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Having reviewed over 1200 books on this blog, I have now written two myself. Motherdarling is a story about a search for a missing Will which reveals long-hidden family secrets. The Kids of God is a thriller set in a dystopia ruled by fascist paramilitaries. Both are available as paperbacks and on Kindle through Amazon. I live in Canterbury, England. I lived for more than thirty years in Bedford. Having retired from teaching; I became a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Liminality. I achieved my PhD in 2019. I am now properly retired. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. Follow me on twitter: @daja57

Friday, 31 May 2019

"Moby-Dick" by Herman Melville

This is the great American novel. What makes it great?

My sister was impressed. She called it "magnificently insane", "ridiculously wordy" and described Ishmael, the narrator, as "a Don Quixote figure". By these comments she meant that it was one of the best books she had read.

It is not a modern novel. It makes no sense to criticise in terms of what we expect a novel to be. In a modern novel, in English literature since about the time of Henry James, the characters have driven the novel. It was different in earlier times. Melville published Moby-Dick (the hyphen is only ever found in the title and one presumes was a typo by the printer of the first edition) in 1851; in this year Uncle Tom's Cabin began serialization and Mrs Gaskell published Cranford; Charles Dickens was in between David Copperfield and Bleak House; Balzac had just died. This was a time of big books and epic stories; it was a time of romantic ideas.

So I couldn't expect anything in the way of a character arc. The characters aren't even rounded in the E M Forster sense (see his Aspects of the Novel) While some of the characters debate (Starbuck, Ahab etc) soliloquise from time to time (To do or not to do) they remain flat and fail to progress anywhere. Thus we have the wonderful caricatures of Ahab (monomaniacal throughout: “The path to my fixed purpose is laid with iron rails, whereon my soul is grooved to run.”; C 37)  , Starbuck, Stubb, Flask and Queequeeg as well as minor characters such as Peleg but no characters in the modern sense. As Jane Smiley says in 13 Ways of Looking at a Novel, "Ishmael's own personality and fate are very little explored ... the novel is not about character transformation. ... It is Ahab ... who becomes the main focus of the narrative, but his character is no more transformed than Ishmael's."  In this way Moby-Dick is more of an epic than a novel. Only the narrator, Ishmael, seems to be a character and he disappears almost as soon as he boards ship.

The narration starts from the point of view of Ishmael as he explores New Bedford and Nantucket in his attempt to be hired on board a whaling ship. But the moment the ship sets sail, the narration switches to that of the omniscient narrator. He overhears things people say when they are on their own. He is privileged to record thoughts. He discourses with academic precision on the character of whales, their anatomy, their history. Parts of the narrative are rendered in the style of playscripts. Although he sometimes refers to himself during this narration, he isn't really part of it. He properly returns only for the epilogue.

I agree with my sister Jane that it is wordy. This is partly because Melville packs in his research: there are chapters on the types of whales, and on the anatomy of whales, and on the uses of whale-oil, and many chapters devoted to the business of capturing whales and then extracting their oil. These add verisimilitude and I correctly assumed that Melville had sailed on whalers. But these insertions distract from and slow down the narrative. This novel does not conform to modern notions of form.

But it is also wordy in another sense. Melville excites with his use of language. We are told in chapter seven that “There is death in this business of whaling - a speechlessly quick chaotic bungling of a man into Eternity.”; the word 'speechlessly' reminds us of the silence of death while at the same time acting as an intensifier for the 'quick', being used as a synonym for 'indescribably'; the word 'chaotic' harks back to the chaos of the void before creation; the word 'bungling' both describes the pushing and shoving that will force the living body through the doorway into death and at the same time refers to the errors that might cause the accident that brings about the death. This is beautiful writing.

Of course the novel doesn't really have a plot. Ship commanded by bonkers captain seeks revenge on white whale isn't really a plot. Jane Smiley (13 Ways of Looking at a Novel) again suggests what might be happening. She points out that Melville's problem was to get from the start of the sea voyage to its inevitable end. "The Pequod looks for the white whale for hundreds of pages; the encounter itself takes ... less than 5% of the novel. There is never any doubt about whether the whale will be found or pursued. At no juncture in the novel is there even the illusion of choice by Ahab, nor are there intervening circumstances.” So Melville has to find some way of exciting our interest. She suggests that whaling is inherently interesting. But she also suggests that Melville is seeking to "exhaust the spiritual meanings of obsession" by his use of multiple styles and that the novel should be viewed as analogous to Bach's Goldberg variations in which "much of the pleasure for the reader has to be witnessing the endless but systematic variety of the authors technique.” On this reading the length of the novel was necessary because it takes time to accustom the reader to the idea that the novel is trying to perpetrate.

There are some attempts at foreshadowing (“The picture represents a Cape-Horner in a great hurricane; the half-foundered ship weltering there with its three dismantled masts alone visible; and an exasperated whale, purposing to spring clean over the craft, is in the enormous act of impaling himself upon the three mast-heads.”; C 3) and the prophecies related by the Parsee in Chapter 117 but these are clumsy and obvious, spoilers rather than bread crumbs. The fact that these prophecies occur so late in the book gives the impression that Melville was making it up as he went along rather than having a structured plot. This impression is reinforced by the virtual disappearance from the narrative of Ishmael once the voyage has got under way. Furthermore there is Bulkington. Ishmael comes across this character in chapter 3. Bulkington has a reputation at the tavern where Ishmael is to stay; he is a favourite of the sailors. He then disappears to reappear as the Peqoud sets sail as its helmsman. He has a whole chapter, albeit only of a page and a half, to himself; but this is to be his last appearance.

The story starts being told from the point of view of Ishmael. But once the ship gets underway the narrator becomes omniscient. Ishmael virtually vanishes. The central character is Ishmael, with Queequeeg also centre stage, but as the voyage gets under way the hitherto invisible Captain Ahab becomes the focus of attention. Moby-Dick is two books.

The language of the book starts robustly but as we move further into the drama, and into Ahab's monomania, it becomes more and more old-fashioned. The last few chapters are melodramatic and full of exclamation marks.

