Monday, April 26, 2010

Readings — The Wood is Sweet

The Wood is Sweet
by John Clare
selected by David Powell

This is a selection of poems by Clare, chosen by Powell. Powell (presumably it was he) also edited them, adding punctuation and normalising spelling. The result is a curiously sedate Clare, a partially domesticated Clare. Much of Clare’s distinctive wildness is lost, and the poems acquire a chiming sameness.

These are still fine nature poems, perhaps especially for young readers. Edited or not, Clare’s obviously capable of striking images, as when he imagines ants as deformed fairies. The book’s divided into sections by subject, which works for poems about times of the year or about times of the day, but not as much for others; again, a monotony sets in. Still, a sequence of poems about animals helps point up the intensity of Clare’s empathy with the wild, and his observation of the life around him. This is, in the end, a book that couldn’t help but be good — it is still Clare, at the end of the day — but which is not to be preferred to more faithful reproductions of Clare’s work.

Readings — The Zombie Survival Guide

The Zombie Survival Guide
by Max Brooks

Turns out, not being a zombie fan, I’m not the ideal reader for this book. Go figure. I’d quite liked Brooks’ other zombie tome, World War Z, a politically-savvy multi-voiced take on a zombie apocalypse, and had hoped this book would be something comparable. It’s not, really. It’s a series of tips on, well, surviving a zombie incursion, played completely straight. If you’re fascinated by zombie stories, you’ll probably quite enjoy it. Personally, I liked the last section quite a bit, which imagines zombie outbreaks throughout history, in a range of different cultures. Which is to say, that was the bit most like World War Z. Overall, though, I’d have to say this is a well-done book for zombie fans, and not terribly interesting for those of us who aren't.

Readings — Of Mice and Men

Of Mice and Men
by John Steinbeck

Steinbeck wrote this book, apparently, in a deliberate attempt to cross the novel form with the play form, creating a prose story which could be acted on stage. In practice, it feels like a fix-up afterthought; like a poorly-adapted play. The language is improbable and stagey, and a number of ostensibly major characters come off as mere devices (including the only female character). You can imagine good actors making something of this material. But it’s too much to expect a reader to cobble the hints here together into credible characters. Sure, novels can work by indirection and implication, but the gaps in this book are in the wrong places, and the work is unsubtle in language, theme, and character. The melodrama, and the overly-signposted symbolism of the speeches, drown out everything else.

Now, I’m not a tremendous fan of American literature in general (more precisely: not a fan of what I’ve read of the American-written literature that Americans chose to canonise in the twentieth century), still less of early-twentieth-century American naturalism. And the fact that the book’s been so widely parodied and has such a broad influence doesn’t help; it’s impossible not to hear some of the lines of dialogue spoken by Mel Blanc, and difficult not to think of Old Yeller at the overwrought tearjerker finale, as well. Still, the book seems to me to be dated in ways that Dickens and George Eliot never are, particularly in its slang.

I’d go so far as to say that the book was so bad that it called into question the idea of the pared-down narrative voice. That is, most of the book consists of dialogue between the characters, with only an occasional brief interjection by an omniscient narrator. Instead of feeling like a successful attempt at economy of diction, though, it felt like a half-assed attempt to turn a play into a novel. Which makes you wonder about other novels that try for a similar spareness. Is that stylistic direction really fruitful? Or is it something inherently un-novelistic? Is it a coincidence that this stylistic ideal became prominent at about the same times that films did?

No art form exists in a vaccuum, and different media forms will influence each other. But not every influence is necessarily positive.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Readings — The Romance of the Forest

The Romance of the Forest
by Ann Radcliffe

I don’t know why I never read any Ann Radcliffe before. I’ve enjoyed a number of early Gothic novels, but had yet to get to hers. I think hearing about Radcliffe’s notorious tendency to cop out on the supernatural aspect of her stories, presenting Scooby-Doo endings where all the apparent magical or ghostly happenings were actually improbable machinations by the earthly characters, caused me to shy away. In fact, I was somewhat surprised to see that the supernatural played almost no part in this book; it’s essentially a historical melodrama set in seventeenth-century France.

I was more surprised by the fact that it read less like an adventure story and more as an attempt to speak up on contemporary debates on the philosophy of the sublime. Radcliffe has a tendency, as many people have observed, to feature extended passages of landscape description; certainly, if you think Tolkien tended to excess in that respect, you don’t want to come anywhere near Radcliffe, but then as with Tolkien those passages aren’t just providing colour but actually providing shape to the theme of the book. So Radcliffe’s gothic is actually a part of an extended dialogue on the sublime and human reactions to nature. You can see the link to contemporary Romantic poetry clearly.

On the other hand, the descriptions of nature don’t do a lot to speed up the story. Coincidences abound; the structure is halting, episodic. Jane Austen, notoriously, rubbished Radcliffe’s character-writing, but she’d have been better advised to focus on Radcliffe’s plotting skills.

Since I’m on the subject, though, let’s look at that Austen quote. I’m referring to this passage in Northanger Abbey (here from Project Gutenberg):

Charming as were all Mrs. Radcliffe's works, and charming even as were the works of all her imitators, it was not in them perhaps that human nature, at least in the Midland counties of England, was to be looked for. Of the Alps and Pyrenees, with their pine forests and their vices, they might give a faithful delineation; and Italy, Switzerland, and the south of France might be as fruitful in horrors as they were there represented. Catherine dared not doubt beyond her own country, and even of that, if hard pressed, would have yielded the northern and western extremities. But in the central part of England there was surely some security for the existence even of a wife not beloved, in the laws of the land, and the manners of the age. Murder was not tolerated, servants were not slaves, and neither poison nor sleeping potions to be procured, like rhubarb, from every druggist. Among the Alps and Pyrenees, perhaps, there were no mixed characters. There, such as were not as spotless as an angel might have the dispositions of a fiend. But in England it was not so; among the English, she believed, in their hearts and habits, there was a general though unequal mixture of good and bad.

Okay, so, taking the last point first: I was surprised to find that, contrary to Austen, The Romance of the Forest actually did have a number of “mixed characters” in it. Pierre La Motte, who carries the story for the first part of the book, is decidedly mixed; well-intentioned, but weak. The same for his wife. Nor am I entirely convinced that Adeline’s meant to be entirely without flaw. Certainly, you can argue that these characters are not convincingly drawn. But Austen’s main point is that “human nature” is not faithfully represented in Radcliffe because her characters are “spotless as angels” or else “have the dispositions of a fiend”. This is simply not true. (It also ignores the fact that faithful representation of human nature is not necessarily the aim of a novelist; but that’s a whole other argument.)

Still, what always struck me as ridiculous about this passage — I can think of no other word for the incredulity with which I first read it — is the central part: “But in the central part of England there was surely some security for the existence even of a wife not beloved, in the laws of the land, and the manners of the age. Murder was not tolerated, servants were not slaves, and neither poison nor sleeping potions to be procured, like rhubarb, from every druggist.”

All right, then. Anybody who ever read Hardy’s Mayor of Casterbridge will recall that the book opens with a poor man selling off his wife, thinking that would count as a divorce. According to one reference book I have to hand (Daniel Pool’s What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew), “Between 1750 and 1850, in fact, there were some 380 of these do-it-yourself divorces effected in rural England. The general procedure was even crasser than Hardy suggests, for you typically put a halter around your wife’s head and shoulders and led her to the auction place like a cow, the only checks on the practice being occasional ostracism and not very stringent legal penalties.”

That’s assuming we’re talking about divorce, which in its legal forms was prohibitively expensive and difficult to obtain. Pool again: “Once married, a wife could not sue or make a contract on her own nor make a will without her husband’s consent. If he wished to confine her against his will, as Mr. Rochester does his wife at Thornfield Hall, until 1891 he was well within his rights in doing so. He could ‘correct’ her if he wished, too, a right which was supposed to mean only verbal chastisement but in practice often meant physical punishment.” So, yeah. I suppose you could make an argument that the Brontës’ brand of Gothic, unlike Radcliffe’s tales set in England, went some distance toward both disproving Austen’s take on a wife’s situation (Austen, of course, was never married herself) and perhaps validated the experiences of their readers.

While I’m at it, I might mention that when Austen declares “servants were not slaves” she neglects to mention that slavery was actually legal (she completed Northanger Abbey in 1799, the slave trade was outlawed in the British Empire in 1807, the book was published in 1817, Britain abolished slavery in 1833). And it has to be said that to someone in the contemporary First World, a servant’s life still seems pretty harsh. Pool tells us that a servant’s day might begin at 6 AM and end at 11 PM, with only half a day off on Sunday and two full weeks of vacation in a year, plus one evening a week and one day per month. Pay could be as little as 11 pounds a year. “The servants slept in tiny, overheated or freezing-cold attic rooms and worked in dark, dank basement areas that were too hot or too cold ... They were ordered around, sometimes insulted, and frequently treated with minimal respect for the long, hard back-breaking hours of work they put in.” And, of course, a female servant who got pregnant could expect to be fired.

(And just to finish everything off, Austen claims “neither poison nor sleeping potions [were] to be procured, like rhubarb, from every druggist”, which is a statement so manifestly false I have no idea why she made it. Laudanum, opium dissolved in alcohol, was widely available in patent medicines as a pain reliever and to bring on sleep. The best possible interpretation, I suppose, is that Austen was seeing around her only what she wanted to see and ignoring what didn’t fit.)

The point I’m getting to is that not only do I think Austen was wrong in her specific criticism of Ann Radcliffe, I have to wonder whether Radcliffe wasn’t a more accurate observer of the world around her. Was the Gothic form that Radcliffe partly created (the Brontës certainly seem to me to owe more to Radcliffe’s ‘realistic’ Gothic than to the overt supernaturalism of Walpole, Beckford, Maturin, or Lewis) a way to say things that could not be said more directly? There has been much written in recent years about Gothic as a female form of writing, about Gothic as a means of social criticism — does the form allow one to think more freely about the world around oneself?

(Edited to add: the thoughts on Radcliffe and the sublime follow from reading the 1986 World's Classics edition with notes and introduction by Chloe Chard. Some strong scholarship there, I felt.)

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Briefly Noted

My review of Guy Gavriel Kay's new book, Under Heaven, is in today's Montreal Gazette, and up at the Gazette's web site.

Take That, Ecclesiastes

Overheard by Grace on Monkland Avenue:

Teenage girl #1: "You know what they say — there's nothing new under the sun."

Teenage girl #2: "Yeah. Well ... [flips hair] iPads."

Readings — Records of Shelley, Byron, and the Author

Records of Shelley, Byron, and the Author
by Edward John Trelawney

A somewhat notorious book, this claims to be a faithful recollection of Trelawney’s experience with the two poets, and as well a discussion of his own military adventures. It is frankly beyond me to disentangle fact and fiction, and indeed has been a primary preoccupation of Shelley and Byron biographers for the past hundred and fifty years. What I can say is that it’s swiftly written and engaging in its own right.

Trelawney’s recounting of his escapades after the death of the poets (justifying the “and the Author” portion of the title) is particularly engaging; you get the sense that the subject which most interested Trelawney, at a basic level, was Trelawney. Shelley and Byron are useful insofar as it allows Trelawney to recount his experience of the two men. It’s impossible not to be sceptical, therefore, of that recounting. Certainly I had the sense of biography like a sun setting behind clouds: glints of something bright and real, shining behind a screen which was made fascinating by the light it obscured. Which is to say that the book’s intensely readable, but you take it for truth at your own risk.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Readings — Headlong Hall and Nightmare Abbey

Headlong Hall and Nightmare Abbey
by Thomas Love Peacock

Peacock, a friend of Shelley, is mostly known for books like these: light comedies structured around dialogues between characters standing in for people like Shelley, or Coleridge, or Byron. Or so I’d always heard. I was happy to find these books had more to them than just a roman à clef. Peacock’s got an understated sense of structure that makes his work feel taut, and a feel for humour writing — by which I mean that you don’t just get laughs out of the books, but you’re pulled on by sheer amusement to find out what happens next.

That said, these books do feel a bit thin. Partly that’s because the characters are (deliberately) very broad — so much so that a complex figure like Shelley can be playfully satirised by two differerent characters in Headlong Hall, each representing different aspects of his personality and thought. But the thinness also comes from the style in which Peacock writes, where action is described very simply and pictorial description hardly appears at all. In other words, stylistically similar to old metrical romances.

That said, though broadly similar, these two novels (the edition I have put them in a single volume) are very dissimilar. If you step back and look at the overall plot structure of Headlong Hall, it’s actually a pleasing romantic comedy in an almost classic sense. A group of unlikely characters gather in an isolated spot; a young man pursues a young woman’s favour; she takes against him, and may end up married to a pedantic older man (a satirical take on Coleridge); various zanies and guests add to the chaos; at the end the slightly-buffoonish-yet-patriarchal lord sets things to right, almost by accident. Plot-wise, you could easily imagine this adapted to stage or film. As a novel, though, it proceeds almost entirely through those dialogues, which don’t always move the story along. In fact, the story can come to seem an appendix to the dialogue, which is a shame, as the matter of the story is nicely-turned in its own right.

Nightmare Abbey’s a different creature in a lot of ways. Written by Peacock for Shelley as a comment on Shelley's romantic affairs, the lead’s a charmingly emo-goth take on Shelley (“He built many castles in the air, and peopled them with secret tribunals, and bands of illuminati, who were always the imaginary instruments of his projected regeneration of the human species ... He slept with Horrid Mysteries under his pillow, and dreamed of venerable eleutherarchs and ghastly confederates holding midnight conventions in subterranean caves. He passed whole mornings in his study, immersed in gloomy reverie, stalking about the room in his nightcap, which he pulled over his eyes like a cowl, and folding his striped calico dressing-gown about him like the mantle of a conspirator”). He ends up having to choose between versions of Shelley’s first wife, Harriet Westbrook, and an amusingly humourless Mary Godwin (Peacock thought Shelley should stick with Westbrook). It’s far more cynical than Headlong Hall, and arguably less predictable. I think it’s less perfectly structured, but the characters are more engaging, and since the dialogues are really the main features of these books, that means it feels more lively than Headlong Hall. Both books, incidentally, feature a romantic triangle between a young woman, a Shelley-analogue, and a Coleridge-analogue; the different ways the triangles resolve say something about the different spirits animating the two tales.

On the whole, both books are enjoyable. The style’s brisk, and humour still sharp and direct, and there’s an amiability to them that’s still pleasing after two centuries.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Readings — Biographia Literaria

Biographia Literaria
by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

I’d read parts of the Biographia in a class on English Romanticism, so I was used to thinking about it as a text of literary criticism. Which it is, but in a roundabout way. The heart of the book seems to lie with philosophy, specifically Coleridge’s take on contemporary German philosophy. The question of plagiarism has swirled about this part of his writing for almost two centuries; I don’t have an opinion on that one way or the other, not knowing enough about the originals, but it does seem to me that the style and approach of the work shift substantially when Coleridge enters into a relatively technical exposition of these ideas.

That said, in general the book is a strange mishmash of things — philosophy, criticism, biography, anecdote, republished letters from years before — so a shift in style here or there is not uncharacteristic. In fact, there’s at least one part of the book which Coleridge claimed he chose not to publish, but which may in fact never have been written. It’s all very peculiar, but not, I found, peculiar enough to be consistently interesting.

I’d say further that when reading the Biographia, there’s a curiously orthodox sense to much of it, especially the philosophy, which seems to rest uneasily with the Christian belief Coleridge felt was important. I don’t mean that Coleridge was Blake’s Milton, in chains when writing of heaven; but to me there’s an almost domestic, traditional tone in his writing when he discuss his religious views, something that’s notably absent not only in the most vivid parts of this book, but in all of his greatest poetry. Coleridge at his best was one of the pre-eminent poets of the strange, and at its best this book touches that strangeness. Just not very often.

As I understand it, the book was patched together for the sake of having something to publish, and reads like it. That doesn’t mean it’s terrible, nor does it make it not worth reading; Coleridge is certainly enough of a writer, and enough of a thinker, that it at least repays the reader’s time and then some. But it does have, to me, the feel of a missed opportunity, of something less than it could have been. Which, I suppose, is something that many people feel about Coleridge in general — that his genius never quite found its fullest expression.

Readings — English Romanticism: The Human Context

English Romanticism: The Human Context
by Marilyn Gaull

This is a very impressive introduction to English Romanticism and its era. Gaull gives a real sense not only of the intellectual currents of the time, but of the way people thought and felt. It’s a wide-ranging survey not only of literature, but of politics, painting, philosophy, science, and other forces that shaped those turbulent, fruitful years. Gaull’s style is brisk and authoritative, and she moves quickly and easily from one subject to another. Mostly, she works through descriptions of the lives of prominent historical figures, creating a series of characters who collectively define the time.

It’s not a perfect book. The edition I had suffered from probably the worst proofreading of any book I’ve ever read (including a bewildering insistence on referring to Charles Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer as Melmouth). And inevitably there are a few judgements that I’d disagree with. But on the whole, it’s an incredibly valuable resource, and makes you feel the excitement of a time when great spirits on Earth were sojourning.

In the News

And now, a few thoughts on a subject I know nothing about. Comments letting me know where I'm wrong are strongly encouraged.

A friend just tipped me off to a proposal to have the Pope arrested when he visits the UK in September, that he might potentially be put on trial there or in the International Criminal Court. This strikes me as ironic, in that the only international judicial organisation I can think of in the Western world before the existence of the ICC was, in fact, the Papacy.

Now, I don't know if the proposal will come to anything; similar suggestions were made to arrest George W. Bush for war crimes during a state visit to Canada, and that of course went nowhere. There seems to be a higher degree of direction here, but I don't know whether the pedophilia in the Church will be seen to amount to a crime against humanity, and doubt whether the British courts have jurisdiction over the Pope. On the other hand, as the articles note, the British did arrest Pinochet, and did issue a warrant against former Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni.

Still, I doubt that prosecutions of heads of government will become common in the near future. I tend to think political pressure will lead to the quiet disappearance of such charges. Governments have too much incentive to do business with other governments that may or may not have committed legally questionable acts. But what happens as the near future shades into the more distant future, and a greater amount of legal precedent is set for the definition of war crimes and crimes against humanity? What happens when these things become even harder to sweep under the rug?

As human connective technology grows, as media outlets begin covering everything more intently, as organisation increases among those seeking to bring to justice states and politicians who may have committed crimes — will these sorts of prosecutions begin to succeed? Can the possibility put forward in the first article I linked to, that the powerful should be put on trial just as any citizen, come to pass?

It would be nice to think so. But what happens to international politics as a result? Note that the warrant against Livni, practically, led to the cancellation of a planned visit by her to the UK. Will there be a chilling effect on international diplomacy?

Possibly; but perhaps that would be no bad thing, if properly applied. If states that sponsor war crimes and crimes against humanity are held to account for it, perhaps it results in a lessening of their influence. Perhaps it even means states think twice about sponsoring crimes in the first place. The question really is, will statutes against those crimes not be weakened by governments and individuals seeking to give themselves as much leeway as possible?

