“It’s always funny until someone gets hurt. Then it’s just hilarious.” (Bill Hicks)

I try to post once a week, and failed totally to do so last week.  This means the post I planned on funny books, to coincide with Comic Relief , was oh-so-topical last week but now is about as current as Christmas.  What the hell, I won’t let my ineptitude deter me from my course.  I’ve written in a previous post about my friend H insisting on lending me light reads, this week I’m going to look at two more books H hopes will encourage me to relinquish my default solemnity and embrace the sunny side of life (particularly difficult here in the UK at the moment as Spring refuses to be sprung and it’s snowing. There’s even talk of a white Easter, which is so unnecessary). I’m concerned this post is self-defeating, because humour is so personal that whether or not I found something funny is really irrelevant as to whether anyone else finds it funny, but let’s crash onwards, and hopefully I’ll be able to give you an idea of whether you want to read the novels or not.  Probably I should stop thinking about it all so seriously!

Firstly Small World by David Lodge (1984, Penguin).  H lent this to me because I am one of those nerds unable to function in the real world so I keep holing up in universities, refusing to leave until I develop book-fanciers lung (which is a disease I think I’ve just invented) from hanging out in libraries the entire time. Well, everyone needs a life plan….  So, Small World is set amongst academia, and mainly derives its humour from its portrayal of vain, self-serving academics competing with each other for a Chair of literary criticism post that only exists virtually – they don’t have to do any work for it, deliver lectures, or even use an office.  This forms the background to series of conferences where the cast of characters intermingle, bitch, gossip and have sex with one another. The nearest character to a hero is Persse McGarrigle, a ridiculously idealistic post-graduate who has spent too much time in books and too little in the real world (I obviously have no idea what that’s like). His thesis is on Shakespeare’s influence on Eliot, then on a whim he tells his fellow academics that its actually about Eliot’s influence on Shakespeare, a preposterous notion which rather than ridiculing, they all get terribly excited about. And so the foibles of contemporary academia are astutely satirised.  I say contemporary because although it was written in 1984, the following sentence convinced me of its relevance:

“How gratifying to encounter, in the dreary desert of contemporary criticism, an exponent of that noble tradition of humane learning, of robust common sense and simple enjoyment of great books.”

Unlike references to long-deceased shop chains like Rumbelows and Sketchleys, and Persse being completely confused as to what a karaoke bar is, this part of the book doesn’t seem to have dated at all.  Much as I enjoy my study (and therefore keep returning to it), many is the time I’ve sat in tutorials wishing I could just state that I liked something, without placing it in its post-modern, post-feminist, post-post-post framework to deconstruct its meaning to the point where you start to doubt your own sanity and whether you even know what a book is.

I have to admit I didn’t love Small World, I thought it was clever rather than funny, and it didn’t really engage me, but if you are involved in any sort of academia I’m sure you will recognise the characters and university politics and derive a few wry smiles of recognition at the very least.

But as I planned for the blog to be celebratory rather critical (and keep getting knocked off this course by the books H lends me, I may have to stop reading them, or at least stop blogging about them) I would like to balance this out by flagging up that David Lodge is an insightful critic as well as a novelist, and I highly recommend his The Art of Fiction. Each chapter takes a topic around creating fiction and uses an example as a discussion point, for example Defamiliarisation in Charlotte Bronte, Intertextuality in Conrad, and so on.  It’s really accessible, readable way of beginning to explore ideas, written in a non-pretentious way that his characters in Small World would be incapable of.

But The Art of Fiction is not fiction itself, and so I return to my second choice of novel, The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde (Hodder & Stoughton 2001). This was Fforde’s first novel featuring his heroine detective, Thursday Next.  If you think that’s a bad name pun, here are a few more: Millon De Floss; Jack Schitt; Landen Parke-Laine (a British monopoly pun “land on Park Lane” which perhaps doesn’t translate as well as the others) and many more.  As the pun Millon De Floss shows, this is a silly, fun book for literature lovers.  The Eyre of the title is Jane, and in an alternative 1985, Thursday has to defeat the evil Acheron Hades (great name) who is taking first editions of books and removing characters from them, causing all subsequent copies of the story to change.  Thursday pursues him into Jane Eyre (literally, she enters the story), where she has to stop him wiping out the heroine of one of her favourite novels without changing the story herself.  Things don’t go exactly to plan, but then Jane Eyre in Thursday’s world doesn’t have the ending we know and love….

The story is great fun, and if you love literature there are plenty of jokes to enjoy.  Thursday works as a literary detective, and this is a world where literature is taken very seriously. Teenagers swop Fielding cards:

““I’ll swop you one Sophia for an Amelia.”

“Piss off!” replied his friend indignantly.  “If you want Sophia you’re going to have to give me an Allworthy plus a Tom Jones, as well as the Amelia!”

His friend, realising the rarity of a Sophia, reluctantly agreed.”

The literary dedication of the populace continues into adulthood, such as when the Baconians, a group concerned with proving Shakespeare didn’t write Shakespeare, have their meeting fire-bombed by the radical splinter group, the New Marlovians.

The idea of characters being kidnapped from fiction works really well, as Fforde is able to use examples of characters that are abandoned by their authors to support the premise.  For example, Christopher Sly, the drunkard from the start of The Taming of the Shrew, has been found “wandering in a confused state just outside Warwick”.  He did disappear from the play, so maybe he was kidnapped in this world also?!

There is a feel of The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy about The Eyre Affair and if you enjoy Douglas Adams I think you’ll enjoy this. It’s very clever but it’s not out to prove its own cleverness, and while it could have done with a slightly more heavy-handed editor in places, The Eyre Affair is a pacey, joyous tale about what happens when characters really come alive. And if H is reading this: success!  It made me laugh, my friend.

Here are the books doing their bit for Comic Relief by donning this year’s deelyboppers and red noses:

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“All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does. That’s his.” (Oscar Wilde)

I inherited all the great loves of my life from my mother: literature, the theatre, film, Islay single malt whisky, and cheese that will blow out your nasal passages from 50 metres. We don’t agree on everything: Kris Kristofferson remains an enduring source of contention (me: total  1970s love god, have you seen A Star is Born? She: eyes are too small. Neither of us is willing to back down.) These enormous differences aside, we get on pretty well, and so Mother’s Day is a source of celebration in my family.  In the UK Mother’s Day is 10 March (for once I’ve managed to post on time, in fact a day early as tomorrow will be spent cooking up a feast for the family), so to any of you who aren’t from the UK, Ireland or Nigeria (ie where Mother’s Day is the 4th Sunday in Lent), I apologise and ask that you view this as a postponed/pre-emptive post depending on when Mother’s Day occurs for you. I’ve chosen one book written about a mother from the point of view of a child, and one written from a mother to her child.  Both merge fiction with biography and contain significant sadness, but both are about the triumph of the human spirit. Well, mother-child relationships can be among the most complex…

Firstly, a novel that my English teacher at school thought was very nearly perfectly written: Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson (1985, my copy Vintage, 1991).  Oranges tells the story of Jeanette, who grows up in an evangelical household in the north of England.  Her mother is a strong, dominant and domineering woman who initially believes Jeanette will help her in her idiosyncratic crusade against sin.  As Jeanette gets older, she realises she is attracted to women, and acts on this.  Her refusal to subdue who she is to the will of her mother leads to a failed religious intervention (almost exorcism) and eventually a breakdown in their relationship.  If this sounds utterly heavy and depressing, let me assure you it’s not.  Humour runs throughout the whole of Oranges, a gentle prodding at the absurdity of life:

““You can always tell a good woman by her sandwiches,” declared Pastor Finch.

My mother blushed.

Then he turned to me and said, “How old are you, little girl?”

“Seven.” I replied.

“Ah, seven,” he muttered. “How blessed, the seven days of creation, the seven branched candlestick, the seven seals.”

(Seven seals? I had not yet reached the Revelation in my directed reading, and I thought he meant some Old Testament amphibians I had overlooked….)

…”Yes,” he went on, “how blessed,” then his brow clouded. “But how cursed.” At this word his fist hit the table and catapulted a cheese sandwich into the collection bag;”

The narrative is interspersed with a fairytale that echoes the main narrative. This serves to broaden the perspective away from its immediate setting, and emphasise that while it is a unique story that is being told, it is also something familiar to us all, a fable.  We may not all be northern English, evangelical Christian and gay, but, in the words of the author:

“Everyone, at some time in their life, must choose whether to stay with a ready-made world that may be safe but is also limiting, or to push forward, often past the frontiers of commonsense, into a personal place, unknown and untried.”

Oranges is fantastically well written (when the author was just 24) and succeeds in being challenging and complex, but also easy to read and reassuring.  The language is poetic and exacting but never overblown:

“We lived in a town stolen from the valleys, a huddled place full of chimneys and little shops and back-to-back houses with no gardens. The hills surrounded us, and our own swept out into the Pennines, broken now and again with a farm or a relic from the war. There used to be a lot of old tanks but the council took them away.”