So there is a lot wrong with this book, of which some can be excused by being in the style of its time and others not. But surely it is redeemed by the many moments of magic:
  • There are pieces of perfect description:
    • “Such unaccountable masses of shades and shadows, that at first you almost thought some ambitious young artist ... had endeavored to delineate chaos bewitched.” (C 3)
    • “He looked like a man cut away from the stake, when the fire has overrunningly wasted all the limbs without consuming them.” (C 28)
    • “In thought, a fine human brow is like the East when troubled with the morning.” (C 79)
    • “If you have attentively regard almost any quadruped’s spine, you will be struck with the resemblance of its vertebrae to a strung necklace of dwarfed skulls.” (C 80)
    • “Next morning the not-yet-subsided sea rolled in long slow billows of mighty bulk, and striving in the Pequod's gurgling track, pushed her on like giants’ palms outspread. The strong, unstaggering breeze abounded so, that sky and air seemed vast outbellying sails; the whole world boomed before the wind. Muffled in the full morning light, the invisible sun was only known by the spread intensity of his place, where his bayonet rays moved on in stacks. Emblazonings, as of crowned Babylonian kings and queens, reigned over everything. The sea was as a crucible of molten gold, that bubblingly leaps with light and heat.” (C 124)
  • There is a first line to die for:
    • “Call me Ishmael. Some years ago - never mind how long precisely - having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world.” (C 1)
      • Can there be a better encapsulation of character than those three words: 'Call me Ishmael'. Of course you have to know a bit of Bible. Ishmael was Abraham's elder son, born of his slave-girl Hagar; when Abraham's wife Sarah belatedly gave birth to Isaac she persuaded Abraham to cast Hagar and baby Ishmael into the wilderness. Thus Ishmael refers to an outcast, to one who has been disinherited.
    • The character of Ishmael continues to be explored in the early chapters:
      • “I am tormented with an everlasting itch for things remote.” (C 1)
      • “I love to sail forbidden seas.” (C 1)
  • The novel teems with wonderfully astute reflections on the world:
    • “Were Niagara but a cataract of sand, would you travel your thousand miles to see it?” (C 1)
    • “A purse is but a rag unless you have something in it.” (C 1)
    • “Who ain’t a slave? Tell me that.” (C 1)
    • “The act of paying is perhaps the most uncomfortable infliction that the two orchard thieves entailed upon us. But being paid - what will compare with it?” (C 1)
    • “The Commodore on the quarter-deck gets his atmosphere at second hand from the sailors on the forecastle. He thinks he breathes it first; but not so. In much the same way do the commonalty lead their leaders in many other things, at the same time that the leaders little suspect it.” (C 1)
    • “Wherever in your wisdom you may conclude to lodge for the night, my dear Ishmael, be sure to enquire the price, and don't be too particular.” (C 2)
    • “It's only his outside; a man can be honest in any sort of skin.” (C 3)
    • “Better sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian.” (C 3)
    • “But Faith, like a jackal, feeds among the tombs, and even from these dead doubts she gathers her most vital hope.” (C 7)
    • “Woe to him who seeks to please rather than to appal! Woe to him whose good name is more to him than goodness!” (C 9)
    • “Higher the top of that delight, than the bottom of the woe is deep.” (C 9)
    • “What is worship? thought I. Do you suppose now, Ishmael, that the magnanimous god of heaven and earth - pagans and all included - can possibly be jealous of an insignificant bit of black wood? Impossible!.” (C 10)
    • “But what is worship? - to do the will of God - that is worship. And what is the will of God? - to do to my fellow man what I would have my fellow man do to me - that is the will of God.” (C 10)
    • “It is not down in any map; true places never are.” (C 12)
    • “Though seven hundred and seventy-seven is a pretty large number, yet, when you come to make a teenth of it, you will then see, I say, that the seven hundred and seventy-seventh part of a farthing is a good deal less than seven hundred and seventy-seven gold doubloons.” (C 16)
    • “But when a man suspects any wrong, it sometimes happens that if he be already involved in the matter, he insensibly strives to cover up his suspicions even from himself.” (C 20)
    • “But as in landlessness alone resides the highest truth, shoreless, indefinite as God - so, better is it to perish in that howling infinite, than be ingloriously dashed upon the lee, even if that was safety! For worm-like, then, oh! Who would craven crawl to land!” (C 23)
    • “An utterly fearless man is a far more dangerous comrade than a coward.” (C 26)
    • “Think not, is my eleventh commandment; and sleep when you can, is my twelfth.” (C 29)
    • “God keep me from ever completing anything.” (C 32)
    • “Who has but once dined his friends, has tasted what it is to be Caesar.” (C 34)
    • "What he ate did not so much relieve his hunger, as keep it immortal in him.” (C 34)
    • “The chick that's in him pecks the shell.” (C 36)
    • “For God's sake, be economical with your lamps and candles! not a gallon you burn, but at least one drop of man's blood was spilled for it.” (C 45)
    • “Of all tools used in the shadow of the moon, men are most apt to get out of order.” (C 46)
    • “There are certain times and occasions in this strange mixed affair we call life when a man takes this whole universe for a vast practical joke, though the wit thereof he but dimly discerns, and more than suspects that the joke is at nobody's expense but his own.” (C 49)
    • “Go to the meat-market of a Saturday night and see the crowds of live bipeds staring up at the long rows of dead quadrupeds.” (C 65)
    • “If your banker breaks, you snap; if your apothecary by mistake sends you poison in your pills, you die.” (C 72)
    • “Is heaven a murderer when its lightning strikes a would-be murderer in his bed, tindering sheets and skin together?” (C 123)
    • “Some men die at ebb tide; some at low water; some at the full of the flood.” (C 135)
  • There are even moments of humour:
    • “There, Betty, go to Snarles the Painter, and tell him to paint me a sign, with - ‘no suicides committed here’, and ‘no smoking in the parlor’; - might as well kill both birds at once.” (C 17)
    • “Certain I am, however, that a king’s head is solemnly oiled at his coronation, even as a head of salad. Can it be, though, that they anoint it with a view of making its interior run well, as they anoint machinery?” (C 25)
    • “A mature man who uses hair oil, unless medicinally ... has probably got a quoggy spot in him somewhere. As a general rule, he can't amount to much in his totality.” (C 25)
The introduction suggests that Melville intended Moby-Dick to be an allegory of America.

But does this novel stand the test of time?

  • The obvious maritime influence would have been The Antient Mariner, a poem by Coleridge. The story of the Essex, a whaling ship attacked and sunk by a whale, the survivors then enduring a long journey in small boats during which time they resorted to drawing lots and killing and eating the loser, was another inspiration; Melville is known to have read the account of this incident by Essex Mate Owen Chase.
  • The Essex incident (told in Nathaniel Philbrick's In the Heart of the Sea) has inspired other novels including:
But there are other influences too. Andrew Delbanco, in his Introduction to my (Penguin) edition, suggests that the book was written during the congressional debates over slavery which led to the Civil War; he calls Moby-Dick "a sustained meditation on the sectional crisis". It is noticeable that the highly skilled harponeers on board the ship are all non-whites but the officers of the ship are all white.

On 7th December 2017 BBC Radio 4 broadcast an 'In Our Time' programme about Moby-Dick. Host Melvyn Bragg was joined by Bridget Bennett, Professor of American Literature and Culture at the University of Leeds; Katie McGettigan, Lecturer in American Literature at Royal Holloway, University of London; and Graham Thompson, Associate Professor of American Studies at the University of Nottingham. Among the points they made was that:
  • Melville had been reading Shakespeare obsessively in the period just before writing M-D and this can be seen in the chapters with stage directions and in the way some characters are given quasi-Shakespearean soliloquies. Other influences include Milton (Ahab partly based on Satan in Paradise Lost) and the King James Bible including Jonah, the start (“Call me Ishmael”) and the ending, referencing Job. The language clearly draws on the KJ Bible. (GT)
  • Themes of the novel include: 
    • "asking, well which of us isn’t in one way or another a cannibal, who might not be a savage" seen in the relationship between Ishmael and Queequeg. (BB) The close male-male relationships; inter-racial male relationships are a feature of US literature including Hawkeye and the Mohicans, and Huckleberry Finn and escaping slave Jim (GT)
    • What should a leader do with his legitimate authority (GT) “Also how far authority can actually reach” (KM)
    • Political allegories eg Ahab a dictator whose power has been conferred by the crew as in Hobbes Leviathan (BB)
    • It is a Voyage and Return narrative (GT)
  • M-D “is a novel full of symbols” with multiple meanings (GT) such as whiteness whose meanings Ishmael lists but “whiteness becomes a surface on which you can project” (KM)
  • The Quarterdeck chapter where Ahab gets the men on side with his plan is the pivotal chapter in the novel. This is where it becomes epic. (GT)
  • Melville’s working method was to write a basic story and then supplement it to add depth. (GT) 
Sales were initially disappointing, perhaps because a review from the Athenaeum called it “disfigured by mad English and absurd” (KM). Then in the 1920s Modernism arrived and Billy Budd published 1924, Benjamin Britten wrote novel (libretto by EM Forster). (BB).  DH Lawrence praised it “as a proto-Modernist text” (KM)

“We might even think of it as post-modernist in terms of the kind of pastiches, the collections of different texts and the kind of cut-and-paste method; so this all makes it quite illegible in some kinds of ways. But that’s precisely what the novel is about, it’s about the limits of meaning, it’s about what can be done with the novel, it’s about the extent of the novel” (BB)

May 2019; 625 pages

Thursday, 30 May 2019

"Enduring Creation" by Nigel Spivey

Spivey starts with a visit to Auschwitz. This leads to his reflecting on the maxim of Theodor Adorno that “All culture after Auschwitz is trash". This book is an attempt to suggest that even in these post-holocaust days it is important to continue to produce art. “We are compassionate by habit, not from birth. Pity is something that we learn to feel." he states. So we need art to visit the awful things that human does to human so that we can learn to feel pity. Therefore he has written "a book about horror, fear, death, ghastliness and grievous bodily harm ... about pain lodged at the core of human experience. Pain feared; pain avoided; pain inflicted; pain endured; pain savoured; and pain regarded"

It is a riveting read. And the illustrations, selected from the work of the greats and analysed brilliantly, are sometimes horrifying but always breathtaking. 

