Novella a Day in May 2019 #29

Pinocchio – Carlo Collodi (1883, trans. Geoffrey Beck 2009) 160 pages

Pinocchio, like a lot of classic children’s literature, is deeply weird and dark. I didn’t read it at all as a child, despite seeing the Disney cartoon which is very different. I picked it up as an adult because its published by the ever reliable NYRB Classics, and it turned out to be an intriguing read.

The basic premise I think everyone knows: a wooden puppet comes to life, wants to be a real boy, misbehaves and every lie he tells has a very obvious effect on his physiognomy.

“ ‘Lies, my boy, are immediately recognizable, for there are two kinds: lies that have short legs and lies that have long noses. Yours happen to be the long-nosed variety.’

Pinocchio, wanting to hide his face in shame, tried to run from the room – but he couldn’t. His nose was so long that it wouldn’t fit through the doorway.”

Pinocchio isn’t very likeable. He’s totally idle and only interested in himself.

“ ‘Of all the trades in the world, there’s only one that really suits me.’

‘And what trade would that be?’

‘That of eating, drinking, sleeping, playing, and wandering wherever I like from sunup to sundown.’

‘For your information,’ said the Talking Cricket, with his usual calm, ‘everyone who plies that trade ends up either in a poorhouse or a prison.’

‘Watch out, you doom-and-gloom Cricket! If I snap, you’ll be sorry!’”

Pinocchio does snap, and kills the Cricket stone dead. A short-lived relationship with an insect, who is nothing like the top hat and frock coat wearing, enduring friend of the cartoon.

The story is episodic, with Pinocchio going on several adventures, invariably taking the wrong decision, and failing to learn from his mistakes. It has the feel of folk tales rather than fairy tales, being grounded in an earthy reality of poverty and banditry, even when the bandits are a fox and cat double act. Pinocchio is always appealing even though he is selfish and unheeding, but there is never any sentimentality in the tale.

However, there is the strong didactic element associated with fairy tales, and Pinocchio is constantly lectured, by the cricket, by adults, and by the fairy with sky blue hair who crops up in various guises.

“ ‘Dear boy,’ said the Fairy, ‘people who talk that way almost always end up either in a prison or a poorhouse. For your information, everyone, whether they’re born rich or poor, is obliged to do something – to keep busy, to work. Woe to anyone who yields to idleness! Idleness is a dreadful disease and must be treated at once, starting in childhood. If not, it will be too late by the time we grow up.’”

Pinocchio does eventually learn and does become a real boy, but there’s something irrepressible about him. The feeling at the end is not of conservative integration where all is right with the world, but rather that the subversive elements that have been present all along are still there, waiting to spill out at any minute.

It’s a tale that can be enjoyed by children and adults. My edition included contributions from intellectual heavyweights to say the least: an Introduction by Umberto Eco, an Afterword by Rebecca West and a quote on the back by Italo Calvino. This shows how Pinocchio has been so widely recognised and why it endures; deceptively simple, hiding its complexities in an engaging children’s tale, it can be read differently each time.

I really didn’t like the cover of the NYRB Classics edition, finding it creepy, but it captures the unsettling quality of the tale of an animated puppet perfectly:

“Mancestre….is the fairest, best buildied, quikkest and most populus Tounne of al Lancastreshire” (John Leland, 1538)

The final part of my cities trilogy of posts sees me in Manchester, a place that has made worldwide news in recent times for the most tragic of reasons. I saw the floral tributes when I was there and it was deeply moving. Manchester is a great city with a rich history & I still think that even though it bucketed with rain the whole time I was there and I spent every moment on a spectrum of sogginess, never entirely dry. If any of you go to this fine place before 28 August I highly recommend Shirley Baker’s photographs at the Manchester Art Gallery; her images of Mancunians in the late 1960s-early 70s are absolutely wonderful.

Image from here

From the TBR mountain I’ve chosen two autobiographies, one from a writer born in Manchester, and one who has now made Manchester their home. Firstly, the classic Confessions of an English Opium Eater by Thomas de Quincey (1821). De Quincey was born in Manchester to a family of cloth merchants when Manchester was a major industrial centre for the cotton industry.

“On passing through Manchester, I was informed by several cotton manufacturers that their workpeople were rapidly getting into the practice of opium-eating; so much so, that on a Saturday afternoon the counters of druggists were strewed with pills…in preparation for the known demand of the evening. The immediate occasion of this practice was the lowness of wages, which at that time would not allow them to indulge in ale or spirits, and wages rising, it may be thought this practice would cease; but …I do not readily believe that any man having once tasted the divine luxuries of opium will afterwards descend into the gross and mortal enjoyments of alcohol.”

