This is part of a series of occasional posts where I look at works from Le Monde’s 100 Books of the Century. The posts have been a bit too occasional, the challenge is taking me forever! I’m hoping this post will see me starting to build momentum again. Please see the separate page (link at the top) for the full list of books.
Contempt (Il disprezzo) by Alberto Moravia (1954 trans. Angus Davidson 1999) is a novel with a title that instructs the reader regarding the attitude to take to the narrator: Molteni is truly contemptible.
He is married to the gorgeous Emilia and at first they are very happy together, despite their poverty, as Molteni tries to make a living as a writer and earn enough to keep them in their modest home.
“Thus I never had so much to complain of as I did during the time when in truth – as I later came to realise – I was completely and profoundly happy.”
Gradually however, things start to unravel. They meet Battista, a crass, vulgar film producer. A seemingly innocuous event occurs but from this time Emilia starts to treat Molteni coolly. And so over the course of this short novel we see the disintegration of the marriage, the causes of which are entirely apparent to the reader but remain elusive to Molteni as he is so utterly self-absorbed.
He’s a terrible snob: he looks down on his wife for being less educated than him and has dreams of being a great writer. He feels his scriptwriting is beneath him yet he doesn’t really excel at that either, trying to write a film version of The Odyssey for co-producers with very different ideas. He’s so busy being intellectual that life is passing him by and he has no idea how incredibly stupid he is.
He has a degree of insight into abstract concepts, such as his decision to become a Communist, but is unable to translate it into meaningful action:
“Usually, in simpler, less cultivated people, this process occurs without their knowing it, in the dark depths of consciousness where, by a kind of mysterious alchemy, egoism is transmuted into altruism, hatred into love, fear into courage, but to me, accustomed as I was to observing and studying myself, the whole thing was clear and visible…yet I was aware the whole time I was being swayed by material, subjective factors, that I was transforming purely personal motives into universal reasons.”
The irony when he claims “I would never have become a Communist if I had not bought the lease of that over-expensive flat” completely passes him by.
And of course, he is completely blinded to the person he shares his life with. Emilia become progressively unhappier throughout the novel, which Molteni barely acknowledges, being so wrapped up in himself:
“Her beauty had about it a look of subjection, of reluctance, the cause of which I was at a loss to identify.”
It’s a short novel so I can’t say too much about plot, except things come to a head when the couple holiday with Battista in Capri, changing their lives irrevocably. Contempt shows how intellectualism and artistry carry a danger of relentless self-focus; coupled with Molteni’s material concerns, he loses all sight of people and human feelings, only realising where true meaning lies when it is too late.
I couldn’t have spent too much longer with Molteni but as a short, sharp novel, Contempt works well and has plenty of food for thought.
To end, the trailer for Jean-Luc Godard’s Le Mepris (1963), which was inspired by Contempt:
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 Joke (1967; trans. Michael Henry Heim 1982*) is the first Milan Kundera I’ve read, as I found his massive intellectual-philosopher reputation intimidating to my tiny brain. However, I found this, his first novel, very readable so who knows, maybe I will tackle the cumbersomely-titled The Unbearable Lightness of Being at some point?
Ludvik lives in 1950s communist Czechoslovakia (as it then was) and is sulking when he sends his girlfriend, Marketa a facetious postcard:
“Optimism is the opium of the people! A healthy atmosphere stinks of stupidity! Long live Trotsky!”
Unfortunately, as we who live in the age of twitter know, irony is not always apparent in the written word and the authorities do not appreciate his sentiments. He is thrown out of the Party and sent to a labour camp with other political dissidents. The story is told from the viewpoint of Ludvik, his friend Jaroslav who is interested in Moravian culture, lecturer Kostka who is Christian in the face of Ludvik’s atheism, and journalist Helena who is used cruelly to facilitate a revenge act.
As Ludvik looks back on his interrupted career and the injustice he has suffered, Kundera offers an incisive commentary on the effect of repressive regimes, but also questions how far all of us can lose sight of ourselves in the face of societal pressures:
“When the Comrades branded my conduct and my smile as intellectual (another notorious pejorative of the times) I actually believed them. I couldn’t imagine (I wasn’t bold enough to imagine) that everyone else might be wrong, and that the Revolution itself, the spirit of the times, might be wrong, and I, an individual, might be right. I began keeping tabs on my smiles, and soon I felt a tiny crack opening up between the person I’d been and the person I should be (according to the spirit of the times) and tried to be.”
Ludvik attempts to enact a revenge for his treatment, but it does not go as planned. He realises that the man who has become the focus of his anger is only a man, and that the issues are larger than a single person.
“How would I explain I used my hatred to balance out the weight of evil I bore as a youth? How would I explain I considered him the embodiment of all the evil I had ever known? How would I explain I needed to hate him?”
Overall, the sense is of an almost Beckettian absurdity. There isn’t the surrealism of Beckett, but certainly the sense of futility and powerlessness of the individual in the face of an indifferent world. Kundera evokes this lightly, so The Joke is not a heavy read, although it considers huge themes. While the politics are particularly relevant to Europe in the last century, the story moves beyond the specific to challenge the role of the individual within structures in which we live, how much agency we have, and what responsibility that brings with it.
“what if history plays jokes? And all at once I realise how powerless I was to revoke my own joke: I myself and my life as a whole had been involved in a joke much more vast (all-embracing) and absolutely irrevocable.”
Kundera has been exiled in France since 1975 after criticising the repressive nature of the then Czech government. The Joke is not self-righteous or overly polemical: it portrays, Kundera writes in the introduction, a man “condemned to triviality”. While this ironical awareness distanced me from Ludvik somewhat and stopped me totally loving this novel, it also prevents The Joke being pompous, and instead funny, sad, tragic and wise.
To end, an apt song which I hope a book blogger who likes singers called Barry will enjoy even though it’snot Barry singing, and a video that is most definitely of a certain era (it wasn’t all repressive politics in the 1960s kids, there were psychotropic drugs too!):
*It’s worth seeking out a later translation of the novel, as Kundera was unhappy with the first English translations but has authorised the later ones
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 Lost Honour of Katharina Blum or, how violence develops and where it can lead by Heinrich Boll (1974, tr. Leila Vennewitz 1975) is a satire on anti-communist paranoia written in a reportage style. If that summary and the cumbersome title of the novel makes you feel like this:
Stick with me. Boll manages to convey the story with a fast pace and a light touch which means that the narrative carries you along and you don’t feel bludgeoned with polemic. He also undercuts the objectivity that his narrator is proclaiming, questioning the facts that are presented, even when we know what has happened – that Katarina Blum has shot and killed Totges, a journalist for a (fictional) newspaper Die Zeitung.
“Let there not be too much talk about blood here, since only necessary differences in level are to regarded as inevitable; we would therefore direct the reader to television and movies and the appropriate musicals and gruesicals; if there is to be something fluid here, let it not be blood […] Totges was wearing an improvised sheikh costume concocted from a rather worn sheet, and the effect of a lot of blood on a lot of white is well known; a pistol is then sure to act almost like spray gun, and since in this instance the costume was made out of a large square of white cotton, modern painting or stage effects would seem to be more appropriate here than drainage. So be it. Those are the facts.”
How Katharina came to do such a thing is told from a variety of viewpoints, capturing the events of four days from when she meets Gotten, a bank robber and suspected radical at a party, to the time when she commits the murder. Die Zeitung spins its own story around events, outraged that one of their own has been killed. The newspaper reporting is comical:
“The pastor of Gemmelsbroich had the following to say: ‘I wouldn’t put anything past her. Her father was a Communist in disguise, and her mother, whom on compassionate grounds I employed for a time as a charwoman, stole the sacramental wine and carried on orgies in the sacristy with her lovers.’”
Yet at the same time this is the crux of satire. The newspaper is able to spin such tales, eagerly gobbled up by its readers, without censure. The print media both perpetuates and exacerbates the tragedy, as the lies spun around the ‘Red’ Gotten and Scarlet Woman Katharina cause the hard-working, honest Katharina to become so desperate as to take a life.
Of course, The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum was written over 40 years ago so the reality it portrays is barely recognisable now. An irresponsible sensationalist press, whipping up public feeling, vilifying marginalised groups, passing judgement on female sexuality…nope, can’t think of a single contemporary parallel.
“Everything will be done to avoid further blockages and unnecessary buildups of tension. It will probably not be possible to avoid them entirely.”
Much as I enjoyed the novel and fancy admire the brilliant mind of Kris Kristofferson, I think I’ll be skipping this made-for-TV adaptation (cue 80s-tastic trailer):
Trigger warning: this post contains discussion of upsetting sexual subject matter. Please do not read if you are not an adult or if you will find such discussion traumatic.
I’ve picked a rather disturbing theme for my post this week, as you may have guessed from the title quote. I try and pick a theme based on what’s been happening at the time, and for me this week it’s incest. I feel I should qualify that statement rather rapidly: I went to see Maxine Peake’s Hamlet – that Oedipal family drama to end all Oedipal family dramas – and then I saw A View from the Bridge with Mark Strong.
Then in my early modern literature class, someone pointed out that Tis Pity She’s a Whore (where a brother and sister are in a relationship) had warped her mind because when we read A King and No King (where a brother & sister struggle with their mutual attraction) she couldn’t see what the problem was & why they didn’t just get on with it. Don’t get an education kids, it will put your moral compass on permanent fritz.
But if you can cope with the upsetting subject matter, there’s been some wonderful novels written about circumstances where incest occurs, so I hope you’ll stick with me.
Firstly, Never Mind by Edward St Aubyn (1992). This is the first of the Patrick Melrose quintet, St Aubyn’s series of autobiographical novels (the fourth, Mother’s Milk, was nominated for the Booker in 2006). In this first novel , Patrick is five years old, living in France for the summer with his alcoholic mother and controlling, cruel father. As Patrick explores the garden, creating adventures for himself, St Aubyn brilliantly evokes the microscopic view of a child:
“As Patrick approached the house, climbing as usual the right–hand flight of the double staircase because it was luckier, he turned into the garden to see if he could find the frog that lived in the fig tree. Seeing the tree frog was very lucky indeed. Its bright green skin was even smoother against the smooth grey skin of the fig tree, and it was hard to find it amongst the fig leaves which were almost the same colour as itself. In fact, Patrick had only seen the tree frog twice, but he had stood still for ages staring at its sharp skeleton and bulging eyes…above all at the swelling sides which enlivened a body as delicate as jewellery, but greedier for breath.”
The third person narrative enables St Aubyn to shift between the various Melroses so that while the parents are reprehensible (the mother) and downright repugnant (the father) you understand why they are the way they are; how damaged they are and how they continue to inflict damage on all who surround them.
What makes it bearable is St Aubyn’s beautiful, intelligent prose; the delicate way he approaches the Melroses to capture this moment in family history.
“’What did you do today?’
‘Nothing,’ said Patrick, looking down at the floor.
‘Did you for a walk with Daddy?’ asked Eleanor bravely. She felt the inadequacy of her questions, but could not overcome the dread of having them scantily answered.
Patrick shook his head. A branch swayed outside the window, and watched the shadow of its leaves flickering above the curtain pole. The curtains billowed feebly and collapsed again, like deflated lungs. Down the corridor a door slammed. Patrick looked at the clutter on his mother’s desk. It was covered in letters, envelopes, paperclips, rubber bands, pencils, and a profusion of different-coloured cheque books. An empty champagne glass stood beside a full ashtray.”
SPOILER: And now, to quote the vampire Lestat, I’m going to give you the choice I never had. Never Mind is a great novel. Edward St Aubyn is a hugely talented writer. He was also repeatedly raped by his father as a small child and his novels are autobiographical. In Never Mind, there is a scene where Patrick is raped by his father. I didn’t know this when I was reading the novel (I read the scene on a train, and had to get off at the next stop because I genuinely thought I was going to be sick), and I’m telling you so you can decide whether or not to read it. I would urge you to do as it is such a brilliant novel, but go in prepared.
Phew! Let’s pause for a moment and go to a happy place:
Secondly, The Ventriloquist’s Tale by Pauline Melville (1997) which won the Whitbread First Novel Award in 1997. Set in Guyana and spanning most of the twentieth century, Melville uses the lives of generations of an Amerindian family to explore large themes: colonialism, the nature of love, religion and progress. In contrast to Never Mind, this is a tale told with vivacity, serious but not depressing.
“Where was I? Oh yes. My grandmother. She still refers with rage to a man called Charles Darwin who wandered through the region with the slow-motion frenzy of a sloth, measuring and collecting. No one round here likes measurers, collectors and enumerators. We cannot hoard in the tropics. Use it or some other creature will eat it. Sooner or later everything falls to the glorious spirit of rot with its fanfares of colours and nose-twisting stenches.”
The narrator/ventriloquist tells the story of the McKinnon family: Scottish Alexander McKinnon who builds a life in Guyana with 2 wives; his incestuous son and daughter; and the present day Chofy McKinnon, drawn back to Guyana through a love affair.
“It was confusing for McKinnon. He settled into the life well at one level, but every now and then he caught a glimpse of a world he did not understand at all. He tried to discuss things with his father-in-law who was something of a philosopher and who explained to McKinnon that there was no point in trying to do anything about everyday life. It was an illusion behind which lay the unchanging reality of dream and myth.”
These themes of The Ventriloquist’s Tale are heightened by the heady environment that challenges what is real:
“It was night and the deer was hiding somewhere in the tall grasses. Danny lay on the side of the sloping hill. The rough grass under him felt like the pelt of an animal. He almost imagined he could feel it breathing.”
Reading this novel engages all the senses: you can see, smell and taste all that is happening. There’s a strong current of humour too; Melville has accomplished a novel that would be astonishing at any point in a writer’s career, but all the more so as a first novel.
As a companion piece to my post on Booker nominees, I thought I’d celebrate Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North winning the 2014 Man Booker by looking at two previous winners. Hence bi-winning – see, Charlie Sheen makes sense, he just needs the right context….
Firstly, The Inheritance of Loss – Kiran Desai (Penguin, 2006) which won the 2006 Man Booker Prize. Desai’s prize-winning skill is evident from the first paragraph:
“All day, the colours had been those of dusk, mist moving like a water creature across the great flanks of mountains possessed of ocean shadows and depth. Briefly visible above the vapour, Kanchenjunga was a far peak whittled out of ice, gathering the last of the light, a plume of snow blown high by the storms at its summit.”
Sai has been schooled by nuns , and leaves to live with her grandfather and his cook in a damp, faded mansion at the foot of the Himalayas. All three live elsewhere in their minds. The sad judge thinks more and more on his past in England, Sai is enamoured of her maths tutor, and the cook is preoccupied with his son Biju who is living the dream in America:
“Biju lay on his mattress and watched the movement of the sun through the grate on the row of buildings opposite. From every angle that you looked at this city without a horizon, you saw more buildings going up like jungle creepers, starved for light, holding perpetual half-darkness congealed at the bottom, the day shafting through the maze, slivering into apartments at precise and fleeting times …”
The reality is that Biju hops from one low-paid job to another, part of the unseen masses that keep the economy rolling, without a green card, without rights. The rights of people form the background of the story, as the Gorkhaland movement gains momentum:
“The anger had solidified into slogans and guns, and it turned out they, they, Lola and Noni, were the unlucky ones who wouldn’t slip through, who would pay the debt that should be shared with others over many generations”
Lola and Noni are two elderly sisters, dreaming of genteel retirement, yanked into the present day by the forces of the oppressed demanding land rights. Desai balances the personal and political perfectly, showing the effect on the individual and the nation with equal sensitivity:
“This was how history moved, the slow build, the quick burn, and in an incoherence, the leaping both backward and forward, swallowing the young into old hate. The space between life and death, in the end, too small to measure.”
“There they were, the most commonplace of them, those quite mismatched with the larger-than-life questions, caught up in the mythic battles of past vs. present, justice vs. injustice – the most ordinary swept up in extraordinary hatred, because extraordinary hatred was, after all, a commonplace event.”
As both individuals and nations struggle with notions of identity, intricately bound together yet inherently unstable, Desai demonstrates how the big questions in life exist simultaneously in the everyday and across the sweep of history.
Secondly, The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes (Jonathan Cape, 2011), which won the Man Booker in 2011. This is a very different novel to The Inheritance of Loss, taking a brief (150 pages) look at a deliberately small life, lived quietly.
“And that’s life, isn’t it? Some achievements and some disappointments. It’s been interesting to me, though I wouldn’t complain or be amazed if others found it less so […] History isn’t the lies of the victors…It’s more the memories of the survivors, most of whom are neither victorious nor defeated”
Memory and its unreliability is a dominant theme in the book – Barnes demonstrates that there is no such thing as a reliable narrator.
“Who was it who said memory is what we thought we’d forgotten? And it ought to be obvious to us that time doesn’t act as a fixative, rather as a solvent. But it’s not convenient – it’s not useful – to believe this; it doesn’t help us get on with our lives; so we ignore it.”
The narrator in this instance is Tony, detailing two episodes in his largely uneventful life: the time around leaving school for university when his friend Adrian killed himself, and the present day where he has retired from work and a legacy left to him prompts a re-evaluation of the past. The Sense of an Ending is a melancholy book, as the title implies, but it feels real rather than outright depressing. Tony is not admirable, but he’s not especially despicable either. He is aware of his shortcomings and has achieved a resigned acceptance of them. But this is not to suggest the novel is uneventful – in a short space Barnes creates a narrative drive that carries you through to a powerful, unsettling ending.
Having been nominated three times previously and failed to grab the prize, I can’t tell you how much I hope this is how Barnes reacted when he finally won:
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.
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:
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.
“Nothing,” said Piglet, taking Pooh’s hand. “I just wanted to be sure of you.” (A.A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh)
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:
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 ridiculous, 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:
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.”
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 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.
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 past. Oranges 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.
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!
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”
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 while you still can.
“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.”
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!
Last week I watched When Corden Met Barlow, which had James Corden interviewing Gary Barlow. For those of you who don’t know these people, the former is a comedy writer and performer, the latter is a member of pop group Take That. When Take That split, Barlow was vilified in the press, for reasons that aren’t entirely clear, as he seems an all-round good bloke. Take That have since reformed, and Gary Barlow is now proclaimed a national treasure by the very same press that tore him apart (update: see comments below for why this might have changed somewhat!) This got me thinking about how fame is constructed, and how it seems almost entirely arbitrary, not based on the person themselves but the image that is created, sometimes not even that. To this end, I thought I’d look this week at novels that feature a famous person as one of the characters.
Firstly, The Great Lover by Jill Dawson (Sceptre, 2009), which concerns the poet Rupert Brooke. I went into this novel with some degree of trepidation because I think Brooke was a fairly mediocre poet, whose fame was elevated because he was posh, pretty and patriotic; exactly the type of person the establishment wanted to represent its lost youth in World War One.
Rather him than Wilfred Owen, who was middle-class, ordinary looking, gay, and whose verse took an uncompromising look at trench warfare. Of course, since then the quality of Owen’s poetry has seen his reputation far outstrip that of Brooke. But I will now climb down off my soapbox, and say that my concerns were unfounded, as this whole issue of image construction is precisely what Dawson is analysing in her novel. For example, with the rumour that Brooke fathered a child in Tahiti:
“perhaps people find it difficult to square the idea of the golden Apollo, the intellectual gentleman-soldier, finding peace not in an English meadow but on a tropical island far away.”
The novel is alternately narrated by Brooke and a maid where he boards in Granchester, the spunky and (mostly) wise Nell Golightly. In the present day, she is trying to convey the man she knew in a letter to the possible daughter of Brooke, who is now an elderly lady in Tahiti. In this way, Dawson draws attention to how biographies are as much about the biographers as their ostensible subject:
“I believe your mother wrote: “I get fat all the time.” Well, any woman would understand the meaning in that sentence. Unfortunately, your father’s biographers have all been men.”
