The Murder of Roger Ackroyd – Agatha Christie (Le Monde’s 100 Books of the Century #49)

This is part of a series of occasional posts where I look at works from Le Monde’s 100 Books of the Century. Please see the separate page (link at the top) for the full list of books and an explanation of why I would do such a thing.

The great thing about this reading challenge, and the very reason I set myself to do it, is that it means I read books I wouldn’t have normally. Usually this is because I hadn’t heard of them, but in the case of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, it was because I thought I didn’t like Agatha Christie. I spent a summer when I was about 14 reading a Poirot omnibus, and I thought it was poorly written, with thin plots, shallow characterisation and an annoying central protagonist (I believe Christie shared this opinion of Poirot!) Despite a general love of the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, I haven’t picked up a Christie since. So I owe Le Monde (and the attractive bookseller who assured me it was the best of the Poirot novels – how I miss you, Blackwells) a great deal of thanks, because I really enjoyed The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.

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(Image from: http://www.pinterest.com/pin/249316529344895760/)

The story is narrated by Dr James Sheppard, the village GP who lives with his nosy sister, the character of whom was a prototype of Miss Marple.

“Our village. King’s Abbot, is, I imagine, very much like any other village. Our big town is Cranchester, nine miles away. We have a large railway station, a small post office, and two rival ‘General Stores.’ Able-bodied men are apt to leave the place early in life, but we are rich in unmarried ladies and retired military officers. Our hobbies and recreations can be summed up in the one word, ‘gossip.’”

Within this inter-war bucolic tranquility, Sheppard is called to the suicide of Mrs Ferrars, a wealthy widow who was engaged to the eponymous victim. She sent Ackroyd a letter explaining she was being blackmailed over the poisoning of her first husband, but Ackroyd is murdered before he finds out who the blackmailer was. Enter a certain Belgian detective to solve the crime. He is Sheppard’s new neighbour, and they meet when Poirot hurls a vegetable marrow over the garden fence:

“’I demand of you a thousand pardons, monsieur. I am without defence. For some months now I cultivate the marrows. This morning suddenly I enrage myself with these marrows. I send them to promenade themselves – alas! not only mentally but physically. I seize the biggest. I hurl him over the wall. Monsieur, I am ashamed. I prostrate myself.’

Before such profuse apologies, my anger was forced to melt. After all, the wretched vegetable hadn’t hit me. But I sincerely hoped that throwing large vegetables over walls was not our new friend’s hobby.”

From this unpromising beginning, the two team up to catch the murderer. It’s difficult to say any more without spoilers, but I thought the novel was good fun (as the marrow scene shows), well-paced (only 235 pages in my edition) and confidently knowing:

“’The essence of a detective story,’ I said, ‘is to have a rare poison – if possible something from South America, that nobody has ever heard of- something that one obscure tribe … use to poison their arrows with. Death is instantaneous, and Western science is powerless to detect it.Is that the kind of thing you mean?’

‘Yes. Is there really such a thing?’

I shook my head regretfully.”

Amongst this levity however, there is a dark undertone – someone has been murdered, after all. And although Christie’s novels are not brutal and bloody (this was published in 1926) she does not let reader forget the inhumanity people are capable of displaying toward each other. The ending of the novel was really quite dark, and I thought it all rather wonderful.

One of Christie’s great achievements in the novel is how she distinctive she makes the voice of Poirot; it captures his unique personality perfectly. Here, David Suchet, who has filmed all the Poirot novels for television, explains how he achieves Poirot’s voice:

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“True friends stab you in the front.” (Oscar Wilde)

This week’s post is about friendship, as  I’ve returned home from uni and had a great time catching up with friends I haven’t seen for a while.  When I was thinking of title quotes for this theme, the phrase that immediately sprang to mind was too long.  However, it’s lovely, so here it is:

“Piglet sidled up to Pooh from behind. “Pooh?” he whispered.
“Yes, Piglet?”
“Nothing,” said Piglet, taking Pooh’s hand. “I just wanted to be sure of you.”
 (A.A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh)

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(Image from http://www.artistsnetwork.com/art-blogs/the-artists-magazine-blog/pooh-and-piglet-illustration-auctioned-for-194000)

If that doesn’t make you go “aww..” you are a cold, cold person.

Firstly, Embers by Sandor Marai (1942, my copy Penguin 2001 trans. Carol Brown Janeway).  Embers is a deceptively simple novel, set over one evening, running to only 250 pages in my edition.   An elderly general lives in a castle, in melancholy stasis:

“The castle was a closed world…it also enclosed memories as if they were the dead, memories that lurked in damp corners the way mushrooms, bats, rats and beetles lurk in the mildewed cellars of old houses”

He prepares for a supper with his childhood friend, Konrad, who he hasn’t seen in 41 years.  Over the course of the evening, the betrayal that tore them apart will be voiced and answers sought.  Within this simple framework Marai explores the complexity of human relationships, with great delicacy:

“Their friendship was deep and wordless, as are all emotions that will last a lifetime”

“Their friendship, fragile and complex in the way of all significant relationships between people”

With a lesser writer the novel would be heavy-handed, clichéd, sentimental.  But Marai avoids these pitfalls by refusing to make things – feelings, events, motivations – simple or captured in reductive explanations.

 “The magical time of childhood was over, and two grown men stood there in their place, enmeshed in a complicated and enigmatic relationship commonly covered by the word ‘friendship’”

I can’t really say much more without giving away spoilers, but Embers is a beautifully written, intelligent book about the complications of the loves we have in our lives.  Marai never wastes a single word. I highly recommend it.

Secondly, Utterly Monkey by Nick Laird (4th Estate, 2005). Danny is living in London, doing a job he hates to pay for a flat he’s ambivalent about.  He has physically moved away from Northern Ireland, but his childhood follows him in the form of his oldest friend:

“Geordie Wilson was standing on the step.  His small frame was silhouetted against the London evening sky.  He looked charred, a little cinder of a man […] He could have been Death’s apprentice.”

Geordie’s in trouble, and seeks refuge with Danny. Their lives easily become as intertwined as when they were kids, despite the years apart, and as they infuriate each other they never really consider leaving the other one to cope alone. The notion of loyalty as a choice, and yet one that is rarely questioned, is given a further resonance by the fact that Danny and Geordie grew up through the Troubles.  Now both have left Belfast, but Utterly Monkey queries how much we ever leave our childhoods behind, and how feelings can remain inexplicable but powerful motivators for the action we take.

It’s a touching story, and I actually felt the over-arching plot was unnecessary, the carefully drawn characters would be enough to carry the story along.  However, this isn’t to suggest the plot is clumsy, and Laird uses his considerable skill as a poet to write effective prose, finding surprising and evocative images in the everyday:

“Outside the pub a tattered newspaper was lying against the kerb and the wind was freeing it sheet by sheet.  Some pages blew about restlessly further up the pavement.  One had managed to wrap itself around a lamppost and was flapping gently like a drunkard trying to hail a taxi.”

Laird is also funny (“He was an East Londoner, and appeared to suffer from the East London disorder of considering accidental eye contact an act of overt aggression.”) and this stops a tale that could be full of bitterness and regret from ever becoming recriminatory.  In fact, it makes it more realistic – there are friends who drive you mad, who make you wonder why the friendship continues, but the ties that bind somehow endure and stop life becoming too predictable.

To end, the trailer for one of my favourite films, The Station Agent (2003), which charts the beginnings of friendship between 3 people.  Peter Dinklage is now uber-famous as Tyrion Lannister, but here he is many years before, giving a very different, equally wonderful performance:

10 Most Influential Books – Part 2

This is the second half of a challenge looking at the 10 Most Influential Books in your life. It was started by Leah at The Perks of Being a Bookworm  and I was tagged by Emma over at A Wordless Blogger. Do check out their blogs and the other people taking part, it’s a fascinating challenge!

An Evil Cradling – Brian Keenan

Where to begin explaining this book?  I’m going to sound like a tosser, but I can’t think how else to say it:  this is one of the most moving, deeply profound books I’ve ever read, and it’s about what it is to be human.  I’m sorry to sound so hyperbolic, but it really is that extraordinary.  I wept throughout the whole thing.  Brian Keenan was kidnapped in Beirut and held hostage for just under 5 years, some of it with John McCarthy.  This book is an exploration of what he went through, and it’s just incredible.  It’s not a journalistic, factual account, although Keenan grounds the story in this type of detail.  It is much more a study of a human being in extremis.  If I had to quote from this book I’d never stop, so instead I googled and chose what seemed to be the most popular:

“Hostage is a man hanging by his fingernails over the edge of chaos, feeling his fingers slowly straightening. Hostage is the humiliating stripping away of every sense and fibre of body and mind and spirit that make us what we are. Hostage is a mutant creation filled with fear, self-loathing, guilt and death-wishing. But he is a man, a rare, unique and beautiful creation of which these things are no part.”