Yes, opium (laudanum) was legal and widely used at this time. DeQuincey suffers with excruciating stomach pains due to childhood poverty and starvation, and a well-meaning friend suggests he try opium to ease his what ails him:

“I took it – and in an hour – oh, heavens! What a revulsion! What an upheaving, from its lowest depths, of inner spirit! What an apocalypse of the world within me! That my pains had vanished was now a trifle in my eyes: this negative effect was swallowed up in the immensity of those positive effects which had opened before me – in the abyss of divine enjoyment thus suddenly revealed.” *

The record of positive experiences with opium meant Confessions was controversial on its release. But DeQuicey does not glamourise the drug nor his experience with it. After all, people wouldn’t get addicted to something which made them feel horrible, and DeQuincey is seeking to make people understand. He doesn’t shy away from all the effects of the drug, and his hallucinations under its influence are grim:

“I was kissed, with cancerous kisses, by crocodiles; and laid, confounded with all unutterable slimy things, amongst reeds and Nilotic mud.”

Overall, the feeling I was left with from this short biography was one of sadness. DeQuincey is ruled by something far more powerful than he is, and the sense is of a life half-lived, a life DeQuincey wishes had been different. He has a fatal flaw:

“I hanker too much after a state of happiness, both for myself and others; I cannot face misery, whether my own or not, with an eye of sufficient firmness”

And opium convinces him that this state is achievable. In so desperately wanting to believe this lie, DeQuincey is never able to shake free of his addiction. At the beginning of the novel he proclaims:

 “I have at length accomplished what I never yet heard attributed to any other man – have untwisted, almost to its final links, the accursed chain which fettered me.”

But modern readers will know he never did accomplish this, and remained addicted his entire life. Confessions is very readable, much more so than other essays and similar of the period, and remains a thought-provoking insight into the nature of addiction.

Secondly, Red Dust Road by Jackie Kay (2010), a Scottish writer who has settled in Manchester and is the current Scots Makar.  If Confessions left me feeling sad, Red Dust Road left me feeling warmed and moved, although it is not a comfort read. It is the story of Jackie Kay’s search for her birth parents, and like her other writing – poetry, fiction, short stories, children’s books – it is funny and affectionate and real and sad.

“the search is often disappointing because it is a false search. You cannot find yourself in two strangers who happen to share your genes. You are made already although you don’t properly know it, you are made from a mixture of myth and gene, you are part fable, part porridge. Finding a strange, nervous, Mormon mother and finding a crazed, ranting Born-Again father does not explain me. At least I hope not!”

That passage occurs near the start of the book, and so it is not a spoiler.  We know Jackie finds her birth parents. What she does, expertly, is cut back and forth in time to show what has made her what she is. Raised in Glasgow by a white couple, Jackie and her (non-biological) brother are mixed race. Growing up in the 70s and 80s they encounter racism (there is a particularly chilling experience for teenage Jackie at Angel tube station).  They also encounter a wonderful, unconditional love from their parents who are communists with a strong sense of right and wrong and a strong sense of fun. (Seriously, Helen and John Kay sound awesome.) While her brother has no interest in finding his biological parents, Jackie finds that falling pregnant with her own son spurs her on to trace her relatives. She discovers that her father was a Nigerian student who met her mother in Aberdeen when she was a nurse. Along the way, she has to pick apart the fairytales she has told herself about them since childhood, and the reality of who they are:

“they are ghosts one minute haunting the city of stone, and ordinary people the next. It is impossible to sustain them, or maintain them. I take another swig of gin. It is time to let them fend for themselves. It is time to let them go. They need to grow up, those young parents. They need to grow up because they are already old, and so am I.”

Red Dust Road is a hugely engaging memoir, full of warmth for all her family and written with humour without shying away from sadness. Ultimately it is a book about what makes us who we are, and how some of it is easy to pinpoint, some of it impossible to fully fathom. It is also about finding home, and how that can be in several places. Jackie Kay has a strong Scottish identity, lives in Manchester, and then visits Nigeria for the first time:

“The earth is so copper warm and beautiful and the green of the long elephant grasses so lushly green they make me want to weep. I feel such a strong sense of affinity with the colours and the landscape, a strong sense of recognition. There’s a feeling of liberation, and exhilaration, that at last, at last, at last I’m here.”

I highly recommend Red Dust Road. Jackie Kay has brought her poetic sensibility to write a glorious memoir about how ourselves, our families and our homes are always an unpredictable work in progress.

To end, a classic song by a classic Manchester band:

*Just say no, kids

“If you live to be one hundred, you’ve got it made. Very few people die past that age.” (George Burns)

This is my 100th post.  For more prolific, better bloggers than me this would not be a big deal but it’s taken me nearly 3 years so I’m making it A Thing:

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For the 100 theme I thought I would pick two books from my TBR that are also on the Norwegian Book Clubs 100 Best Books of All Time list (compiled by 100 authors from 54 countries). And it was at this point that the post became derailed, because the first one I chose was Moby-Dick by Herman Melville. I have no idea how to discuss this novel.  I have no idea if it’s even a novel. It’s the weirdest thing I’ve ever read, and I’ve read The Monk. I can only think it’s called a novel because there isn’t a genre of whale-compendium-philosophical-disquisition-on-the-state-of-humankind-tragi-farce-quest-adventure-stream-of-conciousness-homoerotic-existentialist-romance. I had no idea what I was getting into.  I thought it was a story about a monopedal seafaring lunatic’s obsession with a white whale. That’s some of it. But saying that is what Moby-Dick is about is like saying Animal Farm is about pig husbandry.

“With the problem of the universe revolving in me, how could I — being left completely to myself at such a thought-engendering altitude, — how could I but lightly hold my obligations to observe all whale-ships’ standing orders, ‘Keep your weather eye open, and sing out every time.’”

So you see my problem. Once upon a time one of my tutors was talking me through how to write a research proposal and the only thing I remember him saying was “don’t do what I did, and write down a tirade of barely-literate pseudo-threats”. This comment makes complete sense now, because his research was on Moby-Dick, and if I was trying to capture it in any sort of meaningful analysis I think I’d end up resorting to a tirade of barely-literate pseudo-threats.

I realise this may sound like I didn’t like it, which is not true.  Moby-Dick is beautifully written, compelling, hypnotic, thought-provoking, and completely unique. It’s full of sage counsel for life:

“Better sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian.”

The ending is devastating, and it is without a doubt the weirdest thing I’ve ever read.

“It is not down on any map; true places never are.”

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If you’d like to read a thoughtful, useful discussion of Moby-Dick rather than the confused nonsense you’ve just waded through here, then I highly recommend that you head over to Shoshi’s Book Blog for her excellent review.

Secondly, Madame Bovary by Gustav Flaubert (my edition trans. Alan Russell), whose linear narrative helped me recover from my Moby-Dick book hangover. Apparently Flaubert said “Madame Bovary, c’est moi.” I find this extremely unlikely. Madame Bovary is a silly, vain, self-pitying materialist who places value in all the wrong things. She never changes – this is how she begins and ends the novel.  Madame Bovary could never have written Madame Bovary, which is scathing in its treatment of bourgeois aspiration and acquisition. However, while she runs up debts to fill her house with things and constantly hankers after some ideal self-indulgent life that is based entirely on what she has read books, there is not a total lack of sympathy for Emma:

“Before the wedding, she had believed herself in love. But not having obtained the happiness that should have resulted from that love, she now fancied she must have been mistaken. And Emma wondered exactly what was meant in life by the words ‘bliss’, ‘passion’, ‘ecstasy’, which had looked so beautiful in books.”

So, she’s naïve, and in her naiveté has married a man whose “conversation was as flat as a street pavement, on which everybody’s ideas trudged past, in their workaday dress, provoking no emotion, no laughter, no dreams.” But she is also self-pitying, believing herself so hard done by in her comfortable middle-class existence with a man who loves her: “Had she not suffered enough? Now was her hour of triumph.” that at times I really wanted to slap her.

Emma really doesn’t know what she wants “She longed to travel – or go back to the convent. She wanted to die, and she wanted to live in Paris.”, and this makes her ripe for seduction by an absolute rake.  Although I didn’t like her, I did feel a bit ashamed for laughing at seduction which involved lines such as this:

“Goodbye! I’ll go away, far away, and you’ll hear no more of me. But today, some mysterious force has impelled me to you. One cannot fight with fate! Or resist when the angels smile! One is simply carried away by what is charming and lovely and adorable!”

Emma in her vanity falls for this nonsense, spoken by a man whose “pleasures had so trampled over his heart, like schoolboys in a playground, that no green thing grew there.” Of course her appeal wanes, and she is deserted by the cynical seducer:

“Emma was like any other mistress; and the charm of novelty, gradually slipping away like a garment, laid bare the eternal monotony of passion, whose forms and phrases are forever the same.”

Madame Bovary is a wonderful novel, accomplished and engaging, and while the sexuality of the heroine may no longer be scandalous, it remains an entirely relevant challenge to the socio-cultural values placed on materialistic gain.  I suspect Madame Bovary is a character who divides readers, and in this instance she divided the one reader. One the one hand, I thought her utterly contemptible. But at the same time she was a woman who wanted more, at a time when women didn’t have very many choices.

“Her will is like the veil on her bonnet, fastened by a single string and quivering at every breeze that blows. Always there is a desire that impels and a convention that restrains.”

Very possibly if I’d been born into nineteenth-century bourgeois French society I’d end up a silly, vain, self-pitying materialist, placing value in all the wrong things (of course, I’m nothing like that now *cough*). I’ll end on a more sympathetic view of Emma than I’ve given here; this recent film adaptation seems to view her more kindly, if the trailer is anything to go by: