Nutshell, by Ian McEwan

I am not going to review this novel. If you want to read an intelligent, thoughtful if slightly showy-offy review, try this or this even more florid review by Adam Mars Jones. This blog is a reading diary (hence the recent absence of content) where I record my impressions of the books I read. Usually these look at first glance quite similar to reviews, without the clarity of expression or depth of analysis you might otherwise expect.Nutshell

‘Nutshell’ is a curious, whimsical novel. In the last few years the Hogarth Press has been commissioning authors to write a series of novels re-imaging Shakespeare’s plays, and I thought at first that ‘Nutshell’ was a part of or inspired by this series. It appears not, it is a solo, voluntary effort.

In a nutshell, in ‘Nutshell’ McEwan takes the themes and ideas of Hamlet, and updates them to the present day. Hamlet is played by not a moody young prince, but an about to be born foetus. His mother and her brother in law lover are planning to murder his father. The unnamed and apparently unwanted baby is a passive observer of events, with much energy expended on maintaining the conceit that he can detect what is going on in the outside world through hearing, taste, and a fair amount of guesswork.

McEwan’s fierce dazzling intelligence shines through this short novel. It has an extraordinary breadth, ranging through many different genres, least successfully crime (the resolution whereby the lovers are caught by the dogged but uninspired police is appallingly clumsy). Contemporary politics, the Royal family, Brexit, Trump, are all referenced and swiftly disposed of for the more substantial feasts of philosophy, literary criticism, and absurd levels of sophistication in wine-appreciation (“No one seems to want to read aloud the label so I’m forced to make a guess, and hazard an Echézeaux Grand Cru. Put … a gun to my head to name the domaine, I would blurt out la Romanée-Conti, for the spicy cassis and black cherry alone. The hint of violets and fine tannins suggest that lazy, clement summer of 2005, untainted by heatwaves, though a teasing, next-room aroma of mocha, as well as more proximal black-skinned banana, summon Jean Grivot’s domaine in 2009”)

There is, inevitably, a ‘but’ coming. More precisely two. The first is something that seems to have only been an issue for me, and that is that the narrator character, an extraordinarily erudite and cultured baby, reminded me unavoidably of Stewie from ‘Family Guy’. Once that narrative voice got in my head that was it. Stewie, as I shall now call him, channels Jacob Rees Mogg in his social conservatism, (or is this McEwan letting loose his inner fogey?):

A strange mood has seized the almost-educated young. …A social-media site famously proposes seventy-one gender options – neutrois, two spirit, bigender…any colour you like, Mr Ford. …I declare my undeniable feeling for who I am. If I turn out to be white, I may identify as black. And vice versa. I may announce myself as disabled, or disabled in context. If my identity is that of a believer, I’m easily wounded, my flesh torn to bleeding by any questioning of my faith. Offended, I enter a state of grace. Should inconvenient opinions hover near me like fallen angels or evil djinn (a mile being too near), I’ll be in need of the special campus safe room equipped with Play-Doh and looped footage of gambolling puppies. Ah, the intellectual life! I may need advance warning if upsetting books or ideas threaten my very being by coming too close, breathing on my face, my brain, like unwholesome drugs.”

The more serious issue is that McEwan is demonstrably better than this. For him to be writing a comedic novel about a ham(let)-fisted murder with a sub-Colombo style solution, constructed however cleverly around the scaffolding of the plot of Hamlet, seems such a waste of his energies and talents, almost like an academic exercise (“Rewrite Hamlet as a comic novel from the perspective of Hamlet as a foetus. No more than 200 pages, by Friday”). The jokes about the discomfort of a foetus being a few inches away from his uncle’s penis, for example, were obvious and clumsy. The novel’s anachronistic tone troubled reviewers (see for example the LRB review referenced earlier) but I think McEwan just about gets away with it, probably because the majority of his readers will share a generation with him, if not a world view.

At a shade under 200 pages, ‘Nutshell’ is an easy read with some jokes that make you chuckle, and some stunningly impressive prose. But it is not McEwan at his best, not by a long distance.

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Yellow Dog, by Martin Amis, 2003

There is an undeniable trajectory to Martin Amis’s novels – downward. Not just in quality but in coherence, tone and taste. He peopled his 2003 effort ‘Yellow Dog’ with disgusting grotesques and events that made it hard to stomach. The best I can say about this novel is that it is not as bad as ‘Lionel Asbo’, but from the author of ‘Money’ this is such a fall.amis yellow dog

‘Yellow Dog’ was one of those novels that bitterly divided reviewers when it was first published. If you enjoy critical reviews, you will probably appreciate these more than the novel itself. In an industry where most reviews are by default favourable, this in itself was extraordinary. The Independent gave it both barrels:

Yellow Dog is a strange, sad stew of a novel, so aggressively unpleasant that it would perhaps be best accompanied by an author photograph of Amis flicking Vs at the reader….The fact that Yellow Dog is so bad is not a cause for celebration. Anyone interested in English fiction will be deeply saddened to see one of our country’s greatest talents produce such a purposeless novel

The Times Literary Supplement was more surgical, describing the novel as “not absolutely terrible”.

