100 Best Novels Guardian list, adventure story, Book review, Daniel Defoe, http://schemas.google.com/blogger/2008/kind#post

Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe, 1719

Robinson Crusoe – or, as its amazing sub-title would have it ‘The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, Of York, Mariner: Who lived Eight and Twenty Years, all alone in an un-inhabited Island on the Coast of America, near the Mouth of the Great River of Oroonoque; Having been cast on Shore by Shipwreck, wherein all the Men perished but himself. With An Account how he was at last as strangely deliver’d by Pyrates’ is quite an extraordinary book. Published in 1719 at the very dawn of the novel, it was widely taken as a true story. It was wildly popular, running through four editions in its first year of publication, and according to Wikipedia, by the end of the 19th century no book in the history of Western literature had more editions, spin-offs and translations (even into languages such as Inuktitut, Coptic and Maltese), with more than 700 such alternative versions.

When you read a classic like this you hope you are going to discover something beyond the popular culture version you have absorbed since your childhood. Some of the novels I have read recently were slightly disappointing in that regard – ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland‘ for example was everything I had been led to expect. ‘Dracula‘ and ‘Frankenstein‘ were probably the most remote or adrift from their origins. ‘Robinson Crusoe’ was in many ways very familiar, but there were some things I hadn’t expected to find. For example I had no idea that Defoe wrote a sequel, ‘The Farther Adventures of Robinson Crusoe’ which I must look out/download. Because I really enjoyed this novel.

Taking the novel as an adventure story for a minute and ignoring its importance as a cultural artefact, this was fun. After running away to sea, being enslaved and then escaping, Crusoe finally makes his way to Brazil, where he settles down and becomes prosperous. Greed tempts him into a voyage, where he is shipwrecked on the aforementioned deserted island. What isn’t well known is that his voyage was to purchase slaves to work on his plantation. The attitude to slavery is interestingly frank – slavery isn’t particularly nice for the slaves, Crusoe recognises – he knows even the cannibals he meets on ‘his’ island are still people – but then Christmas isn’t nice for turkeys. It’s just a fact of the world he lives in, and the thought of doing something about it doesn’t cross his mind, in the same way as we see suffering and misery in our own world and shrug and walk on by.  

Crusoe‘ can really only be read as a story of imperialism or colonialism. He goes about mastering his environment with a dogged determination, farming, building and learning skills such as pottery and basket weaving. The animals on the island are culled in a casual a way that helps the reader understand how 17th and 18th century sailors destroyed native populations of animals such as the dodo so wantonly. He slowly comes to a religious settlement with his situation, accepting that while God may have shipwrecked him alone on the island for decades, he also provided him with an Eden-like environment in which surviving is not a struggle.

“These reflections made me very sensible of the goodness of Providence to me, and very thankful for my present condition, with all its hardships and misfortunes ; and this part also I cannot but recommend to the reflection of those who are apt, in their misery, to say, Is any affliction like mine? Let them consider how much worse the cases of some people are, and their case might have been, if Providence had thought fit.”

Provisioned from the wreck of his ship with virtually every tool, seed, animal and material he could possibly need, he is able to construct a home, a farmstead, and a fortification against dangerous creatures (of which there are none) and savages, which only appear towards the end of the novel. This is inspired by the famous and mysterious ‘footprint on the sand’ scene, mysterious because Defoe stresses several times that there is only the one footprint. Where it comes from is never resolved, but leads Crusoe to discover the cannibals that periodically visit the other side of his island for their celebration feasts. He interrupts one such party to rescue his man Friday, who becomes a faithful friend. He teaches Friday all about Christianity. This generates one wonderful scene where Friday innocently asks Crusoe some difficult theological questions (specifically, If God is all powerful, why is his struggle with the Devil so protracted?) which lead to a bit of a tumbleweed moment – Crusoe has to evade the question by pretending not to hear it!

Having been quite slow paced while Crusoe explores his world and steadily turns it into a little England, the narrative accelerates when the cannibals arrive, swiftly followed by an English ship captured by mutineers and recaptured by Crusoe, on which he returns to England to reclaim his birthright and possessions. There is time for one last chase through the woods pursued by packs of wolves, before Defoe decides to let Crusoe rest and take a breather.

The impact of Defoe on the English novel was huge. Poe obviously borrows heavily from him in ‘The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket’, as do the later Victorian adventure novelists such as Verne and Wells. You can even see traces of Crusoe in ‘Coral Island‘, and its counterpart Lord of the Flies‘. This is the earliest novel I have reviewed to date, and its surprising modernity – there was no difficulty in language or style – is a tribute to Defoe’s innovation.

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Gulliver’s Travels, by Jonathan Swift, 1726

I’ve written at length in this recent series of posts about the gap between the perception of novels in popular culture, and the books themselves. ‘Gulliver’s Travels‘ has probably suffered the most in this regard, or had the longest journey, in that the coruscating satire has been recast over the years as a children’s book. It is utterly futile to think of this transformation as being either a good or bad thing – it is just what has happened, and there is clearly a children’s book within the pages of this novel. But if it is seen as simply that, then what a shame.

