“Now is the accepted time to make your regular annual good resolutions. Next week you can begin paving hell with them as usual.” (Mark Twain)

Happy 2016! How are your New Year’s resolutions going? I excelled myself this time around, by abandoning mine before I’d even begun.  My internal monologue went thusly:

“I’m going to not buy any more books until I’ve read all those I already own.

… except playtexts (they’re so small they barely count).

…and Persephones.

…and green Viragos.

…and anything else that I really, really want.”

*Sigh* Useless. Even Paul Newman has lost all faith in me.

GIF-give-up-look-down-Paul-Newman-resigned-sad-GIF

OK, so that was just an excuse to put a picture of Paul Newman in the post and if we’ve learnt one thing, it’s that I am incapable of exercising any sort of self-control, especially regarding books and gifs, and cheese, and single malts, and watching inane  detective shows, and…..

So if you are a fellow willpower-free zone, I have an answer for you. Surround yourself with people who are worse than you in some way, and you’ll realise you’re not so bad after all. Now is not the time for aspirations, it is a time for resignation and another fistful of chocolates 🙂  This week I thought I’d look at anti-heroes, and two characters who will make you feel like the most virtuous person alive.

Firstly, Tom Ripley in The Talented Mr Ripley by Patricia Highsmith (1955).

Matt Damon as Tom Ripley in the 1999 film

Matt Damon as Tom Ripley in the 1999 film

 Tom Ripley is approached by the father of an acquaintance in a bar, who has mistaken him for a decent human being:

“Judging [Tom] from that night, Charley could have told Mr Greenleaf that he was intelligent, level-headed, scrupulously honest, and very willing to do a favour. It was a slight error.”

An understatement to say the least. Tom agrees to go to Europe to try and persuade the prodigal son, Dickie Greenleaf, to return home and join the family business, not for any altruistic reason but because he’s worried a petty scam he’s been running is catching up with him. Dickie is a golden boy, rich, idle and good-looking :

“Tom could not help feeling that Richard was not very intelligent, or else he loved to be photographed and he thought he looked best with his mouth spread from ear to ear, which was not very intelligent of him, either.”

Tom becomes obsessed with Dickie, wanting to be all that he is and have all he has:

“Possessions reminded him that he existed, and made him enjoy his existence. It was as simple as that. And wasn’t that worth something? He existed.”

Tom’s slippery notion of himself, identity and existence is the driving force of the novel as he dissolves the boundaries between him and Dickie, eventually *SPOILER* killing him and stealing his identity.  The remainder of the novel sees him dodging authorities and Dickie’s friends, spinning lies and manipulating everyone in his path: “He was himself and yet not himself. He felt blameless and free, despite the fact that he consciously controlled every move he made.”

Tom is a sociopath of course, and the real strength of the novel lies in the study of his character rather than the thriller elements, well done as they are.  It is Tom’s character that spawned four sequels and really gets under your skin; as a reader I felt drawn in by him, creating a weird ambivalence through empathy and disgust.  Tom is a powerful but sad character – he knows something is missing in him, something that makes him entirely alone:

“It struck Tom like a horrible truth, true for all time, true for the people he had known in the past and for those he would know in the future: each had stood and would stand before him, and he would know time and time again that he would never know them and the worst was that there would always be the illusion, for a time, that he did know them, that he and they were in complete harmony and were alike.”

The Anthony Minghella film adaptation of The Talented Mr Ripley is widely known, but I also recommend a French adaptation from 1960, Plein Soleil starring an unnervingly beautiful Alain Delon as Ripley:

Secondly, Joe Lampton in Room at the Top by John Braine (1957).

Laurence Harvey as Joe Lampton in the 1959 film

Laurence Harvey as Joe Lampton in the 1959 film

I expected this story of social climbing to have dated but surprisingly, it wasn’t so. The references to northern mill towns being a hive of industry is sadly past and the rigid social classes, worry over a relationship’s ten year age gap and Joe’s lover’s concern that she is ancient at the ripe old age of 34, seem less relevant. However, as a portrayal of greed for material acquisition and the mistaking of such as being a purposeful life, Room at the Top is as incisive as ever.

Joe leaves the poverty of his home town of Dufton to move to the more prosperous Warley:

“I was going to the Top, into a world that even from my first glimpses filled me with excitement: big houses with drives and orchards and manicured hedges, a prepatory school to which the boys would soon return from adventures in Brittany and Brazil and India or at the very least an old castle in Cornwall, expensive cars – Bentleys, Lagondas, Daimlers, Jaguars –parked everywhere as a kind of ostentatious litter as if the district had dropped them at random as evidences of its wealth”

Joe rooms at the top of one of the large houses, takes a job at the local town hall, but has ambitions far beyond his current circumstances:

“I saw myself, compared with him, as the Town Hall Clerk, the subordinate pen-pusher…I wanted an Aston-Martin, I wanted a three-guinea linen shirt, I wanted a girl with a Riviera suntan – these were my rights, I felt, a signed and sealed legacy.”

Joe joins the local am-dram society and is drawn to young, rich Susan: “I’ll marry her if I have to put her in the family way to do it. I’ll make her daddy give me a damned good job. I’ll never count pennies again.” Thus begins a double life, one where he is with Susan, determinedly climbing the slippery pole, “I was manoeuvring for position all the time, noting the effect of each word; and it seemed to devalue everything I said” and one where he is with Alice, his older lover, able to be authentically himself.

Joe is an intriguing character, utterly reprehensible in his machinations but painfully self-aware and never self-justifying: he wants what he wants and he sets out to get it. There is no sense that he is any better or any worse than those who surround him, and so Room at the Top, while an intimate portrait of one man, is also a damning portrait of post-war society.  I didn’t wholly dislike Joe, but  Braine doesn’t shy away from the emotional fall-out of using people in this way and we are not expected to excuse Joe’s behaviour.

 “I felt choked with my own selfishness as nasty as catarrh; there was nothing in my heart to match the lovely sweep of the moor and the sense of infinite space behind it and a million extra stars above.”

Joe’s punishment is a terrible one: he gets everything he wants.

Room at the Top was a huge success and quickly adapted into a similarly successful film with Simone Signoret winning an Oscar for her portrayal of Alice:

So take it from me, Tom Ripley and Joe Lampton: even if you’ve failed in all your New Year resolutions, you’re doing OK 🙂

Advertisements

“Make your mistakes, next year and forever.” (Neil Gaiman)

Happy New Year!  I’ve quoted the lovely Neil Gaiman to start off 2014, and do please check out the full context of the quote here, as I’m sure it will get your year off to a flying start.  Here’s to many more mistakes in 2014!

And now, I’d like to entirely ignore New Year.  This is a blog post for my brother.  His birthday is 1 January, and it’s a crap time to have a birthday.  It gets entirely subsumed in Christmas and New Year, and once you’re no longer a child, everyone you know spends your birthday with a monster hangover.  Rubbish.

Like Neil Gaiman, my brother is a lovely man, who despite reading very little fiction always reads my blog posts and likes them on Facebook.  That’s who we’re dealing with, people.  So what to write about? Well, he likes poetry and I think he has a really good feel for it, an innate understanding.  So this post will look at two poems that I think he’ll appreciate. This is for you, T.  Entirely for you with no thematic link to New Year at all.  Happy Birthday, brother of mine.

Image

(Image from: http://hdwallpaperspictures.com/birthday-cake/)

Firstly, The Door by Miroslav Holub (trans. from Czech by Ian Milner).  You can hear Joseph Fiennes read the whole poem here. This is a hugely clever poem, disguised in simple language.  The poet repeatedly urges the reader to “Go and open the door”, and speculates as to what is on the other side.  The first stanza is:

Go and open the door.

Maybe outside there’s

a tree, or a wood,

a garden,

or a magic city.

This is a poem you can read to a child: the idea and language is so simple, they will quickly relate to the opportunity to let their imagination run riot.  Yet it works on a variety of levels that adults can appreciate, and can be about the search for inspiration; the courage to take new, unexplored paths in life:

Go and open the door,

If there’s a fog

it will clear.

Go and open the door.

Even if there’s only

the darkness ticking,

even if there’s only

the hollow wind,

even if

nothing

is there,

go and open the door.

The images of “darkness ticking” and “hollow wind” are eerie, and add an unsettling quality to the poem.  They bring a sense of form to the formless, effectively creating how the unknown can still be scary. However, this door and what lays beyond is not entirely unknown; I think one of the really clever things about this poem is that the door is a definite article: “the door”, not the indefinite “a door”.  It’s a small thing, but by suggesting the door is specific one, Holub delicately reminds us that this door to new ideas and new ways of living is within reach, already identified, carried within ourselves.  And if nothing else, the final lines remind us:

At least

there’ll be

a draught.

A lovely, humorously deprecating end to an unpretentious poem that can follow you through life.

Secondly, A Glimpse of Starlings by Brendan Kennelly. You can read the full poem here.   This is an astonishing and powerful poem, full of intriguing imagery. It begins:

I expect him any minute now although

He’s dead. I know he has been talking

All night  to his own dead…

It’s not clear who “he” is, or if he is really dead, or only living among the dead.  Googling this poem tells you it is about the poet’s father, struggling to deal with the loss of his wife.   The struggle is beautifully and tenderly evoked through a variety of images:

Sipping a cup of tea, fingering a bit of bread,

Eating a small photograph with his eyes.

The questions bang and rattle in his head

 

[…]Daylight is as hard to swallow as food

Love is a crumb all of him hungers for.

How gorgeous, and heartbreaking, are those lines?  The frequent use of full-stops keeps the pace of the poem low-key and quiet, creating a sense of the poet’s careful approach towards the grieving man.  The transfer of images between food and the environment “eating a small photograph”, daylight being “hard to swallow”, skilfully shows how the sustenance of a man’s life has disappeared, affecting everything.  The hungering for a crumb of love is a beautiful way of evoking the yearning emptiness of grief that can never be sated.

The image of starlings is created in the last few lines:

…over his shoulder a glimpse of starlings

Suddenly lifted over field, road and river

Like a fist of black dust pitched in the wind.

This is an oblique image so I’ll leave it with you to find your own meaning.  I find this poem extremely powerful and the images truly haunting.

To end, here is a video of the astonishing display of a murmuration of starlings:

I hope you liked them, T. Have a great day one and all!

“There are two types of women in the world: those who like chocolate and complete bitches” (Dawn French)

Happy New Year! (for those of you using the Gregorian calendar).  It is one of life’s small cruelties that if you live in the Northern hemisphere, a grey, dark, cold time of year is also inexorably bound with resolutions to lose weight.  It’s entirely illogical: your body is bound up in layer upon chunky layer of clothing, and all you want to eat is comforting, stodgy carbs.  Far better to start a diet in March – its brighter, starts getting warmer, the prospect of salad is less likely to send you howling in despair from the room (unless that’s your modus operandi all year round, and you are not alone).  There’s a sense of approaching summer and the associated disrobing to act as an incentive to lose those extra layers you’ve acquired that you can’t hang in the wardrobe.  But right now its January. So, until those spring-like days, let us glory in girth, fellow book-lovers, and embrace loose baggy monsters.  This was Henry James’ term for those long Victorian novels, and they are perfect for this time of year.  If the holiday season has left you feeling like a baggy monster yourself, settle down with a huge book: you can wallow, a verb that suits your newly enormous body, in its vastness & lose yourself and the dark days that surround you; you can claim it’s a novella and make your body look smaller by comparison, optical illusion being so much easier than giving up all the fun stuff; and if you go for a paper version rather than an e-book the weight itself will act equally as well as a gym workout for your biceps (er, maybe). ‘Tis the season of the baggy monster!

I’ve gone for an obvious choice of baggy monster, George Eliot’s Middlemarch (published 1871-2. My copy: Penguin Classics 1965). Writing about Middlemarch is really difficult for me as it’s my favourite novel ever.  Ever.  And I find when things are that close to me, I can’t really explain them or talk about them objectively.  Lots of people can’t bear George Eliot and find her too intellectual and moralising.  Fine – I have no come back.  She’s both of those things.  But if you give Middlemarch a chance, the rewards can be huge.  The characterisations of the inhabitants of this middle-England town are fully drawn, as the length of the novel allows for such scope.  There is no reliance on stereotypes (Mr Dickens, take note), and even the unlikeable characters are understandable.  Eliot can be as witty and incisive as Jane Austen (“plain women he regarded as he did the other severe facts of life, to be faced with philosophy  and investigated by science”/ “she held it still more natural that Mr Lydgate should have fallen in love at first sight of her.  These things happened so often at balls, and why not by morning light, when the complexion  showed all the better for it?”), but for those of you who share my brother’s view that Austen is just “full of silly girls giggling behind fans” rest assured she’s also very different.  Virginia Woolf called Middlemarch “one of the few English novels written for grown up people”, by which I think she means that the story continues beyond marriage – the ultimate purpose of the plot is not achievement of a socially acceptable breeding arrangement but more a study of how people work, individually and within society.  There are big themes tackled: politics, education, professional fulfilment, religion…If that sounds dry, I promise there’s enough plot to keep you going, with the various stories of the ambitious Dr Lydgate, idealistic Dorothea, vacuous Rosamond, immature Fred Vincy… and now I’ll stop reducing Eliot’s great characters to a single adjective.  It’s also got Will Ladislaw in it, a Byronic hero who can easily equal Darcy in the “pouting air of discontent” love-god stakes, it’s just that the latter’s PR is so much more tenacious.  One of my tutors once told me he re-read Middlemarch regularly, and the final few paragraphs always made him cry (not that it’s  a tragic ending, just realistic).  I hope if you give Middlemarch a go, that it truly moves you.

In the course of writing the above paragraph I’ve realised that this post will turn into a baggy monster itself if I continue to attempt to capture these vast panoramic books in any sort of meaningful description.  So, like so many New Year’s resolutions, I’m going abandon my good intentions and instead write about a book that (in my copy) runs to a comparatively succinct 222 pages. Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel (published 1989. My copy: Black Swan, 1994), unlike the baggy monsters, keeps the plot fairly simple – Tita and Pedro love each other, tradition dictates they can’t be together, so he marries her sister to be around her.  You may not get a wallow in the depths of 800+ pages but it’s still a great choice for this time of year.    Firstly, its set in Mexico (and I should admit I read it in translation, if you can read it in the original Spanish so much the better) so if you can’t afford a warm holiday away from all the grey you can at least travel between the pages of a book.  Secondly, each chapter has a month title and an associated recipe and is hugely evocative around food: vicarious calories are delicious and also involve no cheating from your diet if you are insane enough to try and lose weight in January.  Amongst quail in rose petal sauce (March) and northern style chorizo (May) there is also a recipe for making matches (June), just in case you wondered. Finally, it is magic-realist in style: the female protagonist’s birth sees the kitchen awash in tears “When the uproar had subsided and the water had been dried up by the sun, Nacha swept up the residue the tears had left on the red stone floor. There was enough salt to fill a ten-pound sack – it was used for cooking and lasted a long time.” A bit of unreality – just what you need to help face the harsh realities of a northern winter.

So settle down with a great (in terms of both literary value and/or size) book and enough provisions to see you through (e.g. Kendal mint cake, or a family bar of chocolate.  With the latter you can always claim to be striking a blow against sociocultural constructions as a method of control (or something) by eating it all yourself.  This also works for family bags of crisps) and enjoy! I was planning to picture the books alongside some mojito cupcakes that I’d made for a friend’s birthday, but they went totally wrong – possibly due to the fact that my scales broke and so I guessed all the ingredients weights.  Hmmn, thinking about it, that’s almost definitely where my error lay. This succeeded in putting me in a cranky mood and incapable of thinking of another picture so instead here is a baggy monster who lives with me.  Proof, if proof were needed, that the world is a better place for having baggy monsters in it.

Image