Tibor Fischer, one of Amis’s contemporaries went even further with this celebrated denunciation:

“It’s like your favourite uncle being caught in a school playground, masturbating”

If you have time you can also read numerous monsterings of the novel on Goodreads, which gives ‘Yellow Dog’ one of the lowest average scores I can remember seeing.

Plotwise the novel is a complete mess. Amis runs several storylines in parallel, tying them together at the end of the novel with a summary neatness that seems insulting, as if he just lost interest and stopped writing. We have an author assaulted in a pub, and acquiring a sexual interest in his daughter as a result; a plane slowly approaching a crash landing; a comet passing near to the earth, and a blackmail plot involving a sex tape and a princess. A tabloid journalist for the Morning Lark buzzes around doing what journalists in comic novels do, making up headlines and being offensive. None of this has any point or purpose. A visit to America to visit a porn studio is a clumsily inserted (forgive the pun) piece of repurposed journalism.

None of these plotlines are particularly interesting, devoid as they are of real characters. In fact, the image that came to mind when reading yet another set piece of absurdity was the adult comic, Viz. Joseph Andrews, the psychotically violent gangster, is surely a thinly disguised Big Vern, Henry 9th, King of England in this parallel universe, is any one of the comic’s thick but dim upper class characters; Clint Smoker is a tabloid journalist with a micro-penis. Like Viz but without the humour, Amis sets out to offend with these caricatures, the sexual violent, incestuous paedophiles that people the pages of ‘Yellow Dog’. The class hatred that seeped from the pages of ‘Lionel Asbo’ is equally obvious here. The working class are amoral, ultra-violent criminals, although in the interests of balance the upper classes don’t come off much better.

What redeemed ‘Money’ from these obvious criticisms was Amis’s ability to craft an elegant metaphor, a skill that seems to have abandoned him here. Here’s an example of a paragraph which is Money would have fizzed with vividness:

The bright sky was torn by contrails in various stages of dissolution, some, way up, as solid-looking as pipecleaners, others like white stockings, discarded, flung in the air, or light bedding after beauty sleep, others like breakers on an inconceivably distant shore.” (page 289)

Do these images work for you? Do they conjure up thoughts of a bright sky crossed by aircraft trails? I wonder how many readers will still know what a pipecleaner looks like? The ‘light bedding after beauty sleep’ simile works after a fashion, although the beauty sleep addition is pretentious. He’s working hard, and it is not bad writing, it just doesn’t impress in the way ‘Money’ did, and to redeem the other features of the novel it really needed to be magnificent. I’ve chosen one of the more innocuous passages from the novel – dip into any page and there is gratuitous often sexual violence and pretentious philosophising.

This was a 50p charity shop find – I am glad I didn’t pay more.

 

Pride and Prejudice in ten key paragraphs (Part 2)

austen 2Chapter 43 This chapter opens with the fateful visit to Pemberley, where Elizabeth is so anxious to avoid accidentally bumping into Darcy that she travels halfway across the country to visit his family home.

Elizabeth, as they drove along, watched for the first appearance of Pemberley Woods with some perturbation; and when at length they turned in at the lodge, her spirits were in a high flutter.

The park was very large, and contained great variety of ground. They entered it in one of its lowest points, and drove for some time through a beautiful wood stretching over a wide extent.

Elizabeth’s mind was too full for conversation, but she saw and admired every remarkable spot and point of view. They gradually ascended for half-a-mile, and then found themselves at the top of a considerable eminence, where the wood ceased, and the eye was instantly caught by Pemberley House, situated on the opposite side of a valley, into which the road with some abruptness wound. It was a large, handsome stone building, standing well on rising ground, and backed by a ridge of high woody hills; and in front, a stream of some natural importance was swelled into greater, but without any artificial appearance. Its banks were neither formal nor falsely adorned. Elizabeth was delighted. She had never seen a place for which nature had done more, or where natural beauty had been so little counteracted by an awkward taste. They were all of them warm in their admiration; and at that moment she felt that to be mistress of Pemberley might be something!

Indeed, later (ch. 59) Elizabeth tells Jane, only half joking, and in an attempt to persuade Jane that her acceptance of Darcy is sincere, that it was not until she saw Pemberley that she loved him:

“My dearest sister, now be serious. I want to talk very seriously. Let me know every thing that I am to know, without delay. Will you tell me how long you have loved him?”

“It has been coming on so gradually, that I hardly know when it began. But I believe I must date it from my first seeing his beautiful grounds at Pemberley.”