The Keenan/McCarthy story was filmed as Blind Flight.  The film isn’t a patch on An Evil Cradling, but it features superb performances from Ian Hart as Brian Keenan and Linus Roache as John McCarthy:

The Turbulent Term of Tyke Tiler – Gene Kemp

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(Image from: http://www.fantasticfiction.co.uk/k/gene-kemp/turbulent-term-of-tyke-tiler.htm)

When I was seven, I’d read all the books in our classroom, and so my teacher sent me to another class to borrow books from there.  I was intimidated, the kids in that class were bigger than me, and the teacher was strict.  She was also kind and fair, and did she know her children’s literature.  She gave me loads of great books to read, and used to ask me what I thought about them.  This was one of the first she gave me, and I think it stands out because it was when I started to read children’s books that were written primarily not to teach you to read, but for the joy of reading. It’s aimed at late junior school age, and tells the story of Tyke and Danny, in their final year of Cricklepit School.  Tyke and Danny aren’t exactly naughty, but neither do they fit the teachers’ ideals of how pupils should behave.  It’s a touching story of friendship, following your own beliefs, and not always obeying all the rules. Worthwhile lessons, it seems to me.

 “That child has always appeared to me to be on the brink of wrecking this school, and as far as I can see, has, at last, succeeded.”

The Secret Garden – Frances Hodgson Burnett

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(Image from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Secret_Garden)

This book followed me throughout childhood.  I had the Ladybird version, and then when I was old enough my mother bought me the full-length original.  As a child I found the story of spoilt Mary Lennox discovering a locked garden and turning it into a paradise again with the help of her friends really magical, but throughout my adult life I’ve noticed this book has a far reaching influence. On a very basic level, I love gardening, and when I picture my perfect garden it’s always walled; my horticultural ideal carried from this novel.  But more than that, I think an interest in Victorian literature (although this book is strictly speaking Edwardian) and the Gothic can be traced back to this book.  Big house, mysterious noises, servants denying all knowledge, death a constant threat, time spent roaming around on moors – sound familiar?  If you want your child to embrace the Brontes, Wilkie Collins, Mary Shelley… start them off on The Secret Garden.  But mostly I think this novel influenced my choice of career. I became an occupational therapist.  The Secret Garden features a young boy, Colin, who is depressed, and constantly ill and weak.  He meets his cousin Mary, they work together in the garden (what we in the trade call meaningful occupation) and Colin’s mental health improves alongside his physical health.  So there you go: The Secret Garden is really all about the holistic health benefits of an individually tailored rehab programme.

“At first people refuse to believe that a strange new thing can be done, then they begin to hope it can be done, then they see it can be done–then it is done and all the world wonders why it was not done centuries ago.” 

The Temple – George Herbert

This collection of poems is a lesson to me to keep an open mind.  It’s resolutely religious, and I am not.  You’d think I’d get nothing out of it, but George Herbert has become one of my favourite poets.  I discovered him in a Renaissance literature class.  We’d just had 2 weeks of John Donne: sexy, naughty, clever, complicated Donne.  Now it was time for George Herbert.  Not sexy, not naughty.  Hugely clever, but written in a very simple style.  I loved his gentle tone, his worry of not being good enough and his search for peace and solace. Herbert showed me that while beliefs are different, a common ground of experience and feeling can always be found.  And maybe he’s sexier than he first appears: my tutor is convinced the penultimate line of this poem is a blow-job joke.  It’s always the quiet ones….

Love III

Love bade me welcome, yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-ey’d Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
If I lack’d anything.

“A guest,” I answer’d, “worthy to be here”;
Love said, “You shall be he.”
“I, the unkind, the ungrateful? ah my dear,
I cannot look on thee.”
Love took my hand and smiling did reply,
“Who made the eyes but I?”

“Truth, Lord, but I have marr’d them; let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.”
“And know you not,” says Love, “who bore the blame?”
“My dear, then I will serve.”
“You must sit down,” says Love, “and taste my meat.”
So I did sit and eat.

Sexing the Cherry – Jeanette Winterson

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(Image from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sexing_the_Cherry)

If I had to recommend a Jeanette Winterson novel, I’d most likely choose Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, which is probably why I’ve blogged on it in the pastOranges is her most accessible novel, her most famous, and it is brilliantly written.  The Passion I believe to be her best novel.  However, I’ve chosen Sexing the Cherry as more influential on me, as it was my first foray into magic realism (although Jeanette Winterson rejects that term) and opened my eyes to what fiction can do.  If it wasn’t for Sexing the Cherry, maybe I wouldn’t have discovered Angela Carter, or Gabriel Garcia Marquez.  Set mainly in the seventeenth century, it tells the story of Jordan, orphaned and found floating in the Thames, and his companion, Dog Woman, a gross figure in both adjectival senses, as they journey together around London and across time.  Sexing the Cherry challenges notions of outsider status, showing that there are few fixities by which to claim any sort of norm.

“Language always betrays us, tells the truth when we want to lie, and dissolves into formlessness when we would most like to be precise.” 

So there it is, the 10 books that have most influenced me….so far.  Here’s to discovering new influences and making time to revisit the old ones!

I’m not tagging anyone, or I’m tagging everyone, depending on how you look at it.  If you’d like to take part please consider yourself tagged, and don’t forget to refer back to Leah’s blog when you write your post.

10 Most Influential Books – Part 1

This is a bit of a departure from my usual sort of post, but it seemed like such a pleasant thing to do that I thought I would ring the changes.   I was tagged by Emma over at A Wordless Blogger  to take part in writing about the 10 Most Influential Books in your life, which was started by Leah at The Perks of Being a Bookworm.  Having never been tagged before I found myself ridiculously excited at the prospect.  It also seemed like a good fit, as I think it’s a positive thing to look at books that have shaped you; hence it’s in keeping with the ethos of this blog, which is to write (mostly) positive things.  It’s also inadvertently become the ethos of this blog to never use one word where ten will do, so I’m splitting this challenge into 2 posts. So here we go: The first 5 of 10 books that have influenced me, as I thought of them today.  I’m sure if I wrote this post tomorrow I’d come up with a different 10, but onwards we go!

Middlemarch – George Eliot

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(Image: http://earlywomenmasters.net/dickinson/a_garden_tis/imaginings/slides/middlemarch_eliot.html)

I’ve blogged about this before – badly.  Middlemarch is my favourite novel ever (it’s the one I’m holding in my gravatar image) and as result I find it nigh on impossible to discuss, because I can’t get any distance.  I just adore it, and to me it has everything – love, death, humour, tragedy.  Eliot captures life by looking at a small Victorian town and its inhabitants.  It can be an intimidating read: a massive Victorian tome, but if it speaks to you, you’ll love it.  Don’t just take my word for it, Rebecca Mead’s The Road to Middlemarch: My Life with George Eliot documents her changing relationship with the novel throughout her life, how it offers different things to readers at different times.  Which reminds me, it’s about time I re-read it….

“the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs”

Small Island – Andrea Levy

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(Image from: http://100books.co.uk/andrea-levy-discusses-her-novel-small-island-for-bbcs-world-book-club)

I’ve blogged about this novel before, too.  It changed the way I view my world, so it has to be on this list.  I grew up in London, decades after the Windrush generation had arrived.   I knew there had been a massive wave of immigration to the UK after World War II.  I knew that the UK had begged these workers to come, and then crapped all over them from a great height.  I grew up in a multi-cultural city that I loved, and went to school with kids whose parents and grandparents came from all over the world.  As the Windrush generation ages, I cared for some of them in my capacity as a healthcare professional.  I thought I had a fairly good understanding of what happened, but Small Island made me feel it like never before.  To leave your family and friends and come to a cold grey country which has promised you a grand welcome and instead treats you appallingly because of the colour of your skin.  To live in this country all these years and for it never to feel like home.  The Windrush generation are dying – talk to them now, hear their stories while you still can.  And read Small Island for a better understanding of why and how Britain is as it is today.

 “You wan’ know what your white skin make you man?  It make you white.  That is all, man.  White.  No better, no worse than me – just white.”

 Complete Works of Shakespeare

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(Image from (http://www.sky.com/tv/show/othello)

OK, so I’m cheating.  This is 39 plays (or so, debate continues), sonnet sequences, longer poems, and so on.  But he’s the love of my life, you can’t expect me to be objective about the love of my life, surely?  I survived the terrible teaching methods that cause most people to despise Shakespeare, and he’s been alongside me ever since.  If I could only have one book for the rest of my life, this is the one.  It’s all I need.  Here is Prospero’s speech from Act 4 Scene 1 of The Tempest, which many interpret as Shakespeare’s farewell to the stage.  Read it and weep, people:

Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits, and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp’d tow’rs, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on; and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.

The Weir – Conor McPherson

This play was revived recently in the West End, but the tyranny of finals meant I couldn’t go.

I was so disappointed not to see it again, as it’s no exaggeration to say this play changed my life.  Until I saw The Weir, I liked theatre, but I didn’t love it.  So many people love theatre that I knew I was missing something, but I didn’t know what or how to get it.  The Weir gave it to me.  It was magical.  It held me suspended, as great drama does, in that space that the audience occupy when you’re trying to remember to breathe.  It showed me how intimate and enchanting theatre can be.  And once my eyes were opened, there was no going back.  Being in the audience of a theatre is one of my favourite places in the world.  I’m hoping to do postgraduate study from September, looking at dramatic literature and the theatre.  I’ve forgotten to breathe many times in the theatre since that night, but it was The Weir that started it all.

