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Book Club Spy Abroad: Edinburgh Book Festival


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Edinburgh Book Festival 2015: Waking the Wuduwasa

The first literary event I attended at this year’s Edinburgh Book Festival was a three-way talk given by actor Mark Rylance, writer Paul Kingsnorth, and ‘mythologist’ Martin Shaw, who gave a rolling rambling performance on England in the 11th century. Kingsnorth was promoting his book The Wake, which Rylance has apparently bought the film rights for. It is set in East Anglia in the 1060s and written in an approximation of Anglo Saxon.

Their shared session opened with Rylance ploughing straight into a reading from the novel, which is written in clearly understandable English prose (easier than Riddley Walker, reviewed here recently) but delivered with a mystifying Jamaican tilt by Rylance. A similar premise to Walker, the plot was described as “a post-apocalyptic novel set a thousand years in the past.

Kingsnorth provided some historical context, perhaps to refresh the memories of those people (like myself) who felt slightly rusty on this passage in our nation’s history, but also to animate the stage for the kind of myths he is looking to revive. He opened with England’s foundation myth of the 5th century: after the collapse of the Roman Empire, warring tribes and king Vortiger were under Pictish threat from the North. Vortiger hired German mercenaries – the Angles and the Saxons – who did not know the Romans had once been in residence (this seems hard to believe) and told stories that giants had built the aqueducts.

Once the Germans had overcome the Picts, a giant leap forward to the eleventh century saw England as a rising medieval power on the island of Albion with a centralized monarchy and language. When it came to discussing 1066, Kingsnorth was keen on not rushing straight ahead to the Plantagenets, as History has been taught on the curriculum for a long time, but stopped at this point and asked why it took several hundred years after 1066 before English became the first language of the King, and why the first law of the land, created in 1067, was that all land is first in the possession of the crown. In other words, all land was automatically owned by the King, which is technically still the position in law today. There was also something called a ‘murdrum’ fine, which provided the root of murder as we know it, which you had to pay if you took a Norman’s life.

The effect these two factors had on the English people yielded more interesting results than posing the usual Battle of Hastings questions suggests: the decade after 1066 saw resistance to the new rule across the country. There were pockets of it, of little prominence, as resistance often manifests itself. The Battle of York saw all local rebel factions flee upon William’s approach. He then scorched hundreds of square miles of the surrounding land and killed all the livestock in what became known as the Harrying of the North, which resulted in widespread famine. This was dutifully recorded in the Domesday Book and is still referred to today. It was of course a decision William took in order to ensure rebellion would not be repeated, as well as to flush any remaining rebels out of hiding. He was quoted as saying on his deathbed to (the hardly impartial) Audric: “I fell on the English as a ravening lion…in this way I took revenge…and so became a barbarous murderer…and so dare not leave the crown to anyone but God.”

The main question that actually preoccupied Kingsnorth was clearly what life in England during this period was like, from the point of view of the Lincolnshire Fens farmer of his novel, who is in constant dialogue with the pre-Christian Teutonic gods. In this way the intersection between myth and history remains as knotted and integral as it always was. Picking at this knot with the old stories as a tool is something Kingsnorth is attempting for a part of the country we don’t hear enough about.

The Fens then were very different for one thing, being undrained, wild salt marshes, with a reputation for errant messengers travelling between villages, taking any news with them. One such story was that of a local ruler sending men into the Fens to find the source of its eeriness. There they found a being with long red hair, known as the Wuduwasa; the Wood Worm; the Witch of the Bleak Shore; a Cyclops or “the being that never dries out”. The men took the creature back to their king and built it an iron cage to investigate what gave it such presence. Their torture yielded no results. The king’s dreams started to be affected by the creature, and he gave his wife the key to the cage and told her to keep it in the croft of her hips, before he departed for the hunt. Their son is of course trapped by the creature in his cage, and bargains with him for his release. The prince is given a way to summon the creature before the latter returns to the swamp. The King returns and banishes his son in the same direction, at which point he summons the monster and leaps upon his back. They disappear under the earth and into the darkness of the Fens. Beneath the swamp was a kingdom where the boy spent seven years. Before he leaves, the creature washes his hair in a pool that turns his curls into gold that the prince is warned not to show anyone, unless he cannot avoid it. The story ends with a grand reveal, a reversal of fortune and a lesson, as most stories do.

In 1070 there was the last stand of the warrior band, lead by Hereward The Wake, to resist the Normans from invading Ely on the Fens. The Normans built a giant floating causeway and siege towers but were attacked from behind their own lines by the resistance. In the end Ely was betrayed rather than conquered by a local monk. Hereward escaped, never to be seen again. Perhaps he resides beneath the Fens still, complete with golden curls.

The Editors

Gormenghast

GormenghastGormenghast – Mervyn Peake

This massive tale of a remote, gothic earldom is comprised of three novels published between 1946 and 1959. Peake was unable to realize his plans for further novels after his death from Parkinson’s at the age of 57. His pellucid language darts in and out of the dark, hulking place he concocted in Gormenghast, which of course is a living presence in itself.

Gormenghast has been ruled by the family Groan always; it is a vast castle, isolated from the outside world by inhospitable regions on every side. As Peake was an official war artist (and had been present at the opening of some of the Nazi concentration camps), it has been suggested that the partially abandoned and jagged skyline of Gormenghast is intended to be reminiscent of London or Dresden post-war.

Outside the castle, clustered under the northern walls, are mud dwellings inhabited by the “Bright Carvers”, whose only purpose is to carve elaborate objects out of wood and present them to the Earl. The Outer Dwellers bear children of unearthly radiance, which fades rapidly on reaching adulthood. The castle’s highest tower, the Tower of Flints, is inhabited by huge numbers of death-owls. The realm’s inhabitants know “every bay, inlet and headland of the great stone island of the Groans, of its sheer cliffs, of its crumbling outcrops, the broken line of the towers”. Their lives revolve around the ruling family of Groan. Martial force, economy and religion appear to have no place here, yet this still does not make for simplicity, because of course there are still people in it.

The melancholy Earl Sepulchre loses his mind after his library is burnt, and sacrifices himself to the death-owls, believing he is one of them. His Countess – a magnificent bulwark redhead with locks like “burning snakes”– only talks to birds, is followed by a cloud of white smoke and yet hides a keen strategic brain. Their wild daughter Fuschia always wears a dress of “flaming red” and their son Titus is not keen on taking on their father’s mantle of observing endless, onerous ritual. And this is approximately seven percent of the plot.

The Groan way of life is threatened by a boy from the kitchens, named Steerpike. He worms his way up the ranks of the servants by murdering and manipulating at every opportunity. He knows every rule and every nook, and is quite simply a wonderful creation. He is revolting (“His body gave the appearance of being malformed, but it would be difficult to say exactly what gave it this gibbous quality”) and highly intelligent. His rise to power is psychopathic (declaring “Equality is everything” whilst pulling the legs off a beetle) fuelled by the fundamental urge to destroy the castle. With his bulging brow and red eyes, capering over the corpses he creates, you do not clamour for his victory but there is a chasm in the novel at his departure.

Notable dynamics are between the obese, sweating cook Swelter (first name Abiatha) and his murderous, reciprocated hatred for the top servant Flay. Flay is an emaciated tall devotee who sleeps outside his master’s door and who lives to preserve the stones of Gomernghast. Second to their dance macabre is Doctor Prunesquallor’s verbal torture of his egomaniac sister Irma (played brilliantly by Fiona Shaw in the 2002 BBC production). She is:

Vain as a child, thin as a stork’s leg, and, in her black glasses, blind as an owl in daylight. She misses her footing on the social ladder at least three times a week, only to start climbing again, wriggling her pelvis all the while, She clasps her dead, white hands beneath her chin in the high hope of hiding the flatness of her chest.

The romantic sub-plot concerning the vapid Irma Prunesquallor and Gormenghast’s Headmaster Bellgrove is welcome relief from Steerpike’s machinations. The established professional academics, the schoolmasters of Gormenghast, are parodies of Oxbridge learning; pedantic, futile, vulgar, lazy and grotesque. Bellgrove is gently dismissed thus:

Two things demand transparency when it comes to this epic. Firstly, that because it is an epic, it is of course immense. Perservere by all means, and here is the second thing: the third book is extremely strange. At the end of the second, Titus flees the castle for the wider world beyond Gormenghast Mountain. The third book follows Titus as he finds a futuristic world of industrialists and advanced technology – with strong steampunk overtones. The plot for this one is utterly bonkers, but suffice it to say that Peake includes some fairly indulgent love scenes, and Titus learns that he does not need to live in the shadow of Gormenghast. Peake’s humour and original illustrations help you along the way. This is a book to read over a holiday, when it does not matter if the way is long, and when you can succumb to the intensely detailed world he created, and follow Flay into the dark.

The Editors

Justice for Thomas Cromwell

JUSTICE “Law & Literature” event – 11 February 2015, Great Hall, Middle Temple, London

Three months agCromwello, JUSTICE hosted their third event in what seems to be the increasingly popular “Law & Literature” series, and surely there was no better venue than the Great Hall of Middle Temple for Hilary Mantel to read from her new, as yet unfinished novel, The Mirror and The Light, the third in the trilogy featuring Thomas Cromwell as its protagonist. Up to this point in the series it was noticeable that JUSTICE had carefully selected their authors based on some sort of affinity with the law and, understandably, justice. The first event featured Julian Barnes discussing his novel Arthur & George, which revolves around a well-known miscarriage of justice, and that talk was followed by another given by Robert Harris on An Officer and A Spy, also about a notorious miscarriage of justice (l’affaire Dreyfus). Although the theme of righting wrongs was not so immediately obvious with Mantel’s trilogy of Tudor-age tomes, all doubt was cast aside at the entry to the event, where the title of the reading was unveiled as “Justice for Thomas Cromwell”, slightly giving away the plot of the third instalment in the process. Of course, Cromwell himself was also a lawyer, among many other things it seems, if we are to believe Mantel’s retelling of his life and times as one of Henry VIII’s closest consiglieri.

Mantel’s is certainly not what you would call a booming voice, and the size of the venue meant that the audience had to lean forward as one to catch everything she said. Again, perhaps given the high proportion of lawyers in attendance, she was quick to point to the legal mechanics underpinning the history of the novels: England’s break from Rome was about “jurisdiction not ideology”. In other words, the separation of the Church of England from the Roman Catholic Church was not about a disagreement over religious doctrine, but rather about sovereignty and the right to self-determination. In that sense, certainly, it could be said to anticipate by half a millennium the current political tussle over the Human Rights Act/European Court of Human Rights, which also seems to have little to do with legal philosophy and everything to do with perceived foreign interventionism and the fact that politicians never like to have their power challenged. I suspect that the organisers of the event at JUSTICE may have made that connection before inviting Mantel to be a speaker.

Mantel said she was less interested in the formalities of history and power than she was in the behind-the-scenes wrangling that actually leads to agreements being reached between kings and countries. To this extent, her interpretation of Cromwell is as the ultimate manipulator of events (almost like a slightly more benign 16th century version of Frank Underwood), whose pragmatism stands in marked contrast to the ivory tower intellectualism of Thomas More. In Mantel’s world, less gets done in the great halls of power than in its courtyards, corridors and kitchens; one would imagine that little has changed over the ages in this regard. However, it is these interstitial spaces between what we know as history that Mantel has made herself master of. It reminds me of something Julian Barnes once wrote about his aversion to famous dates; he said he was less interested in 1492, for example, than 1493 – i.e. what happened when Columbus got back to Europe and took all the credit for finding the new world? The answer is that things continued very much as they had been before, except that the man who actually first sighted America wound up as a gunrunner in north Africa.

I think it is Mantel’s eye for detail and nuance, her ability to humanise historical characters by revealing both their strengths and their weaknesses, that accounts to a large extent for the incredible success of her novels. However, it is also her immense skill at filling in the void between what we think we know actually happened at the time. To this extent, I pity historians of the period who must be unable to read Mantel’s novels without a considerably heftier degree of scepticism.

Dial M for Mass Market Appeal

Killing-Floor-by-Lee-ChildLee Child is clearly a talented writer. The first three chapters of Killing Floor constitute one of the most strident openings to a novel I can remember. Strident, which is to say, gripping and devoid of nuance.

Then the problems begin. Because Killing Floor is too carefully constructed an artifice to be satisfying. Firstly, the author’s name is not Lee Child. It is Jim Grant. Jim Grant chose his nom de plume because it would put him next to Agatha Christie on the shelves. Good commercial thinking, but unsatisfyingly cynical.

Secondly the booming clarity of Jack Reacher’s internal monologue is a pace that Child is unable to sustain for an entire novel. When compared with an equally forthright opening to a book, like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, it whithers on the vine.

Thirdly the intricate twists of plot, the Sherlock Holmes like deduction, the neat tying up of loose ends to lay the foundations for the next novel smack of the worst of Hollywood. The base commercialism that great literature manages to avoid, patterns the novel in its paint by numbers crime thriller simplicity. It’s clear what Lee Child has done with Jack Reacher and he sells a lot of books, but it’s not art and it’s not literature any more than the The Hardy Boys or Biggles (though Biggles is great). It reveals nothing about the broader conditions of humanity, except that some people have talent and use it with cynicism and there is a huge market in feeding people entertainment which refuses to challenge them. No doubt the greatest of artists are prone to venality as much if not more than the rest (I remember an anecdote of Mozart in which he was asked what he was thinking when he stood as if in a reverie at the end of a performance regarding the applauding audience and he said “I was counting the house.”) but the lasting impression of Killing Floor is not improved by the cynical aftertaste it leaves or the charmlessness with which it is achieved. In the shadow of other great English popular writers such as the late Terry Pratchett who outsold every other author of the nineties, shifting close to 100 million books, or George MacDonald Fraser who wrote the first Flashman in two weeks on leaving the Royal Navy because he needed the money. Both were strongly and impressively commercial writers who serviced great audiences with their franchises but somehow achieved it with wit, charm and an invention that escapes Lee Child’s cruel and ultimately unsatisfying novel.

He is a great British export success story, for that we should be grateful, and we must certainly be impressed by his commercial performance, but as for his writing, it evades most compliments except, of course, that of purchasing it.

The Editors

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

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