For example, one of his suggestions is that the classical statue group the Laocoon was used as a model in later forms so that he shows the same basic figure in, for example, Michelangelo's Haman on the ceiling of the Sistine chapel (a ceiling which El Greco once offered to overpaint to remove the blasphemous mixture of classical/pagan images with Christian ones). He also adapts Alberti's On Painting to create a "pathos formula" 

Some great quotes:
  • “Reporters, with notebooks and lenses, thrive in zones of human disaster - scouting and jabbing like crows over carrion. The compulsion to hurry to the view of a kill seems an Instinct in us all.”
  • “The early Christians ... did not seek to diminish or deny the existence of human suffering. Quite the opposite, Christianity thrived because it mind for virtue in striations of distress.”
  • “Why, when the literature of Christian martyrdom was so adoringly descriptive of fleshly pain and the Hell-quenching conduits of blood, images of martyrs so anodyne, so clean?”
  • "The successful institutionalization of cruelty rests upon a rationale of just deserts; also upon the species classification of certain humans as sub-human.”
  • “The Damned do not go gently to their fate. Their apprehension of imminent horror is made palpable and panicky. Eager blue-black beaky demons will hustle the process, clawng or shovelling their victims towards flames, or some mouthy tunnel: images of swallowing and regurgitation often prevail.”
  • “A painter will gain honour by making pictures of figures which by their attitudes credibly represent extremes of human emotion.”
  • “There is a period in the history of Catholic Europe when it seems that no painter’s career could move forward until some graphic scene of martyrdom has been proved as part of his repertoire.”
  • “The legend of Caravaggio says he slept every night wearing his Dagger (credible of a artist once charged with using a plate of artichokes as an offensive weapon).”
  • “Only in Giorgio Vasari’s bourgeois imagination does the great artist care nothing for cash."
  • “The classical ideal of female beauty was firmly but generously fleshed, and Rubens had carried that generosity to new extremes of cellulite celebration: but neither Rubens not any classical artist ever showed a ‘model’ slumped in flabbiness such as Rembrandt drew.”
  • “We live in bodies. Each of us is a carcass: made up, in Genet’s words, ‘of blood, tears, sweat, shit, intelligence and tenderness’.”
  • Adam Smith argued: “Though our brother is upon the rack, as long as we ourselves are at our ease, our senses will never inform us of what he suffers ... iI is by the imagination only that we can form any conception of what are his sensations.”
  • “Smith was never the champion of completely unfettered market forces, or laissez-faire. Beneath all measures of deregulation lay the groundwork of moral and legal codes that sympathy must construct.”
  • “If photography compiles a visual list of everything in the world, it is always a passing permanence. When the lens falls shut the flux goes on. For seconds, or fractions of a second, we clutch at eternity.”
  • “It may amount to a gesture of some pardon to remember that One hundred and twenty days of Sodom was composed by a man with no access to carnal extravagance beyond his own imaginary fantasies.”

A fascinating perspective on Art. May 2019; 249 pages

Also read other works by Nigel Spivey:

Also read these other books about art:

Wednesday, 29 May 2019

"Reading like a writer" by Francine Prose

The title of this book is a little misleading. True, chapter one explains that you have to read closely (and slowly) to fully appreciate the brilliance of good writers but the purpose of the rest of the book is to carefully analyse extracts from the masters in order to show a wannabe writer like myself how to write.

There were moments of wonder as this book discovered for me how great authors write. There were moments of terror when I realised, with her, that “Some writers stop you dead in your tracks by making you see your own work in the most unflattering light.” But I have taken the bait and ingested the gateway drug and I am now hooked. Prose says at the end:  “The compulsion to spend long hours writing can deform a ‘normal’ life.” That should have been written over the doorway to hell. The trouble is that you never quite abandon hope and so you keep on going. Oh well. What else did I learn?

A selection of what else I learnt:
  • “In the ongoing process of becoming a writer ... I discovered that writing, like reading, was done one word at a time, one punctuation mark at a time. It required was a friend calls ‘putting every word on trial for its life’: changing an adjective, cutting a phrase, removing a comma, and putting the comma back in.”
  • “You can assume that if a writer's work has survived for centuries, there are reasons why this is so, explanations that have nothing to do with a conspiracy of academics plotting to resurrect a zombie army of dead white males.”
  • “Reading quickly - for plot, for ideas, even for the psychological truths that a story reveals - can be a hindrance when the crucial revelations are in the spaces between words”
  • “It's necessary to hold the concept clarity as an even higher ideal than grammatical correctness.”
  • “Rhythm is nearly as important in prose as it is in poetry. I have heard a number of writers say that they would rather choose the slightly wrong word that made their sentence more musical than the precisely right one that made it more awkward and clumsy.”
  • “It's helpful to consider the parallels to music, the way that, at the end of a symphony, the tempo slows down and chords become more sustained or dramatic, with overtones that reverberate and echo after the musicians have stopped playing.”
  • “Considering how frequently people get sick, it's strange that writers don't write about illness more often.”
  • “A new paragraph ... lets you quietly change the rhythm ... and ... shows the same landscape from a different aspect.”
  • “Paragraphs ... end with little climaxes”
  • “A one-sentence paragraph feels like a punch.” “If the writer is going to draw attention to the stand-alone sentence, the sentence had better be worth it.”
  • “Most conversations involve a sort of sophisticated multitasking ... We are not merely communicating information but attempting to make an impression and achieve a goal. And sometimes we are hoping to prevent the listener from noticing what we are not saying ... As a result, dialogue usually contains as much or even more subtext as text.”
  • “Details are what persuade us that someone is telling the truth” but not too many; “Liars know that it's the single priceless detail that jumps out of the story.”
  • “Great writers painstakingly construct their fiction with small but significant details that, brushstroke by brushstroke, paint the pictures the artists hope to portray.”
  • “Often a well-chosen detail can tell us more about a character ... then a long explanatory passage.”
  • “A true description of nature should be very brief ... commonplaces one ought to abandon ... seize upon the little particulars, grouping them in such a way that, in reading, when you shut your eyes you get the picture.”
  • "If a character is going to light a cigarette ... it should mean something.”
  • “The wider and deeper your observational range, the better, the more interestingly and truthfully you will write.”
  • “As the world drops away in stages, as it does for the dying, we move deeper into its hero’s psyche.”
A superb manual on how to write. May 2019; 268 pages

Tuesday, 28 May 2019

"The Art of Fiction" by David Lodge

Novelist and literary critic David Lodge offers fifty bite-sized chapter, each dealing with one aspect of the art of writing a novel. Each chapter is introduced by a well-chosen excerpt from Lodge's extensive reading.

The only trouble is that there is so much great advice I felt a little overwhelmed. How dare one presume to write a novel when there is so much to think about? The second problem (because when a writer starts a paragraph with 'the only trouble' you can be sure that there is more than one, them coming not single spies but in battalions to misquote Claudius) is that the examples he gives are drawn from the masters (Jane Austen, James Joyce etc) so that one feels that one feels intimidated by the seemingly effortless brilliance displayed.

Even his analyses suggest that an expert reads books at a deeper level than I can. I hadn't realised that “Orwell himself echoes the story of Adam and Eve in his treatment of the love affair between Winston and Julia, secretly monitored and finally punished by Big Brother”. To give another example, Lodge analyses what he calls 'skaz' which is "A type of first-person narration that has the characteristics of the spoken rather than the written word ... an illusion that can create a powerful effect of authenticity and sincerity” and which he shows involves repetition, exaggeration, short uncomplicated sentences, and sentence fragments, and in which "clauses are strung together as they seem to occur to the speaker, rather than being subordinated to each other in complex structures.” !!!