“He took two big slices off a fresh loaf and buttered them carefully, spreading it all around. I’ll never forget it. And then he sliced some cheese and cooked ham and an onion out of a jar, and put it all on a plate and sliced it down the middle. And, just someone doing this for me. And putting it down in front of me. ‘Get that down you, now,’ he said. […] And I took this sandwich up and I could hardly swallow it, because of the lump in my throat. But I ate it all down because someone I didn’t know had done this for me. Such a small thing. But a huge thing.” 

Complete Cookery Course – Delia Smith

Delia is not my favourite cookery writer.  She’s not even close.  Her stuff is not inspirational, or even particularly interesting.  But her Complete Cookery Course is a bible for a secular foodie like me.  It’s got all the basic recipes, and it’s still the one I go to if I want to remember the right proportions for Yorkshire pudding, or pancakes.  I still use her Christmas Cake recipe (with a few tweaks) every year.  For the basics, she’s reliable.  There are no gimmicks: you know where you are with Delia.  I love cooking, and a lot of my “first goes” were from this book when I was growing up.  Here she is telling you how to make an all-in-one sponge cake.  This is why we need Delia (although I’d use butter, never margarine):

Part 2 of my 10 Most Influential Books to follow soon!

“I like to try new things.” (Rufus Wainwright)

This post contains strong language and adult content.  If you’re not an adult, or if you are and you find such things offensive, please don’t read on.  Now to the post!

FINALS ARE OVER!  FINALS ARE OVER!  Oh, the sweet, sweet relief.  I feel like this:

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The week before I felt like this:

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Unfortunately, during exams I felt like this:

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Six exams in eight days is not the worst finals schedule, but it was more than enough for me.  Well-meaning souls kept telling me it was a marathon, not a sprint.  I don’t run marathons.  I don’t sprint. I prefer to lie on my bed with some drool coming out of my mouth as I read books & watch films.  That drool is liquid contentment, people.  Anyway, as this wittering and reliance on GIFs is ably demonstrating, I think my brain has now dribbled out of my ears, possibly never to return.  And now FINALS ARE OVER (sorry, but I can never say that phrase enough) what is a bibliophile to do?  Well, I decided to read a book highly recommended by Charl over at Miscrawl, The List by Joanna Bolouri.

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(Image from: http://www.quercusbooks.co.uk/book/The-List-by-Joanna-Bolouri-ISBN_9781848663084#.U4DLzvldWSo )

I don’t normally read chick-lit; I don’t have a problem with it (except that I think the phrase chick-lit is condescending, but I don’t know what else to use), it’s just not my cup of tea.  However, after weeks, nay months, of ploughing through some seriously heavy literature, I wanted something fun and light.  And The List certainly delivered on that, but that’s not why I decided to write about it here.  The reason was that I think The List offers something unfortunately all-too-rare in fiction: a recogniseably authentic female voice.  And that voice is sweary:

“Back to work today, and I had a mountain of emails to go through…Two of the emails were from Alex, who obviously didn’t know I was on holiday, and I deleted them without reading, otherwise I’d be tempted to reply ‘GET IT RIGHT UP YOU FUCKFACE’ in 72pt comic sans.”

We’ve all had emails like that.

Phoebe Henderson breaks up with her horrible boyfriend (the aforementioned Alex), and eschewing the usual New Year’s resolutions to get fit/lose weight blah blah she makes a list of 10 things she’d like to do in bed but has never had the nerve to try.  The novel takes the form of her diary over the year as she tries out these activities, some successful, some not, with a variety of people, some nice and gorgeous, some most definitely not.

Bolouri achieves quite something with Phoebe: a slightly messed up, slightly neurotic character who, rather than getting frustrated with and wanting to shake vigorously by the shoulders, I wholly recognised and wanted to take for a drink.  She’s good company.  She hates her job, hates her flat, loves her friends, is in her 30s and hasn’t quite got it all figured out yet.  Who the hell has?  Oh Phoebe, let’s get smashed on cheap cocktails, buy a dirty burger from a botulism-on-wheels van on the way home and wake up the next morning with mouths that feel like Satan’s armpit, wondering why we’re still doing this after all these years.  I love you.

Some of the list opens Phoebe’s eyes to sexual adventure, some of it leaves her feeling a bit meh.  None of it leaves her feeling worthless or degraded.  This is a woman embracing her sexuality and feeling empowered by it.  In that way the novel has something to say, and it’s made more powerful by the fact that it’s funny and entertaining, yet not entirely escapist.  Phoebe doesn’t have a perfect body & a perfect life, and not everything goes to plan, like her first attempt at talking dirty:

“I walked out of my room, naked, to get some water and he followed me in to the kitchen where we did it over the worktops.  I was unsettled for a second when I found myself face down in toast crumbs, but then he started whispering delicious obscenities in my ear.  I tried to return the favour but failed miserably: “Fucking prick.”

“What?”

“Erm, nothing. Carry on.””

