him, we see the anger and discontent that would eventually lead to the rise of the civil rights movement.

The characterisation of Irene is the book’s major strength. It is from her perspective that the book is told, although in the third person. She operates within the conventions of her time, deferring outwardly to her husband, playing the little wife who’s always endearingly late for things and just a bit scatterbrained. But inwardly she has a core of steel – she has achieved exactly the life she wants and will defend it in any way she can. If that means she has to manipulate her husband to give up his dreams in favour of hers, so be it – she has the intelligence and fierce drive to do it, and the self-awareness to know that that’s exactly what she’s doing. But her slightly repelled fascination for her old friend allows Clare to sneak through her defences, and suddenly Irene finds she’s losing control of the situation – something she’s not used to and that frightens her.

I regret to admit that I think the ending is almost laughably silly, which is a major pity since I was loving it up to that point. I wonder if Larsen maybe just couldn’t think how to get her characters out of the situation she had so carefully and brilliantly crafted for them. Personally (and you don’t often hear me say this) I wished the book was a few chapters longer with a more complex and psychologically satisfying dénouement. But despite that disappointment, I still think this is an excellent book that gives real insight into this small section of black society at a moment in time, and would highly recommend it.

I was tempted towards the book by this excellent review from TJ at My Book Strings – only took me two years to get around to reading it!

Book 2 of 90
Book 2 of 90

This is the book chosen for me by the Classics Club’s #14 spin.

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The Classics Club Spin #14

The fickle finger of fate…

classics club logo 2

The Classics Club is holding its 14th Spin, but it’s my first. The idea is to list 20 of the books on your Classics Club list before next Monday 3rd October. On Monday, the Classics Club will post the winning number. The challenge is to read whatever book falls under that number on your Spin List, by December 1, 2016. It will certainly be a challenge to squeeze another book into my already overstuffed pile of review books and GAN books that I’ve scheduled for autumn, but hey! Who needs sleep anyway? If the worst comes to the worst, I can always bump Moby-Dick off the schedule… 😉

So here’s my list. I’ve selected it on the basis of mostly including books I already own, and have included some from all five of the categories in my CC list – American fiction, English fiction, Scottish fiction, crime fiction and science fiction. I’ve also tried to avoid some of the lengthier ones on my list…

1) Passing by Nella Larsen

2) Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

3) The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner by James Hogg

4) Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith

5) Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

6) Miss Lonelyhearts by Nathaniel West

7) Nada The Lily by H Rider Haggard

8) The Valley of Fear by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

9) She Who Was No More by Boileau-Narcejac

10) Tarzan of the Apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs

11) Mildred Pierce by James M Cain

12) The Code of the Woosters by PG Wodehouse

13) The Cone Gatherers by Robin Jenkins

14) The Riddle of the Sands by Erskine Childers

15) The Stainless Steel Rat by Harry Harrison

16) The Jungle by Upton Sinclair

17) Cluny Brown by Margery Sharp

18) The House with the Green Shutters by George Douglas Brown

19) Cop Hater by Ed McBain

20) Childhood’s End by Arthur C Clarke

* * * * * * *

Most of these I’d be delighted to read. If I had to choose, I’d like to see Strangers on a Train come up, or Nada the Lily. There are only a couple I feel more ambivalent about, but I’m naming no names on the basis of tempting fate!

Which one would you like to see win?

TBR Thursday 88 – Joining The Classics Club

classics club logo 2The List

As I wander round the blogosphere, I’ve often been tempted to join The Classics Club, so now’s the time. In fact, it won’t change my reading patterns much at all, since I routinely read a fair number of classics every year. Most of the items on my list are already on my TBR, wishlist or bookshelves, while many of the rest are part of the ongoing Great American Novel Quest. Many of them are also re-reads, since re-reading favourite classics is always a pleasure, and I haven’t done enough of it since I got distracted by all the shiny new books for review.

The rules of the club are relatively simple. Basically, a list of at least 50 books is required, along with a commitment to read and post about them within 5 years. The list part is no problem, and I guess no-one will throw me in a rat-infested dungeon should my commitment falter over the years. Will they??

wind-in-willows-e-h-shepard-ratty-and-mole-in-a-boat

The benefits of joining are primarily that it’s a good way to meet other book bloggers who enjoy reading classic fiction too.

In terms of defining what is a classic, I’ve decided quite simply that any book originally published more than 50 years ago counts, therefore my cut-off date is 1965.

1965

So here’s my list – 90 books which I “commit” to reading and posting about within the next five years…

The American Section

Last of the Mohicans by James Fenimore Cooper (1826)
Moby Dick by Herman Melville (1851)
Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe (1852) – re-read
The American by Henry James (1877)
The Jungle by Upton Sinclair  (1906)
My Antonia by Willa Cather  (1918)
Passing by Nella Larsen (1929)
Miss Lonelyhearts by Nathaniel West (1933)
Tender is the Night by F Scott Fitzgerald (1934) – re-read
Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell (1936)
The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers (1940)
For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway (1940)
Mildred Pierce by James M Cain (1941)
Cannery Row by John Steinbeck (1945)
All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren (1946)
The Young Lions by Irwin Shaw (1948)
Catcher in the Rye by JD Salinger (1951)
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (1960) – re-read
Last Exit to Brooklyn by Hubert Selby Jr (1964)
In Cold Blood by Truman Capote (1965)

gone with the wind

The English Section

Mansfield Park by Jane Austen (1814) – re-read
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (1818) – re-read
Nicholas Nickleby by Charles Dickens (1838) – re-read
Barnaby Rudge by Charles Dickens ( 1841) – re-read
Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens (1855) – re-read
No Name by William Wilkie Collins (1862)
Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens (1864)
Lorna Doone by RD Blackmore (1869)
The Mystery of Edwin Drood by Charles Dickens (1870)
Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy (1891) – re-read
Nada the Lily by H Rider Haggard (1892)
Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad (1902)
Sons and Lovers by DH Lawrence (1913) – re-read
The African Queen by CS Forester (1935)
Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier (1938) – re-read
The Code of the Woosters by PG Wodehouse (1938) – re-read
Cluny Brown by Margery Sharp (1944)
The Heart of the Matter by Graham Greene (1948) – re-read
The Go-Between by LP Hartley (1953) – re-read
Bath Tangle by Georgette Heyer (1955) – re-read

tess of the d'urbervilles

The Scottish Section

The Expedition of Humphry Clinker by Tobias Smollett (1771)
Annals of the Parish by John Galt (1821)
The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner by James Hogg (1824)
The Fair Maid of Perth by Sir Walter Scott (1828) – re-read
The Master of Ballantrae by Robert Louis Stevenson (1889)
The House with the Green Shutters by George Douglas Brown (1901)
Flemington by Violet Jacob (1911)
The New Road by Neil Munro (1914)
Children of the Dead End by Patrick McGill (1914)
The Valley of Fear by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1915) – re-read
Imagined Corners by Willa Muir (1931)
Cloud Howe by Lewis Grassic Gibbon (1933) – re-read
The Gowk Storm by Nancy Brysson Morrison (1933)
Grey Granite by Lewis Grassic Gibbon (1934) – re-read
No Mean City by Alexander McArthur and H. Kingsley Long (1935)
Whisky Galore by Compton Mackenzie (1947)
The Bull Calves by Naomi Mitchison (1947)
The Cone Gatherers by Robin Jenkins (1955)
The Game of Kings by Dorothy Dunnett (1961)
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark (1961) – re-read

the prime of miss jean brodie

The Crime Section

The Riddle of the Sands by Erskine Childers (1903)
The 39 Steps by John Buchan (1915) – re-read
The Dain Curse by Dashiell Hammett (1929)
The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M Cain (1934)
The Hollow Man by John Dickson Carr (1935)
The Wheel Spins by Ethel Lina White (1936)
I, The Jury by Mickey Spillane (1947)
Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith (1950)
The Tiger in the Smoke by Margery Allingham (1952)
She Who Was No More by Boileau-Narcejac (1952)
The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler (1953)
Cop Hater by Ed McBain (1956) – re-read
4.50 from Paddington by Agatha Christie (1957) – re-read
Anatomy of a Murder by Robert Traver (1958)
The Spy Who Came in from the Cold by John Le Carré (1963)

strangers on a train

The Sci-fi Section

The Island of Dr Moreau by HG Wells (1896)
Tarzan of the Apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs (1914)
Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1915)
Earth Abides by George R Stewart (1949)
The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham (1951) – re-read
Foundation by Isaac Asimov (1951) – re-read
Childhood’s End by Arthur C Clarke (1953)
The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester (1956)
On the Beach by Nevil Shute (1957) – re-read
Starship Troopers by Robert A Heinlein (1959)
Naked Lunch by William S Burroughs (1959)
The Stainless Steel Rat by Harry Harrison (1961) – re-read
Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury (1962)
The Drowned World by JG Ballard (1962)
Way Station by Clifford D Simak (1963)

the day of the triffids

* * * * * * *

The list will undoubtedly change over time. But, meantime, what do you think (assuming you’re still awake)? Any there that you don’t think deserve a place? Or that you love? Or any different ones you’d like to see added?

Dubliners by James Joyce

All the living and the dead…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

the dublinersJoyce’s collection of 15 stories takes the reader through the various strata of Dublin society of the early years of the twentieth century. The prose is of a uniformly high standard, though some of the pieces are too fragmentary and unresolved to be fully satisfying. When Joyce does tell a story, though, he tells it excellently, making me rather regret that he didn’t use standard prose and story-telling techniques more often.

The sum of the collection is greater than its individual parts, however, so that even the shorter character sketches add something to the reader’s understanding of Dublin and its citizens. Despite the wide range of class and circumstance Joyce addresses, each one has a sense of total authenticity, of a deep understanding of how this society intermixes. There is a common theme running throughout, of people trapped, either by circumstance or because of decisions they have made, and many of the stories focus on a moment in the central characters’ lives when they become aware of their trap. Drunkenness, violence and the stifling stranglehold of the Catholic church all play their part in showing a society where aspiration is a rare commodity, usually thwarted. I understand some of the stories were considered shocking at the time for their language and sexual content. Given the relative mildness of them to modern eyes, this fact in itself casts another light on how socially restricted the society was at the time of writing.

The prose is somewhat understated, with Joyce relying more on the penetrating examination of character rather than any flamboyancy of language or stylistic quirks, and that works well for me. He achieves a depth of characterisation with few words, acknowledging his reader’s ability to interpret and understand without the need to have everything spelled out. Just occasionally, this left me floundering a little in the couple of stories where he is addressing contemporary Irish politics or mores, but I accept that’s my weakness rather than his. In the stories where he is addressing more fundamental aspects of human nature, I appreciated his rather sparing style greatly.

dublin

Overall, I found the fully developed stories excellent, while the ones that are primarily character sketches are interesting if not wholly satisfying. However, as a collection, I thoroughly enjoyed the whole thing, the weaker parts being more than compensated for by the stronger.

* * * * *

Since it seems to be a Dubliners tradition to name favourites, here are a few of mine…

An Encounter – this story of two young boys ‘miching’ from school is primarily an oblique and unsettling description of their encounter with a man whom we would today describe as a paedophile. But what I loved about it was the young narrator’s recognition of his own ambivalent attitude towards his friend…

My voice had an accent of forced bravery in it and I was ashamed of my paltry stratagem. I had to call the name again before Mahony saw me and halloed in answer. How my heart beat as he came running across the field to me! He ran as if to bring me aid. And I was penitent; for in my heart I had always despised him a little.

* * * * *

A Painful Case – a man re-evaluates his life following the death, perhaps accident, perhaps suicide, of a woman to whom he was once close. This is a wonderful study of that high moral rectitude that can so easily slide over into hypocrisy, and seems to me to be something of a metaphor for the mechanical, unfelt religiosity of much of the society Joyce is portraying throughout the book.

What an end! The whole narrative of her death revolted him and it revolted him to think that he had ever spoken to her of what he held sacred. The threadbare phrases, the inane expressions of sympathy, the cautious words of a reporter won over to conceal the details of a commonplace vulgar death attacked his stomach. Not merely had she degraded herself; she had degraded him. He saw the squalid tract of her vice, miserable and malodorous. His soul’s companion!

* * * * *

James Joyce
James Joyce

The Dead – the longest and most developed story in the book, this ranges beautifully over the various guests attending an evening party, before finally focusing on one man who, in the course of the evening, falls in love with his wife all over again and then has the foundation of his marriage shattered by a sudden revelation. The writing in this one is superb, showing all the sense of community, all the close and distant relationships, that make up this society; but in the end reminding character and reader alike of the ultimate aloneness of the individual, of the unknowableness of even those closest to us.

His soul had approached that region where dwell the vast hosts of the dead. He was conscious of, but could not apprehend, their wayward and flickering existence. His own identity was fading out into a grey impalpable world: the solid world itself, which these dead had one time reared and lived in, was dissolving and dwindling.

* * * * *

Eveline – this is a beautiful story, full of emotional truthfulness, and my favourite in the collection. Following the death of her mother, a young girl fulfils the promise she made to her to keep the family home together, despite her father’s drunkenness and violence. But now she has met a young man, a sailor, who wants her to come away with him to Buenos Aires. She must decide between love and duty – but on a deeper level, her choice is between courage and cowardice – escape through the open door or remain in the cage. More than any other story, this one seems to me to sum up the major theme of the book, and broke my heart in a few short pages.

She felt her cheek pale and cold and, out of a maze of distress, she prayed to God to direct her, to show her what was her duty. The boat blew a long mournful whistle into the mist…

A bell clanged upon her heart. She felt him seize her hand:

“Come!”

All the seas of the world tumbled about her heart. He was drawing her into them: he would drown her. She gripped with both hands at the iron railing.

“Come!”

begorrathon 2016

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson

jekyll and hydeThe eternal battle of Good v Evil…

A man and a child accidentally bump into each other at a street corner – a normal everyday incident. But when the child falls down, the man deliberately tramples over her, ignoring her screams of pain. When he is stopped by passers-by, he shows no remorse. This is the reader’s first introduction to Mr Hyde, a man who has no obvious deformity but gives off an air so repellent that strangers passing him in the street shudder without knowing why. But this man has some kind of hold over the eminently respectable and well-known scientist, Dr Jekyll, who not only pays compensation for Hyde’s actions, but also gives him the run of his own house, and has made out his will in Hyde’s favour, leaving him everything should Jekyll die… or disappear. Jekyll’s friend and lawyer is at a loss to understand, but feels it his duty to discover more about the mysterious Mr Hyde…

Mr Hyde was pale and dwarfish, he gave an impression of deformity without any nameable malformation, he had a displeasing smile, he had borne himself to the lawyer with a sort of murderous mixture of timidity and boldness, and he spoke with a husky, whispering and somewhat broken voice; all these were points against him, but not all of these together could explain the hitherto unknown disgust, loathing and fear with which Mr Utterson regarded him.

Because the story has become so phenomenally well-known, the reader is way ahead of Mr Utterson, the lawyer. In the novella, it’s not till near the end that it’s revealed that Mr Hyde is the result of a scientific experiment gone horribly wrong. But it’s so well written that knowing the story doesn’t hamper enjoyment in any way. Stevenson builds up the tension and horror beautifully, with one of the best uses of London fog I’ve come across, both as providing a cloak for wickedness and vice, and as a metaphor for the darkness within each human soul. Darkness features throughout, with fog rolling into houses, and Mr Utterson having to face the terrifying climax with only the feeble flicker of a candle to light his way.

The Fredric March version from 1932. Hmm... no obvious deformity?
The Fredric March version from 1932. Hmm… no obvious deformity?

A great chocolate-coloured pall lowered over heaven, but the wind was continually charging and routing these embattled vapours; so that as the cab crawled from street to street, Mr Utterson beheld a marvellous number of degrees and hues of twilight; for here it would be dark like the back-end of evening; and there would be a glow of rich, lurid brown, like the light of some strange conflagration; and here, for a moment, the fog would be quite broken up, and a haggard shaft of daylight would glance in between the swirling wreaths. The dismal quarter of Soho seen under these changing glimpses, with its muddy ways, and slatternly passengers, and its lamps, which had never been extinguished or had been kindled afresh to combat this mournful reinvasion of darkness, seemed, in the lawyer’s eyes, like a district of some city in a nightmare.

Dr Jekyll refuses to tell Mr Utterson anything about his strange friend, but assures him that he could get rid of Hyde any time he chose. Mr Utterson has to accept that and let the matter rest. But one day, months later, a woman looking out of a window sees a horrifically brutal murder take place. The description she gives of the murderer could only be of Hyde. Mr Utterson races to Hyde’s address in sleazy Soho, but too late! He has vanished! Dr Jekyll seems nervy and upset, but after a while begins to get back into his old routines. Then some weeks later, Mr Utterson receives a visit from Dr Jekyll’s servant – it appears that Mr Hyde is back…

The Spencer Tracy version from 1941
The Spencer Tracy version from 1941. Ah, much better!

I thus drew steadily nearer to that truth, by whose partial discovery I have been doomed to such a dreadful shipwreck: that man is not truly one, but truly two… If each, I told myself, could be housed in separate identities, life would be relieved of all that was unbearable; the unjust might go his way, delivered from the aspirations and remorse of his more upright twin; and the just could walk steadfastly and securely on his upward path… no longer exposed to disgrace and penitence by the hands of this extraneous evil.

There is more than an element of morality tale about the story. Dr Jekyll has always liked to indulge his vices – mostly left, incidentally, to the reader’s imagination, which works so much better than lengthy graphic descriptions would have done. But now that he has become a well-known figure, he has to think about his reputation. So he decides the solution is to split his personality between good and evil. But the experiment doesn’t work the way he hopes – the Hyde side is indeed purely evil, but the Jekyll side doesn’t change – he still retains all his vices and weaknesses even when in that guise, and gradually the Hyde side begins to take control. The suggestion is that, if one gives in to one’s evil side, it will always become dominant, so we must guard against it at all times. It’s not nearly as preachy as I’ve probably just made it sound, though. First and foremost, it’s a thrilling, chilling tale of horror!

Great stuff! I hereby forgive Stevenson for boring me in Kidnapped! And now to watch the film…

* * * * * * *

Fretful Porpentine rating: 😯 😯 😯 😯 😯

Overall story rating:          😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

 

It's a fretful porpentine!
It’s a fretful porpentine!

Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

mrs dallowayAfter the war is over…

🙂 🙂 😐

There are two stories going on simultaneously in this short novel. First we have Mrs Dalloway preparing for a party and reminiscing about her life and past love. And, secondly, we have the tale of Septimus Smith, a veteran of the First World War, suffering from what we would now call PTSD, and suicidal. I wish I was about to join the legions of Woolf fans, but I fear not, so people who would prefer not to see their icon criticised should look away now.

The book has many strengths. Some of the use of language is beautiful, lyrical even. When Woolf focuses on an incident or character, she is incisive and insightful, and this shows through most clearly in the story of Septimus. Written in1923, the horrors of WW1 would have been as fresh in the minds of readers as in Woolf’s own mind and, though our present generation has been engulfed over the last century with stories relating to the impact and aftermath of that most terrible of all wars, Woolf must have been one of the first to discuss the devastating effect of the experience on those who survived apparently intact.

For it was the middle of June. The War was over, except for someone like Mrs Foxcroft at the Embassy last night eating her heart out because that nice boy was killed and now the old Manor House must go to a cousin; or Lady Bexborough who opened a bazaar, they said, with the telegram in her hand, John, her favourite, killed; but it was over; thank Heaven – over. It was June.

Septimus is not a member of the upper-class ‘lost generation’, drinking his way to oblivion. He is instead more realistic in that he came home and tried to resume some kind of normal life, working and marrying. But increasingly haunted by the things he witnessed and especially by the death of his friend, he has decided that suicide is the best option. His wife Rezia is beautifully depicted as a woman struggling to go on loving a man whom she no longer understands, and whose depression is making life intolerable for them both.

I try hard to know almost nothing about authors when I can, believing firmly that books should stand or fall on their own merits. However, it is impossible not to see Septimus’ story as partly autobiographical. Woolf too suffered from depression and suicidal tendencies, tragically fulfilled in the end, and Septimus’ experiences with the medical profession can’t help but feel as if they may be based on her own. From the callous ‘pull yourself together’ attitude of Septimus’ own doctor, to the specialist whose response is to lock Septimus away, thus removing any level of choice or control from him, her depiction feels angry, and realistic for a period when mental health issues were seen as a form of weakness or aberration, and when suicide was considered as much sinful as tragic. In Septimus’ story, Woolf creates something moving, intelligent and rather shocking.

 Vanessa Redgrave and John Standing in the 1997 movie of Mrs Dalloway.
Vanessa Redgrave and John Standing in the 1997 movie of Mrs Dalloway.

What a pity then that the rest of the book is taken up with a lightweight ramble about middle-aged rich people ruminating over their teen love affairs. I understand from the foreword that Woolf decided to write the book after reading Joyce’s Ulysses (which I haven’t read). Hence her use of the stream of consciousness technique and her attempt to take a panoramic view of London life on a single day. But, in fact, apart from Septimus, her panorama only takes in the world of the rich and privileged – a group who, since they don’t have to worry about the material things of life, apparently fill up their yawning empty days with self-created angst over such things as what dress to wear for a party, will my old lover of thirty years ago still fancy me, etc., etc. Actually Mrs Dalloway and her ex-lover’s story feels like something out of a YA romance, but without the emotional depth. If, after thirty years of marriage, one is still wondering if one has made the right decision, then perhaps one should attempt to find something more important to think about.

There is a built-in snobbery in her writing that made me cringe several times, the more so because I felt she was actually trying to suppress it. On the rare occasion she speaks of the ‘lower’ classes, it’s with the condescending air of an owner discussing a favourite pet, or perhaps an Imperialist discussing a ‘native’. Woolf’s depiction of a move towards a more egalitarian society can be summed up by Mrs Dalloway deciding to mend her own ballgown rather than making her servants do it. Practically Communist, isn’t it? And Woolf’s rather nauseating description of the faithful love and devotion her servants feel for Mrs D smacks of wishful thinking at best, deliberate blindness at worst, written as it was at the very time that new opportunities were allowing the servant class to abandon their overlords in droves, which they promptly did. I’ve often seen Woolf lauded as a feminist icon, but between her empty-headed, party-hostess, love-lorn heroine and her downtrodden but devoted little servant-girls, I couldn’t quite see it myself. Perhaps it’s something she developed later.

“Mr Dalloway, ma’am, told me to tell you he would be lunching out.”

“Dear!” said Clarissa, and Lucy shared as she meant her to her disappointment (but not the pang); felt the concord between them; took the hint; thought how the gentry love; gilded her own future with calm; and, taking Mrs Dalloway’s parasol, handled it like a sacred weapon which a Goddess, having acquitted herself honourably in the field of battle, sheds, and placed it in the umbrella stand.

All these attitudes arise from her time and class, of course, and in another book by another author I might pass them by. It’s the reverence with which Woolf is treated that led me to expect something more. And the same applies to her writing. When she is writing an incident in standard style, she does it excellently. But when she wanders off into her stream of consciousness, I’m afraid I simply don’t think she’s very good at it. I’m not a fan of stream of consciousness in general, but coincidentally I’ve read a few books recently where skilful authors have used long, digressive, run-on sentences, where each time I’ve commented in my review that they manage to do it without losing the reader along the way – Chabon, Rushdie, Flanery. With Woolf, I found I was repeatedly having to re-read sentences to make sense of them, sometimes just even to know which character was being discussed.