It seems to me that if the precedents are there, then the ability to wish them away becomes reduced. If so, then the slow growth of the ability of legal institutions to effectively prosecute these crimes is appropriate -- as the effectiveness of the law increases, so (hopefully) will the ability of the courts to resist political interference. Either way, the establishment of a process by which the powerful are held to legal account can only be positive. My point is just that the institution of this process may not be quick -- but sometimes, evolution is preferable, so long as it gets there in the end.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Readings — Eric and Enid [Four Arthurian Romances]

Eric and Enid
by Chrétien de Troyes
translated by William Wister Comfort

A prose adaptation of Chrétien’s four completed Arthurian romances, this book is highly readable, capturing the romance — in all senses of that word — of Chrétien’s work. Now, Comfort seems, to judge from his introduction, to have been most interested in, or saw Chrétien as most interested in, just that; the pleasing narrative, the excitement and adventure. In the past century, though (for these translations are now a century old), I have the sense that scholarship has re-examined these works, with more of an eye for social aspects and thematic coherency. Indeed, according to Wikipedia, some scholars are now calling Chrétien the inventor of the modern novel.

That last seems a bit of a stretch to me, but I do find that this book hints at psychological acuity in the stories that doesn’t always entirely come across in Comfort’s words. I don't know if that’s a function of the translation or not. I do know that the stories all broke down very nicely into a tripartite structure. And that the theme of love seems to bind the stories internally, as well as each to each (some of them, notably Yvain and Lancelot, link up on a plot level as well).

The stories themselves are excellent, as you might expect. They twist and turn, and develop in intriguing ways. There’s a wealth of imagination here, as well, and coming near the beginning of the Arthurian tradition, some things happen that you don’t expect. More to the point, there’s a feel to these stories, in Comfort’s translation, that’s quite evocative. The details of dress and heraldry are described precisely; it seems logical to presume that they contain a wealth of meaning or references that are missed by modern audiences. Or, at least, by me.

When you read works from centuries past, especially eight centuries past, you have to be aware that writers and storytellers had different conventions, and different ideas of what they were doing and how they were doing it. Certainly some aspects of narrative are consistent across human experience. But perhaps fewer than you’d think. So Comfort translated Chrétien with his own expectations in place; reading these works now, trying to be more open to different conventions, it’s tempting to try to guess at what the translator missed. But that’s ultimately pointless. The texts are the texts. Take them for what they are, and draw from them what you will. Chrétien’s tales have lasted this long; they’ll last some while further, and be reinterpreted in each age to come.

Readings — Under the Net

Under the Net
by Iris Murdoch

Murdoch’s first novel, this is a polished and extraordinarily funny book. When I started it I knew Murdoch’s work only by reputation, and so was surprised, at least at first, to find a novel that seemed to owe as much to Wodehouse as Wittgenstein. But the book subtly shifts as it goes on, mirroring the growth of its protagonist — for this is a kind of bildungsroman, following a young London writer as he develops into maturity and responsibility — and reaching a depth, poignancy, and lyricism that you wouldn't necessarily expect from the early pages of dry comedy.

A.S. Byatt has suggested that Murdoch’s work is concerned with issues of representation, with the question of how much of real life can be contained in language and in a novel. Hence the title of the book, a Wittgenstein reference which nods to the difficulty of representation — Wittgenstein’s image is a bit complex, but can be thought of as referring to the resolution of a representation: The finer a net, the more points of contact with what it contains, the closer an approximation to the reality it holds. Certainly the book is concerned with representation and reality, in its main character’s writing, in the books that he translates, in film (one of the characters is an actor, another a movie producer), in politics (another character is a political agitator) ... the idea is certainly present, but in no way obtrusive. The theme and the story work together nicely, mixing in subtle ways.

There is, in fact, a tautness and density to the book that’s quite impressive, and matches the precision of its structure. But those virtues do not come at the expense of vitality. There’s a madcap energy in the book; it is farcical in the best sense. This, again, seems to me to be thematically appropriate; the use of the very formal tropes of farce points up the issue of representation, and the fidelity of prose to life. But then, to me, the book subtly undermines those formal elements, growing beyond them, becoming something greater. As a novel, I think it’s a great success; as a debut, it’s stunning.

Monday, April 5, 2010

March 2010 Reading Summary

So, as noted, I didn't read as many books in March as I wanted. I read a total of nine books, two of them from a library. I added one book to the apartment. So six books down, and I'll be trying for better in April.