But since my children turned secondary school age, and feeling the need to keep up with them in History, Science, etc, and no longer being able to rely on what I studied at O levels decades ago, I have started to pick up the odd book of “popular” non-fiction. Last year I read a book and a half on the Nazi’s rise to power, as well as “When Money Dies: The Nightmare of the Weimar Hyper-Inflation” by Adam Fergusson on – well you can probably guess. I had been having a long running debate with my eldest about the role of Hitler in the rise of the nazi party – I was trying to persuade him round from the seductive “Great Man” theory of history (for more see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Man_theory) and I needed some more ammunition.
The most recent non-fiction I have read, as recommended by my wife, is Jon Ronson’s “The Psychopath Test”, sub-titled “A Journey through the Madness Industry”. Ronson occupies a well defined niche in modern journalism, in which he explores quirky or unlikely events, people, or things, and includes the journey of discovery/investigation as a key part of the text, regularly supplemented with anecdotes and stories of the unlikely. I left this book feeling I had passed a pleasant few hours in the company of an interesting story teller, but what I had learned about psychopaths was very limited – they are nasty people, they can’t be treated, they are highly manipulative, but not all are criminals. Much of the text was a retelling of well known stories, such as the Rachel Nickell/Colin Stagg history, and while there was some original investigative journalism, not enough to merit a whole book (let alone the film rights that Men who stare at Goats led to). I shouldn’t complain though because as I explained earlier, my appetite for anything too heavy is very limited, so criticising Ronson for keeping things light – especially given the subject matter – would be a bit hypocritical (or should I say psychopathic?)
Having said that, and having made it to the end of Julian Barnes’s fictionalisation of a minor event in the life of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, I am still left asking – why? What was the point of that?
Describing how ACD became a spiritualist is one source of potential interest, but the key events in this journey – the series of personal tragedies he experienced at the end of the Great War – are passed over in a couple of paragraphs right at the end of the novel. The crime ACD investigates during the second half of the novel is mundane, and the explanation offered is routine and obvious.
This novel was shortlisted for the Booker, and Barnes has subsequently won that award, so I am obviously missing something.
Like most of us with the reading bug I have more than one book on the go at any one time, and while I was reading this I was also coincidentally reading The Lost World, which is by Conan Doyle. This was not planned, just a question of what came to hand at the time. The Lost World is a far more interesting read, almost a romp, albeit a period piece that comes across as both absurd and racist to a 21st century reader. Written in the early years of the 20th century, the Lost World establishes many of the features of the genre which have long become clichés. Dinosaurs and apemen roam an isolated jungle plateau explored by intrepid English journalists, adventurers and scientists. All problems can be solved by a biff to the natives jaw or a blast of the old elephant rifle at an oncoming stegosaurus. The handling of ideas about evolution is interesting, but apart from this there is little here that would trouble a pre-teen.
The name of the game is “Guess the book”.
The book I am thinking of was written by a female novelist, but published in such a way as to disguise her gender. It features an orphan who up to the age of 11 lives with relatives who treat them badly, and is bullied by a cousin. They are mistreated, have supernatural experiences, and are forced to live in a small closet instead of a normal bedroom. Eventually they leave to go to school, where one of their friends sadly dies. Yes, of course, that’s right, it’s Jane Eyre. What do you mean, Harry Potter?
When I first spotted these similarities between the two novels I felt so smug. To be fair to JKR the mistreated orphan theme is a common one, and many of the characteristics I have listed belong to the trope. There are sad little orphans throughout literature, most notably in 19th century novels were parents died at the drop of a hat. But I then made the mistake of checking with my friend Google as to whether anyone else had spotted the similarities. And of course the world and his wife has written about it, so much so that I felt the idea was embarrasingly obvious. But it was an original observation when I had it, and I can’t help the fact that everyone else feels the same.
In the long waits for the final few Potter novels to come out I read a lot of online commentary about the series – too much I believe, because in the end the final denouement held few surprises – other than Rowling’s bloodthirsty slaughter of almost every secondary character. Nowhere did I come across a Jane Eyre comparison analysis – I am sure it was there somewhere, I just didn’t read it.
For the avoidance of any doubt, I don’t give a damn that two books share some common features. Shakespeare wrote very few original plots, and he didn’t give a fig about it either – there was no attempt to disguise his sources, quite the opposite, they were often very explicitly flagged. But it is a fun game to play when you have a few spare moments – spot the similarities between two otherwise very different books.
OK, last entry on Cold Comfort for now,although to be fair it has been an obsession for more years than I care to remember, and this writing has a certain cathartic/therapeutic role. “Christmas” it needs to be said straight away is a short story – not even that really, more a portrait. It runs to less than 20 pages in the Vintage edition recently published, and bless them for doing so. I can forgive the fact they do little to publicise the fact that this is not a novel, but a collection of stories, only one of which is about Cold Comfort.
Now this blog isn’t going to just repeat the obvious – “Isn’t Shakespeare a good writer? – but he was, and it is worth stepping back sometimes and paying homage.
More on Cold Comfort – not that I am obsesssed or anything. The original novel, Stella Gibbons’s first, was published in the early 1930’s. It has a wonderful period feel – although it is set a few years in the future, and there are glimpses of how the world has changed, with video phones and passing references to a recent war, for example. Despite this the world described is comfortably Edwardian, with strong echoes of Waugh and Saki in the opening chapters on Flora and Mrs Schilling’s life in London. The move to deepest darkest Sussex, even then surely not as isolated and backward as Flora describes it, provides a contrast to the metropolitan life she has temporarily abandoned. That contrast is kept in focus by the introduction of Mr Mybug (what a great name – he is Flora’s pest, but she has a soft spot for him nonetheless) with his gloriously stupid theories about Bramwell Bronte.
Mybug “works” in the novel as a contrast to the mad rural folk around him and as a foil for Flora, but the decision to take his character and turn it into the central theme of the Cold Comfort sequel, Conference at Cold Comfort Farm, has to be one of the most bewildering a writer has ever made. The yearning to return to the Starkadders, especially when her subsequent novels had never made the same mark as her first, must have been irresistible. We all wanted to know what had happened to the farm and the cast of characters – but cared very little about the intellectuals that Mybug represented. Yet in the sequel the original cast of characters is largely forgotten or treated as marginal. We are introduced to a series of grotesque caricatures of writers and artists from Mybug’s world at whom we are invited to sneer. It is car crash writing, and how it got past an editor I will never know. It is disrespectful to the original novel, and if it has been written as fan-fic it would have been rejected by Gibbons’s estate with barely a glance.
And yet I still love it. Written in the 1950’s, with of course the world an utterly darker place, it was out of print for a long time. I originally came across it as a library copy, and pounced, desperate to know what had happened to Flora, Charles, Seth, Reuben, and the whole grisly crew. We go back to a farm transformed into a prettified National Trust venue that has been turned, utterly improbably, into a conference centre. Flora goes down to help Mr Mybug run a cultural event there for no good reason (she has a large family with Charles by now) and not much happens until the Starkadders return and all it righted. Everything funny from the original novel, including the invented language (sukebind, mollocking) has gone. But it is still Cold Comfort Farm, and we love it. We love our parents when they grow old, we love footballers who reture and get fat because of their past glories, we love the town we grew up in even though they have paved over it and erected a shopping centre – we love them despite all that, not because of it, and I still treasure the glimpses of the world Stella Gibbons unforgettably created in her original burst of genius.
|(this cover illustration is wrong is so many different ways, but is from the first edition I owned)|
Today I finished the Well of Lost Plots, the third in the Thursday Next series. This is great fun – Fforde is respectful towards his far ranging sources, the central character is a strong resourceful woman and he throws ideas around with an energy that has drawn justifiable comparisons with Douglas Adams. Justifiable but we need to draw a clear line – Douglas Adams is a literary god, who if he had only left us the babelfish alone would have earned his place at the top table of writers – whereas Fforde has yet to break out of the niche he occupies. Perhaps a television series would earn him the audience he deserves – although how you would film some of his scenes escapes me. The obvious answer is a radio series – don’t tell me, they have already done one? My 16 year old son has been reading this series one book behind me, and has been enjoying them, although I flatter myself he probably hasn’t got all the literary references that Fforde throws in. Recommended if you are looking for something light, amusing, and clever, without taking itself too seriously.
This will be a fleeting window into my utterly random reading patterns in 2012 and beyond. There is, as will be blindingly obvious, no plan here – what I read I will write about, unless I decide not to.