We are of course seeing Pemberley through Elizabeth’s admiring eyes. Her language predominantly uses adjectives relating to size and scale:

“very large, great variety, for some time, stretching over a wide extent, a considerable eminence, a large, handsome stone building, standing well on rising ground, swelled into greater”

No wonder that this demonstration of Darcy’s wealth and power has such a profound impact on her feelings, even if only to persuade her to accept what she has thus far been denying.

Chapter 56 – Lady Catherine comes to confront Elizabeth with the rumours of Darcy’s intentions towards her. Rudely she arrives unannounced, and ignores the rest of the family, instead asking her for a private conversation outside.

Miss Bennet, there seemed to be a prettyish kind of little wilderness on one side of your lawn. I should be glad to take a turn in it, if you will favour me with your company”.

Preserving a corner of one’s grounds for a kind of little wilderness was a Regency fashion, one which wildlife enthusiasts of today would approve. But what is interesting is Lady Catherine’s decision to stage her confrontation in this particular part of the garden, diametrically opposite the more formal manicured lawns of Longbourn. This is a gloves-off challenge, a jungle arena where the usual conventions of language and class are deliberately albeit temporarily set aside. This allows Elizabeth to tap into her inner goddess, and give Lady Catherine a furious response when she attempts to bully her into promising to reject any proposal from Darcy.

Chapter 58 The climatic renewal of Mr Darcy’s proposal:

“You are too generous to trifle with me. If your feelings are still what they were last April, tell me so at once. My affections and wishes are unchanged; but one word from you will silence me on this subject for ever.”

Darcy does not directly profess his love, and the narrator does not tell us Elizabeth’s direct response, only that she

“feeling all the more than common awkwardness and anxiety of his situation, now forced herself to speak; and immediately, though not very fluently, gave him to understand, that her sentiments had undergone so material a change, since the period to which he alluded, as to make her receive with gratitude and pleasure, his present assurances.”

The formality and clumsiness of the narrators presentation of the scene is a brilliant touch – it begins the process of pulling away from the couple and respecting their privacy, and recognises that Elizabeth is not at her most articulate at this point, choked up with emotion rather than formality. It is a wonderful end to the story arc, and shows yet again Austen’s genius in presenting this most compelling of romances.

 

Pride and Prejudice in ten key paragraphs (part one)

I thought I would take a different approach to writing about this classic to end all classics, by picking out ten key paragraphs from the novel and paying them some careful attention. This analysis assumes a familiarity with the key events and characters of the novel. Incidentally, despite the misleading headline description of this post, I am not suggesting that these are the only ten paragraphs that you need to read to understand P&P – that would be ridiculous. The novel is so rich and rewardingly complex that almost any ten paragraphs plucked at random would be worth studying. But these are ten that jumped out at me on a recent rereading.austen

Chapter 10 – Jane, the eldest of the five Bennet sisters, has paid a visit to nearby Netherfield, in the course of which she has been caught in a rain shower. Walking instead of going in a coach is in itself significant – the Bennet’s have a coach, but it is not available. This helps precisely locate their social status – a one-coach family. Jane inevitably catches a cold, and second daughter Elizabeth has to go to Netherfield to care for her (this time the coach is available). This is just the first of several occasions when fate conspires to bring Elizabeth and Darcy together. Elizabeth is a family guest, but one with a special status, invited to care for her sister but not otherwise part of the party. This makes her a little detached from the others. It is unusual for someone to be a house-guest (i.e. staying overnight) on such a brief acquaintance.

In the evening the company gathers for dinner, followed by witty conversation and music. Elizabeth and Darcy spar; she is aware of his reputation as a gruff, unfriendly character, which was confirmed by his rudeness about her at the recent ball. But her attitudes begin to soften during the course of their conversation:

“Elizabeth, having rather expected to affront him, was amazed at his gallantry; but there was a mixture of sweetness and archness in her manner which made it difficult for her to affront anybody; and Darcy had never been so bewitched by a woman as he was by her. He really believed that were it not for the inferiority of her connections he should be in some danger.”

It is interesting to follow Austen’s masterful use of the narrative point of view here. In the first phrase the narrator gives us Elizabeth’s perspective – she is amazed by Darcy’s gallantry, confounding her earlier perception of him as someone gruff and rude. The next phrase is a more general observation about how Elizabeth is usually perceived – as both sweet and arch. We then are given Darcy’s confession – he is bewitched by her. Although we traditionally think of this romance as one in which the characters gradually fall in love, and struggle with their feelings, the reality is quite different – their mutual attraction is apparent from an early point, and from then it is only a question of navigating the various hurdles in their way, not least Darcy’s scruples about Elizabeth’s poorly connected family.

Chapter 15. Mr Collins, heir to Longbourn, the Bennet family home, comes to visit with the explicit intention of engaging himself to one of the Bennet daughters. Two preliminary points before I come to the paragraph in question. Firstly, I suspect ‘Longbourn’ is a little joke, referencing the phrase ‘long borne’, as in long suffered or tolerated. Precisely who is long suffering is another matter – most if not all of the Bennet household would probably lay claim to the phrase. The other more complex point relates to the business of the entail of Longbourn. When Mr Bennet dies the property will be left to his cousin, Mr Collins, not his daughters. This is the infamous ‘entail’.

We are given very little information about this entail – it is presented as an unfortunate fact of life about which little can be done, and Mrs Bennet is mocked for protesting about it and not understanding the details. Commentaries (I am sure correctly) claim that the practice of leaving a property to a single male heir was intended to avoid family wealth and estates being dissipated amongst numerous heirs, or going out of the family entirely through the female line. But that explanation doesn’t really help here – the effect of this will is that the Longbourn estate while preserved in its entirety is going out of the family, to a distant cousin with a different family name. If preserving the integrity of the modest estate is critical (and it is not a grand country house, after all, so the importance of this is less than it would be for Pemberly or Netherfield, for example) then Mr Bennet could simply leave the estate to his eldest daughter. It’s also unclear precisely who has imposed the entail on the estate – some commentaries suggests that the entail is like a long lease or another condition of occupation, imposed by a long-dead ancestor. But that can’t surely be right – can entails persist across the generations in the way this implies? It must be in Mr Bennet’s legal power to change the terms of his will and bequeath his property where he sees fit.

In the end of course the point becomes moot, because both Elizabeth and Jane marry well and into money, and are likely to produce a male heir to inherit Longbourn in any event.

Nevertheless, for now Mr Collins is the heir, and he is seeking to heal family rifts and keep the property in the family by marrying one of the sisters. His fancy alights on Jane, as the eldest, but when told by Mrs Bennet that she is likely to be engaged, his change of heart is swift:

Mr Collins only had to change from Jane to Elizabeth – and it was soon done – done while Mrs Bennet was stirring the fire.

Affection is as ephemeral as that, a matter of simple choice rather than anything more complex – as long as Elizabeth is young enough to bear an heir, she will do. When she declines his kind offer the change to Charlotte Lucas is made with similar speed and as little disturbance. The casual brutality of his transferable affections here tells us all we need to know about Mr Collins, one of Austen’s great comic monsters.

Chapter 24. Jane and Elizabeth are discussing Charlotte Lucas’s marriage to the insufferable Mr Collins. Jane, as always seeing the positive in any situation, says that Charlotte “may feel something like regard and esteem for our cousin”. Elizabeth’s rejection of this is absolute

Were I persuaded that Charlotte had any regard for him (Mr Collins) I should only think worse of her understanding than I now do of her heart…Mr Collins is a conceited, pompous, narrow-minded, silly man….the woman who married him cannot have a proper way of thinking”

Charlotte Lucas’s decision to accept Mr Collins’s proposal is a pragmatic decision, in which affection, regard or esteem plays no part. She needs a husband with a reasonable income and Mr Collins is available. Aged 27, without a significant income of her own, and not being regarded as a beauty, it is hard not to see Charlotte as a portrait of the choices women, not least of course Austen herself, had to make all the time in Regency England. Not everyone was lucky enough to snare themselves an English country gentleman. Despite Elizabeth’s incredulity, the signs are that Charlotte has made a comfortable life for herself in the Rosings rectory.

Mr Collins is indeed a monster, but I don’t think the reader is invited to share Elizabeth’s judgment or condemnation of Charlotte. Charlotte’s decision to settle for Mr Collins plays an important part in the narrative, as it leads Elizabeth to re-evaluate her own attitudes towards her choice of a life partner.

Chapter 28. Elizabeth has gone to Kent to visit her newly married friend, Charlotte Collins nee Lucas. A carriage stops outside the Rectory – it contains Miss Anne de Bourgh, Lady Catherine de Bourgh’s daughter, and her governess. These are two of the numerous almost invisible and silent women that people the background of this novel. While Charlotte speaks to the carriage’s occupants, Elizabeth looks on:

“I like her appearance, said Elizabeth, struck with other ideas. “She looks sickly and cross. Yes, she will do for him very well. She will make him a very proper wife”.

That Anne is intended as Darcy’s wife, by familial arrangement rather than by way of formal engagement, is not something that has publicly discussed with Maria Lucas, so Elizabeth seems to be speaking more to herself than Maria. Darcy pops into Elizabeth’s thoughts at the sight of Anne- she refers to him as “him” here, not by name. The narrator tells us plainly that Elizabeth is in denial – while she says she like’s Anne’s appearance, she is actually “struck by other ideas”. She evaluates Anne, whether she realises it or not, as a competitor, and is pleased that she is not to be feared.

This aside almost certainly goes over the head of Maria Lucas, one of Charlotte’s younger sisters who is Elizabeth’s companion on this visit. Maria Lucas is another of the walk-on parts scattered throughout the novel, and while she is given a few lines of her own, she mainly acts as a foil to the more mature, more intelligent Elizabeth.

Chapter 31. The setting for this scene is a gathering at Rosings, Lady de Bourgh’s home. Elizabeth is playing the piano, and Mr Darcy comes over to observe her play. Archly, Elizabeth says:

“You mean to frighten me, Mr. Darcy, by coming in all this state to hear me? I will not be alarmed though your sister does play so well. There is a stubbornness about me that never can bear to be frightened at the will of others. My courage always rises at every attempt to intimidate me.”

“In all this state” is an ambiguous phrase. It could mean in an agitated state, or it could mean “in all this stateliness”. There is no indication in the text that Darcy is in any kind of a state – leaving the reader to infer either he is showing his emotions, and the narrator has chosen not to describe these, or that he is perfectly composed, but that Elizabeth is teasing him. This is the matter of fact paragraph which precedes this comment:

“Colonel Fitzwilliam reminded Elizabeth of having promised to play to him; and she sat down directly to the instrument. He drew a chair near her. Lady Catherine listened to half a song, and then talked, as before, to her other nephew; till the latter walked away from her, and making with his usual deliberation towards the pianoforte stationed himself so as to command a full view of the fair performer’s countenance. Elizabeth saw what he was doing, and at the first convenient pause, turned to him with an arch smile, and said:..

One of the reasons Elizabeth is so loved by readers, is that she stands up for herself, brilliantly and fiercely against Lady Catherine, but also here when Darcy attempts to put her off her piano playing simply by his presence. We see Elizabeth’s courage rise again when someone foolishly tries to intimidate her.

The Shrinking Man, by Richard Matheson, 1956

You may be more familiar with this novel through the film adaptation (pointlessly retitled the Incredible Shrinking Man, as if the shrinking bit was otherwise credible). It tells the story of Scott Carey, caught in one of those freak nuclear accidents that were almost unavoidable in 1950s America. Instead of imbuing him with superpowers, he begins to shrink. Every day he loses one seventh of an inch in height and overall mass. Doctors are unable to halt his inexorable decline.Shrinking Man

Matheson focuses his narrative on the end of Carey’s experience, when he is less than an inch tall, and is trapped in the family cellar, menaced by a Black Widow spider hungry for a snack. A lot of attention is paid to the practical detail of moving around when you are less than an inch tall, finding food, water and safety. In brief moments of calm Carey remembers his slow decline from a strong, six foot two husband and father, through an inverted adolescence, finally being housed in a doll’s house by his towering but ever faithful wife.

The novel cries out to be read as a parable. Carey’s emasculation, as he shrinks in both size and status, leading him to be more and more impotent, is a thoughtful commentary on the role of men in 1950’s American society. He is unable to provide for his family, and he becomes vulnerable first to a drunken paedophile and then teenage bullies. He briefly rediscovers his sexuality by spying on his daughter’s babysitter, who has a convenient propensity to remove her clothing, and later has a brief affair with a fairground dwarf.

Size really does matter is the simple interpretation of this text, but to be honest I found the novel much more interesting if read as a commentary on the space race and the Cold War. Despite the seemingly impossible challenges Carey faces, he never gives up, and always ends up on top. He defeats his much larger enemies, and uses good old American pluck to win through. Each day’s shrinkage is another challenge to be confronted and beaten. At the end of the novel, he lies on his back looking up at the stars:

How beautiful they were, like blue-white diamonds cast across a sky of inky satin. No moonlight illuminated the sky. There was only total darkness, broken by the flaring pin points of the stars. And the nicest thing about them was that they were still the same. He saw them as any man saw them, and that brought a deep contentment to him. Small he might be, but the earth itself was small compared to this.”

Just at this time the USA and the USSR were both planning to launch satellites, and were contemplating the vastness of the challenge in front of them. The space race was a proxy expression of the Cold War. Matheson seems to say here that nuclear weapons will present a challenge for America, but that no matter what is thrown at it, it will survive and go on to conquer. The novel ends on a remarkably positive note in language which anticipates some of the purple prose used by the first astronauts:

“If there were other bursts of radiation, other clouds drifting across seas and continents, would other beings follow me into this vast new world? So close — the infinitesimal and the infinite. But suddenly, I knew they were really the two ends of the same concept. The unbelievably small and the unbelievably vast eventually meet — like the closing of a gigantic circle. I looked up, as if somehow I would grasp the heavens. The universe, worlds beyond number, God’s silver tapestry spread across the night. And in that moment, I knew the answer to the riddle of the infinite. I had thought in terms of man’s own limited dimension. I had presumed upon nature. That existence begins and ends in man’s conception, not nature’s. And I felt my body dwindling, melting, becoming nothing. My fears melted away. And in their place came acceptance. All this vast majesty of creation, it had to mean something. And then I meant something, too. Yes, smaller than the smallest, I meant something, too. To God, there is no zero. I still exist!

Matheson came up with a superb idea here and has created one of the seminal 1950s science fiction texts (he also wrote ‘I am Legend’). Although the narrative can get bogged down with a “how tiny me climbed the side of the chair to recover some breadcrumbs” level of detail, I wasn’t too distracted by this, and enjoyed the adventure elements of the story.

The Night Watch, by Terry Pratchett, 2002

The Night Watch was the 29th novel in Terry Pratchett’s extraordinary life’s work, the Discworld series. nigthwatch

The regular publication of Pratchett’s novels formed part of the background pulse of my life (and I am sure of many others), a predictable and reliable event that one looks forward to, like birthdays or Christmas. Although like all the novels in the series it can be read as a stand alone text, it is not a good entry point for those new to Discworld. This is later Pratchett, more serious, and it assumes a level of knowledge of the characters and their traditions without which  some of the jokes won’t work. An example of this happens when Sam Vimes meets Cut My Own Throat Dibbler. Dibbler is one of the numerous well realised characters who people Discworld and bring it to life. Travelling back in time, Sam meets CMOT when he is just starting out in the pie trade, and accidentally gives him his nickname. This joke doesn’t work if the reader isn’t already familiar with CMOT and his infamous ‘pies with personality.’

‘Night Watch’ is one of the darker novels in the series (although in interviews Pratchett disputed that label). Sam Vimes, commander of the Ankh-Morpork police (the Watch) is pursuing a serial killer, when he is caught in an accidental time warp, and travels back to thirty years earlier when he first joined the Watch. He mentors his younger self, teaching him all the tricks of the trade. The time travelling aspects of the story are handled adeptly, and although as with all time travel stories it won’t stand up to much scrutiny, it is cleverer than most. It is written with love for the characters and the world they live in, not least Sam Vimes the world weary copper, trying to keep the peace and do the job in front of him, struggling with the moral complexities that sometimes presents him with.

Vimes’s time travelling accident happens on the 30th anniversary of the Glorious Revolution of the Twenty-Fifth of May, a small scale over by lunchtime affair in which seven watchmen lost their lives. Each year the battle of Heroes Street is commemorated by those who were there by wearing lilac sprigs in their lapels, and visiting the graves of the fallen. This poignant memory echoes through the novel, as the inevitability of history reasserts itself, despite Sam’s interference with the events of the past. We also meet a much younger Vetenari, an apprentice of the Assassin’s Guild, who goes on to command the City. As a cleverly constructed prequel the novel is really mostly aimed at Discworld fans, rather than new readers. I have huge affection for the whole series, and pretty much everything Pratchett wrote, and his tragic death in 2015 deprived us of one of our great comic writers. But his characters are so vivid and well realised that they live on in our imaginations. In the unlikely event you haven’t discovered Discworld before now, and I know there are huge numbers of fans in the blogging community, then I can’t recommend these novels highly enough. Start at the beginning with ‘The Colour of Magic’, and just enjoy!

Something Wicked This Way Comes, by Ray Bradbury, 1962

I am trying to work out if this is a Young Adult book or not, and would appreciate any advice anyone can offer. Because if it is I clearly shouldn’t have read it. Only kidding of course – just pointing out that putting labels on novels is sometimes not helpful.

‘Something Wicked This Way Comes’ (and what a wonderful title by the way) tells the dark, macabre story of Jim Nightshade and Will Halloway, two appropriately nameBradburyd 13 year old small-town American boys, and their visits to ‘Cooger and Dark’s Pandemonium Shadow Show’, a distinctly 1950’s American carnival.  Sneaking into the carnival after it closes, they witness the proprietors using a spectral merry-go-round with supernatural powers, specifically the ability to age, or reduce the age of, anyone who rides it. Discovered, they are pursued by the carnival owners and their enslaved exhibits (the Dust Witch, the Skeleton, the Dwarf, and Mr Electrico). The rest of the novel tells the story of their pursuit and their struggles with the malevolent carnival characters.

There are a number of themes here that have gone on to become standard features of gothic horror novels. I can’t be sure to what extent Bradbury  simply developed these traditions, or originated them, but he without doubt had a significant influence on writers such as Stephen King, (who wrote his own coming of age novel, Stand by Me) and Neil Gaiman, both of whom have acknowledged their debt to Bradbury. Characters bewitched into different, powerless, forms appear here, as does the idea of a community that mysteriously reappears every generation, once every thirty years. The novel even has the idea of a library as a supposedly safe space from which a fight-back against the forces of the night can be launched (Buffy, anyone?).

Carnivals are inherently spooky, particularly those with freak-shows. They come to life at night, appear overnight and disappear as quickly. They are not the kind of place you want to get lost in. Bradbury uses this carnival as a potent symbol of sin and evil – “(it) survives living off the poison of the sins we do each other, and the ferment of our most terrible regrets“(chapter 40).

The ‘however’ you have been expecting is now overdue. The element of genuine suspense, the belief that Will and Jim might actually come to harm, is missing. The dust-witch is killed with a smile, and laughter is used to make the night recede. Evil melts away in the face of a chuckle. The freaks and their puppet masters are conquered far too easily. The blurb to this edition quotes a Washington Post review which refers to this text as a “timeless rite of passage” novel. More specifically it is a coming of age story – in the course of the few hours span of the novel, Jim and Will quite literally grow up, taking an inadvertent circuit on the time-travelling merry go round. Which brings us back to the Young Adult question. Evil that is defeated without too much stress, and teenagers growing up – these are classic ingredients of the YA genre. If further proof were needed, the film of the book was made by Disney! But I still liked it.

 

Casino Royale by Ian Fleming, 1953

As you know, I have been reading a lot of pre-war novels recently. Even in those published more recently, in the 50’s and 60’s, the use of offensive terms to describe black and ethnic minority people and others is common place. Quite often the terms are used casually, not actively intended to offend but as part of the speaker’s everyday idiolect, Casino Royalshowever brutal that may have been. Authors setting the events of their novels in the past have to make a difficult decision whether to have their characters talk ‘authentically’ – that is using offensive words that were common terms- or to sanitise their portrayal of how people spoke and thought. As a result of all this I’ve become a bit de-sensitised to authors using offensive terminology or hateful language. In any event I knew not to expect James Bond to be politically correct or sensitive to other people’s feelings and ideas. But the venom and sheer unpleasantness of his portrayal in ‘Casino Royale’ was still shocking.

This short novel is the first of the Bond franchise, and sets the template for many of what were to become clichés about Bond. The repressed public school boy, the cold blooded killer (although he kills no-one in this novel, he does boast (twice) about his killings to date, two to be precise) his lechery, his misogyny, his tendency to drink and drive. We are told of his 00 designation, although here it is not a licence to kill, (that would come later), but rather confirmation that he has killed in the course of his work; in other words it is a designation of work experience, not an indication of authority. The femme fatale sidekick fated to die by the end of the novel is here, but missing are the dead-pan quips in the face of danger, and the gadgets provided by Q.

The novel’s plot is flimsy. The villain, Le Chiffre, a Russian Agent, controlled by SMERSH, is treasurer of a French trade union. Some villain. He is morbidly obese, and just to round the characterisation off, a sexual predator. He has lost the union’s money by investing in a chain of loss-making brothels, so tries to recover his losses at the baccarat tables at the Casino Royale. Bond’s master plan is to beat him at cards, bankrupt him, forcing into becoming a double agent. The novel is very clear that the trade union members he represents are a communist fifth column under the control of the Soviet Union, and must be broken up as part of the defence of the realm.

As a plan this obviously has its flaws, depending as it does on the luck of the draw, and is in any event always vulnerable to either Le Chiffre cheating, which is the sort of thing corrupt trade union officials are prone to, or violence after the event. The latter is the option chosen – after fluking a win at chards, Bond is kidnapped, stripped, tied to a chair and then tortured at length in a bizarre homoerotic sadomasochistic fashion which threatens his manhood painfully and literally.

As a spy novel this is flimsy stuff, but the portrayal of women, and Bond’s Neanderthal attitudes, is what I wanted to focus on. As I have said, I am not naïve enough to have expected Bond to have been a feminist. But he is an appalling throwback. When he hears he is going to have to work with a woman, he is dismayed.

“These blithering women who thought they could do a man’s work. Why the hell couldn’t they stay at home and mind their pots and pans and stick to their frocks and gossip and leave men’s work to the men”. (15)

Lynd, the female agent in question (Vesper Lynd is a homophone for ‘West Berlin’ by the way, a clue that she is a double agent) is in turns lusted over and treated with contempt by Bond. His reaction when she is kidnapped is:

“For Vesper to fall for an old trick like that and get herself snatched ad probably held to ransom…the silly bitch. “

He imagines sex with her as having the “sweet tang of rape”. (23)

The final line of the novel is the blunt “The bitch is dead now”. (This of a woman who he was planning to marry a few pages earlier)

It’s important obviously to avoid the mistake of assuming that the thoughts and ideas of the novel’s central character are those of the novelist. But equally that doesn’t mean that sometimes authors don’t use their characters to articulate their prejudices. It’s not too difficult to spot the difference between this happening, and a character being constructed to represent prejudices which are held up to ridicule or contempt. If Bond was being presented as a misogynist in order to demonstrate how out of date these ideas had become, someone in the novel would challenge him, confront his chauvinism. That never happens. Alternatively his bigotry would be confronted by the events of the novel – for example when he consistently under-estimates women they go on to prove him wrong. Again, no such thing happens – by the end of the novel the reader is invited to agree that staying at home minding pots and pans and sticking to her frocks would indeed have been the better course of action for Vesper. It is hard to escape the conclusion that Fleming, the wealthy, Eton and Sandhurst educated former naval intelligence officer, was using Bond to express his own chauvinism.

The later Bond novels do nothing to dispel this idea. These are his thoughts on lesbians and gay men in ‘Goldfinger’, all caused apparently by giving women the vote!

Bond came to the conclusion that Tilly Masterson was one of those girls whose hormones had got mixed-up. He knew the type well and thought they and their male counterparts were a direct consequence of giving votes to women and “sex equality.” As a result of fifty years of emancipation, feminine qualities were dying out or being transferred to the males. Pansies of both sexes were everywhere, not yet completely homosexual, but confused, not knowing what they were. The result was a herd of unhappy sexual misfits – barren and full of frustrations, the women wanting to dominate and the men to be nannied.”

Would you like a reading challenge?

Lots of bloggers use reading challenges as a way of testing themselves – how hard-core are you, that you can read the whole 12 volumes of ‘The Dance to the Music of Time’, or the 4,215 or so pages of Marcel Proust’s ‘Recherche du Temps Perdu’, without tearing your eyes out?

Having just finished a 100 books challenge, I have no appetite for anything of this order. But at the same time I found that a reading challenge provided a helpful structure for my choices, took me places I would not otherwise go, and gave a simple answer to that perennial question “What am I going to read next?”books

As a best of both worlds compromise, I have created my own personal reading challenge list. It has only 20 books (which I know for some will be far too lightweight) and yes, some of the novels could be classified as ‘young adult’ or young adult friendly. But it includes some ‘proper’ literature alongside the more accessible texts, and it includes a nice smattering of books not written in English. Incidentally, every one of these books appeared on the BBC’s Big Read list from a few years ago.

What do you think?

  1. Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen
  2. His Dark Materials, Philip Pullman
  3. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams
  4. Animal Farm, George Orwell
  5. A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens
  6. Swallows And Amazons, Arthur Ransome
  7. Noughts And Crosses, Malorie Blackman
  8. The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, Robert Tressell
  9. Night Watch, Terry Pratchett
  10. I Capture The Castle, Dodie Smith
  11. Holes, Louis Sachar
  12. Gormenghast, Mervyn Peake
  13. Love In The Time Of Cholera, Gabriel García Márquez
  14. The Wasp Factory, Iain Banks
  15. The Day of the Triffids,  John Wyndham
  16. Possession: A Romance, A. S. Byatt
  17. The Master and Margarita, Mikhail Bulgakov
  18. The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood
  19. Atonement, Ian McEwan
  20. The War of the Worlds, H. G. Wells

 

 

 

 

Breakfast at Tiffany’s, by Truman Capote, 1958

Enjoying my new-found freedom to read what the hell I like, I decided on a whim to try this wonderfully short (less than 100 pages) novella by the author of ‘In Cold Blood’. Turned into a memorable film with Audrey Hepburn only three years after it was published, it is one of those books that is better known in its cinematic version than as a novel.

The novel tells the story of the narrator’s brief friendship (but not romance)Tiffanys in 1940’s New York with the irrepressible Holly Golightly. Holly is an American geisha, a girl of negotiable friendship, who bursts into the narrator’s life one year, and is almost as quickly gone, flying off to Brazil to avoid having to give evidence against a gangster acquaintance. This is Holly’s story.  She is vibrant and has an enormous appetite for life:

“Be anything but a coward, a pretender, an emotional crook, a whore: I’d rather have cancer than a dishonest heart.”

In other words she is true to herself, to her appetites and instincts, even if this means that she crosses the line of what society considers acceptable. The narrator admires her from afar, and hardly emerges at all as a character; he is dubbed Fred by Holly, after her brother abroad somewhere distant fighting in the Second World War, but remains otherwise anonymous, a lens through which we watch Holly and her adventures. This technique reminded me of the way Fitzgerald uses Nick Carraway in Gatsby – an observer bearing witness to the social whirl around someone larger than life.

The film version of the novel sanitises and romantises Holly. In the novel she has a hard edged protective outer shell, and realises that she cannot afford any sentimentality or even romance in her life. The only times this façade is pierced is when she receives news of her brother’s death, and at the end when she asks ‘Fred’ to care for her cat, a request he faithfully carries out.

Penguin published this short novella with three short stories, House of Flowers, A Diamond Guitar, and A Christmas Memory.  These are harmless enough, very different in tone from the principal story, but I can’t avoid the impression that they are padding, some odds and ends added in to give the impression of a longer novel, without adding much if anything to the main event.

Capote was a journalist, and only dabbled in novel writing: as such this is really just a sketch. You could probably watch the film in about the same time as it would take to read the novel, and I suspect it would be a more rewarding experience. Why not do both?