Oranges is one of my favourite books by one of my favourite authors and so of course, I highly recommend it.  The author was asked if it was autobiographical.  Her answer: “No not at all and yes of course.”  For those of you who enjoy it, I also recommend Why Be Happy when you Could Be Normal?,  Jeanette Winterson’s autobiography, (the title taken from a question her mother asked her when she came out) which shows the story behind Oranges, and also beyond it.

Secondly, Paula by Isabel Allende (1994, my copy Flamingo, 1995 trans. Margaret Sayers Peden). Tragically, in 1991, Isabel Allende’s 28 year old daughter Paula fell into a coma caused by porphyria, and died in 1992 having never recovered. Paula is the story Allende writes for her daughter as she waits for her in the hospital, bringing her novelist’s sensibilities to the story of her family’s life:

“Listen, Paula. I am going to tell you a story, so that when you wake up you will not feel so lost. The legend of our family begins at the end of the last century, when a robust Basque sailor disembarked on the coast of Chile with his mother’s reliquary strung around his neck and his head swimming with plans for greatness.”

Those of you who enjoy Allende’s fiction will find the same style here, and some very recognisable characters from The House of the Spirits. Allende writes vividly and with love of and for her family past and present.

“[Your grandmother] was drinking cheap pisco, and hiding the bottles in strategic places.  You Paula, who loved her with infinite compassion, discovered the hiding places one by one and without a word carried off the empty bottles and buried them amongst the dahlias in the garden.”

“Celia and Nicolas have asked me to come home to California for the arrival of their baby in May. They want me to take part in the birth of my granddaughter; they say after so many months of being exposed to death, pain, farewells, and tears, it will be a celebration to welcome this infant as her head thrusts into life. If the visions I had in dreams come true, as they have in other times, she will be a dark-haired, likeable little girl , with a will of her own. You must get better soon, Paula, so you can go home with me and be Andrea’s godmother.”

Time is not linear or earthbound in Paula, as the family’s past, present and spirits all exist in a mother’s story, evoked in a hospital room. The final third of the book sees Allende stop talking to Paula and instead speak to the reader, as she loses hope that her daughter will recover.   However, the death of her daughter is not an irretrievable loss for Allende who has an acute awareness of the afterlife and sees her family around her whether they are alive or dead.

“She died in my arms, surrounded by her family, the thoughts of those absent, and the spirits of her ancestors who had come to her aid. She died with the same perfect grace that characterised all the acts of her life.”

Paula is a hugely affecting narrative of one of the hardest experiences a mother can live through, but ultimately the enormity of the familial love that surrounds Paula is the strongest force, and this makes it a great Mother’s Day read.

Here are the books alongside the gorgeous Kris.  To my mother I say, Happy Mother’s Day, Maman, and I hope titling this post with a quote from your beloved Oscar compensates for my insistence on presence of Mr Kristofferson.  And yes, I am planning a substantial cheese plate for the meal tomorrow, don’t worry….

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“We look before and after, and pine for what is not” (Percy Bysshe Shelley)

My lovely friend H feels I take life too seriously & this is reflected in my choice of reading matter.  As such, she keeps lending me light reads in the hope that I’ll chill out & stop living my life like I’m a some sort of doomed Hardy heroine (which I dispute: I harbour no plans to start bedding down at Stonehenge.  Far too cold, I prefer central heating. Probably just as well as they’ve restricted access to the monument now.) But because she is a good friend & I love her (and she’s probably right in general), I read the books she gives me.  This week it was Death Comes to Pemberley by PD James (Faber & Faber, 2011), so I decided to write about it here, making the theme of the post prequels and sequels.

Death Comes to Pemberley is a sequel to Pride and Prejudice, set 6 years after the end of Austen’s novel, where Darcy & Elizabeth are happily married with 2 sons. I’m not a big crime reader, so I hadn’t read any PD James before, but I know crime aficionados who highly rate her.  To me the crime element of this novel was its weakest link – the plot was very slight and there’s no detective work as such, the crime is solved as the murderer confesses.  But I never wanted to blog about books in a critiquing way, so I’ll stop and look at what is to celebrate, as I planned.  James has great fun with the concept of a sequel to Pride and Prejudice, with comments on the backstory like: “If this were fiction, could even the most brilliant novelist contrive to make credible so short a period in which pride had been subdued and prejudice overcome?” (Answer: Yes).  She also explains potential problems in the original, like why Darcy’s first proposal and following letter were so rude (he was trying to make Elizabeth hate him so he wouldn’t have to deal with his attraction to her).  Whether or not you like this explanation depends on how you’ve read the original, and while it’s a shame to pad out the room for interpretation which helps readers feel a sense of ownership over a novel, James is as entitled to her view as anyone else. She is obviously a huge fan of Austen and characters from Emma also make an appearance thorough a verbal report: a child is adopted by Mrs Harriet Martin nee Smith, friend of Mrs Knightley.