And I tired very quickly of her almost manic use of superlatives – ecstatic, exquisite raptures, supreme, superb, exhilarating intensities. It reads more like the language a teenage girl might use in her private diary than the polished prose of a mature author or, indeed, the inner emotions of a mature woman. In the foreword, Carol Ann Duffy describes her writing as ‘suffered brilliance’ and ‘lyric intensity’, both of which sound better than the expression that was running through my own mind – ‘hyperventilating hyperbole’. I found all this made it a tedious read – the style taking away from the already fairly shallow content.

Oh dear! I really tried to make this review as balanced as I could but it’s turned into a bit of a rant after all. I tried reading Woolf when I was young and didn’t take to her, but hoped that perhaps my tastes had changed enough to allow me to appreciate her better now. And I could see some good things in this – specifically Septimus’ story, which will linger in my mind – but I’m left with very little desire to investigate her further.

Many thanks again to Heavenali, who gave me this book as part of her #Woolfalong giveaway, and my apologies for not appreciating it more.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

GAN Quest: Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

A tide in the affairs of women…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

their eyes were watching godWhen Janie walks back into town eighteen months after leaving with a man 12 years her junior, her former friends and neighbours gossip and snigger, assuming he has spent all her money and then left her for a younger woman. But Janie’s story is more complicated, a tragedy but also an awakening, her journey one of self-discovery.

I’ll start by saying that I think this is an excellent novel, fully earning its place as a contender for the title of Great American Novel. It has been analysed to death by people far more qualified than I over the years: adversely, on the whole, at the time of its original publication in 1937, and then positively, when it was resurrected in the ’70s by academics with an interest in female and black voices in American literature. I had never heard of the book until it was mentioned by several people when I asked for recommendations for GANs, and I assiduously avoided reading anything about it in advance so that I could enjoy the rare luxury of reading it without preconceptions.

Janie is 16 when we first meet her in the care of her grandmother, a slave who became pregnant to her owner just before abolition. Janie’s own birth was as a result of the rape of her mother by a teacher. The date isn’t given, but a quick calculation suggests that the bulk of the book takes place in the first couple of decades of the 20th century. This matters, because one of my major criticisms of the book is that it seems to be set quite apart from historical context. There is no mention of WW1, no suggestion that any of the men fought or, indeed, had an opinion on the rights or wrongs of fighting for the USA. My (shallow) understanding is that this was a time of great change for African Americans, when they began to demand that a country that expected them to fight and die for it should also give them rights as equal citizens, develop a true democracy that embraced all people equally. But Janie’s world indicates none of this, and I found myself therefore not being able to entirely accept it as a realistic picture of the time.

Halle Berry and Ruben Santiago-Hudson in the 2005 ABC TV movie - which even from the stills looks dreadful.
Halle Berry and Ruben Santiago-Hudson in the 2005 ABC TV movie – which even from the stills looks dreadful.

Instead, Janie’s contemporaries are shown as lazy, passive and unambitious on the whole, their aspirations beaten out of them by a world still run by and for the white elite. That I could accept more, though it seems in conflict with the idea of the development of the all-black town of Eatonville in which much of the story is placed. And Eatonville itself doesn’t ring wholly true – when Janie and her new husband arrive there, it is no more than a plot of land with a few shacks, but within a few years it seems to be a thriving success story, without any indication of where that success comes from. And again, there is no discussion of politics or the wider world – Eatonville seems to exist in happy isolation, and the people Janie meets there and on her travels live carefree lives, based around drinking, gambling and sex – a happy-go-lucky existence, with no thought for the future. The position of women is one of almost total subservience to their men – a style of life where sexism and domestic violence is accepted by all. I was surprised at how negative a picture a black author was creating of the black community at a time when the political struggle for equality was building to a crescendo.

Before the week was over he had whipped Janie. Not because her behaviour justified his jealousy, but it relieved that awful fear inside him. Being able to whip her reassured him in possession. No brutal beating at all. He just slapped her around a bit to show he was boss. Everybody talked about it next day in the fields. It aroused a sort of envy in both men and women. The way he petted and pampered her as if those two or three face slaps had nearly killed her made the women see visions and the helpless way she hung on him made men dream dreams.

The reason I bring up these criticisms first is that, after I finished the book, I read the forewords and afterword in my copy, written by Edwidge Danticat, Mary Helen Washington and Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and was rather stunned to discover that my criticisms echoed those of the male black writing community of the time, whose dismissal of the book was based pretty much on it not conforming to the political agenda of the black movement. The subsequent feminist critiques of the ’70s and later, it seems to me, dismiss these criticisms too easily, perhaps because they think that to accept them would weaken their own argument that the book is a seminal text in the finding of the black female voice in literature. I beg to disagree – with both parties: the lack of a political context is a weakness but not one that prevents the book from making an important contribution; and the fact that it gives women in black culture a voice does not negate the fact that it would have been a greater book had it addressed, or at least acknowledged, the contemporary political situation.

Michael Ealy and Halle Berry, looking incredibly glamorous for a hard day's bean-pickin'...
Michael Ealy and Halle Berry, looking incredibly glamorous for a hard day’s bean-pickin’…

Where the book excels is in its portrayal of Janie’s character – her finding of her own way despite the male dominance of the society she lives in. As a person of mixed racial ancestry, Janie’s light skin tone and unusual hair are used to great effect to show how indoctrinated the black psyche had become to accept the desirability of ‘white’ physical traits; showing within their community the same kind of prejudices heaped on them from outside it. Having been married off young to a much older man, Janie rebels and runs off with the good-looking and ambitious Joe to Eatonville, only to discover that Joe too believes that a woman is at her best in the kitchen and bedroom. We know from the beginning of the book that there is a third man in Janie’s story – the younger Tea Cake, for whom she has left her comfortable home in Eatonville and gone off to work the fields in the Florida Everglades. It is in the few months that she spends with Tea Cake that Janie finally discovers what it is to love and be loved equally.

Ten feet higher and as far as they could see the muttering wall advanced before the braced-up waters like a road crusher on a cosmic scale. The monstropolous beast had left his bed. The two hundred miles an hour wind had loosed his chains. He seized hold of his dikes and ran forward till he met the quarters; uprooted them like grass and rushed on after his supposed-to-be conquerors, rolling the dikes, rolling the houses, rolling the people in the houses along with other timbers. The sea was walking the earth with a heavy heel.

Although the structure of the book is that Janie is telling her story in retrospect to her friend Pheoby, this is a third person narrative for the most part, slipping into first occasionally as we are made directly privy to Janie’s thoughts. All of the speech is in dialect, which Hurston handles brilliantly, and although the non-dialogue parts are in a more standard form of English, she maintains speech patterns, tone and vocabulary throughout. The dialect is not so broad that it makes the book hard to read – it’s sustained so beautifully that it almost recedes into the background after the reader gets tuned into it. While I have criticised the portrayal of the society as negative, it’s also done with great skill, making it completely believable within the internal context of the book. The writing is lyrical at times, especially the section in the Florida Everglades where the land and weather come to play a huge part in the story. The book has its share of tragedy and horror, but Hurston offers compassion to her characters at all times, and she draws them subtly, so that there are few of them who can’t earn our empathy.

Zora Neale Hurston
Zora Neale Hurston

I am aware that this review has taken on gargantuan proportions, but that’s a sign of the effect the book and the debate surrounding it had on me. I could write at length about my disappointment that fundamentally Janie’s search for herself seems too much to be a search for a man who will love her right. I could mention my anger at the way Hurston seems tacitly to endorse wife-beating so long as it’s done with love(!). I could wonder about the lack, not just of children, but of any mention of them. But instead, I’ll say that, despite my quite severe criticisms of it, I loved the book for the language and the compelling story-telling, and for making me think, and it’s one that I’m sure would deliver even more on a re-read.

* * * * * * *

Great American Novel Quest

So…how does it fare in The Great American Novel Quest? To win that title it needs to achieve all five of the criteria in my original post…

Must be written by an American author or an author who has lived long enough in the US to assimilate the culture.

us flagAchieved.

The theme must shed light on a specific and important aspect of American culture and society of the time of its writing.

us flagYes, despite its lack of political context, it gives an excellent portrayal of this part of black culture.

It must be innovative and original in theme.

us flagYes, the examination of the place of women within this culture was clearly innovative for its time.

Must be superbly written.

us flagYes – the dialect and lyricism of the writing are undoubtedly excellent.

Must capture the entire ‘American experience’.

white_flagNo – and it’s not trying to.

 

* * * * * * *

So not The Great American Novel but, with 4½ stars and 4 GAN flags, I hereby declare this…

A Great American Novel.

.

* * * * * * *

 

Martin Chuzzlewit by Charles Dickens

martin chuzzlewitComin’ to America…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Old Martin Chuzzlewit’s greedy relations have always assumed that his grandson and namesake will inherit the bulk of his wealth. But when young Martin falls in love without his grandfather’s consent, the subsequent breach between them leaves the way open for all the rest to try to flatter, sneak or threaten their way into old Martin’s good graces. Meantime young Martin must make his own way in the world, a hard lesson for a young man who has never given much thought for anything beyond his own comfort. When old Martin makes it difficult for him to get on in England, young Martin decides to seek his fortune in the youthful United States of America…

Apparently on publication in serial form, this one didn’t take off as well as Dickens’ earlier novels, and I can see why. At first, as we meet all the horrible relatives, it’s quite hard to see who is to be the hero – they are all so unlikeable, including the two Martins. The major theme of the book is selfishness, perhaps more self-centredness, as each character is out for what he or she can get. The book is populated by grasping Scrooge-like businessmen, hypocritical flatterers and people whose pride gets in the way of their ability to make compromises. Tom Pinch, the put-upon assistant of one of the many Chuzzlewit relations, Mr Pecksniff, is the only main character who is purely good, and frankly he is such a doormat one wants to give him a good shake and shout “Man up, Tom, for goodness sake!” However, once Dickens has created all his characters, he then allows the circumstances in which they they find themselves to change them. And, as is always the case with Dickens, redemption is available for those characters willing to seek it.

He was a gaunt man in a huge straw hat, and a coat of green stuff. The weather being hot, he had no cravat, and wore his shirt collar wide open; so that every time he spoke something was seen to twitch and jerk up in his throat, like the little hammers in a harpsichord when the notes are struck. Perhaps it was the Truth feebly endeavouring to leap to his lips. If so, it never reached them.

Dickens’ method of writing for serialisation meant that he often reacted to how early instalments were received by his public, and this book is a major example of that. While he clearly had the main arc of the story mapped out, apparently the decision to send young Martin off to America was made mid-way through in order to revive flagging sales. I’m not convinced it was a great decision – the whole American bit feels tacked on and unnecessary, although it provides a good deal of opportunity for some of Dickens’ fine satire as well as some great descriptive writing. Martin, accompanied by his servant Mark Tapley, finds himself at the mercy of the unscrupulous hucksters who prey on the immigrant dream of finding a land of golden opportunity. Ending up instead in a disease-ridden swamp, Martin has a chance to discover the meaning of true friendship, while Mark has at last found a place where he can find some merit in being jolly in the face of adversity.

The inaptly named Eden, young Martin's American home. By Phiz.
The inaptly named Eden, young Martin’s American home. By Phiz.

It was hastily resolved that a piece of plate should be presented to a certain constitutional Judge, who had laid down from the Bench the noble principle, that it was lawful for any white mob to murder any black man: and that another piece of plate, of similar value, should be presented to a certain Patriot, who had declared from his high place in the Legislature, that he and his friends would hang, without trial, any Abolitionist who might pay them a visit. For the surplus, it was agreed that it should be devoted to aiding the enforcement of those free and equal laws, which render it incalculably more criminal and dangerous to teach a negro to read and write, than to roast him alive in a public city.

Dickens’ picture of the newly independent United States is either deeply insightful and very funny (if you’re British) or rude and deeply offensive (if you’re American). Fortunately I’m British – and furthermore I spent a miserable couple of weeks last year in the company of the much more vilely rude Mr Twain as he travelled Europe and Asia in The Innocents Abroad, so hey! I was kinda glad to see Dickens do it the other way round, and so much better! Joking(?) aside, Dickens was surprised by the reaction of the American public, feeling that his satirisation of their society wasn’t significantly different to the way he satirised people and institutions in England. True, I feel, but somehow it does read more offensively because of his position as an outsider to their society. I’m not sure he meant to convey the impression that America was inferior to England – given his lowly opinion of the people who abused their power in England, I doubt it. But it nevertheless comes across that way, particularly when he brilliantly (and repeatedly) mocks the never-ending boast of “freedom” coming from men who kept and cruelly abused slaves. Dickens subsequently made a kind of apology to America (more than Twain ever did to Europe, as far as I know) and requested that this apology be always printed at the end of the book.

Each long black hair upon his head hung down as straight as any plummet line; but rumpled tufts were on the arches of his eyes, as if the crow whose foot was deeply printed in the corners, had pecked and torn them in a savage recognition of his kindred nature as a bird of prey.

Mrs Gamp shows her compassion and nursing skills by shaking old Chuffey out of his depression...
Mrs Gamp shows her compassion and nursing skills by shaking old Chuffey out of his depression…

For me, the book is much better when it stays in England, and fortunately the American interlude is relatively short. Some of the great Dickens characters are to be found here. Mr Pecksniff, the arch-hypocrite and flatterer, is superb – not quite as overdrawn as Dickens’ characters can sometimes be, making Tom’s belief in him more credible. Sairey Gamp, midwife and layer-out of corpses, with her invisible friend Mrs Harris, her ubiquitous umbrella, and her liking for a little sip of alcohol – just to wet her lips occasionally – is monstrous and comical simultaneously, a combination only Dickens could pull off so well. Jonas Chuzzlewit is one of the great evil characters, and the scenes relating to him in the second half of the book show Dickens at his dark and terrifying worst.

Did no men passing through the dim streets shrink without knowing why, when he came stealing up behind them? As he glided on, had no child in its sleep an indistinct perception of a guilty shadow falling on its bed, that troubled its innocent rest? Did no dog howl, and strive to break its rattling chain, that it might tear him; no burrowing rat, scenting the work he had in hand, essay to gnaw a passage after him, that it might hold a greedy revel at the feast of his providing? When he looked back, across his shoulder, was it to see if his quick footsteps still fell dry upon the dusty pavement, or were already moist and clogged with the red mire that stained the naked feet of Cain!

Of course, there is romance and one of Dickens’ never-ending parade of nauseatingly sweet young heroines – this time, Tom’s sister, Ruth. But I must say the love scenes in this one are done mainly for humour and that works so much better than some of the sickly sweet love affairs in later books (yes, I am thinking of David Copperfield and Drippy Dora).

Mr Pecksniff with Tom Pinch and the deliciously named ugly (natured) sisters, Cherry and Merry Pecksniff...
Mr Pecksniff with Tom Pinch and the deliciously named ugly (natured) sisters, Cherry and Merry Pecksniff…

Despite the rather slow start and the detour to America, for me this still ranks up there as a truly excellent novel. While it took me a bit of time to warm up to any of the characters, as they developed I became fully invested in wanting to see the goodies reach a happy ending and hoping the baddies would get their just desserts. The second half in particular, with its mixture of evil, justice and redemption reaches close to being some of Dickens’ best work. The sheer quality of Dickens’ writing always takes my breath away – it reads as if written so effortlessly and yet his descriptions of both place and people are unique, insightful and often unforgettable. A true master of his craft – I’m glad I live in a world that once had Dickens in it!

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

The trials of a book-blogger…

…or How Not to Write a Review of Lolita

 

lolita 3She sits at the screen, fingers drumming lightly on the keyboard.

“Lo-li-ta,” she murmurs, checking if the tip of her tongue takes a trip of three steps down her palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. No – her tongue remains firmly behind her teeth at every step. Having mastered counting to ten in Russian at school, she tries it in a Russian accent. “Lo-LI-ta!” Hmm…better, but still not quite there. In the background, the News Channel is discussing whether the UK has managed to blow up anything useful in Syria. “Lo-li-ta!” She becomes aware of the ticking of the clock – a surprise, since all the various clocks in the room are digital. And each tells her that 30 minutes have passed since she opened the document that stares blankly and somewhat accusingly from the screen. Quickly she types:

Middle-aged paedophile Humbert Humbert narrates the story of how he repeatedly abuses and rapes a child.

Hmm… accurate, but perhaps a bit harsh? She shudders as she is assaulted by a sudden vision of hordes of angry Lolita fans waving placards. Reaching for a piece of chocolate, she mumbles “Lo-li-ta”, then presses delete. The News Channel reports that it’s raining today, will be raining tomorrow and that the medium term forecast is for rain. The damp cat drying its paws on her sweater confirms the report’s accuracy. She makes coffee.

Humbert Humbert falls in love with the twelve-year-old golden-tanned, lentigo-bespeckled daughter of his landlady – little Lo-li-ta…

She ponders, then deletes the hyphens. Then deletes the sentence.

This beautifully written – no, scratch that – This pretentious – no, no, definitely scratch that!

James Mason as Humbert with 18-year-old Sue Lyon as Lolita
James Mason as Humbert with 18-year-old Sue Lyon as Lolita

The News Channel is now discussing the ethics of gene-editing. She finds herself wondering if they could edit her genes to turn her into a natural red-head. Or perhaps they could give her a golden tan and lentigo.

Humbert Humbert is genetically programmed to be obsessed by nymphets, and little Lolita is genetically designed to be one…

She sighs, deletes and switches off the TV. The ticking of the clock sounds louder now. She reads a few blog posts, all of which depress her with the conviction that everyone else can always find plenty to say even about books that are basically pulp. Lolita is an acknowledged classic so she should be able to write something deeply insightful and possibly poetic about it, shouldn’t she? A small part of her brain knows exactly what the problem is – that what she wants to write is…

* * * * * * *

Middle-aged paedophile Humbert Humbert narrates the story of how he repeatedly abuses and rapes a child.

Despite the fact that I knew going in that this was what the book was fundamentally about, I had hoped that it might have some merits that would outweigh the unpleasantness of the subject matter. For example, I’ve read a million reviews saying how wonderfully written it is. At the point where I was dying of tedium around the 40% mark, praying that he would stop repeating himself and just for once say ‘freckles’ rather than consulting his thesaurus and coming up with ‘lentigo’ instead, I rechecked some of the reviews and noted the little rider that 90% of them add – I paraphrase: “the prose is wonderful, considering he wasn’t writing in his first language”. Aha! If only I’d paid more attention – ‘cos, in general, anytime anyone follows the word “wonderful” with the word “considering” that usually equates to “not really wonderful at all”. Certainly his love of words shines through, and I grant his mastery of English is considerably greater than many native speakers’. But the purpose of a wide vocabulary is surely to enable one to communicate more effectively – not to spend one’s time replacing perfectly functional commonplace words with others that are never used. Unless one is compiling a cryptic crossword…

English-Dictionaries

Of course, had I been swept up in the masterful story-telling, I wouldn’t have had time to get picky about the pretentiousness of the language. But I fear I didn’t find the storytelling masterful at all. Surprising, since Nabokov tells us in his foreword (written tongue-in-cheek as if by a fictional character but still managing to sound rather nauseatingly self-complimentary) that Humbert has written a great work of art, and goes on to say…

“…how magically his singing violin can conjure up a tendresse, a compassion for Lolita that makes us entranced with the book while abhorring its author.”

Hmm! Well… anyway…

Perhaps at the time of writing the whole concept of grooming a child would have been shocking, but frankly it’s a story we hear time and again now, both in reality and in fiction, so its shock value is considerably lessened. Its unpleasantness, however, remains. I think the thing I liked least about it was the attempt to make the story humorous. While Nabokov does often remind us of the real cruelty at the heart of the story – for instance, when he mentions Lolita crying herself to sleep each night – I felt that he was painting Humbert in too sympathetic a light, though I wasn’t sure that this was his intention. And conversely, showing Lolita as too well able to cope with the abuse both as it happened and afterwards. In fact, Lolita’s strength is in a sense a get out of jail free card for Humbert (or Nabokov), because Nabokov would have found it much more difficult to put in his little “jokes”, surely, had Lolita been portrayed more truthfully. I spent much of my time debating whether the falseness of Lolita’s character was a deliberate effect of Humbert’s unreliability as a narrator, but actually I couldn’t convince myself that he is unreliable. I think we are supposed to accept that events happened as he describes them, which left me with real credibility problems.

Jeremy Irons as Humbert with 17-year-old Dominique Swain as Lolita. One understands why they don't use a child but these fully grown women make the thing seem more like a love affair than child abuse... a bit like the book tries to do... but fails.
Jeremy Irons as Humbert with 17-year-old Dominique Swain as Lolita. One understands why they don’t use a child but these fully grown women make the thing seem more like a love affair than child abuse… a bit like the book tries to do… but fails.

Certainly we are not supposed to assume that the book has any meaning deeper than the story it tells – Nabokov himself makes this clear, in his afterword…

“There are gentle souls who would pronounce Lolita meaningless because it does not teach them anything. I am neither a reader nor a writer of didactic fiction, and, despite John Ray’s assertion, Lolita has no moral in tow. For me a work of fiction exists only insofar as it affords me what I shall bluntly call aesthetic bliss, that is a sense of being somehow, somewhere, connected with other states of being where art (curiosity, tenderness, kindness, ecstasy) is the norm.”

Vladimir Nabokov Photo by Keystone/Getty Images
Vladimir Nabokov
Photo by Keystone/Getty Images

I agree – it is meaningless and it has no moral in tow. Sadly it did not provoke in me any feelings of bliss, aesthetic or otherwise – though it does have the distinction of being the only book I remember reading that both bored me and made me want to vomit simultaneously. Screeds of it are tediously repetitive – the pages and pages where he describes all the different kinds of hotels they stay in read like some kind of holiday brochure written by an aspiring poet doing a summer job, or perhaps more like the reviews on TripAdvisor, only with better spelling. I would have skipped through to the good bits only I couldn’t find out where they were. One more lingering description of Lolita’s golden tan would have provoked me to start campaigning for compulsory sunscreen. And just when I could see the light at the end of the tunnel, I was forced to live through the most ridiculous climax (an unfortunate choice of words, perhaps, in the circumstances) with some of the least convincing dialogue I have ever read.

“Ah, that hurts, sir, enough! Ah, that hurts atrociously, my dear fellow. I pray you, desist.”

My feelings exactly. So, it’s very well written, considering English isn’t his first language. And that’s pretty much the best I can find to say about it.

* * * * * * *

…but she knows that would be an ill-tempered rant rather than a review. Exasperated, she presses delete and switches off the laptop. Maybe tomorrow…

Have a great Friday! 😉

GAN Quest: The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton

Walking the high wire…

😀 😀 😀 😀

the house of mirth 2Beautiful Lily Bart, trained from birth to take her place in the highest echelons of New York society of the late 19th century, lacks the money to maintain her position in this elite and snobbish group, so must marry well. At the age of twenty-nine her options are beginning to narrow, so she must do it soon before her beauty begins to fade. But Lily has a problem – she is unable to bring herself to marry purely for money and has met only one man who inspires passion – a man who doesn’t possess either the wealth or the desire to live the kind of life Lily must have. This is the story of Lily’s gradual descent through the social classes as a series of bad decisions causes her to lose the one thing more important to this shallow society than beauty – her reputation. Along the way, she will gain some self-knowledge and learn to value her self-respect more than her status. Well, almost…

Original illustrations by AB Wenzell
Original illustrations by AB Wenzell

If only I could have loved Lily! If I could at any point have felt that she were worthy of a week of my life, or a moment of Selden’s (an adulterer, so not a particularly high standard to reach)! It is undoubtedly true that books affect us differently depending on when we read them, and I suspect that had I read this when I was eighteen, it would have delighted me nearly as much as Ms Austen’s books did at that age and, like them, would probably then have remained a favourite. In fact, for a large part of the beginning, I found myself comparing Lily to Austen’s equally unlikeable heroine, Emma. But even in Emma, Austen tempers her view of a society that restricts women to the unpleasantnesses of the marriage mart by having a little humour and some fundamentally decent characters. In The House of Mirth, Wharton invites us to sneer at the characters rather than laugh with or even at them, and the most decent man is an adulterer who then snubs Lily for doing considerably less than he did. Accurate, of course, as a representation of the inequality of women, but hardly likely to make the reader warm towards him. Not this reader, at any rate.

the house of mirth original illustration 3

The book gives a cuttingly brilliant portrayal of this society and of the basic amorality at the heart of it. Money clears the path to good reputation – one can be forgiven anything if one is rich enough. But commit the crime of poverty and one is left balancing precariously on a high wire, without a safety net. And Lily doesn’t have the self-control to stop herself from swaying with each wind that blows. Her fall is described with what feels like great authenticity. She doesn’t plummet to her doom – rather she lands high up on a hill and then slips gradually down. This lets Wharton show the various strata of society, from the established and well-born, through the nouveau riche, to the rich but not quite respectable, and finally to the dinginess of genteel poverty that Lily has been brought up most to fear. Lily has opportunities to break her fall but each time, as she reaches the crunch, her pride won’t let her make the sacrifice that would be necessary.

Gillian Anderson and Etic Stolz as Lily and Selden in the movie version. Has anyone seen it? Is it good?
Gillian Anderson and Eric Stolz as Lily and Selden in the movie version. Has anyone seen it? Is it good?

The writing is, of course, excellent, as is Wharton’s insight into the workings of this society and the characters who inhabit it. But I found it a cold novel, without the contrasts that might have lent it some much needed warmth. I liked no-one, and actually I suspect that was Wharton’s intention. Being shallow, however, I need someone to care about to make a novel really work for me – and I couldn’t care about Lily, however hard I tried. Oh yes, by the end I felt sorry for her but, truthfully, not terribly. Her ambitions are so petty, her hardships so cushioned, her decisions so egotistical. She represents everything that is worst about a society where worth is measured by wealth, and just as I wouldn’t regret the passing of that kind of society, I couldn’t get worked up about this one unimportant little hanger-on. Get a job, was my constant cry! But no, Lily couldn’t even manage that. Become a companion to a rich old lady, then, I shrieked at her! No, no, she replied, I must attend parties and look more beautiful than everyone else or my life is not worth living. I felt forced to agree with the latter part of that sentence. And thus, when we wound slowly, slowly, slowly to the inevitable end, I regret to say I… giggled. I’m so sorry! I didn’t mean to, honestly! I really hoped I’d sob!

the house of mirth original illustration 2

I don’t at all think my reaction means that the book fails, however. Apart from a rather sickly sweet finale (hence the giggling), I suspect my reaction was very much what Wharton intended to inspire. Certainly she wasn’t holding these people up for admiration and, as a social critique, I feel the book works wonderfully well. (I felt at points, though, that Wharton was far from immune from the attitudes and snobberies she was criticising – her depiction of the Jewish Rosedale, for example, and her stereotyping of the ‘poor’.) In the end, the lack of any characters that I could fully sympathise with (poor Gerty, too pathetically good to be true, I fear), meant that, like Emma, my admiration for the book never quite grew into love.

* * * * * * *

Great American Novel Quest

So…how does it fare in The Great American Novel Quest? To win that title it needs to achieve all five of the criteria in my original post…

Must be written by an American author or an author who has lived long enough in the US to assimilate the culture.

us flagAchieved.

The theme must shed light on a specific and important aspect of American culture and society of the time of its writing.

us flagWithout doubt, it gives a brilliant depiction of the various levels of rich society of the time and of the hypocrisy at the heart of it.

It must be innovative and original in theme.

us flagYes, I’d say the perspective of a woman falling through the various levels is an innovative way to examine the workings of this society.

Must be superbly written.

us flagYes – I found the writing curiously cold, but nonetheless penetrating and excellent.

Must capture the entire ‘American experience’.

white_flagNo – and it’s not trying to.

 

* * * * * * *

So not The Great American Novel, and with only four stars and four GAN flags, not even A Great American Novel, I fear. But it’s still a good and important novel that I’m glad to have read. The only thing holding it back from being a great novel for me is that I couldn’t learn to love Lily…

* * * * * * *

 

Butchering Books… The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame

There ought to be a law against it…

.

the wind in the willows

The Wind in the Willows was one of the earliest ‘proper’ books I read – probably when I was six or seven. I would go so far as to say that it’s probably the book that most influenced me towards reading what I now think of as ‘literary’ fiction – that is, beautifully written and tells the reader something about the ‘human condition’ rather than simply being a linear narrative with an exciting plot.

In fact, the stuff about Mr Toad, while fun, was not my favourite part of the book – not even close. The chapters I loved most were the ones that explored Ratty and Mole’s friendship, the sense of community amongst the heavily anthropomorphised animals (even as a child I knew that they were people really), the attractions of travel, the comfort of and longing for home. There are three standout chapters for me that I’ve never forgotten from that first read, and sometimes even if I don’t have the time or the inclination to read the whole thing again I will pick up my tattered ancient copy and read one of those chapters.

1985-wind-in-the-willows-police-chase-toad-print_700_600_U3R3

Wayfarers All tells the tale of autumn when so many of the birds and little animals prepare to follow the sun, travelling south for the winter. Ratty, already restless, meets up with a seafaring rat, who tells him tales of sun-drenched Spanish ports and the shell-fish of Marseilles, and provokes in Ratty an overwhelming feeling of wanderlust. But Mole, concerned for his friend and knowing this life wouldn’t suit him, talks in his turn of the beauties of an English autumn, with harvest giving way slowly to the festivities of winter. It ends with Mole encouraging Ratty to express his feelings and desires in poetry. The language is lush and beautiful, contrasting the glamour of exotic parts with the joys of the familiar.

Today, to him gazing South with a new-born need stirring in his heart, the clear sky over their long low outline seemed to pulsate with promise; to-day, the unseen was everything, the unknown the only real fact of life. On this side of the hills was now the real blank, on the other lay the crowded and coloured panorama that his inner eye was seeing so clearly. What seas lay beyond, green, leaping and crested! What sun-bathed coasts, along which the white villas glittered against the olive woods! What quiet harbours, thronged with gallant shipping bound for purple islands of wine and spice, islands set low in languorous waters!

wayfarers all

Dulce Domum is the chapter in which Mole suddenly comes across the scents of his old home. At first, Ratty is in too much of a hurry to listen but when Mole finally breaks down in tears, kind old Ratty berates himself for his selfishness and at once devotes himself, first to finding Mole’s old home and then to turning the dark, cold house into a place full of warmth and cheer. And the chapter ends with the local young field-mice, come a-carol-singing, as they do each year. A perfect chapter.

With bright beady eyes they glanced shyly at each other, sniggering a little, sniffing and applying coat-sleeves a good deal. As the door opened, one of the elder ones that carried the lantern was just saying, “Now then, one, two, three!” and forthwith their shrill little voices uprose on the air, singing one of the old-time carols that their forefathers composed in fields that were fallow and held by frost, or when snow-bound in chimney corners, and handed down to be sung in the miry street to lamp-lit windows at Yule-time.

carol singing

But my favourite chapter of all is The Piper at the Gates of Dawn. Little Portly, Otter’s son, has been missing for some days, and Ratty and Mole set out one night to search for him. As the dawn rises, they hear the haunting music of distant pipes and are compelled towards it. When they reach the place where the music leads them, they find Portly, safely nestled at the feet of Pan, the great demi-God of the animals – a thinly disguised portrayal of Christ.

Trembling he obeyed, and raised his humble head; and then, in that utter clearness of the imminent dawn, while Nature, flushed with fullness of incredible colour, seemed to hold her breath for the event, he looked in the very eyes of the Friend and Helper…All this he saw, for one moment breathless and intense, vivid on the morning sky; and still, as he looked, he lived; and still, as he lived, he wondered.

“Rat!” he found breath to whisper, shaking. “Are you afraid?”

“Afraid?” murmured the Rat, his eyes shining with unutterable love. “Afraid! Of Him? O, never, never! And yet—and yet—O, Mole, I am afraid!”

This whole chapter is utterly beautiful in both its writing and its message (even to this cynical old atheist) and is the emotional heart of the book. If you haven’t read it recently, here’s a link – the chapter stands alone as a story entire in itself.

the piper at the gates of dawn

* * * * * * *

the wind in the willows 2So… imagine my delight when I was offered a new edition of the book for review via Amazon Vine UK, published by Oxford University Press and complete with new illustrations by David Roberts. The layout and illustrations are great – the book is small with clear print, and the illustrations are appropriately quirky and vibrantly coloured, ranging from double-page spreads to small running pictures round the margins and inserted into the text.

Then imagine my horror on being unable to find my favourite chapter! Unbelievably, they have cut The Piper at the Gates of Dawn. There is a note on the inside in tiny print which gives a reason for the omission…

Rather than relating the ongoing adventures of Ratty, Mole, Toad, Badger, and others, the chapter pauses the action and is largely about the god Pan from Greek mythology.

But I’m guessing the truth is that some stupid decision has been reached to omit it due to its overtly religious message. It doesn’t ‘pause the action’ any more than the chapter Dulce Domum does. It is an adventure undertaken by Ratty and Mole – a great adventure, arising out of friendship and love. The god in this book may be Pan from Greek mythology in physical appearance, but in his presence and actions, Grahame is quite clearly pointing to the Christian tradition. What are we saying – that kids can only read action? Or that they are no longer allowed to read any classic that might suggest any kind of spiritual element? Even if we assume that Pan is in fact Pan, are children no longer to be introduced to Greek and other mythologies?

wind-in-willows-e-h-shepard-ratty-and-mole-in-a-boat

A ridiculous decision, both to remove it and, even more, not to say clearly on the book cover or in the blurb that the text has been butchered. The Wind in the Willows is a 5-star book without question, but why give a child this one when you could give them the one Kenneth Grahame wanted them to read – the one that generations of children and adults have enjoyed. I would hate for any child to grow up thinking s/he’s read The Wind in the Willows without being aware that the emotional heart had been ripped out of the book. What’s the OUP going to do next – The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe without Aslan perhaps?

There ought to be a law against it…

wind in the willows battle

Waverley: or ‘Tis Sixty Years Since by Sir Walter Scott

waverley 2Charlie is my darling…

😀 😀 😀 + 😀

Young Edward Waverley has been brought up mainly by his uncle, Sir Everard Waverley, an English Tory and supporter of the Jacobite cause in the failed 1715 rebellion. When Edward reaches manhood, his absent father, a Whig and supporter of the Hanoverian government, arranges a commission for him in the Army. While Sir Everard is not keen on Edward having to swear allegiance to King George II (since in Sir Everard’s eyes the true King is James III, in exile in France), he reluctantly agrees. Edward joins his regiment and is promptly posted to Dundee. After serving in a half-hearted way for a few months, Edward takes some leave and goes off to visit an old friend of his uncle, Baron Bradwardine, a staunch Jacobite. Through him, Edward becomes friends with Fergus Mac-Ivor, chieftain of the Highland Clan Mac-Ivor, and falls in love with his beautiful sister Flora. So when the 1745 rebellion begins, Edward finds himself caught between two loyalties – to the Hanoverians through his officership in the Army, and to the Jacobites through his friendships and the influence of his upbringing. The story tells the tale of the ’45 Jacobite Rebellion and Edward’s part in it.

Bonnie Prince Charlie by John Pettie
Bonnie Prince Charlie by John Pettie

The subtitle ‘Tis Sixty Years Since refers to the ostensible time of writing, 1805, sixty years after the 1745 rebellion, although the book was not published until 1814. This book is often hailed as the first historical novel in the English language. It’s also often claimed as one of the most important books in English literature, which doesn’t half annoy us Scots, since it’s written by a Scot about Scotland. I’m willing to compromise and say it’s an important book in English-language literature. This isn’t as insignificant a point as it may seem – Scott was one of the earliest Scots to write fiction in English, accepting that the Scottish language and culture was being subsumed into the dominant English culture of the time. However, in this, as in many of his books, his purpose was partly to explain Scottish culture and traditions to his English readership and do away with some of their misconceptions of the Scots, especially Highlanders, as a half-savage society. Along the way, he created some romanticised misconceptions of his own that gradually became part of the prevailing view of Scotland that lasted well into the 20th century. The cultural importance of Scott in his native country is memorialised not just by the massive monument to him in Princes Street in Edinburgh, the capital city, but also in the name of that city’s main railway station – Waverley Station.

The Scott Monument
The Scott Monument

How I wish, therefore, that I could unreservedly wax lyrical about the wonders of the book! Sadly, taken purely in terms of reading pleasure, it’s not the greatest piece of literature in the world, for all its cultural significance. A major reason for this is simply that tastes change over time, as does language. Although Scotland was one of the most literate societies in the world at the time Scott was writing, nevertheless authors tended to be addressing their work to others like themselves who had had a classical education (pretty much the only kind available), so this is liberally sprinkled with Latin and French and allusions to classical mythology which many modern readers (including this one) will find problematic at best and incomprehensible at worst. Even the English language is in a style that reads as pretty out-dated now and of course, there is some Scottish dialect too, not to mention the odd little bit of Gaelic. I read it in a version without footnotes, but would suggest it’s one that probably needs them more than most. Not that any of this makes the plot hard to follow, but it does very much break the reading flow.

Sir Walter Scott by Sir Henry Raeburn Scottish National Portrait Gallery
Sir Walter Scott by Sir Henry Raeburn
Scottish National Portrait Gallery

But even putting the language difficulties to one side, the book has some problems. Overall, it’s reasonably interesting, but very over-padded, especially the early part. For a long period there is no discernible plot, just lengthy character studies of the various people who will play a part when the story finally gets under way. Scott himself said that this was his way of allowing the characters to reveal themselves rather than simply being described, but to suit our modern tastes most readers would probably want to get into the story a good deal sooner. And personally I could have happily lived without the lengthy and mediocre poetry that Scott stuffs in every so often – again a technique that would have been much more usual in his time than in ours, I think – which he uses as a way to illustrate Scottish culture and the oral storytelling tradition.

Then there are his assumptions about the pre-knowledge of his readers, probably correct at the time but not necessarily so now. He assumes that everyone knows the background to the Jacobite rebellion, the politics, the main players and the progress of the campaign. Well, yes, as it happens, I do, but I would think this could cause some problems for people who don’t. What bothered me about it was that this assumption meant he left out all the bits that are exciting! We’re not there when Bonnie Prince Charlie raises his standard at Glenfinnan, we don’t get to fight at Culloden and we don’t follow Charlie on his last romantic retreat over the sea to Skye! That anyone can make the ’45 dull amazes me – it’s one of the great romantic tragedies of all time!

Raising the Standard at Glenfinnan
Raising the Standard at Glenfinnan by Mark Churms

Instead, Scott concentrates on showing the lifestyle and manners of both Highland and Lowland Scots of the period, and this he does very successfully, though with what I suspect is a decreasing degree of realism the further north he heads. There’s some humour in it, and a lot – a lot! – of romance, as Edward swithers over the beautiful and fanatical Highland Flora and the sensible and adoring Lowland Rose. And his swithering between the Hanoverians and the Jacobites allows Scott to show both sides of the conflict, which he does without demonising either, in fact painting a surprisingly sympathetic portrait of the Young Pretender, Charles Edward Stuart. But all this swithering makes Edward a hero who inspired me with a desire to bash him over the head with a metaphorical brick while screaming “Make up your mind, for goodness sake, man!” Honestly, he makes Hamlet seem decisive!

So overall I’m afraid I was a little disappointed. I’ve read other Scott books in the past which I’ve enjoyed much more than this one, and am rather sorry it’s the one that people are always recommended to read, purely because of its significance rather than its intrinsic enjoyability. I can’t give more than three stars for the story and writing, with an extra one for its position of importance in both English-language and Scottish literature. I shall go into hiding now in case the last of the Jacobites come after me…

 

Sunset Song by Lewis Grassic Gibbon

sunset song 2A Scottish lament…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

This first volume of Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s trilogy, A Scots Quair, focuses on the life of Chris Guthrie, daughter of a tenant farmer in the fictional estate of Kinraddie in the north-east of Scotland, before and during the First World War. Sunset Song, written in 1932, is generally considered the strongest book in the trilogy and one of the greatest Scottish novels of the twentieth century. Although it’s written in a form of the dialect of the area, it’s been pretty heavily anglicised so that it keeps the rhythms without being too hard for non-Scots (or modern Scots) to understand. There’s a heavy sprinkling of old Scots words, but also a glossary of them should the meaning not be obvious from the context.

Chris is born the daughter of John Guthrie of Blawearie, a farmer hardened by the lifelong struggle to wrest a living from the land, and Jean, a woman worn down by years of pregnancies and childbirth. John is a harsh father to his sons, demanding hard labour and unquestioning obedience, and exacting cruel physical punishment when angered, while Jean can do nothing but watch passively. But Chris shows signs of academic intelligence, and it is John’s wish, and her own, that she be educated and get away from the land to become a teacher. All this changes when first Jean and then John die, leaving the family broken up and Chris as the inheritor of the farm. Now with the money to leave and make a new life for herself, Chris realises the land is in her blood – she wonders how she could ever have thought to leave it and to take up a career that would deny her the joys of marriage and children.

Agyness Deyn as Chris in the new movie adaptation due out later this year
Agyness Deyn as Chris in the new movie adaptation due out later this year

And so she marries young Ewan Tavendale and together they are content to farm their land, Chris’ happiness enhanced when she bears her first son. But the world is changing and over in Europe war clouds are gathering. And during the four years of fighting, life for Chris and for this entire community will be changed forever.

Chae jumped up when she finished, he said Damn’t, folk, we’ll all have the whimsies if we listen to any more woesome songs! Have none of you a cheerful one? And the folk in the barn laughed at him and shook their heads, it came on Chris how strange was the sadness of Scotland’s singing, made for the sadness of the land and sky in dark autumn evenings, the crying of men and women of the land who had seen their lives and loves sink away in the years, things wept for beside the sheep-ouchts, remembered at night and in twilight. The gladness and kindness had passed, lived and forgotten, it was Scotland of the mist and rain and the crying sea that made the songs.

The book is essentially a lament for the passing of a way of life. Gibbon shows how the war hurried the process along, but he also indicates how change was happening anyway, with increasing mechanisation of farms, the landowners gradually driving the tenant farmers off as they found more profitable uses for the land, the English-ing of education leading to the loss of the old language and with it, old traditions. Although the cruelties and hardships of the old ways are shown to the full, he also portrays the sense of community, of neighbour supporting neighbour when the need arises. And he gives a great feeling of the relative isolation of these communities, far distant from the seat of power and with little interest in anything beyond their own lives. But here too he suggests things are changing, with some of the characters flirting with the new socialist politics of the fledgling Labour Party.

It took me a good third of the book to really find myself involved in the story. It begins with a long introduction to all the characters and a potted history of the area. While there’s some great writing and quite a lot of humour in this section, I found it was trying to cover too much and I didn’t really get a feel for most of the characters – which was a problem that remained throughout the book in fact. The main characters become very well realised, but all the others flit in and out and I never felt fully on top of who they were or how they related to each other. As Chris grows from childhood into young womanhood, there is a major emphasis on her awakening sexuality, with some writing which I feel must have been considered pretty shocking in its time, including allusions to rape and incest.

But suddenly, at the point where Chris finds herself alone and independent, the book turns into something quite wonderful. The story of Chris and Ewan falling in love and marrying is full of emotional truth. This isn’t a great romance – this is two young people setting out to make a life for themselves and their inevitable children, farming the land in continuity with the generations before them and assuming they will hand it on in turn to the next, and making the adjustments that any couple must when the realities of living with another person don’t quite match up to the dream.

Peter Mullan as, I assume, John Guthrie, also from the forthcoming movie
Peter Mullan as, I assume, John Guthrie, also from the forthcoming movie

It lingered at the back of her mind, dark, like a black cat creeping at the back of a hedge, she saw the fluff of its fur or the peek of its eyes, a wild and sinister thing in the sunlight; but you would not look often or see those eyes, how they glared at you. He was going out there, where the sky was a troubled nightmare and the earth shook night and day, into the lands of the coarse French folk, her Ewan, her lad with his dark, dear face and that quick, blithe blush. And suddenly she was filled with a weeping pity in her heart for him, a pity that brought no tears to her eyes, he must never see her shed tears all the time he was with her, he’d go out to the dark, far land with memories of her and Blawearie that were shining and brave and kind.

Lewis Grassic Gibbon
Lewis Grassic Gibbon

And when war begins, Gibbon handles beautifully the gradual change within the community, from feeling completely detached and uninvolved to slowly finding their lives affected in every way. As the men begin to either volunteer or, later, be conscripted into the Army, each character reacts differently but truly to the personality Gibbon has so carefully created for them. Some of the writing is heart-breaking in its emotional intensity but never overloaded with mawkishness or sentimentality. Gibbon touches on questions that must still have been hugely sensitive so soon after one war and with another already looming – conscientious objection and desertion – and asks not for forgiveness for his characters but for understanding and empathy. The ending echoes the beginning, as Gibbon again takes us round the community showing the irrevocable changes wrought by war and modernisation on each family – some winners, some losers, but none unaltered. And as he brings his characters together one last time, we see them begin to gather the strength to face their uncertain future in a world that will never be the same again.

A brilliant book that fully deserves its reputation. Highly recommended, though I should warn you I sobbed solidly through most of the second half…

Book 9
Book 9

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson

kidnappedMy heart’s in the Highlands…

😀 😀 😀 😀

When young Davie Balfour is left orphaned on the death of his father, he is given a letter that his father left for him and told to take it to one Ebenezer Balfour, Esquire, of Shaws. Dutifully he obeys, only to find that miserly old Ebenezer is his uncle, who is not best pleased at having his nephew foisted upon him, for fear he may discover the family secret. So Ebenezer tricks David into going aboard the brig Covenanter, where he is promptly knocked senseless and carried off to be sold into slavery in the Carolinas. But with the help of a new-found friend, Alan Breck Stewart, David escapes and finds himself wandering the Highlands of Scotland – a dangerous place just a few years after the failed Jacobite rebellion, where clan is set against clan, and supporters of the Pretender are being hunted or victimised by those who support the King. And when David is accidentally caught up in a murder, he finds he too is being hunted. His only hope is to make it safely back to the Lowlands, while Alan Breck must try to escape back to France, where his chief is in exile.

kidnapped tower

Written in 1886, the story is set over a century earlier, in 1752. In reality, it’s mainly an adventure story, but I always find old historical novels interesting because of the double hit – seeing how people of an earlier generation interpreted an even earlier historical period. Stevenson gives us a very unromanticised version of the clans as uncouth hard-drinking, hard fighting men scratching out a subsistence living from the barren wastelands of the Highlands – a good deal more accurate, I’d imagine, than some of the later more idealised versions of the Jacobite story. It surprised me a little though since I thought that, by the time he was writing this book, the romanticisation of the landscape and culture, begun by Sir Walter Scott and encouraged by Queen Victoria’s love affair with the Highlands, was well underway. Stevenson’s depiction conveys none of the wild grandeur we now associate with the mountains and glens and even our heroes are pretty unheroic.

kidnapped shipwreck

However, without over-emphasising it, he does show some sympathy for the hardships the Highlanders were forced to suffer at the hands of a government determined to destroy the clan system to prevent further rebellion. He talks of the banning of the kilt and points up the difficulties this caused to those too poor to acquire other kinds of clothing; he describes the hiding of arms to get round the ban on Highlanders carrying weapons; he shows the severe privations caused to the poor by being expected to support their own chieftains in exile while also paying taxes to the government; and he hints at the depopulation of the landscape through forced mass emigration to the New World – the beginnings of the euphemistically named Highland Clearances. But his hero is a loyal supporter of King George and a true son of the Covenanters, complete with priggish antipathy towards anything that might be considered fun.

kidnapped 4

All of this is entertaining to anyone with an interest in Scottish history, but I feel Stevenson assumes a certain degree of familiarity with the aftermath of the Rebellion that most non-Scottish readers and probably even many modern Scottish readers may not have. And I suspect the result of that may mean that the story feels slow in places as he digresses a little from the action to set the book in its historical and social context. I felt the pacing was uneven overall. There are some great action scenes – the battle aboard the ship, the shipwreck, the flight from the murder scene – but there are also quite lengthy lulls, usually when poor David is taken ill, which happens with great regularity. Again, probably realistic given the circumstances, but not the stuff of which great heroic adventures are normally made. And I found his personality grating – the older David who is narrating the story frequently remarks himself on how self-obsessed and immature his younger self’s behaviour was, and I could only agree. There is some Scots dialect in the dialogue but not enough and not broad enough, I think, to cause problems for non-Scottish readers.

kidnapped 3

The beginning of the book was the best part for me, when David was at sea, and it picked up again towards the end, when they had made it back to civilisation and set out to prove David’s identity. But I found the central section dragged, when David and Alan are wandering interminably around the Highlands, and half the time is spent on David bemoaning the physical hardship he is undergoing or describing his ill-health. And the ending is so abrupt that I actually wondered if a final chapter might be missing from my Kindle edition, but apparently not. Definitely worth reading, but if I was recommending just one novel about the Jacobite rebellion it would still be DK Broster’s The Flight of the Heron – it may be overly romanticised, but it’s also much more fun. And with a far, far better hero in my beloved Ewen Cameron, the Darcy of the Highlands…

Ian McCulloch as Ewen Cameron in the 1960s TV adaptation of The Flight of the Heron.
Ian McCulloch as Ewen Cameron in the 1960s TV adaptation of The Flight of the Heron.
Book 1 of my 20 Books of Summer
Book 5 of my 20 Books of Summer

Amazon UK Link
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GAN Quest: The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

“Man’s inhumanity to man makes countless thousands mourn” Robert Burns

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

the grapes of wrathWhen Tom Joad returns to his parents’ farm after serving a prison sentence for murder, he finds it deserted. In the four years he has been gone, the land has turned to dust through a combination of drought and poor farming practices. The onset of the Great Depression has meant that the banks have taken over ownership of vast tracts of the land and, in pursuit of profit, are expelling the small tenant farmers to create massive one-crop farms, worked by machines rather than men. Driven by poverty and lack of work, many of the farmers are uprooting their families to go to California, their own promised land, where, they are told, the country is filled with fruit ripe for picking, and there is work for all. Tom and his family join the exodus.

First published in 1939, this is a fairly contemporaneous account of the devastation wrought on Oklahoma farming communities during the Depression, and Steinbeck’s anger and disgust come through loudly in the power of his prose. A starkly political novel, it’s interesting that there is little or no reference to either the politicians or policies of the period. This adds to the feeling of the farmers being isolated, abandoned by their nation and utterly reliant on their own limited resources. It falls somewhere between a call to arms for the poor to unite to overthrow the forces of capitalism, and a warning to the powers that be that the result of driving people to the limits of desperation might be just such an outcome. I didn’t know Steinbeck’s own political stance before reading the book, but was unsurprised to read later that at this period he was involved in the Communist movement within the US.

A large red drop of sun lingered on the horizon and then dripped over and was gone, and the sky was brilliant over the spot where it had gone, and a torn cloud, like a bloody rag, hung over the spot of its going. And dusk crept over the sky from the eastern horizon, and darkness crept over the land from the east.

It’s undoubtedly one of the most powerful books I’ve read and it has left me with many indelible images. The writing is never less than excellent and is sometimes stunning, while the characterisation and brilliant use of dialect make the Joad family and the people they meet on their journey completely real. The story is a simple one, of man’s inhumanity to man – a story that has been told often, but rarely with such concentration and power. But it’s several weeks since I finished reading the book and I still haven’t quite decided what I think of it.

"Departure of the Joads" by Thomas Hart Benton 1939
“Departure of the Joads” by Thomas Hart Benton 1939

On the one hand, most of the first half of the book drags terribly as Steinbeck tells the story of the journey in minute, endless detail. I feel I could now get a job as a car mechanic working on 1930s models. I get the importance of the car to these families, but I don’t care whether bronze wire will wear away as the widget rubs against the doodah – I truly don’t. But the tedium and repetitiveness of parts of the book didn’t bother me as much as the heavy-handed and unnecessary polemical interludes, where Steinbeck spells out his message in case the reader has been too stupid to understand it. I’m guessing any reader who doesn’t ‘get’ it, will have given up the book long before Steinbeck gets to the political pamphlet chapters. Occasionally it stops feeling like a novel at all and becomes almost like a ranty student essay on the evils of capitalism. If he explained the process of supply and demand once, he must have explained it a hundred times – ironic really, since it is surely only needed once, if at all. And the constant misery! Again, yes, absolutely – the story is appalling, more so for being true, and of course we need to see the horrible impact of absolute poverty on people’s lives and humanity. But when authors feel they have to top up the human misery with the old ‘dead dog’ technique, I fear they cross the line between emotional truth and emotional trickery. Of Mice and Men was the book that taught me how easily pathos can turn into bathos, and decades later I feel exactly the same about this one. And then there’s the ending… but we’ll come to that…

“Preachin’s bein’ good to folks when they wanna kill ya for it. Las’ Christmus in McAlester [the jail], Salvation Army come an’ done us good. Three solid hours a cornet music, an’ we set there. They was bein’ nice to us. But if one of us tried to walk out, we’d a-drawed solitary. That’s preachin’. Doin’ good to a fella that’s down an’ can’t smack ya in the puss for it.”

John Steinbeck
John Steinbeck

On the other hand, the story is an important one that is as relevant today, sadly, as at the time of writing. Whether one agrees or not with Steinbeck’s call of Workers Unite! and class struggle as the solution to poverty and ongoing waves of mass migration, whether one believes that capitalism or socialism is the system most likely to bring a more fair and just society in the end, the vivid picture that he draws of humanity’s imperative struggle for survival in even the most hopeless of circumstances cannot fail to move and must surely stir the consciences of those of us whose present comfort depends on the poverty of others. I found myself drawing parallels with the current influx of people from Africa and Asia into Europe, and the issues surrounding illegal immigration in the US. But more than that, I discovered I was making comparisons to slavery and reflecting that at least, under that repellent system, the owners felt that they had to protect their ‘investment’, whereas these people belonged to no-one, had no intrinsic ‘economic value’ and were thus ultimately even more dispensable. An uncomfortable train of thought and a tribute to Steinbeck’s anger that he made me think it against everything I believe.

Dorrus Bowden, Jane Darwell and Henry Fonda in The Grapes of Wrath film (1940) Photograph: Allstar/Cinetext
Dorrus Bowden, Jane Darwell and Henry Fonda in The Grapes of Wrath film (1940) Photograph: Allstar/Cinetext

The women watched the men, watched to see whether the break had come at last. The women stood silently and watched. And where a number of men gathered together, the fear went from their faces, and anger took its place. And the women sighed with relief, for they knew it was all right – the break had not come; and the break would never come as long as fear could turn to wrath.

Sometimes the quality of the writing takes the book almost to the sublime. From the first chapter, with the unforgettable images of the windstorm and the dust and the dying corn, with the women watching to see if their men will break, he makes the land a character in its own right, as important as any Joad, and its death as moving as one of theirs. The story of the turtle’s indomitable spirit as it unwittingly spreads the seed that will allow nature to have its rebirth is one of the most beautiful pieces of writing I have read. While I was never quite sure what message he was attempting to send with the biblical themes, they add a sense of eternality, of inevitability, to the struggle for a more just society. The sheer power and anger of the ‘Moses’ scene will stay with me forever, as will that ending – which I hated even while I recognised the force of its essential truthfulness, and which left me as angry about humanity being reduced to this as Steinbeck could possibly have desired. And just as angry about the emotional manipulation he used to achieve that effect.

Not a book that I can say I wholeheartedly enjoyed, but one that I am glad to have read and will not forget.

Elmer Hader's cover design
Elmer Hader’s cover design

* * * * * * *

Great American Novel Quest

So…how does it fare in The Great American Novel Quest? To win that title it needs to achieve all five of the criteria in my original post…

Must be written by an American author or an author who has lived long enough in the US to assimilate the culture.

us flagAchieved.

The theme must shed light on a specific and important aspect of American culture and society of the time of its writing.

us flagAbsolutely, and furthermore an aspect of Western culture that we are still struggling with today. So – achieved.

It must be innovative and original in theme.

us flagI certainly think the socialist theme would have been innovative in its time and in fact still reads as innovative now, when the Cold War has been won and capitalism appears to have been the victor. (In fact, I am intrigued as to why a book with such a strong socialist message is so highly regarded in the ultra-capitalist US? Answers below, please.) Achieved.

Must be superbly written.

us flagHmm…it is superbly written, there’s no doubt about that, especially the descriptive writing about nature and the land, the biblical echoes in some of the language, and his wonderfully skilled use of dialect. However… there are also huge chunks of it that are simply dull and don’t add much. But I’m going to say achieved, since the excellent bits outweigh the dull bits.

Must capture the entire ‘American experience’.

white_flagI fear not. It isn’t trying to. But one of my criticisms of it is that it doesn’t expand out to set the experience of the ‘Okies’ into the wider context of society, thus giving a one-sided, polemical picture of the poor as fundamentally good and the rich as uniformly bad. A powerful but too simplistic message, though perhaps it wouldn’t have felt that way at the time.

* * * * * * * * *

So not The Great American Novel, but for achieving 4½ stars and four GAN flags, I hereby declare it A Great American Novel. But one I doubt I’ll ever read again…

* * * * * * * * *

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Persuasion by Jane Austen

persuasion coverThe pen in her hand…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Eight years ago, Anne Elliot fell in love and became engaged to a young naval officer, Frederick Wentworth. Frederick had little money but, at a time when Britain was at war with Napoleonic France, the prospects for advancement in his career were good. But Anne’s friend Lady Russell, who is something of a substitute mother figure to Anne since her own mother died some years earlier, persuaded her that a lengthy engagement with no guarantee that Frederick would make his fortune was unwise, and so Anne broke off with Frederick. She has never forgotten him though, even turning down another more eligible suitor. Now Captain Wentworth has returned from the wars a wealthy and successful man, while the Elliots are on the brink of financial ruin. But Captain Wentworth hasn’t forgotten the hurt that Anne caused him and despises her for her weakness in allowing herself to be persuaded. And his changed circumstances and gallant bearing make him an attractive catch for the other, younger, single women in the neighbourhood.

Her pleasure in the walk must arise from the exercise and the day, from the view of the last smiles of the year upon the tawny leaves and withered hedges, and from repeating to herself some few of the thousand poetical descriptions extant of autumn – that season of peculiar and inexhaustible influence on the mind of taste and tenderness – that season which has drawn from every poet worthy of being read some attempt at description, or some lines of feeling.

This is the last novel that Jane Austen completed before her tragically early death, and Anne is her most mature heroine. At the age of twenty-seven, Anne is already sadly faded and has reached the age when her chances of achieving a good marriage are rapidly receding. Sir Walter Elliot, Anne’s father, is a member of the landed gentry, obsessed with his ancestry and his family’s social standing. Living well above his means, he has reduced the family fortune to such a low ebb that he has no option but to lease his house, Kellynch Hall, and take a much smaller place in Bath. The new tenants of Kellynch are Admiral Croft and his wife Sophy, who is Captain Wentworth’s sister. And so Anne and Frederick are thrown back into the same social circle…

persuasion covers

There is a tendency, not helped by a rash of chick-littish covers over the last few years, for Austen’s books to be looked upon as simple romances. Of course, on one level they are. On the surface, this is a Cinderella story. Anne is the downtrodden under-appreciated daughter, complete with two sisters who might be beautiful on the outside but are pretty ugly underneath. Anne has to be her own fairy godmother – her innate kindness and patient constancy the magic she must use to win her Prince.

Anne wondered whether it ever occurred to him now, to question the justness of his own previous opinion as to the universal felicity and advantage of firmness of character; and whether it might not strike him that, like all other qualities of the mind, it should have its proportions and limits. She thought it could scarcely escape him to feel that a persuadable temper might sometimes be as much in favour of happiness as a very resolute character.

But, as in every Austen novel, there’s so much more to it than that. Austen’s insight into the society of her own time catches every nuance of how status worked at a time when it was beginning to change. Completed in 1816, the book reflects the social upheavals of the long war, when military and naval officers had won both fortune and respect and were now looking to take their place in civilian life on an equal footing with the hereditary landowners – their wealth making up for any deficiencies in ancestry. Birth is still important in this society, but character is shown as the true hallmark of the gentleman. Austen’s very positive image of the naval officers might have been influenced by the fact that two of her own brothers were seamen, each rising to the rank of Admiral in later life.

persuasion illustration 3

In contrast, there’s a more biting edge to her observations on the snobbishness and toad-eating of the traditional squirearchy than in her earlier novels. Anne’s father and sisters may still feel their lineage entitles them to automatic respect, but Austen reserves her respect and that of the rest of her characters for the people who have achieved their status through their own actions. Not quite a meritocracy yet, and Austen makes no explicit reference to the recent upheavals of the American and French revolutions, nor to the beginnings of the industrial age, but even her rural society is clearly feeling the first breezes of the winds of change.

persuasion illustration 2

And there’s something similar going on in her portrayal of the status of women. Austen’s heroines always defied the convention of making loveless matches for wealth, but the early ones, even my beloved Lizzie, wanted most of all to find a man they could love and respect but who would give them a life not significantly different to that of their childhoods. They wanted a respectable establishment in a rural society, be it a minor one like Elinor’s rectory in Sense and Sensibility or a glittering prize like Lizzie’s Pemberley in Pride and Prejudice. Emma may be the ultimate example of this – her marriage simply added a husband to the family and house she grew up in and barely changed her position or lifestyle at all.

persuasion illustration 1

Anne Elliot is a different kind of heroine. She has had the benefit of eight years to think about what she wants from life and she knows it’s not the small and restricted world of Kellynch, or even Bath. She admires Admiral Croft’s wife for accompanying her husband as he sailed the world, and part of the attraction of Captain Wentworth is that he will expand her horizons beyond the tiny circle in which she and her family move. Austen’s rather barbed humour about the daily intercourse between the two families at Uppercross is an indication of how small this rural world really is, and of how friendships and relationships are determined by propinquity rather than shared tastes or interests. The senior Musgroves are intriguing in their relative relaxation about whom their daughters marry – they are more concerned with their children’s happiness than their social advancement. These were the days of the first feminist writers – Mary Wollstonecraft et al – and again, without direct reference, Austen provides hints that her world may be on the cusp of change. Marriage and wealth are still key for women, but Anne looks out at a different world and finds it an enticing prospect.

“I do not think I ever opened a book in my life which had not something to say upon woman’s inconstancy. Songs and proverbs, all talk of woman’s fickleness. But perhaps you will say, these were all written by men.”

“Perhaps I shall. Yes, yes, if you please, no reference to examples in books. Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands. I will not allow books to prove anything.”

Of course, I don’t want to pretend that this is a revolutionary or feminist tract. Anne’s story is still one of a woman subordinate first to her father and then to her husband and subject to persuasion to conform to society’s norms. She’s not a rebel, but her stubbornness in refusing to make a loveless match and her constancy in her love for Captain Wentworth make her a strong and appealing heroine. I wish I liked Captain Wentworth more – I think the way he runs away when Louisa is injured is unforgivable, and I really dislike how his interest in Anne is reawakened only once her youthful bloom begins to return in the bracing air of Lyme. But he recognises her true worth in the end, I suppose. He’ll never be Darcy though…

darcy and lizzie

A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

a tale of two cities“Tell the Wind and Fire where to stop…”

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Set before and during ‘The Reign of Terror’ in Revolutionary France, A Tale of Two Cities ranks amongst the finest of Charles Dickens’ works, even though it is in many ways quite different to his other great books. The humour and exuberant language is toned down; there is not the huge cast of peripheral caricatured characters; there are no major sub-plots. Instead there is a tightly-focused and exciting plot, a hero in Sidney Carton of much greater complexity than Dickens’ norm, and some of his most hard-hitting commentary on the effects of poverty and abuse, not just on those who suffer directly from it, but on society as a whole. While often Dickens’ books feel as if they have organically grown during the writing, with Dickens himself being as surprised as the reader by the direction they take, this one always feels to me as if he had planned it down to the last detail before he began. Nothing happens that isn’t relevant, and everything is explained completely in the end. And it has a purpose – one overwhelming theme: to show the possibility of redemption and resurrection, personal and political. That theme is what carries the reader through what must be the darkest of Dickens’ stories to the sense of hope that is inherent even in the tragedy of the ending.

“Since I knew you, I have been troubled by a remorse that I thought would never reproach me again, and have heard whispers from old voices impelling me upward, that I thought were silent for ever. I have had unformed ideas of striving afresh, beginning anew, shaking off sloth and sensuality, and fighting out the abandoned fight. A dream, all a dream, that ends in nothing, and leaves the sleeper where he lay down, but I wish you to know that you inspired it.”

Dickens throws us into a state of menace right at the start of the novel, as Mr Lorry makes his way to Dover on the mail coach, the passengers and coachmen all in a state of extreme anxiety that the coach will be held up by highwaymen. This, together with the introductory chapter comparing the social inequalities and injustice in both England and France in the period, are an indication that Dickens is warning that the situation in England is not so very different to the conditions that led to the uprisings in France. This is one of the book’s strengths – Dickens doesn’t do the too frequent British thing of assuming that upheavals in foreign lands are somehow due to a form of moral inferiority. He makes it clear all the way through that the social problems in pre-Revolutionary France are paralleled in English society, and that the end result could very easily be the same.

tale-of-two-cities the mob

As always with Dickens though, the story is the thing. Unlike too many modern writers of misery, he recognised that the first thing an author has to do is entertain his audience. That way they might stick around long enough to hear the message. The story proper begins as Doctor Manette is released from the Bastille after a long imprisonment without trial, for reasons that only become known to the reader towards the end of the book. ‘Recalled to life’ through the love of the daughter he never knew he had, he returns to England where he regains his health and sanity. His beloved daughter Lucie falls in love with a young Frenchman, Charles Darnay, and the little family settles happily in a small house in London. But always Dickens keeps us aware of the approaching political hurricane that will soon sweep through France, and we know that somehow the family’s fate is tied to those events. When Charles Darnay is summoned to aid an old servant imprisoned for his loyalty to Darnay’s aristocratic family, the action moves to Paris…

“Patriots and friends, we are ready! The Bastille!”

With a roar that sounded as if all the breath in France had been shaped into the detested word, the living sea rose, wave on wave, depth on depth, and overflowed the city to that point. Alarm-bells ringing, drums beating, the sea raging and thundering on its new beach, the attack began.
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“To me, women!” cried madame his wife. “What! We can kill as well as the men when the place is taken!” And to her, with a shrill thirsty cry, trooping women variously armed, but all armed alike in hunger and revenge.

Storming of the Bastille Jean-Pierre Houel
Storming of the Bastille
Jean-Pierre Houel

It’s in Dickens’ depiction of Paris at this horrific moment in its history that he shows his genius, with some fantastic writing of the storming of the Bastille and the behaviour of the mob. With barely concealed anger he straddles both sides – showing the decades of cruelty and abuse meted out to the poor by pampered aristocrats, and the dehumanising effects of this, turning the Revolutionaries into savage monsters, akin to devils, when they come to power, wreaking vengeance even on the innocent. Though never sympathising with the viciousness on either side, he nonetheless brings the reader to feel pity amidst the revulsion for those caught up in these times – to understand how mobs become a force apart from the individuals within them. Madame Defarge is one of his greatest creations. The driving force behind the Revolutionary zeal to feed the guillotine, she is monstrous in her savagery, all the more so for being female. And yet we see the forces that have formed her and it is a hard heart indeed that can feel no trace of pity for her in the end – and for those who follow her. Dickens shows us how weak people can be in times of great turmoil, as neighbour betrays neighbour, and loyalty to a cause, or fear of it, trumps personal morality.

Crush humanity out of shape once more, under similar hammers, and it will twist itself into the same tortured forms. Sow the same seed of rapacious license and oppression over again, and it will surely yield the same fruit according to its kind.

Six tumbrils roll along the streets. Change these back to what they were, thou powerful enchanter, Time, and they shall be seen to be the carriages of absolute monarchs, the equipages of feudal nobles, the toilettes of flaring Jezebels, the churches that are not my father’s house but dens of thieves, the huts of millions of starving peasants.

But amidst all this horror and tumult, there is Sidney Carton. In love with Lucie but knowing that she could never love someone so deeply flawed as he, his unselfish devotion is brilliantly portrayed, without any of the wild exaggeration of character in which Dickens often indulges. Carton is believable and therefore the reader cares about him. The redemption of this weak drunkard, a wastrel who has thrown away the talents he was born with, is the heart of the plot, and central also to the wider message of the book – that through love, faith and sacrifice, resurrection is possible – for the person, but also for this deeply fractured society. Carton’s final scenes and last speech are beautifully written and intensely moving. I can’t think of another book where both the opening and closing lines are quoted so often that they have passed into cliché. (“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…”, “It is a far, far better thing that I do…”)

french_revolution_guillotine

For me, Bleak House is the best, but this one has all the things that make Dickens great – the writing, the plotting, the social conscience – without the things that sometimes put new readers off – the caricatured comedy, the overblown descriptions, the saccharin romances. If anyone were to ask me where to start with Dickens, this would be the book I would recommend.