The novel also shows the burden of fame, of being proclaimed “the handsomest young man in England” by WB Yeats. “I have the strongest feeling of foreboding. Something beyond my worst fears is about to happen […] And I think I know what it might be, but what I cannot tell is whether it is coming from inside my head or outside. Whatever it is, it is here at last. The construction, the Rupert Brooke, cannot hold me any longer.”
Through the first-person narrative, Dawson doesn’t give us a perfect golden-child Brooke, but the wholly subjective experience of a flawed, troubled man who is just so young, and given to unintentionally funny insights:
“The Great Lover, that’s me, not the beloved. The beloved is despicable. That’s the role of a girl.”
“I have resolved that Sodomy can only ever be for me a hobby, not a full-time occupation.”
This callow, aggrandising way could irritate some readers, but for me it just brought home how beyond all the image, Brooke was just a young man, as human as the rest of us, and how tragic it was that he and so many like him had their lives cut short: “the war was only the last eight months of his life, and yet that’s what he’s remembered for”.
What Dawson gives us through Nell’s voice is a fond but clear-eyed portrait of Brooke. “All that he was to me was gathered into that look I cast, but I don’t know if he saw it, or knew.” It made me feel that a well-researched (as this novel clearly is) fictional interpretation is probably just as valid as a “factual” biography.
“he was a difficult man to pin down, and he was in the habit of saying things playfully that he did not mean at all, or were quite the opposite of his meaning, so maybe it’s true that he was a little more of a slippery fish than some.”
So what are we left with? The answer is, the same as with any artist we admire: “Rupert’s true heart beats only on paper”. Their works are what speak most eloquently for them.
Secondly, someone who allegedly went skinny-dipping with Rupert Brooke, Virginia Woolf.
The Hours by Michael Cunningham (4th Estate, 1999) is Pulitzer-winning novel which tells the story of three women linked by Woolf’s novel Mrs Dalloway.
One is Woolf herself, writing the novel in 1923; the others are Laura Brown, a housewife reading the novel in Los Angeles 1949; and Clarissa Vaughan, planning a party for a friend who calls her Mrs Dalloway, in New York at the end of twentieth century. The Hours is proof that a book doesn’t have to be long to be brilliant. At just 226 pages in my edition, it is so beautifully written that I had trouble pulling out individual quotes for this post. Each of the women lives a single day, both ordinary and extraordinary:
“Here is the brilliant spirit, the woman of sorrows, the woman of transcendent joys, who would rather be elsewhere, who has consented to perform simple and essentially foolish tasks, to examine tomatoes, to sit under a hairdryer because it is her art and her duty.”
Virginia Woolf’s fragile mental state is handled with great sensitivity, showing how she struggles to remain sane, and how the desires of those around her to keep her so may not be the best thing for her life:
“She is better, she is safer, if she rests in Richmond; if she does not speak too much, write too much, feel too much; if she does not travel impetuously to London and walk through its streets; and yet she is dying this way, she is gently dying on a bed of roses.”
The novel brilliantly captures the small, transient moments that make up life, and how they can all add up to great meaning, whilst seeming to signify nothing:
““You can’t possibly have too many roses” Clarissa says.
Sally hands the flowers to her and for a moment they are both simply and entirely happy. They are present, right now, and they have managed, somehow, over the course of eighteen years, to continue loving each other. It is enough. At this moment, it is enough.”
Astonishingly, the echoes across the three women’s lives from Mrs Dalloway and between each other never feels contrived. It is a brilliant evocation of lives led more or less quietly, and each character is strongly drawn enough to stand alone as well as alongside the other two.
I loved The Hours. The individual plots were well-paced, sensitive and insightful, in a style that used language delicately but was never pretentious. Highly recommended.
A film was made of The Hours in 2002. It’s quite good if you can get past the distraction of Nicole Kidman’s prosthetic nose (it took me a while):