Part of modern scholarship on Austen is to look at what is hidden in her work: the slavery hinted at in Mansfield Park, for example. Writing from a 21st century perspective, James can make explicit certain factors like feminism and the Napoleonic War which readers today may pick up on but are only shadows in Austen’s works:

“We have entered the nineteenth century; we do not need to be a disciple of Mrs Wollstonecraft to feel that women should not be denied a voice in matters that concern them.  It is some centuries since we accepted that a woman has a soul. Is it not time that we accepted that she also has a mind?”

“The war with France, declared the previous May, was already producing unrest and poverty; the cost of bread had risen and the harvest was poor. Darcy was much engaged in the relief of his tenants ..”

In this way James’ novel offers a chance to view well-known characters in more well-rounded way, taking into account their social and political circumstances in a wider perspective, beyond that of the Regency marriage market.  However, and I realise this is an obvious point so I won’t linger on it, PD James is not Jane Austen, and as such the novel reads a bit flat.  The effervescent wit is gone and there’s not really anything to replace it.

It was a brave decision that James made with Death Comes to Pemberley, as writing a sequel to Pride and Prejudice is really a thankless task.  Austen and her characters are so greatly loved I doubt any author other than Austen herself could do them justice.  While placing them in genre fiction like crime is probably a good idea so that its clear you’re working within conventions other than those of the original novel, I can’t help feeling that Death Comes to Pemberley may prove disappointing for both crime fans and Austen fans.

For the prequel part of this post I’ve chosen probably the most well-known of all prequels: Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys (1966, my copy Penguin 1993). Wide Sargasso Sea looks at the events that occurred prior to Jane Eyre, and how Rochester’s first wife became the madwoman in the attic. Rochester marries the Creole heiress Antoinette Cosway in the Carribean.  There is a strong sexual attraction between them as Rochester describes:

“Only the sun was there to keep us company. We shut him out. And why not? Very soon she was as eager for what’s called loving as I was – more lost and drowned afterwards.”

But this is not enough to cover the differences between them “It was all very brightly coloured, very strange, but it meant nothing to me. Nor did she, the girl I was to marry.” and the cracks in their marriage soon start to appear, with distrust, jealousy and violence on both sides.  The result of this we already know…

What happens to Antoinette is a commentary on both men’s exertion of power over women, and the coloniser’s power over the colonised.  Rhys takes the “other” of Jane Eyre and gives her a voice, placing us alongside Antoinette and showed how flawed and racist notions of “other” are.  Rochester, the rich white Englishman, seeks to control Antoinette and does so by renaming her and confining her – the parallels with slavery are clear.  As a woman, she is also subjugated by a society that is on Rochester’s side:

“When a man don’t love you, more you try, more he hate you, man like that…”

“I cannot go…I am not rich now, I have no money of my own at all, everything I had belongs to him…that is English law”

However, by giving the narrative voice to Rochester as well as Antoinette, Rhys ensures a balance to Wide Sargasso Sea that means you can’t write it off as limited perspective polemic. It has had a huge influence on how Jane Eyre is read, and I think this is because it is so sensitive and subtle a reading and portrayal of the characters.  Rhys succeeds in creating a backstory that is wholly believable and recasts the frames of reference through which Jane Eyre is viewed, without ever undermining the original work.  This can be seen in interpretations such as the BBC’s 2006 version of Jane Eyre which emphasised Bertha’s (as she is then named) sexuality, associated her with the colour red as in Wide Sargasso Sea, and had her played by the beautiful Claudia Coulter to make Rochester’s physical attraction to her easy to understand (the BBC also filmed a version of Wide Sargasso Sea the same year). The fact that Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar’s behemoth of feminist literary criticism took the title The Madwoman in the Attic (1979, Yale University Press) shows how the character of Bertha (and characters like her) are being reassessed, and I think it’s reasonable to assume Wide Sargasso Sea played no small part in that.  Unlike Death Comes to Pemberley, Wide Sargasso Sea stands alone as a great novel, and simultaneously hugely enhances reading the source work.  I recommend the latter unreservedly, and the former as a point of interest and a quick, throwaway read.

I was wondering how to photograph the books in a way that represented the theme, then as I looked at the covers I realised they sort of represented a before and after already – la petite mort followed, inevitably, by le grande mort.  What a depressing note to end on – I think H has got her work cut out…….

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