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The Frozen North

the expedition bea uusmaThe Expedition – by Bea Uusma

A Swedish doctor who has been obsessed for over fifteen years with the story – known to all Swedes – of the doomed attempt to reach by the North Pole by hot air balloon, has written her own account. She describes her attempts to venture out to the White Island (where the ballooner’s bones were found) four times only to turn back as the ice had never thawed enough to allow the ice breaker ship through. Usma returns to her cabin to watch the frozen North, and quiets her disappointment by taking the reader meticulously through the facts.

Three young engineers boarded their hot air balloon in Stockholm, 1987, totally unprepared for the demands of such a journey: their donning of monogrammed woollen stockings was not an encouraging sign. They thought it would take six days by air, having inflated the balloon by dissolving iron filings with liquid sulphuric acid and loading the basket down with port and champagne, plus more essential stores for several years. The balloon started to leak after a few days, and came down without incident but very far off course. They started to walk, dragging hugely overloaded sleds, against the direction of the flow of the ice floes. It took them days to realize that they were barely managing to stand still, let along gain ground, shedding ballast as they trudged.

Perhaps one of the saddest sentences in the recovered diaries – which extend from 11 July 1987 to 3 Oct 1987 – was that “the homing pigeons are all dead.” That, and their consumption of the champagne they had dragged for miles while they withered with cold and hunger. Once the diaries were recovered, the fiancée of the now deceased Nils Strindberg had the singularly strange experience of being informed that he had died – when she had suspected as much and therefore been married to someone else for decades – and was told his last words were addressed to her. Her name was Anna Albertina Constantin Charlier – a name which, Usma informs us, “means hydrogen balloon in French.”

They survived for almost four months on White Island, where their bodies were not found for thirty years. When they were found, it was by accident. At the time, there was no conclusive evidence with the technology then available, as to the cause of death. The bodies were then cremated, destroying any chance of later study. Usma was desperate to return to the site in order to search for some clue, as she was tired of reading theories about trichinosis and death due to an excess of vitamin E in eating polar bear and seal liver. She is wonderfully open about her obsessive attitude, and the book is written in the most lucid, detailed fashion without succumbing to opaque fact or passages moaning about the fragility of human life on the frozen wastes. It is also rather beautiful, with wonderful photographs and excellent formatting.

Those who are susceptible to the language of endless horizons, harsh conditions and impossible courage (in other words, the Scots) tend to be suckers for this kind of book. I have not enjoyed a book about ice so much since Francis Spufford’s Ice and the English Imagination.  For those that need to find out more, Lines in the Ice: Seeking the Northwest Passage is a free exhibition at the British Library until April 19th.  Next week: how to make your own pemmican.

The Editors

26. Why Read?

Man on fish reading

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

If aliens from outerspace came down and saw us reading they might think we were mentally challenged. They would probably blow us up as useless.

“Why are they they looking at these strange lines and curves and shapes when they can be talking to each other or running or watching movies or whatever.”

Or “Why slouch on a couch, squinting at an obscure and probably meaningless piece of paper when they can be doing healthy things?”

Reading seems like a very hard activity. You have to learn a written language, sit very still, focus, and try to translate the 100,000 or so marks that appear in every book.

And, by the way, if you read enough it’s a guarantee you will damage your eyes.

But it’s worth it. Here’s 10 reasons why:

A) EDUCATIONAL (with an important caveat):

Today, for instance, I read from “End of Power” by Moises Naim, to prepare for my podcast with him.

The man is a genius. I read about his theories of why countries like America or companies like Microsoft inevitably experience a decay in their power and influence despite their massive size and ability to coerce.

How photo companies like instagrapm can have a dozen employees, zero revenues, and be sold for a billion dollars while other photo companies like Kodak can have 140,000 employees and then go bankrupt.

He explains how, why, what, and how to take advantage of it. It was fascinating.

The caveat is: I’ll only remember a small amount. Maybe a year later, one or two pieces of information and maybe one theme will stick with me. But that’s ok.

Hopefully I’ll remember the important parts.

B) ENTERTAINING

Given that I’m only going to remember a small amount in the long run, I have to also love the act of reading.

I love how writers put together words to form sentences I’ve never thought of. How the sentences weave together into stories.

I imagine myself in the story. I imagine that for a moment I’m the main character. I live their lives.

In the middle the night, with wind blowing, Claudia sleeping next to me, the anxieties of the day subsiding, I get to travel to an entirely new Universe and be a part of it. I’m Harry Potter. Or I’m Frodo. Or the guy stuck on Mars in “The Martian”.

Why not watch it on TV instead? I am!

The TV is in my head and much more vivid. It’s IDTV – Imagination-Density-TV and has many more colors and pixels and dreams infused in it.

C) INSPIRATIONAL

The other day I was reading “The Happiness Project” by Gretchen Rubin. She decided to spend a year focusing on making 12 different parts (one for every month) of her life happier.

Each month she had a dozen or so suggestions about how to improve that part of her life. Again, some I’ll remember, some I’ll apply, some will make me happier, some will be applicable only to her. She admits that.

And some I will forget.

I was inspired by the fact that several hundred small suggestions could add up to a significant increase in our level of equanimity in her life – our ability to be calm in the face of the difficult and to enjoy more the higher peak moments.

She gave one suggestion which I tried the other day. Claudia and I were bickering about something or other. I forget.

Gretchen suggests hug for at least six seconds. It takes six seconds of hugging for the oxytocin and serotonin “happy chemicals” (which I learned about in another book: “Meet Your Happy Chemicals” by Loretta Breuning) to get triggered into the body, causing feelings of intimacy and happiness.

I hugged Claudia and slowly counted to six.

It worked.

D) VIRTUAL MENTORSHIP

Although reading is inspiring, it feels like the inspiration lasts for a few hours and then starts to get metabolized.

I feel grateful and mindful and “present” for awhile but then I need more.

I don’t mind though, since I like to be inspired. And the more of it I read, the easier it gets to become a practice.

But just as important and inspirational to me, is reading about the lives of virtual mentors.

At any given point, I have interests. And with any interest, there are people who came before me who are much better than me. They have put in their 10,000 hours.

They have dominated the subtleties of their field and have spent a lifetime mastering their craft.

We’re the average of the five people we surround ourselves with. But I don’t usually hang out with five people a day. But I can hang out with five people through books.

Every day I read about people who have done what I would like to do. I then try to model myself after them: their behavior, learn from their failures, their successes, their behavior, their courage.

It’s hard to get a real-life mentor. That said, I think at every stage of life we need one. And for every passion and interest you have, I, at least, learn the fastest from the people who came before me.

A book about a person you want to model yourself after, allows you to have a virtual mentor. Virtual mentors are often greater than real-life mentors.

A book is the curated life of these mentors, the exact pivotal points where their actions had the most impact on the people they came to be. I love to read these books.

I just finished “Born Standing Up” by Steve Martin. He might not know it but he’s now my mentor.

E) LAUGHTER

Food, by Jim Gaffigan.

Trust me on this one.

F) YES, READING MAKES ME BETTER THAN OTHER PEOPLE

I love playing games. For instance, since I was a kid I love games like chess, scrabble, poker.

But if I just play the games day after day, I never get better. The only way I get better is to study the books written by or about the great players of history.

It’s a sad goal: to want to beat your friends mercilessly in a game. But it’s worth it and reading lets me achieve that goal.

In every area I read about, I slightly improve my knowledge, my understanding, and my ability to come up with new ideas in that area.

It’s that little bit each day, that can give any of us a huge edge in the long run. Knowledge compounds rather than increases little by little.

G) ART

This sounds pretentious. So I will make it less pretentious.

The other day, right here on this page, I plagiarized my 12 year old daughter.

She had written a story. In one part of the story things were somewhat somber. So she used the phrase “the hush of silence” to describe the feelings of the characters.

Later, as they often do in life, things got more tense.

The atmosphere was “stung with silence”. I liked that juxtaposition. I honestly was a bit envious she used these phrases and they didn’t seem like cliches.

Two opposite ways to describe something that was essentially empty: silence.

So, like a good father … I stole from my daughter, figuring she would never know (shhh, don’t tell her). I used the phrase “stung with silence” in a post.

I need to improve as a father.

But I can’t help it. Sometimes the way words weave together, and connect me to other parts of a story where similar words were used (like a poem), makes me want to put a book down and think the words over and over in my head.

Sentences and stories and articles have a rhythm, like a song. The best writers make beautiful songs.

Many great authors do that through the authenticity and honesty in their language: Denis Johnson, James Baldwin, Miranda July, and on and on.

You don’t have to be a great poet. Just really dig out the honesty of a single moment.

H) OPTIMISM

This is why newspapers are junk. “Being informed” is a scam marketing campaign. Fear drives subscriptions. Period.

But books don’t worry about that.

“Bold” by Peter Diamindis and Stephen Kotler gives me huge reasons for optimism in a world where the daily junk media is nothing but doom and gloom.

3D Printing, Robotics, Synthetic Biology, virtual reality, space travel, and historical trends on literacy and poverty and violence – all show the direction the world is heading and it’s a positive one.

One great example: many of the tools we take for granted in our cell phone (GPS, a game player, video recorder, camera, music library) when added up would have cost close to a million dollars in 1982 and now cost just a few hundred dollars.

This democratization of technology is spreading throughout the developing world, creating a larger middle class than ever and bringing people out of poverty. As Dr. Naim said in “The End of Power”, for the first time, more people live above the poverty line in Africa than below it.

Not a huge cause of celebration but a start. It’s a direction of growth. And as I learned in Gretchen Rubin’s “The Happiness Project” – growth and happiness go side by side.

Or “Sapiens – a Brief History of Humankind” describes the historical evolution of our species going from tribes to cities to kingdoms to empires to leaving us with an optimistic hope that further unification will lead to greater abundance and eventual peace.

I) WRITING

I can’t write unless I read first. I’ll read and read and read and then suddenly a little electric bomb goes off in my head when the reading uncovers a memory I had forgotten existed.

It’s like reading digs into my head as if it were an archaeological find.

Then I almost feel like I’m hypnotized until I write.

Often I like to try on the styles of different writers as well. It’s like they’ve woven clothes out of their words and I get to try on the different sets of clothes.

The writers become my mentors after I read them.

J) SHARING

The reality is: as much as we have in common, I’m different from my daughters. But guess what – we’ve all read The Hunger Games.

And so we can talk about the ethics of what happens in the Games. The dynamics of how the world is set up politically. We can make up possible ways fan fiction can exist in the world created by the author.

We can talk for hours about it.

With almost anyone I meet, our common ground is usually based on the things we read. The more we have both read, the more common ground in most cases.

It’s such a pleasure to occasionally speak the same language as my children like we are complete equals. Even though they are smaller than me and love to watch the reality show “Dancing Moms”, reading has become our great equalizer.

I like to sleep eight uninterrupted hours a day (many reasons for that by Dave Asprey’s “The Bulletproof Diet”, AJ Jacobs “Drop Dead Healthy”, and Gretchen Rubin’s “The Happiness Project” give good descriptions of how to build a good sleep routine). Sleeping is the number one way to build energy and rejuvenate the brain.

But I also once read that when you wake up with an idea, you have to write it down immediately or you’ll forget it.

I woke up at 2am with the idea to write this post. It’s 3:04 and I’m going back to sleep.

James Altucher

This post originally appeared in the newsletter of jamesaltucher.com with the title ‘10 Reasons Reading Makes Your Life Better‘ and is reproduced with thanks to the author.  

Book Club Spy: Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North

Richard Flanagan – The Narrow Road to the Deep North

the_narrow_road_9f6ab061951_originalIt is getting harder to record the dialogue of Book Club as time goes on. Partly because I am too busy trying to interrupt to write down the finer points ricocheting about, and partly because a pattern has appeared where the group divides into two – fairly sharply down the middle – and one half then proceeds to disagree with the other. In the most good natured way possible. At great speed and volume.

For the session on Lorrie Moore’s Bark this was more of a problem (coming soon) but for Flanagan it was ideal, because of the LRB review.

For those of you who have not yet had the pleasure, The Narrow Road to the Deep North received a fairly scathing review from Michael Hofmann in the December issue of The London Review of Books. It is full of scything blows like this:

This novel is truly an entitled thing: it demands both action and high-value misty contemplation or ‘memory’. It is a universal solvent, or claims to be. You want love, it says; I got love! You want death? I got it. All the kinds. Any amount. It is all bite, and no chew. ”

I read this article before I read the novel; despite being warned not to, but could not contain myself. It is both terrible and wonderful. As a testament to the thickness of my skull or ability to compartmentalize, I truly enjoyed the book despite this. It is an account of life in a Japanese POW camp for Australian soldiers building a railway in impossible conditions, and then beyond to life after the war, full of crossed wires and missed opportunity.

Those in Book Club who disliked the novel in its own right – having escaped Hofmann’s surgical body blow – did so for the wrong reasons. That is was not worthy of the Man Booker; that there are too many books on the Second World War; that the protagonist Dorrigo Evans is not complicated enough – these do not really stand up as arguments in themselves.

Hofmann makes several fair points: the love story is jerkily executed. Our hero falls in love with the wrong woman, and they do not get a happy ending. So far, not so bad, but there is a halting uncertainty to how Flanagan plots this missed opportunity so that it is more awkward than tragic. However, there is an argument that every love story in wartime does not get to be a sweeping epic. Similarly, Dorrigo is no Captain Dicky Winters from Band of Brothers, especially once he gets home, but surely that is the point of him. He plays the hero, but knows he is performing a necessary role in the camp, and once he gets home he continues to act. Unfortunately he is a Don Draper figure in peacetime: a facsimile, a shadow of a man, blankly pursuing women for the sake of it having already ticked all of life’s necessary boxes. The only problem is that Flanagan did not make the character darker.

Flanagan’s use of language veers towards the trite, and then reels itself back in in the nick of time with phrases like “the heat felt like a maternal force commanding him not to get up“. Some argued he has no style and others simply no affectation, comparing him to Colm Toibin.

One thing emerges for sure: there is a lot of surface work going on. Life in peacetime is not explained in detail until years have gone by, the difficulty of rehabilitation for Dorrigo is glossed over, when this would have gone a long way towards explaining his later difficulties. This may have also been because of the nature Flanagan’s own father’s recollections, which formed the spine of the book. The war comes to an end, people change their names and attempt to move on from the horror of starving to death in the damp jungle, and of course Dorrigo Evans can’t relate to those around him on a deeper level post war. None of them were dying of dysentery for want of a single egg in trenches full of human excrement. Both Evans and his captors in the camp have a certain amount of uncertainty about their names, especially the latter when it comes to the war crimes trial. No one knows who to be afterwards; this is nothing new.

Of course, some of the Japanese disappeared into ruined Tokyo and effectively eluded any attempt to identify them, at least for years. Nakamura, the General of the camp, hooked on speed and given an impossible job to do (build a railway in a sodden jungle with dying prisoners and dwindling resources) feels ticks biting him under the skin and believes he represents the Japanese spirit in its purest form. He survives by changing his name, and by refusing to remember. He believed the Australians died in their thousands because they did not have the necessary ‘spirit’ that the Japanese exemplified – the irony behind the spirit of nations being that every nation believes it is unique to them. The Australian attitude in the camps was refreshing to someone reared on British Blitz and Bridge Across the River Kwai bravery: they make jokes at the bleakest moments on the Line, and those who make it go back to the haunts described by the fallen, to drink together. This was a refreshing change to David Niven-esque lighting of cigarettes and telling each other to buck up during a dogfight, etc etc.

With all of the anniversaries of wars occurring so close to each other, some may be saturated with stories of horror from both World Wars and now Waterloo. This book deserves a look out of the Booker Prize beam, and in the light of being an Australian book (one of several I have enjoyed in recent years and would like to see more around) written for the right reasons.

The Editors

Message for Charlie Hebdo

offence noun (UPSET FEELINGS)

upset and hurt or annoyed feelings, often because someone has been rude or shown no respect:

I really didn’t mean (to cause/give) any offence (= did not intend to upset anyone) – I was just stating my opinion.

Do you think he took offence (= was upset) at what I said about his hair?

Three men suffered offence in Paris on Wednesday morning before deciding to attack the offices of a well-known satirical publication, murdering twelve people in the process. Charlie Hebdo was not itself known for indiscriminate violence, or indeed violence of any sort beyond the sharpening of pencils, although some half-wits seem to think they “had it coming”. Now eleven men and one woman are dead as a result of a single, petulant outburst of impotent rage.  They were:

Michel Renaud

Mustapha Ourrad

Elsa Cayat

Frederic Boisseau

Franck Brinsolaro

Ahmed Merabet

Bernard Maris

Philippe Honore

Jean ‘Cabu’ Cabut

Georges Wolinski

Bernard ‘Tignous’ Verlhac

Stephane ‘Charb’ Charbonnier

They join the illustrious group of people who have died rather than succumb to intimidation.

The Editors

Review of the Year 2014

Fiction: Part 2

Welcome back to our Review of the Year 2014 – enjoy our remaining “best reads” and if there’s anything you’d like to contribute please send us an email: editors@dontreadtoofast.com

Alice Farrant
Alice Farrant writes the blog ofBooks.org. Follow her on Twitter: @nomoreparades.

The Secret History, by Donna Tartt

I love all of Tartt’s novels (including The Little Friend), but The Secret History is one of the best books I have ever read. Reading it felt like fireworks exploding in my mind and I’ve never felt as creative or motivated as I did after finishing it. Who knew five intellectuals, two deaths and a murder could bring me so much joy.

Mrs Hemingway, by Naomi Wood

Fictionalising historical events or people is a complicated task that has the potential to go horrendously wrong. However, Wood manages to breath live in Hemingway’s four wives in a way I never have thought possible. She destroyed my preconceptions of his wives, ones that were predominantly negative of the three who followed Hadley, but after reading Mrs Hemingway I had grown to love all four women who loved and suffered with him.

Editor 1

Catcher in the Rye, by J. D. Salinger

That place had phonies coming out of the window” was one of my favourite sentences of 2014. A book I am looking forward to reading, and re-living, over and over again. I am not sure why I hadn’t read it before. (Read the DRTF review).

Your Fathers, where are they? And the Prophets, do they live forever? by Dave Eggers

A chilling take on the rational justifications we make for the actions we use to mask our fear and the sense that we don’t belong. One of the more impressive works in the psycho-lit genre that has been born out of America’s lost youth taking up arms to define and discover their place in an alienating society of the twenty first century. (Read the DRTF review).

Editor 2

This year has had the requisite amount of furtively ploughing through science fiction and fantasy hardbacks such as The Slow Regard of Silent Things by Patrick Rothfuss, Nick Harkaway’s Tigerman and the collection from everyone in that generously sized genre aptly named Rogues.

I have reaffirmed my respect for the short story thanks to Bark by Lorrie Moore, and shall endeavour to keep reading entirely different kinds of stories, such as S by JJ Abrams, and the wonderfully funny and entirely bonkers In the Approaches by Nicola Barker. The latter book is essential reading for anyone who has ever lived on the South Coast and/or suspects that their family are mad.

2014 has also been a really strong year for comics: Through the Woods by Emily Carroll shows beautifully dark fairy tales with bite (read with Marina Warner’s latest if you are interested in the roots of these stories). Porcelain: A Gothic Fairy Tale by Benjamin Read is drawn by the wonderful Christian Wildgoose, and perfect for reading over Christmas. Finally, decades later, Neil Gamain has returned to fill in a few gaps he left when The Sandman came to an end, with Overtures. Everything I could have hoped for.

Editor 3

Stoner, by John Williams

An almost inconceivably succinct, heartbreaking account of the highs and lows of human existence. Despite the ostensible adversity with which Williams besets his protagonist, I found this an extremely uplifting novel, as though the author had somehow managed to crystallise the essence of what it is that makes life living. (Read the DRTF review).

Levels of Life, by Julian Barnes

This book was written as a glorious tribute to the love the author shared with his late wife, Pat Kavanagh. It is a book that deals with the immense suffering of loss, yet recognises that a loss of this magnitude must be preceded by the greatest possible victory. The novel revolves around the central metaphor of ballooning, which deals precisely with, to quote Nick Cave, “those moments when the gears of the heart really change.”

Review of the Year 2014

Fiction: Part 1

Welcome to Don’t Read Too Fast’s review of the year 2014.

For those who have yet to experience our yearly extravaganza, our approach is not to give a list of the best books published this year, but rather to share some of the best of what we’ve actually managed to read, whether 21st century offerings or tomes from the Dark Ages. With that said, please sit back and enjoy the first instalment.

Hannah Joll

The Dig, by Cynan Jones

This is very short and very good by a fairly new writer, I think. The length and intensity of language (like Ted Hughes or Heaney’s Death of a Naturalist collection his ear is poetic and rough at the same time e.g. describing a badger’s nose hanging from ‘a sock of skin’). It’s about badger baiting but also farming, briefly. The physical descriptions, (knowingly) brilliant attention to detail, and its address to grief make the book tender as well as frightening.

The Periodic Table, by Primo Levi

I’d looked at this book on other people’s shelves and skipped over it for years (also vaguely mixed it up with Italo Calvino). The whole thing is great but a story like ‘Iron’ I’d recommend to anyone, anytime and feel confident. It’s about friendship and bear meat as a euphemism for experience. ‘Nitrogen’, a story about the author sifting through chicken shit with his new wife on their honeymoon to try and synthesise the factor that makes the better post-War lipsticks stay on is also tip top. He’s so thoughtful and excited, it’s good to read.

Alexander Starritt

Naples ’44, by Norman Lewis

I’m pleased to say I’ve read lots of good books this year, but the best I think is Norman Lewis’s Naples ’44. Lewis was a population liaison officer in the War and for this book has basically written up his diary, taking out the boring bits. It is still in the form of entries a page or two long, and each of them is fantastical. Naples seems only half-real, only half-European, starving, oriental, in thrall to sex and superstition. Lewis reports that the Neapolitans raided the aquarium for food, sparing only a baby manatee they could not bring themselves to kill; it lived a few short weeks more before the American commander in chief demanded it for his table. A prince comes to Lewis to find a position for his sister at a military brothel. The populace anxiously awaits the annual liquefaction of a vial of San Gennaro’s blood. The volcano erupts. The mafia seize control. The warped and the monstrous gather in caves. Each diary entry is the most astonishing short story you’ve ever read.

Olivia Hanson

The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt

I’ve never read such a long book that is so compelling. A well-written page-turner! I have now totally forgiven Donna for The Little Friend on this basis. (Eds: we agree)

Freedom, by Jonathan Franzen

This, plus The Corrections, are two of my favourite novels ever. Beautiful turns of phrase and highly believable characters. Perfect reflections of the human condition.

The Last Tycoon, by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Beautifully written, one of Fitzgerald’s best. If only it were complete!

Tender Shoots, by Paul Morand

A jewel-like collection of short stories, set in Paris at the turn of the century. Such a find.

The Line of Beauty, by Alan Hollinghurst

Wonderfully written, sympathetic narrator, startling insight into 80’s life for gay people.

World War Z, by Max Brooks

What a revelation.

Imogen Lloyd

Innocence, by Penelope Fitzgerald

Chosen for the scene with the tailor and all the other bits I wanted to underline and remember forever but was too greedy to.

A Girl is Half Formed Thing, by Eimar McBride

Because once I found a rhythm, it became the most ferocious and intimate thing.

The Luminaries, by Eleanor Catton

I got there in the end. Because every scene felt intricately painted (like those tiny Dutch rooms ), not just the characters but their surroundings, as if she’d been spying on them inhabit that world before she started writing, and that richness and made all the tricksy twists and turns easier to navigate.

There but for the, by Ali Smith

It was a bit like if all the best, weirdest characters from legendary sitcoms have been told to hang out, and the master of ceremonies is an unassuming genius who has never watched TV and has no clue who they are. I loved it so much but can’t really explain why!

This list seems a bit sexist now, I did read men too but they didn’t cut the mustard this time.

The Men and Women of Middlemarch: Part 1

middlemarch

I at least have so much to do in unravelling certain human lots, and seeing how they were woven and interwoven, that all the light I can command must be concentrated on this particular web, and not dispersed over that tempting range of relevancies called the universe.”

George Eliot’s Middlemarch, first published serially in 1871-1872, is a work of almost unrivalled complexity set in the Great British Countryside.  AS Byatt has suggested that the title is both a nod to the geography of the novel, and a reference to the first lines of Dante’s Inferno: “In mezzo cammin di nostra vita / mi ritrovai per una selva scura” [“In the middle of the road of our life / I found myself in a dark wood”].  Certainly, the main characters are all beset at various stages in the novel by the obstacles life hurls at them.

Middlemarch was famously the conflation of two separate narratives the author was working on simultaneously: the first, a study of provincial society revolving around the character of Dr Lydgate; the second, a short story entitled “Miss Brooke”, with Dorothea Brooke occupying centre stage.  The resulting dual-protagonist structure of Middlemarch has been a source of confusion for readers and critics ever since, doubtlessly exacerbated by the fact that Eliot did not contrive to have her two main characters end up romantically entwined.  However, to describe Middlemarch in terms of two parallel stories would also be simplistic, there being a huge number of other characters whose separate entanglements are also central to the overall makeup of the novel.  In fact, it has often been noted that the underlying metaphor of the book is that of “the web”, holding the various strands together in an intricately woven arrangement.

Besides Dorothea Brooke and Dr Lydgate, much can be made of Bulstrode the morally dubious banker, Mary Garth the sensible daughter of the local land agent, Ladislaw the principled outsider, and even Mr Brooke the delusional would-be man of politics.  Arthur George Sedgwick, writing in 1973, observed the debate that had already begun to rage regarding the identity of the novel’s true protagonist, noting that some even viewed the town itself as the lead player.  Unfortunately, Mr Sedgwick ultimately appears to have become caught up in Eliot’s carefully constructed web of interconnected plot-lines and overlapping characters:

It would be a mere waste of time to go into a minute criticism of Middlemarch.  The plots are too numerous, the characters too multitudinous, and the whole too complicated.”

He thus concludes as follows:

In the attempt to play the critic of such works as these, one cannot help feeling that to properly analyze and explain George Eliot, another George Eliot is needed, and that all suggestion can do is to indicate the impossibility of grasping, in even the most comprehensive terms, the variety of her powers.”

It is not our intention in this series to get bogged down in a similar state of despair, so we will not be attempting anything approaching a comprehensive analysis of the novel.  Instead, we plan to look at a few of the characters individually, to see what still resonates about them and the way Eliot presents them to us.  The idea is that by putting some of the key character under the microscope separately we might learn something about the way Eliot conceived her characters, both as someone fascinated with the concept of freedom and choice, and more generally with the intertwining paths of human life.

The Editors

Spoken Word: Other Lives – Hilary Mantel in conversation with Harriet Walters for the RSL

Wolf Hall - MantelWolf Hall has just come off the London stage, and it is about to appear on ITV as a ten-part series starring Mark Rylance, adapted for the screen by Mantel, just as she oversaw the stage production. With Bring Up The Bodies finally edging off the bestseller lists, Mantel’s collection of short stories The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher is on every top ten list predicting Christmas books. In short, Mantel is everywhere, luckily for us.

Before delving into her latest offering, her appearance in the Union Chapel with Harriet Walters for the RSL is definitely worth mentioning. It was a few months ago now, but the overarching conversation has lingered, centring as it did on the idea of wearing another’s skin on your back. Walters, an established character actress, described having to go “a long way” to meet Lady Macbeth, reassuringly. Mantel, in turn, described the process of acquainting herself with Thomas Cromwell as mediation, or more simply as the process of getting inside a character’s head. The way she explained this was to recall the first moment the reader encounters Cromwell, as a fifteen year-old, bleeding in Putney after a beating from his father. She could hear a voice floating above his head, feel the cobbles beneath his cheek, and taste blood.

She gleefully relayed Christopher Hitchens’s review of Wolf Hall (“you would never know it was written by a woman”) as a testament – as well she should – of how naturally she occupied Cromwell. She clearly delights in living unlived lives by writing as a man, much as she did for Robespierre in A Place of Greater Safety. She wears their skins well and has done it often, so she knows what it requires, and is conscious that if you encounter the actor playing Cromwell five minutes after the curtain, you cannot be entirely sure if they have yet made the “perfect conversion”. Something of the public Croydon’s thuggish self may remain, before the private core of the actor manages to reassert itself.

The power of the play (it will be impressive indeed if this translates to the small screen) is that watching it makes Cromwell inhabit the present, walk in your line of sight and live, of course, if only for a while. The two women agreed that when it really works, the production “pins you to the heartbeat and to the breath”. This would be harder for a more thoroughly cerebral Machiavellian character, perhaps, as Cromwell lashes out – lightning quick – to strike Wolsey; he paces, looms and threatens. Exposition and rubbing one’s hands together in a sinister fashion alone will not get it done.

Given that Mantel is a pleasure to watch as well as to read – she beams and laughs, and seems to enjoy herself – sinister is the word that describes some of her rawer home truths (“ultimately, we are all just alone in the dark”) as well as the creeping feeling of dread from reading her recent collection of short stories. She described on stage the presence of an unarticulated secret – like Bluebeard’s locked room – in a novel, and how this can change with contextual climate. For Wolf Hall, she cited the preconception of people who tend to watch Henry VIII as a wife killer, because this is how the Tudors are taught in schools. We learn his list of wives with the song in order to remember how they snuffed it, rarely dawdling on his accomplishments in poetry, music or foreign policy, let alone his relationship with the Privy Council.

In the same way, every story from The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher carries a patina of dread. While it is not as overt as the corpse stashed beneath the coffee table in Rope, it is much more than something stuck in one’s tooth or a fingernail split to the quick. Some of the stories are more overtly macabre, and ‘Harley Street’ is just plain upsetting as one cannot help but speculate it is based on Mantel’s own delicate health. They are all funny. On finishing the title story, however, it is difficult to shake that feeling of something starting to turn on a muggy day, or indeed get rid of the sand concealed under one’s own skin, like the rhino in Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories.

The Editors

An Evening with Julian Barnes

Vintage_Arthur_&_George_250JUSTICE “Law and Literature” event – 28 October 2014, Inner Temple Hall, London

Last Wednesday the London-based human rights organisation, JUSTICE, held the first event in its “Law and Literature” series: ‘An Evening with Julian Barnes’.  It began with a presentation by Lord Justice Laws, followed by Julian Barnes reading from his novel, Arthur & George, and then a conversation between the author and Baroness Kennedy of the Shaws QC.  Unsurprisingly perhaps, but unbeknownst to me at the time, the novel was chosen because it revolves around an early twentieth century miscarriage of justice known as the Edalji case.  The case concerned the prosecution and conviction of an Anglo-Indian solicitor, George Edalji, for numerous incidents of ‘horse-ripping’ (the apparently random mutilation of horses), known as the Great Wyrley Outrages, that occurred in Staffordshire in 1903.  The proceedings were drawn to national attention when Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, already a major celebrity writer, took it upon himself to campaign on Edalji’s behalf, having become convinced that no man as short-sighted as Mr Edalji could possibly have committed the crimes himself.  The campaign was ultimately successful in turning public opinion in favour of the convicted man, and a commission of inquiry into the case was ordered by the government, which granted Edalji a pardon in 1907.  The case was also an important driver for reform of the criminal justice system in England, including the creation of the Court of Criminal Appeal.  Interestingly, the Edalji case was almost exactly contemporaneous with the Dreyfus affair, a sort of more celebrated older brother, which sharply divided public opinion in France at the beginning of the twentieth century.

Barnes explained that he had first stumbled across the Edalji case completely by chance, and had investigated it with a writer’s “predatory” instinct, that is, in the hope of being able to turn the source material into some sort of fictionalised account of the episode.  He quickly became aware, upon researching the case, that his biggest challenge would be successfully balancing the lives of his two protagonists, Arthur Conan Doyle and George Edalji, so that the latter would not be totally eclipsed in the novel by the adventures, success and renown of the former.  This balancing involved drawing out the character of George so that it could become more interesting and nuanced than first impressions might indicate.  To this extent, Barnes actually read Edalji’s one book as a solicitor, Railway Law for the “Man in the train”, published in 1901, which he found surprisingly funny.

The use of real figures from the past as the basis for fictional characters was also discussed later on in the evening, with Mr Barnes declaring that he treated real people with as much seriousness in his work as he treated fictional individuals.  He did, however, concede that it was sometimes necessary to embellish a character in fiction, often for want of sufficient information on the original person – he remembered once being challenged at a book festival by a descendant of one of the characters in Arthur & George, who complained that the physical appearance of his relative as described in the novel did not match reality, before noting bitterly that “I suppose he’s your character now.”  To which Mr Barnes was tempted to reply: “yes, he is.”

This exchange, and in fact the evening as a whole, led me to reconsider two slightly hackneyed but nevertheless important and related issues in literature.  Firstly, the issue of artistic licence when it comes to exhuming and attempting to resuscitate incidents from history.  There is a well-founded concern, on the one hand, that figures from the past should not be posthumously slandered in any way.  On the other hand, there is a belief that significant episodes from our collective history should not be confined to non-fiction accounts and sterile textbooks.  In certain situations the two positions cannot be reconciled; opinions about what happened in the past frequently differ, and we therefore inevitably find ourselves entering a slippery debate about objectivity and the nature of ‘truth’.  However, the fact that writers of fiction cannot avoid causing some offence when adopting positions vis-à-vis history should never preclude them from embarking on artistic reinterpretations of the past.  I would argue that an author has some responsibility to be sensitive to what he believes to be true (perhaps an obligation to take characters “seriously” at all times), particularly when dealing with lesser known figures, but that is all.

This leads directly into the second issue referred to above, which is the responsibility of writers generally.  It is often claimed that literature and politics or social responsibility do not sit well together: the necessary ambiguity of the former clashing horribly with the black-and-white dogma of the latter.  This is true insofar as literature as art should endeavour to convey an experience of reality that is self-aware and not bound to rigid ideological structures, which is perhaps why Milan Kundera once remarked that “what Orwell tells us could have been said as well (or even much better) in an essay or pamphlet.”  Even accepting this, it is still nevertheless the case that writers wield significant influence outside their fictional output: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle used his celebrity clout at the dawn of the twentieth century to secure the pardon of an innocent man, whilst only last week Julian Barnes put his name to JUSTICE’s most recent fundraising campaign.

But returning to the fiction itself, there is also a responsibility inherent in the act of writing, albeit one that is not immediately obvious.  I think Mr Barnes put it best in the preface to his book of essays Through the Window:

Novels tell us the most truth about life: what it is, how we live it, what it might be for, how we enjoy and value it, how it goes wrong, and how we lose it […] Fiction makes characters who have never existed as real as your friends, and makes dead writers as alive as a television newsreader.”

As applied to the fiction of Julian Barnes, I can safely say that without Arthur & George it is extremely unlikely that I would ever have heard of the Edalji case, let alone have become interested in it.  More importantly, I would never have put myself in George Edalji’s shoes as he faced the injustice of a world intent on punishing him for being different.

The Editors

25. Why Read?

“Why Read?”

You can rely on reading.

Lots of the other things that you can do to pass your time and have fun are out of your control. My favourite television programme has ended and there probably won’t be another series because not enough people liked it (which means they must have been stupid), but with a book, it’s just you and the book. It doesn’t depend on anyone else’s point of view – once it’s there, no-one can change that.

In the same way, when I read, no-one is making their mind up about the appearance, setting or accent that characters have: everything comes out of my own brain. If you go to the theatre, or to the cinema, then lots of that has already been done for you. Even if you don’t think that that lady looks like Medea, that’s bad luck because she’s already in it and that’s who you’re going to see. I didn’t think Percy Jackson would have an American accent, but he did in the film and now that’s the voice I hear in my head when I read the books.

Reading allows me to make my own mind up about everything, and make my own decisions: there’s just me and the writer’s words – and that’s how I think it should be. That’s why I read.

William Kelly, age 11

“Why Read?”

I read me because it enables me to go back in time and experience what other people with different standards of living experienced.

I find it really interesting to read about things that I don’t understand, because then I’ll know about it, and that knowledge will never leave me – I even know about the Stone Age now, and that’s not the sort of thing that comes up in conversation, but it’s good to know, because now I’ll never wonder what happened in the Stone Age. I’ll know.

Some of the most amazing people in history wrote their autobiographies, so you don’t have to think what they MIGHT have thought: you can read their actual words. People like Winston Churchill, Nelson Mandela, Julius Caesar (and some baddies as well) wrote about what had happened in their lives, so when I read about them, I know they’re telling the truth and that they haven’t got it wrong.

Alexander Kelly, age 10

“Why Read?”

Reading lets impossible things happen to you.

You can be in the story, with the characters, not just watching the story like you would do on television, but actually being there. Even if you don’t know people exactly like in the story, or know the places that they’re talking about; when you read, it’s like you do know those things.

In “Alice in Wonderland”, I think Alice is me, and that those things could actually happen to me in real life. Even if there are things that seem impossible (like girls turning into kangaroos in “The Wind on the Moon”), when I read it in a book, I don’t think it’s fake or unrealistic: I think that there’s a world where it can happen and does (under certain circumstances). When I read these stories, I think that these places are lovely places to be, and that the things that are happening are lovely things to happen. It brings a huge amount of pleasure into my life and allows me to relax in silence, and if I couldn’t read I’d miss all the worlds, the lives and the people in the books who have come to life as I have read about them.

Nina Kelly, age 10

 

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