There are so many wonderful pieces of advice that all I could do was make a tiny, representative (I hope) selection of a few:
  • “The stream-of-consciousness novel is the literary expression of solipsism ... but we could equally well argue that it offers us some relief from that daunting hypothesis by offering us imaginative access to the inner lives of other human beings, even if they are fictions.”
  • “The essential purpose of art is to overcome the deadening effects of habit by representing familiar things in an unfamiliar way.”
  • “What do we mean that ... when we say that a book is ‘original’? Not, usually, that's the writer has invented something without precedent, but that she has made us ‘perceive’ what we already ... ‘know’.”
  • “All description in fiction is highly selective; its basically rhetorical technique is synecdoche, the part standing for the whole.”
  • “Calvin’s doctrine of predestination, the belief that ‘God had planned for practically everybody before they were born a nasty surprise when they died’.”
  • “The crucially important last word-space in the paragraph.”
  • “One of the difficulties in writing truthfully about working-class life in fiction ... is that the novel itself is inherently a middle-class form, and its narrative voice is apt to betray this bias in every turn of phrase.”
  • “A characteristic of comedy in fiction: a combination of surprise ... and conformity to pattern.”
  • “It is only superficially paradoxical that most novels about the future are narrated in the past tense.”
  • “Popular science fiction ... is a curious mixture of invented gadgetry and archetypal narrative motifs very obviously derived from folk tale, fairy tale, and Scripture, recycling the myths of Creation, Fall, Flood and a Divine Saviour, for a secular but still superstitious age.”
  • “There is always a trade-off in the writing of fiction between the achievement of structure, pattern and closure on the one hand, and the imitation of life's randomness, inconsequentiality and openness on the other.”
  • “It has been said that all novels are essentially about the passage from innocence to experience, about discovering the reality that underlies appearances. It is not surprising, therefore, that stylistic and dramatic irony are all-pervasive in this form of literature.”
  • “The explicit treatment of sexual acts is certainly another challenge to the novelist artistry ... how to defamiliarize the inherently limited repertoire of sexual acts”
  • “Classic tales of the uncanny invariably use ‘I’ narrators, and imitate documentary forms of discourse like confessions, letters and depositions to make the events more credible.”

This is a book for every wannabe novelist to keep on the nearest shelf to the writing desk. I will!

It also contains a bibliography so I have another seven books to add to the must-read list.

The Craft of Fiction by Percy Lubbock and Aspects of the Novel by E M Forster are works of literary criticism which also provide a wannabe novelist like myself with guidance as to how to write a novel.

Write Away by Elizabeth George and On Writing by Stephen King are also well worth reading although they are more focused on the craft of story-telling than on analysing literary classics.

May 2019; 230 pages

Wednesday, 22 May 2019

"Homesick" by Tony Hanania

Jennings meets Lord of the Flies. Toby Shadrach goes to prep school in the South of England while his home country of Lebanon degenerates from political instability into civil war. His boarding school life is a world of inter-dormitory warfare, of 'patrol leaders' (senior boys in charge of each dormitory) who become war-lords and force the juniors to toil for them as slaves, digging tunnels in the chalk hillsides outside the school and acting as infantrymen in the skirmishes. This is a feral world. As time goes on the economy of the schoolboys develops: fortunes are made and lost for highly prized as torches (which can be used for torturing captives both by shining the light in their eyes and by clobbering them with it) or transistor radios; the markets for these possessions are manipulated by theft and bandit raids. Some boys are prepared to pay in 'trademarks' (the marks left after being hit by sticks). The masters seem remote from this anarchy, although they too can be brutal. At each step of the way, with deft flashbacks to the idyllic Lebanon that Toby has lost, parallels are made with the civil war in that country.

This is a carefully written cross between allegory and memoir. It is distinguished in part by its control and in part by moments of descriptive magic. It is Hanania's first novel (written in 1997) and has been followed by Unreal City (1999) and Eros Island (2000). The last is less controlled (sometimes I was confused) but the author has developed the lyricality of his descriptive passages to near-perfection.

A great read.

Some of my favourite moments:

  • Prelude
    • “Though there was space ahead the traffic was staying clotted together, like clutches of a tune timid of breaking away into noise.” (p 3)
    • “This was a capsule built to protect the future, a life hearse.” (p 4)
    • “Whenever I returned now it was as a shabby tourist around my friends’ protected breeding programs and their bloodless dinner-tables.” (p 4)
  • Part One
    • “I had seen the dragon’s footprints in the bay beside the old port, near the little chapel where people left the old gloves, shoe, boots, though never in pairs.” (p 14)
    • “ The buildings have that charred and pock-marked complexion common to northern variety theatres and station hotels.” ( p28)
    • “The fruit in the wicker baskets is beginning to shrivel and harden. It gives off the same shrunk-fruit scent that hangs around the sideboard in so many other dining rooms of England ... Not a dead smell but a dying one.” (p 92)
    • “The Fates are cruel, he says, because unlike the other gods they are deaf to the prayers of men.” (p 109)
    • “I am the tyrant’s chef, and must contrive ever more exotic dishes to satisfy the appetites I have depraved.” (p 114)
  • Part Two
    • “This is a city of foreigners and if they all leave the city will be empty. Most of the natives are only foreigners who arrived early.” (p 177)
    • “The rippleless flesh between her bright cotton halter-top and frayed jean-shorts was the colour of milk in shadow - when one can no longer tell whether the surface of the jug is liquid or skin.” (p 214)
Wonderful. May 2019

Sunday, 19 May 2019

"The Felicity Hunters" by Deirdre Connolly

Lara's grandmother was in a Japanese prison camp during the second world war; the first Lara hears of this is at her funeral. Lara determines to investigate her family history and her new job teaching in Singapore provides the perfect opportunity to meet relatives in Australia. But why are they hostile? And who is the person in the floppy hat who stalks her around the world? And what has all this to do with Lara's inherited trusteeship of a family charity?

This is a well-written first novel; a Robert Goddard style mystery (for example, Play to the End) in which the past exerts a long shadow over the present. It also gives a fascinating insight into the conditions faced by expatriate teachers in Singapore. There are some great descriptions:

  • "The ebbing tide had created a canvas of yellow rippled sand sculptures around sapphire ponds" (C 5)
  • "I pulled myself away and ambled deeper into the gorge, a living masterpiece with layer upon layer of interest, from birdsong echoing against the cliff walls to wallabies making fleeting appearances in the bushland bordering the contrasting Victorian gardens." (C 11)

And other great lines:

  • "In my experience, people either want to talk about things like that interminably, or not at all." (C 3)
  • "We sampled introductory offers at spas, enjoying hours of scrubs, massages and ginger tea until our bodies had no more toxins to surrender." (C 8)
  • "The first splinter of dawn pierced the skies outside my window" (C 11)
  • "You know that glow I always wear in Singapore, well that’s calories seeping out through my pores." (C 22)
Well worth a read. May 2019

Friday, 17 May 2019

"Guy Mannering" by Sir Walter Scott

This is an old-fashioned novel by the man who was the acclaimed and best-selling writer of historical novels. It is his second novel, following Waverley. The first edition of GM (published anonymously in 1815), 2000 copies, sold out on the day of publication.

As with novels of this age, there is little character development. Guy Mannering is as nuanced as they come. He is fundamentally nice and honorable, as befits a hero, and he is well-bred and rich and clever and brave. Glossin is a self-made man and therefore scheming and avarcicious and a cheat and a "wretch". Dominie Sampson is a poor ungainly ragged tongue-tied scholar whose fundamental role is to be laughed at (often by the author although he is at pains to point out the Dominie's essential goodness and allows Guy to reprove people who laugh at the poor Dominie). In general, the pedigreed are honorable and the low-born are bad. This is especially true of the character who is well-bred but, through misfortune, has a lowly status.

It is notable for the introduction of the gypsy queen and witch Meg Merrilies.

But for all its faults, Scott could certainly tell a story. The first ten chapters contain gypsies, smugglers, the mysterious death of an excise officer (complete with scene of crime evidence) and child abduction. Other thrills include a struggle for a gun which involves one goody shooting another, a very bad lawyer, a smuggler's raid on a house repulsed with gunfire, and a thrilling scene in which the hero has to hide from robbers in their lair.

It also amused me that all the many Scottish dialect words are footnoted but there is no explanation for the Latin.

Great phrases

  • "An excellent old Highlander, without a fault, unless a preference for mountain-dew over less potent liquors be accounted one." (Introduction)
  • "Like other philosophers, she remarked that the world grew worse daily; and, like other parents, that the bairns got out of her guiding." (Introduction)
  • "Does the devil mingle in the dance, to avenge himself for our trifling with an art said to be magical in origin?" (C 4)
  • "To those who lie out of the road of great afflictions, are assigned petty vexations, which answer all the purpose of disturbing their serenity." (C 5)
  • The Lake District is "the resort of walking gentlemen of all descriptions, poets, players, painters, musicians, who come to rave, and recite, and madden, about this picturesque land of ours." (C 16)
  • "A retired old soldier is always a graceful and respected character. He grumbles a little now and then,  but then his is licensed murmuring - were a lawyer, or a physician, or a clergyman, to breathe a complaint of hard luck or want of preferment, a hundred tongues would blame his own incapacity as the cause." (C 21)
  • "In civilised society, law is the chimney through which all that smoke discharges itself that used to circulate through the whole house, and put everyone's eyes out - no wonder, therefore, that the vent should sometimes get a little sooty." (C 39)
  • "The lawyer afterwards compared his mind to the magazine of a pawnbroker, stowed with goods of every description, but so cumbrously piled together, and in such total disorganisation, that the owner can never lay his hands on any one article at the moment he has occasion for it." (C 39)
  • "Speaking as if his utmost efforts were unable to unseal his lips beyond the width of a quarter of an inch, so that his whole utterance was a kind of compressed muttering" (C 41)
  • "Law's like laudanum; it's much more easy to use it as a quack does, than to learn to apply it like a physician." (C 56)
It's a great little read but you have to be tolerant of the old world style.

Other Walter Scott books I have read include The Talisman, Waverley, and Ivanhoe.

Other points:

  • Scott mentions the Bold Admiral Benbow as a ballad (C 6)
  • Scott in a footnote mentions that Adam Smith was, "for some hours", abducted by gipsies as a child (C 8)
  • At the time he is writing of Edinburgh New Town "was just then commenced" (C 36)
  • The game "High Jinks" involves making a member of the company, chosen by lot, pretend to be a fictitious character or say a funny poem. Another game mentioned (C 57) is "Hy Spy". Wikipedia states that this is nopt IO Spt as we know it today but a variant of Hide and Seek.
  • "The post was much more tardy than since Mr Palmer's ingenious invention has taken place" (C 40) Palmer was a theatre owner in Bath and Bristol whose experience of stage coach travel led him to set up the first mail coach service in August 1784.
  • He compares a gypsy with "Siddons herself" (C 53) Sarah Siddons (1755 – 1831)was a famed tragedienne.

May 2019; 408 pages

"Hangsaman" by Shirley Jackson

A beautifully written novel about coming of age from a feminist perspective.

In the summer just before she goes to college Natalie Waite has an unpleasant encounter (not clearly specified but presumably sexual) at a Sunday afternoon literary party given by her writer father. At an initiation ceremony in college her refusal to say whether she is a virgin or not leads to her being ostracised by the popular students. Her experiences at college include tea parties with a lecturer and his very young, ex-student wife. Finally she gets intimate with another loner which leads to a bizarre and perilous day playing truant.

This is a strange story but it is beautifully told. In particular, the character of the father is drawn with almost perfect observation of his mannerisms and foibles.

The first quarter of the book, and it is almost exactly 25%, the first Act if you will describes the idyllic world of Natalie. Much of this first act is set in a garden and describes the innocence of the Garden of Eden:

  • “It was a beautiful morning, and the garden seems to be enjoying it.”

The narration is through Natalie and we are privileged to hear the thoughts in her head. In the first act, presaging the loss of innocence, she indulges in a fantasy of being interrogated by a detective about the dead body that she found in the rose garden but we also hear her other thoughts, often suggesting a rebellion from the cosiness of her world:
  • “Seventeen years was a very long time to have been alive, if you took it into proportion by the thought that in seventeen years more - or as long as she had wasted being a child, and a small girl, silly and probably playing - she would be thirty-four, and old. Married, probably. Perhaps - and the thought was nauseating - senselessly afflicted with children of her own. Worn, and tired.” 
  • “She brought herself away from the disagreeably clinging thought by her usual method - imagining the sweet sharp sensation of being burnt alive.”
  • “‘Do you know when you're being honest?’ ... ‘If I'm surprised at myself for saying or thinking it, it's honest.’”
  • “The gap between the poetry she wrote and the poetry she contained was, for Natalie, something unsolvable.”
  • “I hardly think that the taking of cocktails and such is a vice which I shall ever indulge in more than very mildly, since it seems to me that any woman interested in an artistic career dulls the fine, keen edge of her understanding by an indulgence in a stimulant other than her work.”

We also learn about her family. This is a savage portrait of a family, happy from the male point of view. Her younger brother [because he is male, we infer] is able to declare that he will not be available for the usual Sunday afternoon gathering. But there is a stunning contrast between the smugly complacent father, secure in his role as patriarch, and the neurotic drunk of a mother who is utterly disillusioned about being a wife. 

  • Father:
    • “Mr Arnold Waite - husband, parent, man of his word - invariably leaned back in his chair after his second cup of breakfast coffee and looked with some disbelief at his wife and two children. His chair was situated so that when he put his head back the sunlight, winter or summer, touched his own faded hair with an air at once angelic and indifferent - indifferent because, like himself, it found belief not an essential factor to its continued existence.” (opening lines)
    • “The books which stood expectantly on the shelves around the room had the fulfilled look of books which have been read, though not necessarily by Mr Waite.”
    • He is even smug about his failings: “My honest picture of myself has led me to aim less high than many of my contemporaries, because I know my own failings, and as a result I am in many respects less successful in a worldly sense. They, without knowledge of their own shortcomings, were able to conquer blindly, while I, always hesitating through doubt of myself, lost my chances, and fell.” [This is a  useful correction to the Dephi oracle’s Know Thyself.]
  • Natalie's mother toils all day in the kitchen to prepare the food for the Sunday afternoon parties (Natalie, being a girl, helps). Her only resistance is a refusal to prepare Sunday lunch so that the father has to grumble that his "peanut-butter sandwich  ... is not food for a grown man."
    • “The kitchen was, in fact, the only place in the house that Mrs Waite possessed utterly; even her bedroom was not her own, since her husband magnanimously insisted upon sharing it.”
    • “This morning Mrs Waite’s initial momentum came from her Sunday casserole which, incredibly complex and delicate, would be devoured drunkenly in a few hours by inconsiderate and uncomplimentary people.”
    • “I wish Ethel would leave dishes the way I leave them. Little ones inside big ones. It's impossible to believe that anyone can put dishes away in this sort of insane arrangement; she piles them altogether without thinking of size or safety.”
    • “See that your marriage is happy, child. Don't ever let your husband know what you're thinking or doing, that's the way.”
    • “This is the only life I've got - you understand? I mean, this is all.”
    • “First they tell you lies ... and then they make you believe them. Then they give you a little of what they promised, just a little, enough to keep you thinking you've got your hands on it. Then you find out that you’re tricked, just like everyone else.”
    • “Everyone only knows one ‘I’, and that's the ‘I’ they call themselves, and there's no one else can be ‘I’ to anyone except that one person, and they're all stuck with themselves.”
    • “If I were dead you’d listen to me.”

This garden of innocence is brought to an abrupt halt at the 25% mark when Natalie, wandering through the woods with a strange man at the party, suddenly realises "Oh my dear God sweet Christ ... so sickened that she nearly said it aloud, is he going to touch me?" There is then a space and a few pages of description of how she wakes, feeling sick, repeatedly telling herself that she won't think about it, repeatedly thinking "Nothing happened ... nothing happened, nothing happened, nothing happened, nothing happened. Nothing happened."These few pages are a tour de force of writing but this whole section is controlled and brilliant. Much of the power comes from the repetition of "nothing happened" and "I won't think about it" and "oh, please" and later "the echo 'please, please, please". Haunting writing.

At the end of this section Mr Waite, haloed again in sunlight, complacently unaware of what has happened to Natalie, puts the blame on his wife: "Your God ... has seen fit to give us a black and rotten day." Soon Natalie will be expelled from Eden (sent to the college her father has picked out for her) to undergo more difficult experiences.

The second section starts with the statement: "Anything which begins new and fresh will finally become old and silly." This quarter (Act 2) describes another closed world, that of the all-girls' college to which Natalie has been sent by her father. Here Natalie meets Arthur Langdon, an English lecturer, and his wife, an ex-student and a drunk, and we see Natalie's parents reflected in this portrait of a marriage about to go wrong. At the same time Natalie finds herself ostracised by the student body, except perhaps for one girl who is also ostracised but swiftly finds a way of getting back into the mainstream and ditching Natalie, and she becomes an Outsider in the Colin Wilson sense. This is quite a contrast with her position at the heart of a close family but it reflects her psychological outsiderness which was shown in the first section by her interior monologue. The second quarter ends with the wife, Elizabeth, starting a fire accidentally (as Natalie believes) or on purpose (as Elizabeth claims, telling her husband "I tried to kill myself again").

Great moments form the second section include:
  • “The poor ones, with their obvious best clothes, the smart ones, with their obvious right clothes, the girls who would teach the others to dance, the girls who would whisper inaccurate facts of life, the girls would fail all their courses and go home ingloriously ( saying goodbye bravely, but crying), the girls would fail all their courses and join the best cliques, the girls who would fall in love with their professors, either desperately and secretly, or openly and disgracefully, the girls whose hearts would breaks and the girls whose spirits would break”
  • “Once the door was opened the world outside it slowly established itself, small section after small section - as though, in fact, it has not been prepared tonight for Natalie to open her door again, and had been caught completely unaware, and was putting a bold face on things and getting everything back together as quickly as possible.”
  • “Can you imagine having a mind like mine and losing it when you die?”
  • “It was generally believed that it was completely possible to become pregnant by using the same bathtub as one's brother, although not necessarily at the same time.”
  • “Mustn't violate the sacred rules of magic ... Never wish for anything until it's ready for you. Never try to make anything happen until it's on its way.”
In the third quarter Natalie has more strange experiences at College. Someone starts stealing things and Natalie gets the blame although there is a moment of mad horror when she meets the thief. She is rescued by Tony, another ostracised girl.

  • "a spot where two people have been talking, however briefly, is not after that a spot for one person to sit alone."

The fourth quarter starts with Natalie returning home for Thanksgiving. Her experiences at college have estranged her from her family and she is no longer able to accept their psychological support. “She had come home ... bringing with her a certain sense of romance, as one who could bring heartbreaking stories of haunted lands, who have seen and heard and touched and known the improbable, the unbelievable ... who had seen, perhaps, beasts walking like men and jewels shining like stars, and who smiled at certain remembered scenes a million miles away, and stared bewildered at old familiar sights and found the faces of mother and father and brother more strange than the face on a carving made in pearl.” The genie is out of the bottle: once innocence is lost it can never be retrieved; she is banned forever from returning to Eden.

Her work is already suffering and after this visit she will stop attending class and spend all her days with the mysterious Tony.

Half way through this last section she truants from school and spends the day in town with Tony. They go into town and Natalie creates imaginary fantasies about the secret lives of the people in the cafe and whether or not she is being tracked by spies. On the bus, however, she feels that the people are just robots: “It seems pitiful that these automatons should be created and wasted, never knowing more than minor fragment of the pattern in which they were involved.” The end of the bus route is a dark wood by a lake near an amusement park (this very much echoes the garden at home when Natalie leaves the party to go into between the trees with the strange man). Natalie and Tony go into the wood and get separated and Natalie becomes lost: “Beneath the trees it was not dark as a room is dark when the lights are put out, the artificial darkness which comes when artificial light is gone; it was the deep natural darkness which comes with a forsaking of natural light.” This darkness is spiritual as it is physical. Now Tony is strange and wants to go on, but not very far, and Natalie becomes all normal and cross, stamping her feet in the mud and hating the fact that she is cold and wet. And Tony tells Natalie "Don't be afraid" and Natalie is immediately "suddenly very frightened".

  • “We are on a carpet ... It unrolls in front of us, but in back of us it rolls up and there is nothing under it.” 

This is a novel about growing up. It is full of terrifying rites of passage, for example: the climactic moment at the end of the first quarter, the initiation scene at college in the second quarter, the encounter with the thief in the third quarter, what happens with Tony in the woods.

It was published in the same year as Catcher in the Rye (1951) and could be seen as a female counterpoint to that story. It's a coming of age story but there is also one heck of a feminist punch.

May 2019; 218 pages

Another book by Shirley Jackson is the creepy We have always lived in the castle

Other books about college in America are:

Saturday, 11 May 2019

"Lorenzo da Ponte" by Rodney Bolt

Lorenzo da Ponte was the librettist behind the Mozart operas The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni, and Cosi Fan Tutte. But he was rather more than that. This man had an extraordinary life and met all sorts of people. This beautifully written biography captures something of the flavour of a man on whom fortune frequently shone but never for long.

He was born Emanuele Conegliano in a jewish ghetto in Ceneda which is now part of Vittorio Veneto in Italy; he and his father converted to Catholicism when Emanuele was fourteen and he took the bishop's name; he was later educated in a seminary and became an Abbe. But the young priest was a bit of a womaniser and followed his girlfriend to a Venice near the end of its glory days (“The mistress of the Mediterranean had become a spirited madame - ancient, decaying, but full-bent on giving her devotees the time of their lives.”; C 2) where he lived a dissolute life, writing poetry, gambling, participating in the new dance craze (the Waltz), and meeting Casanova, sharing with him the favours of a Murano nun. Eventually Venice expelled him so he travelled to Vienna, via a number of other ladies, where he charmed the Emperor into becoming poet at the Opera and working with Salieri (very unsuccessfully) and other composers and having his great triumphs with Mozart. In his forties he finally found a woman to marry (illegally, he was still a Catholic priest) and stopped fathering bastards on other women. He travelled across Europe, reacquainting himself with the now ageing Casanova, to London where he again worked at the Opera (for a man so cunning that although he only owned the leasehold of the land where the audience part of the opera house was built he owned the freehold of the land on which the stage was built) and ran a bookshop until he endorsed too many bad debts and had to flee England, following his wife and children to New York. Here he tried to develop a taste for opera in the city, also teaching Italian and meeting Clement Moore, who wrote The Night Before Christmas, and Longfellow (Hiawatha) among others. He spent sometime as a grocer and distiller in Sunbury in Pennsylvania (a town named after Sunbury-on-Thames where I grew up) before returning to New York. Throughout his long life he was repeatedly spectacularly unsuccessful in business after repeatedly reinventing himself and having a brilliant start. His energy and self-confidence was remarkable, as was his ability to make enemies. But what a life! Bolt compares him with a phoenix: “The phoenix ... invariably set fire to its own nest. Lorenzo Da Ponte was indeed a true phoenix. yet he also possessed that best-known attribute of the bird. Time and time again, he could rise from the ashes.” (C 11)

And beautifully told:
The three Inquisitors of State were a sinister offshoot of the Council of Ten, the secretive executive branch of government that was ruling with growing disregard for the assembly of patricians, the Great Council. They worked swiftly and violently ... their network of spies had once given every keyhole an eye, wrought terror with the creak of a floorboard, and brought danger to every shadow.” (C 2)
In Padua ... he found the cheapest Inn in town, and worked out that he could scrape by on one lire (twenty Venetian soldi) a day - eight soldi for a bed, five for a coffee, and seven for a diet of bread and salty black olives, which would make him drink large quantities of water to fill his stomach.” (C 3) Isn’t it interesting how many currencies of the time had the ‘twenty shillings to a pound’ system: the Venetian 20 soldi to a lire, the English twenty shillings to a pound, also called a libra, and the French, twenty sous to a livre. The French and English also subdivided the sou or shilling into twelve denarii, or pence; I wonder if there were twelve somethings to the soldi?
For most of 1785 ... [Mozart and Da Ponte] circled warily, like dogs about to settle in the same basket.” (C 8)
Travelling to Paris in late 1792 with the letter bearing a recommendation from Mary Antoinette was not the wisest of moves.” (C 12)
In Dresden, Da Ponte paid off his young coachman (who had clung to him tenaciously, despite their lack of conveyance) with a pair of fine leather breeches.” (C 12)
The Italians exalt music; the French enliven it; the Germans strive after it; the English pay for it well.” (C 12)
Castrati had long since given away to tenors ... even in England opponents of Italian opera reserved special venom for the practice (though, it must be said, far more often on grounds of their improbability in heroic roles than for humanitarian reasons).” (C 13)
The quaint old man from a distant world had vitality enough to engage them together with the respectability of a venerable culture, for those uncertain moments when young adventurers had to look back over their shoulders for reassurance.” (C 15)

Swahbuckling! May 2019; 333 pages

Thursday, 9 May 2019

"Watling Street" by John Higgs

Higgs travels from Dover to Anglesey along one of the old roads of England (and Wales, and he does refer to Britain, but most of this book is conserned with England and Englishness). As he goes he muses on the current state of England during the fall-out from the Brexit referendum. He also meets a selection of people including a postman who leaked inside information about the denationalisation of the Post Office,  the internationally renowned Graphic novelist Alan Moore (author of From Hell and V for Vendetta), and a performance poet John Constable. This is a view of England from the post-punk hippy underground gone middle class; there are unashamed socialist, even communist overtones and a heavy undercurrent of psychedelic magical mysticism.

He spends a lot of time in some places and seems to rapidly skip over others. There seems to be a disproportionate number of places further south, as if he had to hurry up towards the end. After Dover comes Canterbury and then London which seems fair enough. He spends a long time in London at a shamanic performance event in memory of the prostitutes buried outside Southwark Cathedral. He then watches a parade in St Albans, discusses highwaymen and shopping centres in Dunstable, visits Bletchley Park and arrives at Northampton where he spends considerable time in the company of Alan Moore, whose presence has already been foreshadowed. He sounds off about public schools in Rugby before sprinting through Wales to Anglesey.

He has some brilliant descriptions (“The seven white turbines of a wind farm stand in a row to the north. Their blades turn out of sync with each other, like infant school children trying to perform a dance.”; Introduction) and he can be very funny at times:

  • Damaging graffiti with graffiti might be something of a legal grey area.” (C 6)
  • The English are supposed to be animal lovers, so representing them with a man who killed an endangered species is an uneasy fit, especially when that animal was as brilliant as a dragon. ... We can say with certainty that the actual number of people hurt by dragons all of history is precisely zero. You can't say that about crusading Roman mercenaries like George.” (C 7)
  • Saints who are depicted carrying their heads ... have been something of a problem for religious artists over the years because of the tricky question of where to paint the halo. They can place the halo either around the bloodied stump of neck or over the head carried in the saint’s armpit, but in both instances it looks like they are being sarcastic.” (C 7)
  • It is often remarked upon that houses in North Wales are frequently squat and ugly, but when the landscape looks like this there is no point in competing on appearance. It is better to give up on visual aesthetics and concentrate on becoming a land of song instead.” (C 13)

He also makes a number of political points:

  • National identity can be manipulative. It can be a mirage used against you, a spell like that of the Pied Piper of Hamlyn [sic] which seduces you into getting in line and marching behind the patriotic tune.” (C 1)
  • If history teaches us anything it is that nationalism never ends well.” (C 1)
  • The idea that the privileged are superior is the central tenet of the public-school reality tunnel. An elaborate, but entirely arbitrary, system of social rules and signifiers is employed in an attempt to support it and make it appear believable.” (C 11)
  • If our history tells us anything it is that Britishness is cultural, not genetic. Aliens from far-off galaxies, if they settled in Ipswich, would be down the pub moaning about the weather in a generation or two.” (C 13)

There are many fine points and things of interest in this book but I admit to finding his selection of what to write about individual.

Some quotes:

  • Milton Keynes looks like a Canadian airport which has started a new life in the Buckinghamshire countryside.” (Introduction)
  • A tree’s past is not lost with passing years but remains visibly present in its shape. It expands as shoots bud and branches grow, but it always physically contains the younger tree it used to be.” (Introduction)
  • “Men and women in the UK are on average 4.3 inches taller than they were a hundred years ago, due to changes in our understanding of health and nutrition.” (C 1)
  • “Betteridge’s Law ... states that for any headline that asks a question, the answer is always ‘no’.” (C 1)
  • In Gothic literature, the weight of the past presses down on the present and offers only the certainty of death.” (C 1)
  • “It can be hard to imagine this island without the English language, but the actual native tongue of this country was Common Brittanic.” (C 2)
  • London stone is mentioned in mediaeval documents going back to around the year 1100 ... London stone was thought to have the ability to grant political or royal authority in a similar way to the Stone of Scone in Perth, or the Anglo-Saxon coronation stone that gave Kingston upon Thames its name.” (C 6)
  • The rope, shroud and prisoner’s clothes could be sold by the hangman ... In 1447, a reprieve arrived for five men being prepared for hanging and dismemberment after the hangman had already taken their clothes. They attempted to reclaim their clothes from the hangman, but he insisted that they were rightfully his. After much arguing, the reprieved men went home naked” (C 6)
  • When I lived in the north there was a constant, unquestioned level of anti-London sentiment ... the population of this one city is more than the populations of Scotland and Wales combined.” (C 6)
  • Increasing population densities increase the number of connections between people, which in turn increases economic activity. Businesses can find customers, and artists can find audiences. There are more ideas in circulation, and more options.” (C 6)
  • A great deal of the most treasured things in our culture, including weddings, the Olympic torch and the monarchy, are products of magical thinking rather than rationality.” (C 7)
  • What other option did people have to change things? When you're watching television and the program is terrible and you can't watch any longer, you change the channel. You don't know what is on the other side, or whether it will be better or worse. All you know is that it will be something different, so that's what you choose. It’s either that, or turn the TV off.” (C 8)
  • Latin and Greek were viewed as subjects of greater value than science or engineering, because practical subjects like those were associated with work and trade.” (C 9)
  • He was not a man who would bend or compromise for expediency’s sake. He had the mind of a true artist and a terrible politician.” (C 10)
  • Time is not the fourth dimension, but our perception of time is almost like the shadow of the fourth dimension.” (C 10)
  • Titles ... are like human versions of vanity registration plates.” (C 11)
  • Land is occupied when a foreign army takes it, but a person is occupied when they work.” (C 12)
  • It is easy to think of the Celts of a single group of people. They spoke the Celtic group of languages. They had a very distinctive style of ornamental art ... They had a distinctive style of fashion and wore a rigid metal ring around their necks, usually open at the front, called a torc. ... In the biosphere, there was no single type of Celtic people. ... Being Celtic was not the result of blood. It was the result of ideas."(C 13)
An enjoyable, though unusual, travel book. I particularly liked the idea that “Everywhere is special - if you know where to look.” (C 5)

May 2019; 344 pages

This review was written by
the author of Motherdarling

Other great travel books in this blog:
Travelling in Britain:
And others:

Monday, 6 May 2019

"Mine" by J L Butler

It is a little difficult writing a murder mystery from the point of view of the protagonist who is an unreliable narrator. Agatha Christie paved the way. The Girl on the Train used the device of an alcoholic narrator who had blackouts. Mine uses a hot-shot lawyer whose blackout at the critical moment is due to bipolar syndrome (mixed with alcohol).

In brief: hot-shot divorce lawyer falls for male client, cue really rather sexy scenes. Then client, owner of a hedge fund managing a billion dollars, hooks back up with wife while lawyer tails him. Wife then disappears. Did hedge fund manager do it or lawyer during a bipolar blackout? And what about the blackmailing PhD student living in the flat below the lawyer?

A well-paced thriller. The ending is traditional but you're ninety per cent of the way through by then. And, as well as the sex bits, there are some great lines:

  • "The sound of your shoes against the cobbles tricked you into thinking you were not alone." (C 4)
  • "Spitalfields was London in microcosm, a strange organic meld of the ancient and the space age, jagged silver-and-glass rocket ships pointing to the heavens, next to crumbled soot-stained tenements, unchanged since the Ripper stalked through the fog." (C 4)
  • "A new dress that sucked me in a ll the right places." (C 8)
  • "I had joined the cast of a drama I had not auditioned for, and I did not like my part." (C 17)
  • "I tried to zone out, my eyes not quite focusing on the London buildings and evening lights - smears of red-and-white in the rain-speckled glass - that sped past. The coloured patterns were hypnotic; after a while, though, they seemed to conspire with the confusion of thoughts in my head to make me feel sick." (C 25)
  • "A type-A Icarus who thought she was too good for her hometown." (C 42)

Good stuff. April 2019; 422 pages

Sunday, 5 May 2019

“The Story of Art” by E H Gombrich

From cave paintings to Picasso, Gombrich endeavours to make us understand how “Artists of all periods have tried to put forward their solution of the essential paradox of painting, which is that it represents depth on a surface.” (C 27) To do this he tries to explain what was important to the artists of each period: “The Egyptians had largely drawn what they knew to exist, the Greeks what they saw; in the Middle Ages the artist also learned to express in his picture what he felt.” (C 8)

But Gombrich starts with the assertion that “There really is no such thing as Art. There are only artists.” (Introduction). So he charts the history of art by considering the masters and by showing the techniques they developed. In the end, he argues, you can only judge an artist in terms of what he (or she) is trying to achieve, by assessing to what extent they have achieved their goal. Thus one artist may be a master of perspective and another a master of foreshortening, a third may be a master of using light and shade and a fourth a master of arranging a composition so that it is pleasing while a fifth is concerned primarily with colour.

I learned that the Greeks more or less invented foreshortening; that Brunelleschi (his work on the Duomo of Florence is recorded in Brunelleschi's Dome) invented perspective; that Van Eyck invented painting with oils so he could “achieve smooth transitions by letting the colours shade off into each other” (C 12); that Leonardo invented sfumato, and many other things.

This book was an absolutely fascinating travel through the history of this topic. I feel I understood more about art than I have ever understood before although, as Gombrich quotes Picasso: ‘Everyone wants to understand art. Why not try to understand the song of a bird?” (C 27)

Some great, often illuminating, quotes:
  • “There is no greater obstacle to the enjoyment of great works of art than our unwillingness to discard habits and prejudices. A painting which represents a familiar subject in an unexpected way is often condemned for no better reason than that it does not seem right.” (Introduction)
  • “Works of art ...  every one of their features is the result of a decision by the artist.” (Introduction)
  • “When it is a matter of matching forms or arranging colours an artist must always be ... fastidious to the extreme. He may see differences in shades and texture which we should hardly notice.” (Introduction)
  • "It is this balance between an adherence to rules and a freedom within the rules which has made Greek art so much admired in later centuries.” (C 3)
  • “Chinese ... artists were less fond of rigid angular forms than the Egyptians had been, and preferred swerving curves. When a Chinese artist had to represent a prancing horse, he seemed to fit it together out of a number of rounded shapes.” (C 7)
  • “We think of an artist as a person with a sketchbook who sits down and makes a drawing from life whenever he feels inclined. But we know that the whole training and upbringing of the medieval artist was very different ... Never in his career would he be faced with the necessity of taking a sketchbook and drawing something from life.” (C 10)
  • Byzantine art preserved Hellenistic discoveries: “How the face is modelled in light and shade and ... a correct understanding of the principles of foreshortening.” (C 10)
  • “Light not only helps to model the the forms of the figures, but is equal in importance to perspective in creating the illusion of depth.” (C 13)
  • “Only Leonardo found the true solution to the problem. The painter must leave the beholder something to guess. If the outlines are not quite so firmly drawn, if the form is left a little vague, as though disappearing into a shadow, this impression of dryness and stiffness will be avoided.” (C 15)
  • In the Mona Lisa: “Expression rests mainly in two features: the corners of the mouth, and the corners of the eyes. now it is precisely these parts which Leonardo has left deliberately indistinct, by letting them merge into a soft shadow.” (C 15) Furthermore the two sides don’t match so that “when we focus the left side of the picture, the woman looks somehow taller or more erect than if we focus the right side. And her face, too, seems to change.” (C 15)
  • “The sacred scenes from the Bible were crowded out by what appeared to be a training team of young athletes.” (C 189)
  • “Great innovators in art have often concentrated on the essential things and refused to worry about technical perfection in the usual sense.” (C 18)
  • “This is a common mistake which we are apt to make about artists. We are often inclined to confuse their work with their person.” (C 18)
  • “Goya asserted his Independence of the conventions of the past. ... The most striking fact about Goya's prints is that they are not illustrations of any known subject, either biblical, historical or genre. Most of them are fantastic visions of witches and uncanny apparitions.” (C 24)
  • “It really comes to this - that where there is no choice there is no expression.” (C 25)
  • “The word Art has acquired a different meaning for us ... the history of art and the nineteenth century can never become the history of the most successful and best paid masters of that time. We see it rather as the history of a handful of lonely men who had the courage and the persistence to think for themselves, to examine conventions fearlessly and critically and thus to create new possibilities for their art.” (C 25)
  • “The longing of Victorian masters for Innocence was too self-contradictory to succeed.” (C 25)
  • “Manet and his followers brought about a revolution in the rendering of colours which is almost comparable with the revolution in the representation of forms brought about by the Greeks. They discovered that, if we look at nature in the open, we do not see individual objects each with its own colour but rather a bright medley of tints which blend in our eye or really in her mind.” (C 25)
  • “We call ‘picturesque’ such motifs as we have seen in pictures before.” (C 25)
  • “The critics who had laughed has proved very fallible indeed. Had they bought these canvases rather than mocked them they would have become rich. Criticism therefore suffered a loss of prestige from which it never recovered. The struggle of the Impressionists became the treasured legend of all innovators in art.” (C 25)
  • “Ever since artists had become self-conscious about ‘style’ they felt distrustful of conventions and impatient of mere skill.” (C 26)
  • “Frank Lloyd Wright ... saw that what mattered in a house was the rooms, and not the facade.” (C 27)
  • “This search had revealed the conflict between pattern and solidity.” (C 26)
  • “The legend has sprung up that all great artists were always rejected and derided in their time and so the public now makes the laudable effort no longer to reject or deride anything.” (Postscript)
  • “Art differs from other forms of creation in being less dependent on intermediaries. Books must be printed and published, plays and compositions must be performed; and this need of an apparatus applies a certain break to extreme experiment.” (Postscript)

There are also a huge number of illustrations of wonderful art, some of which I had other appreciated before; others I had never even seen before.

An eye-opening read. April 2019; 501 pages

This is one of a selection of books I am reading to help me understand more about art. Others reviewed on this blog include:

Friday, 3 May 2019

"Until Amy is found" by Mo Kerr

This is a book of short stories. Most of them are in the gothic horror tradition: there are some clever updatings of some classic motifs such as the broken-down car, the empty farmhouse and the strange stranger in Lucky Jim and the "Psycho made in Yorkshire" in The Long Stop. The title story really goes to town, including a small, isolated community, an encounter at a cemetery, a remote woman (an heiress of course) in an isolated house (complete with servant) to which the young man pays a professional visit (which reminded me of Susan Hill's The Woman in Black), a man sent mad by a love who died, a lunatic asylum and even has the ghost of a smuggler who cursed the island!

But the point is that the author has updated these and played around with the tradition in such a way as to leave us guessing as to the ending. My favourite twist was that in The Long Stop; very clever!

Some of the stories are written in the present tense, which adds something to the tension, and although the narration is usually in the first person there are one or two third person though the point of view is still usually that of the protagonist. The lengths of the stories vary considerably (Until Amy is Found is the longest) and one or two (for example, Not Waving But ... and  The No. 6 Bus) might be described as vignettes.

The stories were well-written. I like the way this author can freshen a cliche by leaving off the last bit; for example "We're blood relatives for crying out." There were some beautiful descriptions and some great quotes:

  • Until Amy is Found:
    • "I liked nothing better than to jog along the beach into town, running through clouds of my own breath."
    • "He peeled off gardening gloves and set them on the table where they sat like scrunched up, petrified birds."
  • The Black Doll:
    • "The house I grew up in was the last one in the village. It stood alone, hidden by a row of trees that screened the sun and a busy road that sliced the village in half. Traffic trundled by and the trees drooped, casting long shadows over the house."
    • "Dad was always drooping in Mum’s shadow. After one of her snide remarks he’d steam up but never come to the boil."
  • The Long Stop:
    • Butt naked and swaying in and out of a slant of sunlight, Ray is at the window, rubbernecking."
    • "there’s the sun, like the top of Humpty Dumpty’s head. Looks like any minute Humpty’ll bob full up and dangle his skinny legs over the side."
  • Homecoming:
    • "It was as if she’d said goodbye to herself, packed her bags and left, closing the door quietly behind her." 

Enjoyable. April 2019