Gulliver’s Travels‘ should be a set text for every GCSE student. It should be read by politics, history and literature undergraduates as well. It is a breathtakingly brave polemic. I last read the novel a few years ago, but rereading in recent days I was struck by the vigour of the satire, the ferocity of Swift’s anger. He tears his targets apart in a way that even today is rarely seen, when we think of ourselves as being much more open and challenging, but still pull our punches and avoid saying the unsay-able, steering away from taboo subjects in a way Swift fearlessly refuses to do.

No-one escapes his attention and criticism. The king of Brobdignag, the land of the giants, having heard Gulliver’s naively damning description of his home,says

“I cannot but conclude that the Bulk of your Natives, to be the most pernicious Race of little odious Vermin that Nature ever suffered to crawl upon the Surface of the Earth.” 

I don’t think anyone has ever captured the futility of political discourse more effectively than the paragraph describing the disputes between the Big- and Little-Endians.

“It is allowed on all hands, that the primitive way of breaking eggs, before we eat them, was upon the larger end; but his present majesty’s grandfather, while he was a boy, going to eat an egg, and breaking it according to the ancient practice, happened to cut one of his fingers. Whereupon the emperor his father published an edict, commanding all his subjects, upon great penalties, to break the smaller end of their eggs. The people so highly resented this law, that our histories tell us, there have been six rebellions raised on that account; wherein one emperor lost his life, and another his crown. These civil commotions were constantly fomented by the monarchs of Blefuscu; and when they were quelled, the exiles always fled for refuge to that empire. It is computed that eleven thousand persons have at several times suffered death, rather than submit to break their eggs at the smaller end. Many hundred large volumes have been published upon this controversy: but the books of the Big-endians have been long forbidden”

That’s pretty much it, one short paragraph on the topic, but in these lines how much of human folly is portrayed? Political and religious disputes are exposed as the nonsense they are. Gulliver’s Travels is sometimes described as a narrow political satire in which direct parallels between contemporary events and characters and those in the novel are found. This I think places unnecessary constraints on the text – there is a universality to this portrayal of human folly.

If the satire in Lilliput and Brodbignag is relatively benign, the ferocity steps up a notch when Gulliver returns to sea once more (these are a series of separate voyages, between each of which Gulliver returns to England and visits his family, and is then tempted back to sea) and he meets the peoples of Laputa. I have used the phrase “fizzing with ideas” in previous blog entries about some other writers, but never has it been more appropriate – the ideas fly past with extraordinary speed, breathlessly, with little time to consider the wonderful invention and humour before the next is upon us. It’s not all relentless mocking of the absurdities of modern life – the chapters on the immortal men and women are quite haunting, and to this day have given me a different way of thinking about death. Yes, it’s that profound. In a ‘children’s book’.

It is really not until the extraordinary final chapters describing Gulliver’s time in the land of the Houyhnhnms where the  intensity of the satire reaches its full pitch. Ruled by a race of intelligent horses which possess all the virtues man lacks, these chapters principally consist of Gulliver describing England (and Europe) to his master. Simply through this description, and the horse’s occasional observation, the whole of society is damned. Take this description of the law for example:

“Judges… are picked out from the most dexterous lawyers, who are grown old or lazy, and having been biased all their lives against truth or equity, are under such a fatal necessity of favoring fraud, perjury and oppression, that I have known several of them to refuse a large bribe from the side where justice lay, rather than injure the faculty by doing any thing unbecoming their nature in office.”

Or international relations:

is a very kingly, honourable, and frequent practice, when one prince desires the assistance of another, to secure him against an invasion, that the assistant, when he has driven out the invader, should seize on the dominions himself, and kill, imprison, or banish, the prince he came to relieve.

Or finally, and possibly most damningly of all, for a country still priding itself on the expansion of its empire, we have this description of colonialism:

a crew of pirates are driven by a storm they know not whither; at length a boy discovers land from the topmast; they go on shore to rob and plunder, they see a harmless people, are entertained with kindness; they give the country a new name; they take formal possession of it for their king; they set up a rotten plank, or a stone, for a memorial; they murder two or three dozen of the natives, bring away a couple more, by force, for a sample; return home, and get their pardon. Here commences a new dominion acquired with a title by divine right. Ships are sent with the first opportunity; the natives driven out or destroyed; their princes tortured to discover their gold; a free license given to all acts of inhumanity and lust, the earth reeking with the blood of its inhabitants: and this execrable crew of butchers, employed in so pious an expedition, is a modern colony, sent to convert and civilize an idolatrous and barbarous people!”

Again this is just one paragraph, but is there anywhere a better indictment of imperialism?

It’s hardly surprising that this novel was published anonymously at first. If a modern version was published today the author would be vilified and almost certainly prosecuted. But the concept of a modern version of the text is probably nonsense – the universality of Swift’s themes means that this novel is quite timeless.

Just by way of a postscript, we think of 17th and 18th century novels as quite prudish, but that is completely wrong. ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ is surprisingly scatological. Gulliver is one of the few figures in fiction who needs to go to the toilet – in almost all books (and films) this simple universal need is politely ignored. This isn’t just for comic effect, as when he puts out the fire in Lilliput, funny though that is, but also as a part of making Gulliver a believable human character.

Finally, I bring you another delight from Amazon’s one star review selection, commenting on how easily Gulliver seems to recover from the various shipwrecks he endures: “It all seems too good to be true”.

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Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde – Robert Louis Stevenson – 1886

Stevenson’s ‘Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde” is an under-appreciated masterpiece. It’s a breathlessly fast paced story where the protagonist, Dr Jekyll, is dead (sorry, spoilers) halfway through the very short novel, and yet Stevenson manages to sustain the excitement until the big ‘reveal’ at the end. We now know of course that Dr Jekyll is Mr Hyde, but it is still possible to imagine the excitement readers must have experienced on first finding this out, perhaps having worked it out for themselves a few pages earlier.

The novel uses a traditional framing device and a combination of diaries and other documents to provide some distance from the main action. Gabriel Utterson, a lawyer, is told by his cousin about an encounter some months ago, when he witnessed a sinister figure named Edward Hyde and a young girl accidentally bump into one another. Hyde trampled on the girl causing her some undefined harm. In a form of mob justice, Hyde was forced to pay £100 to avoid any scandal. He paid this on the spot fine with a cheque drawn on the account of Dr. Henry Jekyll, an old friend of Utterson. This tale reinforces Utterson’s fear that Jekyll is being blackmailed by Hyde – he has recently drawn his will to make Hyde the sole beneficiary in case of his death or disappearance. Jekyll assures Utterson that there is nothing to worry about. Is there a suggestion that the reason Jekyll tolerates and funds Hyde is due to an ‘unnatural’ sexual relationship between the pair? This would explain the need to pay off witnesses to avoid a scandal, and also fits with the unspecified sins or vices that Jekyll admits to later in the novel when explaining his experiments.

Later, Hyde is implicated when a servant sees him beat a man to death with a heavy cane. Police find half of the cane, which is revealed to be one which Utterson himself gave to Jekyll. There is no trace of Hyde, and for a while Jekyll reverts to his former friendly manner. This cannot last, and soon Jekyll starts refusing to see any visitors. Then a mutual acquaintance of Jekyll and Utterson, Dr Lanyon, dies suddenly of shock. Before his death, Lanyon gives Utterson a letter, with instructions that he should only open it after Jekyll’s death or his disappearance. It soon seems as if that time has come, because in the next chapter Jekyll’s butler, Poole, visits Utterson and explains that Jekyll has locked himself away in his laboratory for several weeks. They break into the laboratory to find the body of Hyde wearing Jekyll’s clothes and apparently dead from suicide.

They also find a letter from Jekyll to Utterson promising to explain the entire mystery. The suicide note and accompanying documents reveal that Lanyon’s death resulted from the shock of seeing Hyde drinking a serum and, as a result of doing so, turning into Dr. Jekyll. The second letter explains that Jekyll, having previously indulged unstated vices found a way to transform himself and thereby indulge his vices without fear of detection. Unable to control the transformations he resolved to cease becoming Hyde, but it is too late – he is ever more helpless and trapped as the transformations increase in frequency and necessitate ever larger doses of the draught to reverse them. Eventually, one of the chemicals from which he had prepared the draught ran low. His ability to change back from Hyde into Jekyll slowly vanished in consequence. He finally realises that he will soon become Hyde permanently.

I class Jekyll and Hyde, along with Dracula and Frankenstein, as the one of the three great horror novels of the 19th century. I appreciate that places me in the mainstream of critical reaction, but for some reason while the latter two works have been recognised as great works of fiction in their own rights, divorced from the industry of ‘inspired by’ films, television adaptation and novels they have generated, Jekyll and Hyde remains largely unread. Which is a pity, because it is genuinely scary. Hyde is a monster largely because he is so un-monstrous. The potion which Dr Jekyll discovers allows him to physically separate the good and evil parts of himself, but the Mr Hyde which emerges feels at first to be something quite positive. Outwardly he appears to be a normal man, although anyone seeing him is struck by his profoundly evil character:

“The most racking pangs succeeded: a grinding in the bones, deadly nausea, and a horror of the spirit that cannot be exceeded at the hour of birth or death. Then these agonies began swiftly to subside, and I came to myself as if out of a great sickness. There was something strange in my sensations, something indescribably sweet. I felt younger, lighter, happier in body; within I was conscious of a heady recklessness, a current of disordered sensual images running like a millrace in my fancy, a solution of the bonds of obligation, an unknown but innocent freedom of the soul.”

But this younger, lighter, happier personality comes with a catch:

“I knew myself, at the first breath of this new life, to be more wicked, tenfold more wicked, sold a slave to my original evil and the thought, in that moment, braced and delighted me like wine.” 

What I find fascinating about this novel is the way Stevenson brings together in one short story many of the prevailing big themes of the day: that science can unlock dangerous secrets, that people have dual or multiple personalities, and that some of our instincts are animalistic:

Jekyll experiments with splitting himself because he wants to find a way to indulge his appetite for vice with impunity. He releases a beast he cannot control:

“I sat in the sun on a bench; the animal within me licking the chops of memory; the spiritual side a little drowsed, promising subsequent penitence, but not yet moved to begin.”

These vices are not specified, but sexually transmitted diseases, and their debilitating effect on men’s health, were a particular dread of the time. More specifically, the novel lends itself very conveniently to an allegorical reading of the need for homosexual men to live double lives. The Guardian noted in a review of a stage production a few years ago that:

“Even though Stevenson may not have intended leaving them, there are suggestive markers throughout the text: the suspected blackmail of Jekyll by his “young man”, his “favourite”; the “very pretty manner of politeness of Sir Danvers Carew” when approached in the street – terms that may have denoted forbidden liaisons to a Victorian readership. The hidden door by which he enters Jekyll’s house is the “back way”, even “the back passage”. It happens that the year of composition, 1885, was the year in which an amendment to an act of parliament made homosexual acts between men a criminal offence.”

Victorian society was still coming to terms with Darwin’s revolutionary idea that men had evolved from animals, and that it was from these origins that some of our animalist instincts could be traced. At the same time ideas around the subconscious were becoming more current, although yet to be formulated clearly by Freud in the twentieth century. Stevenson’s formulation of these ideas in ‘Dr Jekyll’ is arguably one of the earliest description of the divided consciousness:

“It was on the moral side, and in my own person, that I learned to recognise the thorough and primitive duality of man; I saw that, of the two natures that contended in the field of my consciousness, even if I could rightly be said to be either, it was only because I was radically both; and from an early date, even before the course of my scientific discoveries had begun to suggest the most naked possibility of such a miracle, I had learned to dwell with pleasure, as a beloved daydream, on the thought of the separation of these elements. If each, I told myself, could be housed in separate identities, life would be relieved of all that was unbearable; the unjust might go his way, delivered from the aspirations and remorse of his more upright twin; and the just could walk steadfastly and securely on his upward path, doing the good things in which he found his pleasure, and no longer exposed to disgrace and penitence by the hands of this extraneous evil.”

This is a fascinating, chilling and hugely influential book, horror for grown-ups, Stevenson’s best writing for adults.

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Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth, 1969

Portnoy’s complaint is both a noun and a verb – the book is another first person narrative describing the author’s childhood and later life, an autobiography with only the flimsiest attempt at disguise as a novel. Alexander Portnoy complains to his psychiatrist – at quite some length – about his domineering mother, his father crippled by chronic constipation, and the impact this has on his later ability to develop serious relationships with women. This is both his lament and his condition.

Of his mother he writes memorably:

“She was so deeply embedded in my consciousness that for the first year of school I seem to have believed that each of my teachers was my mother in disguise. As soon as the last bell sounded I would rush off for home, wondering as I ran if I could possibly make it to our apartment before she succeeded in transforming herself. Invariably she was already in the kitchen by the time I arrived, and setting out the milk and cookies. Instead of causing me to give up my delusions, however, the feat merely intensified my respect for her powers

As a young boy his relationship with his mother is simply dysfunctional, but when he hits puberty it becomes positively Oedipal. The chapter on the masturbation frenzy he embarks on at this point is a famously sustained portrayal of adolescence, and is quite filthy in some respects. It is hardly surprising given Portnoy’s frankness about every aspects of his sexual life and fantasies that the book caused a considerable controversy on publication. Even today it has the power to shock.

As with most first person narratives, the reader is automatically sympathetic to the narrator – we see the world through their eyes, hear their explanations for their conduct, get their side of the story. With such monstrously controlling parents it is hardly surprising that Portnoy rebels, pursuing relationships with non-Jewish girls. He is unarguably a misogynist. He gives his girlfriends unpleasant, objectifying nicknames – the Pumpkin, the Pilgrim, the Monkey – and abandons the latter when she is feeling suicidal. He feels guilty about this, but not guilty enough to do anything about it. Of course he blames his mother for his inability to form grown up relationships with perfectly pleasant young women, (he cites one reason why he leaves ‘The Monkey’ as her calligraphy!) but his inability to accept any personal responsibility for this begins to chafe after a while – “a Jewish man with his parents alive is half the time a helpless infant” – and you want to tell him to stop whining and grow up.

The novel takes a darker turn in the final chapters when Portnoy goes to Israel. He has a casual sexual encounter with a female soldier, but is impotent. Later in the final pages he meets up with a hitchhiker, and tries to rape her. It is quite satisfying to see her kick his ass. His misogyny seems unrestrained when the travels to Israel, possibly because of his distance from his mother.

In the end, Portnoy is his own, most astute critic. He pleads:

Spring me from this role I play of the smothered son in the Jewish joke! Because it’s beginning to pall a little at thirty-three!”

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Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, 1884/5

Mark Twain’s ‘Adventures of Huckleberry Finn‘ follows chronologically the earlier ‘Tom Sawyer’, but has a much darker, more adult tone. Huck is the novel’s first person narrator, and has a primitive, naive view of the world which contrasts with that of the reader, and provides much of the humour and insight of the novel. Huck is dirt poor, uneducated, and more than a little feral. His mother is long dead, and his father is an abusive alcoholic who treats Huck like a slave. To escape his father’s abuse he runs away – he fakes his own death, steals a boat, and sails off down the Mississippi, looking for somewhere to hide. The parallels between Huck and Jim, the escaped slave he meets and befriends, are done with a light touch – Huck has almost no self pity, and doesn’t equate his position with that of Jim. It is not so much that he believes himself superior to Jim, but that his awareness of Jim’s role as a slave, as property, with no rights whatsoever, is rarely challenged.

Jim and Huck sail down river, having various adventures. They meet a family engaged in a bitter feud with some neighbours (to be precise Huck meets the family, Jim remains hidden through these chapters) just at the point where the feud erupts into deadly violence. They meet two con-artists and become embroiled in some of their scams. Eventually Jim is captured and imprisoned, and in some of the final chapters of the novel which even its most ardent supporters recognise are misconceived, Tom Sawyer is reintroduced and the children’s book, Just-William style of the earlier novel is reimposed, before a resolution in which Jim is freed.

‘Huck Finn’ is lauded as a masterpiece of American primitive literature. Twain certainly captures the scenes of living on the river vividly. But the whole impact of the otherwise complex and subtle novel was spoiled for me by the constant and repetitive use of the n-word. The word is used casually and in most cases without vicious intent, and no doubt was historically accurate. Although the novel was published in the UK in 1884, and the US the following year, the setting of the novel is some 20 or so years earlier, when slavery in the South (having been abolished across Northern states as early as 1804) was still in force. Abolition and the free state are mentioned as background, but the attempt to take Jim to freedom is abandoned easily. Huck’s presentation of slavery is very matter of fact – he reports Jim’s distress that his wife and children have been sold to another owner – but there is little or no empathy, nor indeed recognition of their shared misfortune. All the black people in the novel are portrayed as caricatures – they speak an exaggerated form of English, rendered phonetically thus:

“But it’s awluz jis’ so; people dat’s sot, stays sot; dey won’t look into noth’n’en fine it out f’r deyselves, en when you fine it out en tell um ’bout it, dey doan’ b’lieve you.”

They are all also hugely superstitious, frightened of ghosts and witches, and are extremely easy to tease or fool, with a child-like innocence or naivety. Huck and Tom have no hesitation in exploiting this gullibility for their own amusement.

As Huck gets to know Jim, his admirable qualities emerge. He is kind, faithful, and patient. He sacrifices his freedom for Tom’s welfare, and suffers uncomplainingly the many injustices placed upon him. Twain’s portrait is generally sympathetic, despite his use of many of the ‘Uncle Tom’ cliches of the time. But this emphatically isn’t an anti-slavery novel – that battle had been won years earlier after the Civil War. Equally it doesn’t present the case for civil rights for emancipated slaves or opposition to racism – its setting means that is simply not an issue. So at best the presentation of the issue of slavery in ‘Huck Finn’ is ambiguous.

Ultimately it is the use of the n-word that defaced this book for me. Finn is a charming and thoughful narrator, and his insights into his world are at times witty and interesting. But imagine (say) ‘Pride and Prejudice’ with a foul swear word used casually by the characters every other page or so. The values of the novel would remain, its wit and intelligence, the clever characterisation, and so on, but it would be really hard to prevent the use of the distressing language from spoiling one’s appreciation of these aspects of the novel, wouldn’t it? I am not suggesting bowdlerising this novel, although such things have been done, but I doubt it would prevent readers from enjoying it if alternative language was used.

100 Best Novels Guardian list, Book review, George Gissing, http://schemas.google.com/blogger/2008/kind#post, New Grub Street

New Grub Street, by George Gissing, 1891

Gissing isn’t really read very much today. His novels – or at least some of them – are still in print, but I doubt if he makes his way onto many syllabuses or reading lists. Certainly I would not be reading him now if ‘New Grub Street’ hadn’t appeared on the Guardian’s best 100 list. Does that really matter? There is a relentless Darwinism at work in determining what books are read and which are forgotten, and if Gissing is steadily dropping out of sight it is probably for a good reason.
‘New Grub Street’ tells at considerable length the story of a small group of lower middle class but educated people trying to make a living from professional writing. Some write novels, others articles for publication, reviews, and short stories. All are utterly obsessed with their financial situation.
“Poverty is the root of all social ills; its existence accounts even for ills that arise from wealth. The poor man is a man labouring in fetters. I declare there is no word in our language which sounds so hideous to me as “Poverty”” (page 33)
George Orwell, in an article about Gissing which ironically was probably written simply to keep the writer’s income flowing, claimed that we had “very few better novelists”, although he does go on to say that “His prose, indeed, is often disgusting”. Disgusting is a bit strong, but clumsy, undoubtedly. Take this sentence for example:

“Fixed in his antipathy to the young man, he would not allow himself to admit any but a base motive on Milvain’s side, if, indeed, Marian and Jasper were more to each other than slight acquaintances; and he persuaded himself that anxiety for the girl’s welfare was at least as strong a motive with him as mere prejudice against the ally of Fadge, and, it might be, the reviewer of ‘English prose’.”

But it’s not all stodge – some of the descriptive writing, of which there is admittedly little, is very well put, as in here when he describes one of his younger female characters:

“So exquisitely fresh in her twenty years that seemed to bid defiance to all the years to come”. (70)

There is a relentless focus in ‘New Grub Street’ on money – who has how much, what interest can be expected from savings, how much an article of novel might bring in, and so on, at extraordinary length. Rarely a chapter goes by when money, and its absence, is not the focus of the narrative. Even when ostensibly the story moves on to a discussion about relationships, these are determined solely in respect of the relative wealth of the participants. Creative endeavour can only be measured by the income it generates. Despite the grinding poverty that most of the characters suffer, the distinction between this group of people, who earn their living, such as it is, by writing, and the social group immediately below them who work for a living, is preserved at all cost. One character, Edwin Reardon, is actually left by his wife because he proposed to take a clerical post, rather than continuing to try to earn a living by writing novels.


New Grub Street is a depressing place to be. One writer dies of a consumptive-like illness which is not specified by is clearly derived from years of poverty; another commits suicide when the failure of his magnum opus becomes apparent, a third marries purely for money and social advancement, abandoning a young woman as soon as her inheritance falls through. It’s not just the world of writing that Gissing is condemning, but the society in general – Reardon, the one person who throws it all in and gets a proper job suffers just as badly as the rest.


A novel about writing is bound to break the narrative fourth wall from time to time. It is obvious at points that Gissing is writing from personal experience about trying to earn his living. The scenes where Reardon suffers horribly from writer’s block also have a poignancy suggesting Gissing had probably suffered similarly, as well as having felt the pain of having to write for payment by the page. But overall it is hard to feel too much sympathy for most of his cast of characters, and I feel no compulsion to seek out any of Gissing’s other novels for now. Just to end with one of my favourite quotes from an Amazon reviewer of ‘New Grub Street’. Missing the point with uncommon accuracy – “It’s not funny at all”



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The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket by Edgar Allan Poe (1838)

One of my reasons for exploring the Guardian’s ‘best 100 novels written in English’ list is to try and find some hidden gems – books that I have not come across before that are really worth reading. Poe’s only novel, “The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket‘ meets only one of these criteria – I had not heard of it before – and now I know why.

The novel is an adventure story, following Pym as he stows away in a ship, running away to sea against his father’s wishes. He is aided by a friend, one of the crew members, and plans to reveal his presence when the ship is past the point of no return. However, a mutiny spoils this plan, and he has to remain hidden, without help from his friend, for a long time. His privations are detailed in the first person narrative in considerable, not to say tedious, detail. Finally he emerges from his hiding place, and helps in a counter-mutiny. Having secured control of the ship Pym and friends are immediately struck by a storm, which rages for days, leaving them with very little food or drink, and their ship a wreck. Again Poe details the long days of surviving on the wreck – this is actually a very short novel, but it certainly didn’t feel it while reading – until they finally resort to cannibalism, choosing one of their number to eat by lots.

Finally rescued, Pym joins another ship voyaging to the southern seas. Previous voyages of exploration are recounted in yet more detail. The purpose of all this detail is presumably to give the narrative a sense of realism, although I found the various adventures completely unconvincing. While stowed away on his first ship, for example, Pym is joined for several days by his pet dog, who his crew-member friend just happened to take along with him. Despite the ship having been taken over by the mutineers the dog at no point barks or otherwise makes his presence know. As soon as the storm arrives the dog stops being mentioned, presumably thrown overboard.

The voyage ends in the discovery of a mysterious island group deep in the Antarctic, when the rest of the group apart from Pym and a friend are massacred by duplicitous natives. Escaping from the island by canoe, Pym travels south towards the pole, when the novel ends abruptly with the appearance of a mysterious figure.

I’ve read incomplete novels where the author died mid-composition that end with more coherence and naturalism than this. It just stops, and it is obvious that the author, having reached a word count (or equivalent) thought “that will do” and moved on. The “editor’s” postscript (which incidentally is not included in the kindle version of the novel I initially read, which is really irritating) is a fig leaf that does nothing to compound the absurdity of the ending.

I look for at least one of the following in any novel: characterisation, a decent story, some interesting use of language, or some ideas. Poe provides none of the above. Pym himself hardly emerges from his narrative at all – we really have no idea what he is like, other than extraordinarily lucky in surviving his various in extremis situations, which of course we know he does from the novel’s ludicrous subtitle. (Comprising the Details of Mutiny and Atrocious Butchery on Board the American Brig Grampus, on Her Way to the South Seas, in the Month of June, 1827. With an Account of the Recapture of the Vessel by the Survivors; Their Shipwreck and Subsequent Horrible Sufferings from Famine; Their Deliverance by Means of the British Schooner Jane Guy; the Brief Cruise of this Latter Vessel in the Atlantic Ocean; Her Capture, and the Massacre of Her Crew Among a Group of Islands in the Eighty-Fourth Parallel of Southern Latitude; Together with the Incredible Adventures and Discoveries Still Farther South to Which That Distressing Calamity Gave Rise.) The story is extremely episodic and predictable, a loosely connected series of incidents. The language is inoffensive, at best, and the only idea worthy of the name is the suggestion that the south polar regions might lead to undiscovered continents, peoples, and species. I am a little more sympathetic to this final point – the world was still being explored in the 1830’s, and new species being found, so this wasn’t as ludicrous as it sounds.

Poe introduces some classic elements of gothic horror into the narrative – cannibalism, pirates, a ghost-ship, entombment, and so on, but ultimately the novel is as spooky as a Halloween costume in June.

<iframe frameborder=”0″ height=”0″ id=”google_ads_iframe_/183932232/GS_300x250_BTF_1_0__hidden__” marginheight=”0″ marginwidth=”0″ name=”google_ads_iframe_/183932232/GS_300x250_BTF_1_0__hidden__” scrolling=”no” src=”javascript:””” style=”border-image: none; border: 0px currentColor; display: none; vertical-align: bottom; visibility: hidden;” width=”0″>I’m not alone in finding this all quite ridiculous. In an introduction to the novel, Jeremy Meyers wrote that Poe’s choice of the incomplete journal form “allows Poe to disguise and excuse his own inability to control the plot and complete the novel.” Poe himself called it a “very silly book.” Indeed. I don’t know whether the unhappy experience of writing this novel led Poe to concentrate on poetry and short stories, but it is probably a good thing if it did.

100 Best Novels Guardian list, Book review, gothic fiction, http://schemas.google.com/blogger/2008/kind#post, Nightmare Abbey, satire, Thomas Love Peacock

Nightmare Abbey – Thomas Love Peacock – 1818

bey‘Nightmare Abbey’ is probably as heavy-handed a piece of satire as you will find in the whole of literature. Neither nightmarish – there are none of the traditional characteristic features of gothic fiction – nor set in an abbey, this short novel is partly a thinly disguised portrait of some of the romantic poets of the time, and partly a pastiche of their works.

It is tedious in the extreme. Some of this is deliberate – in parodying cloying philosophical nonsense it is hard to avoid writing philosophical nonsense. The trick is I suspect in providing just the right amount. There’s little or no characterisation here – all the characters are cyphers – Mr Lackwit, Mr Toobad, or the Reverend Mr Larynx. There’s also little or no narrative. The characters assemble in the abbey, which is really a moated country home on the remote Lincolnshire coast, where Scythrop Glowry, (admittedly, a pretty magnificent name) falls in and out of love as eligible females are paraded before him. Even Robert McCrum in choosing this novel for his list of 100 best novels in English for the Guardian in 2013 describes the plot as “cardboard-thin”. This is because the novel is simply a vehicle for Peacock’s friendly commentary on the lives and love affairs of the romantic poets. It may have had them rolling in the aisles in the early nineteenth century, but surely quickly lost its humour in a decade or two, and today provides many tumbleweed moments. Only one comment hit a chord; when, for the umpteenth time Mr Flosky, a friend of Mr Glowry senior is pontificating on his obscure theories, the narrator notes that he “suddenly stopped: he found himself unintentionally trespassing within the limits of common sense”.

The narrative voice is deeply cynical. Romantic relationships are purely commercial – “marriage is a lottery, and the less choice and selection a man bestows upon his ticket the better” – and married life is a burden – “Mr Glowry used to say that his house was no better than a spacious kennel, for every one in it led the life of a dog”. Jane Austen wrote about relationships and courtships with a similar scepticism, but her characters are far more three dimensional and believable, and if you want a light-hearted commentary on the gothic novels of the period ‘Northanger Abbey’ is an infinitely better choice. That this novel squeezed out ‘Lord of the Rings’, the Gormenghast books, and others from the Guardian’s top 100 novels makes its inclusion all the harder to understand.

100 Best Novels Guardian list, Book review, gay literature, http://schemas.google.com/blogger/2008/kind#post, Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde, 1891

I know I don’t normally write about the publication history of the books I review, but the background to this one is more complex than usual, and quite relevant. It was published in full in Lippincott’s Monthly magazine in 1890 (in a significantly shorter version than the final novel). Wilde predicted “I think it will make a sensation” – which was a bit of an understatement. Prior to publication he made several edits to remove some of the more explicitly homo-erotic content, but he may as well not have bothered, because critics almost unanimously put two and two together, identified Wilde with his two main characters, and realised that some of the sins which they explore included gay sex. For the avoidance of any doubts Wilde drops clunking hints such as when he says “there are certain temperaments that marriage makes more complex…they are forced to have more than one life” (61) What can he mean? Later he refers to “such love as Michael Angelo had known, and Montaigne, and Winckelmann, and Shakespeare himself” (96). This was extraordinarily daring of Wilde – and his publishers – and he was of course to pay the price.

The plot is very familiar. Gorgeous, young, well-to-do and well-connected Dorian Gray has his portrait painted by a society painter, Basil Hallward. Dorian unknowingly makes a Mephistophilian pact to preserve his beauty, and for his portrait to bear the signs of aging and sin. He is taken in hand, and led astray, by Hallward’s friend, the dangerous Lord Henry Wotton. His treatment of a young actress, Sibyl Vane, who falls in love with him and who he brutally rejects, leading to her suicide, is the first time he notices a change in the painting. Gray is psychopathically narcissistic – everything is judged by its impact on him. He goes to the opera after hearing Sibyl has died, and when chastised for this says “Don’t talk about horrid subjects. If one doesn’t talk about a thing, it has never happened” (87) Accepting his fate, he hides the painting, eventually killing Hallward to avoid exposure, and dives into a life of excess, sin, and hedonism. Wilde goes as far as he can to describe this life, dropping hints about many of the elements, including some more conventional, heterosexual affairs, which frankly is fooling no-one.
There’s a unavoidable biographical element to this novel. Wilde’s own life followed the same self-destructive arc as Gray’s, although what is more remarkable is that the novel came first – Wilde was well aware where his recklessness would lead, but embraced his fate in any event. He foresees it all – the social ostracism (“when he used to reappear again in society, men would whisper to each other in corners, or pass him with a sneer, or look at him with cold, searching eyes, as though they were determined to discover his secret” (113) – the damage caused to friends and relatives – “Women who had wildly (note the choice of adjective) adored him, and for his sake had braved all social censure and set convention at defiance, were seen to grow pallid with shame or horror if Dorian Gray entered the room” (113), the damage to his health and (he believed) his soul, and yet could not steer a different course.
There are four great 19th century English horror novels (that is, novels written in English)  that explore identify and sexuality – ‘Frankenstein’, ‘Dracula’, ‘Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’, and ‘The Portrait of Dorian Gray.’ (In many ways ‘Dr Jekyll’ is probably the least flawed of this quartet, and I will aim to review it shortly to complete the set). All are in their different ways about the horror of the divided self. ‘Gray’ has many flaws – the sections where Wilde expanded the text for publication as a novel show strong signs of padding, for example, and the aphorisms, which individually are witty and clever, when they appear in such intensity have an artificial, false note. But despite these, this is a stunning novel, tragic in the light of what we now know about Wilde’s own fate, but also complex and brave. Superficially it is a parable about the price of sin, but in making Gray and Wotton such charismatic characters Wilde makes it clear where his sympathies and interests lie.
100 Best Novels Guardian list, Book review, children's literature, http://schemas.google.com/blogger/2008/kind#post, Kidnapped, Robert Louis Stevenson

Kidnapped, by Robert Louis Stevenson, 1886

Read in a Penguin Classic edition

It’s about time I explained why I am reading what is essentially a children’s book, albeit a Victorian ‘classic’. A few months ago the Guardian completed a two year exercise to publish a list of the top 100 novels written in English. I’ve written previously about how irritating these lists can be, and this was no exception – it contains some strange choices (‘Emma’ over ‘Pride and Prejudice’?) and some books that stretch the definition of ‘novel’ to breaking point (‘Alice in Wonderland’?) I’ve been working my way around the list in recent months, not because of any completest tendencies, undeniable though they are, but simply as a guide for some interesting novels that I probably should have read. There have been some really interesting discoveries (for me) thus far (‘Money’, ‘Disgrace’), a few re-reads (‘The True History of the Kelly Gang’), and some stinkers. Sadly, this falls in the latter category.

The novel is set in the highlands of Scotland, shortly after the second Jacobite rebellion in 1745. The politics of this revolt are central to the novel, but knowledge of the issues is largely assumed, and not given any context. The principal character and narrator is 17-year-old David Balfour. His parents having recently died, he visits his evil uncle, Ebenezer, who arranges for him to be kidnapped and sold into slavery. The kidnappers are incompetent sailors, because after several days of journeying their boat is still off the islands of Scotland, where it collides with a row boat carrying Alan Breck, a leading Jacobite wanted by the British. Breck is a confused figure – pompous, short-tempered, and murderous, yet perceived by Davy as something of a glamorous, slightly heroic character. Alan is a Jacobite who supports the claim of the House of Stewart to Scotland’s throne; David is loyal to King George III, and the tension between them arises from these loyalties. Stevenson uses the Jacobite rebellion as a setting for this novel, but is clearly not that interested in the politics of the situation.  The relationship – a bromance if you like – between Breck and Balfour is at the heart of the novel – they argue, fall out, make up, and repeat, like an old married couple. If you don’t believe in the authenticity of this father/son-like relationship, then the rest of the novel holds few attractions.

The poor sailing continues, and after a short fight and siege over some money Breck is carrying, the ship capsizes. Breck and David are separated. David is stranded on a deserted ‘island’, which he eventually finds out is not an island but a spit of land joined to the mainland at low tide. He sets off to find Breck, but runs into the Red Fox, a real historical figure, who no sooner meets David but is killed by a hidden sniper. David is suspected of involvement in the murder, not unreasonably, and flees, by chance reuniting with Alan as he does so, lurking suspiciously in the woodland. The improbabilities involved here are skirted over.

We arrive at this point fairly briskly, but now the novel descends from here into an extraordinarily extended trudge across the Scottish Highlands. It rains, they walk, it is sunny, they walk, and so it goes on for chapter after chapter, with only the occasionally comically Scottish highlander to break the monotony. John Buchan clearly spent far too long reading this before writing ‘The 39 Steps’ as it contains similar scenes of prolonged walking in the rain – sadly ‘The Deathly Hallows’ has more than a touch of this affliction as well. Eventually they make their way back to the starting point and David’s uncle, who is confronted, confesses, and comes to financial settlement with David.
The parallels between this novel, written in 1886, (and published, like much Victorian fiction, in serial form in a magazine) and the earlier ‘Treasure Island’ (1881) are unavoidable. An impoverished, inexperienced, but self-respecting teenage hero goes to sea. Here he faces a crew of thugs. Supported by a strong role-model, he valiantly wins the day, following a siege scene very reminiscent of that at the island fort. A long voyage of wandering & discovery follows. Stevenson clearly knew a trustworthy model for a boy’s adventure story when he found one.

The novel is written with a large amount of colloquial scots. I am not sure whether the language is authentic, but it descends often into what reads like parody:
“Ye have a fine, hang-dog, rat-and-tatter, clappermaclaw kind of look to ye, as if ye had stolen the coat from a potato-bogle” (190)

Stevenson is a more interesting writer than this – Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is a fascinating portrait of the schizophrenic nature of Victorian society – but ultimately this is a tired children’s story no longer read by children.