I love this: the banal detail of the toast crumbs, the epic fail on dirty talk.  It’s funny, and oh-so-believeable. Balouri shows how fantasy and reality don’t match up, and it’s OK because reality can be funnier and more exciting than fantasy anyway.

Joanna Bolouri blogs on WordPress here.

I normally write on two books per post, but I’m only doing one this week, because FINALS ARE OVER (I don’t know if I’ve mentioned that?) and my stamina for rational thought and writing in continuous prose is severely depleted.  I’m off to replenish with rioja and a bag of chips.  I don’t care if it is 10am – don’t judge me.  All rules are off because FINALS ARE OVER!

yay

 

“Everything being a constant carnival, there is no carnival left.” (Victor Hugo)

Today is May Day, and I was thinking about the traditions of this time: celebration, revelry, pastoral fertility.  Please note I said thinking about, not participating in.  Confession time, reader: even though I’m in Oxford I didn’t want to do an all-night pub crawl/ball or get up at ridiculous o’clock to go to Magdalen Bridge for May Morning.  I lay in bed, and because Oxford is so quiet I could hear the choir and bells anyway, and it was beautiful.  Better warm in bed than in an inebriated crowd, I told myself.  Before I seem too virtuous, I should tell you that I’m really just lazy, because an hour or so later I got up for a champagne breakfast.  If this post seems even more waffly and incoherent than usual, you know why.

So, the traditions of May Day, and choosing books for this post made me think about the carnivalesque in novels.  Mikhail Bakhtin said that the carnivalesque (this is a shockingly rough paraphrase) is a time when social hierarchies are overthrown in energetic riot: as norms are disregarded, reversed and subverted, anything can happen.  Sounds like the spirit of May Day to me. Hence, for this post I’ve picked two novels that are carnivalesque/subversive in some way.

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The Battle Between Carnival and Lent – Pieter Bruegel the Elder 1599 (Image from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Pieter_Bruegel_d._%C3%84._066.jpg )

My first choice is Nights at the Circus by Angela Carter (1984, Chatto & Windus).  The minute I started to think about carnivalesque, this is what sprang to mind. I thought the summary on the dust jacket was spot-on, so here it is:

Fevvers: the toast of Europe’s capitals, courted by princes, painted by Toulouse Lautrec, the greatest aerialiste of her time. Fevvers: somersaulting lazily through the air, hovering in the moment between the nineteenth century and the twentieth, between old dreams and new beginnings, born up by the spread of wings that can’t be real! Or- can they? Fevvers: the Cockney Venus, six foot two in her stockings, the coarsely lively and lovely heroine…Obsessed with Fevvers, constantly bamboozled by the anarchist sorcery of her dresser and confidante, Lizzie, the dashing young journalist Jack Walser stumbles into a journey which takes him from London to Siberia via legendary St Petersburg and out of his male certainties, into a transforming world of danger and joy, the world of Colonel Kearney’s circus…Featuring a cast of thousands, including : the clown’s requiem, the tigers’ waltz, the educated apes, the bashful brigands, the structuralist wizard. Not forgetting Sybil, the Mystic Pig.”

Just brilliant. I’ve said before that there’s no-one like Angela Carter, and Nights at the Circus is her writing at her very best.  Fevvers voice leaps of the page at you in the first paragraph:

“Lor’ love you sir!” Fevvers sang out in a voice that clanged like dustbin lids. “As to my place of birth, why, I first saw the light of day right here in smoky old London, didn’t I! Not billed the ‘Cockney Venus’ for nothing…Hatched out of a bloody great egg while Bow Bells rang, as ever is!”

If that all sounds a bit “cor-blimey-luvvaduck-rent-a-cockney”, don’t worry.  With Angela Carter you are never in the land of the stereotype, but in an exuberant world of characters the like of which you will never have met before, or since.  She is master of the original and evocative image (“like dustbin lids”) and while her work is carnivalesque and destabilising, it’s also great fun.  The circus is Carter’s world, which means anything can happen.  But beneath all the sparkle and pizzazz, she creates a world of substance.  Buffo the clown reflects:

“We are the whores of mirth, for, like a whore, we know what we are; we know we are mere hirelings hard at work yet those who hire us see us as beings perpetually at play. Our work is their pleasure and so they think our work must be our pleasure, too, so there is always and abyss between their notion of our work as play, and ours, of their leisure as our labour.”

Carter uses magic realism to explore how we construct reality, and how easily it can be deconstructed.  Where better to do that than the circus? She plays with notions of gender and sexuality, challenging the idea that they are fixed entities, and explores how identity can be constantly created and recreated.  Jack falls in love with Fevvers, unsure of who, or what, it is he loves: if he gets behind the image of the Cockney Venus, who will be there?  Is she part bird?  And who will he be in response?:

“When Walser first put on his make-up, he looked in the mirror and did not recognise himself. As he contemplated the stranger peering interrogatively back at him out of the glass, he felt the beginnings of a vertiginous sense of freedom , that, during all the time he spent with the Colonel, never quite evaporated; until that last moment where they parted company and Walser’s very self, as he had known it, departed from him, he experienced the freedom that lies behind the mask, with dissimulation, the freedom to juggle with being, and, indeed, with the language which is vital to our being, that lies at the heart of burlesque.”

Angela Carter clearly had a fierce intellect and something interesting to say about how we make our worlds.  But she also didn’t let that get in the way of a good story.  Nights at the Circus is a fantastic read, in all the senses of the word.

Secondly, Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift (1726, full text available online).  Obviously, this novel is hugely famous (even if you haven’t read it I bet you know what physical feature distinguishes a Lilliputian).  Lemuel Gulliver relates fantastical tales of his travels, and in the process Swift offers a satire on travel narratives (which were hugely popular in the eighteenth century as people travelled further and wider) and on the human condition.  I chose it for this theme as it is full of inversions and reversals; Gulliver travels to Lilliput, where he is a giant, then to Brobdingnag where he is minute; to Laputa which he considers crude and unenlightened, then to the Houyhnhnms who consider him a “yahoo” barbarian.  Gulliver’s Travels is episodic, so I’m just going to pick out a couple of events.  Firstly, one of the most famous ones: many writers at the time were obsessed by bodily functions, and Swift is no different, though thankfully not nearly as scatological as some of his contemporaries.  Here is Gulliver putting his urine to good use in Lilliput:

I was alarmed at midnight with the cries of many hundred people at my door; by which, being suddenly awaked, I was in some kind of terror….her imperial majesty’s apartment was on fire, by the carelessness of a maid of honour, who fell asleep while she was reading a romance.  I got up in an instant; and orders being given to clear the way before me, and it being likewise a moonshine night, I made a shift to get to the palace without trampling on any of the people.  I found they had already applied ladders to the walls of the apartment, and were well provided with buckets, but the water was at some distance.  These buckets were about the size of large thimbles, and the poor people supplied me with them as fast as they could: but the flame was so violent that they did little good… this magnificent palace would have infallibly been burnt down to the ground, if, by a presence of mind unusual to me, I had not suddenly thought of an expedient.  I had, the evening before, drunk plentifully of a most delicious wine called glimigrim, (the Blefuscudians call it flunec, but ours is esteemed the better sort,) which is very diuretic.  By the luckiest chance in the world, I had not discharged myself of any part of it.  The heat I had contracted by coming very near the flames, and by labouring to quench them, made the wine begin to operate by urine; which I voided in such a quantity, and applied so well to the proper places, that in three minutes the fire was wholly extinguished, and the rest of that noble pile, which had cost so many ages in erecting, preserved from destruction.

And just to finish, here is a bit of the more heavy-handed satire for you, when the king of Brobdingnag responds to a summary of British politics:

“He was perfectly astonished with the historical account gave him of our affairs during the last century; protesting “it was only a heap of conspiracies, rebellions, murders, massacres, revolutions, banishments, the very worst effects that avarice, faction, hypocrisy, perfidiousness, cruelty, rage, madness, hatred, envy, lust, malice, and ambition, could produce.”

I’ll leave it to you to decide if such motivations have left politics these days…

Gulliver’s Travels is a complex book, and one that is very hard to pin down: it is funny, it is sad, it can be read to children, it is baffling to adults.  It shifts meaning and genre according to who is reading it: truly carnivalesque.

I was hoping to end with a clip of Bellowhead performing One May Morning Early: apt, no?  But YouTube failed me.  So here they are singing about a carnival romance instead:

 

 

“With mirth and laughter let old wrinkles come” (Gratiano, The Merchant of Venice, William Shakespeare)

Today is Shakespeare’s birthday (probably).  It’s almost definitely his death day, but that has a less festive feel to it, so let’s go with birthday.  Happy Birthday, Bard!

Image

(Image from http://tudorhistory.org/people/shakespeare/ )

I love Shakespeare.  I was lucky enough to fall in love with him at school and I love him still.  I know he’s not for everyone, so I’m only going to discuss one play. But firstly, I thought I’d try and convince you of what I firmly believe, that he is for everyone.  This has probably been done before, so if it has and it was you, please accept my sincere apologies and let me know and I’ll credit you.  I promise I haven’t stolen this from anyone as far as I know.  I thought I’d try one of those “if you liked…” lists that are so annoying  when used by retailers to try & get you to buy more stuff, only in this case I’m using (mainly) Hollywood films (the modern equivalent of a Shakespeare play) to try and get you to buy into the drama.  In no order at all, just how they occurred to me:

If you liked…. Then you may like to try… Because…
The Godfather Julius Caesar/Coriolanus There are power struggles, machinations & murder
French new wave Hamlet Nothing happens, and he tortures himself a lot
 
Rom coms Much Ado about Nothing/As You Like It Bit obvious, this one
 
Indecent Proposal Measure for Measure Sexual bribery abounds
   
Lord of the Rings The Tempest It’s magic
   
Hansel & Gretel/Snow White Macbeth Witches & violence
   
1930s screwball comedies eg  It Happened One Night Taming of the Shrew It’s a battle of the sexes, sometimes physically
   
The Simpsons’ Movie Henry IV parts 1&2 I’ve totally stolen this idea from Dr Emma Smith, who convincingly draws parallels between Homer & Falstaff
   
Scarface Titus Andronicus It’s a bloodbath
   
Grease Love’s Labour’s Lost There are boys, there are girls, they all get together
   
War films Henry V Battles & bloodshed
 
Some Like It Hot Twelfth Night Cross-dressing is the route to true love
   
Trading Places Comedy Of Errors Mistaken identities, a focus on money, it all works out in the end
   
John Grisham adaptations Merchant of Venice Features the greatest courtroom speech ever, even better than “You can’t handle the truth!” (seriously)
   
In the Loop/Political thrillers Richard III Power corrupts…
   
Game of Thrones King Lear A kingdom is divided, power struggles and torture ensue (no incest or wedding massacres though)
   
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas Midsummer Night’s Dream It’s trippy…
   
Psychological thrillers eg Sleeping with the Enemy Othello The course of possessive love n’er runs smooth
The Wolf of Wall Street Timon of Athens Money is the root of all evil
   
Romeo + Juliet   Um, ….Romeo and Juliet Take a guess…

 

Any further or different suggestions are very welcome!

For the second part of this post I thought I’d discuss one of the plays that isn’t that well-known (for a Shakespeare play) or frequently performed, but I really like it, and I’m a bit baffled as to why it’s ignored: King John. King John is one of Shakespeare’s earliest plays, a history play that looks at arguments around royal succession. If that sounds yawnsome, the arguments involve battles, betrayals and murder, as so often in the medieval history plays.

What makes this play so interesting is the central character, who arguably isn’t King John, but his half-brother Phillip Falconbridge (who has more lines than anyone else).  However, no-one calls him by this rather dashing name, or the new one he is given at the start of the play, Richard Plantagenet; he is consistently referred to in the text as The Bastard.  As the illegitimate son of Richard the Lionheart, he is of royal lineage, but legitimacy being of huge significance at the time, he is not an heir.  Other illegitimate children in Shakespeare are somewhat troublesome: Edmund in King Lear and Don John in Much Ado both cause no end of grief.  The Bastard however, is one of the more appealing characters in a play filled with dark, devious, self-serving manipulators.  He has a way with words, and his own morality is uninfluenced by society.  His response to his mother about Richard the Lionheart being his father does not berate her for stigmatizing him:

He that perforce robs lions of their hearts
May easily win a woman’s. Ay, my mother,
With all my heart I thank thee for my father!
…Come, lady, I will show thee to my kin;
And they shall say, when Richard me begot,
If thou hadst said him nay, it had been sin:
Who says it was, he lies; I say ’twas not.

Pretty liberal for the time.  He goes on to fight for King John, and prove himself brave, clever, and more humane than others in what is quite a bleak play:

But as I travell’d hither through the land,
I find the people strangely fantasied;
Possess’d with rumours, full of idle dreams,
Not knowing what they fear, but full of fear: 

Cheeky and irreverent when he’s in court, The Bastard is a man of action who is actually a more accomplished leader than any of the courtly power-wielders. His illegitimacy places him outside of things, and as such he is able to cast a wry and sardonic glance at the action. “Mad world! mad kings! mad composition!” King John is weak, and the play demonstrates that rather than a god-given right to rule, kings are as flawed and human as the rest.   The Bastard gets the last lines of the play, and in his mouth the words:

Now these her princes are come home again,
Come the three corners of the world in arms,
And we shall shock them. Nought shall make us rue,
If England to itself do rest but true.

become not an assertion of England’s strength, but an ironic observation on the weakness and hypocrisy of rulers. The Bastard isn’t a historical figure or in any of Shakespeare’s sources.  He is entirely invented, and one of the many reasons that Shakespeare is still as Ben Jonson described him: “The applause, delight, the wonder of our stage”.  Happy Birthday William Shakespeare – “Shine forth, thou star of poets!”

To end, one of the most famous portrayals of King John, back in the days when he was still a prince: