“Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it everywhere, diagnosing it incorrectly and applying the wrong remedies.” (Groucho Marx)

I’ve decided to give into the inevitable and make the theme of this week’s post politics. *sigh* But unfortunately it is what dominates just about everything at the moment. I went to a lecture last week which was supposed to be about The Merchant of Venice, but turned out to be about tolerance, accessibility of the arts and the power of the humanities to understand nuance, subtlety and multiple viewpoints and how this is needed now more than ever. The speaker was genius American academic Stephen Greenblatt who I’ve seen before but he’s never made me blub like a baby (my friend was also a total mess, I’m hoping he’s short-sighted and didn’t notice). The previous week I went to a talk about nineteenth-century European theatre, which included a determined assertion from a British playwright that he too was a European writer (cue cheers from the audience, I’m guessing there weren’t many Brexiteers present). Unfortunately at the moment, all roads seem to lead back to the horror show we’ve found ourselves in. In the words of Cher:

(Note to my brother: Cher is AWESOME. Accept that I am right on this.)

So, two novels about politics. Firstly, Look Who’s Back by Timur Vermes (2012, trans. Jamie Bulloch 2014), a satiricial novel which looks at what would happen if Hitler woke up in 2011 Berlin. Naturally there is fun to be had at his misunderstanding over modern life:

“ ‘But I still don’t recall seeing you anywhere, Have you a card? Any flyers?’

‘Don’t talk to me about the Luftwaffe,’ I said sadly. ‘In the end they were a complete failure.’”

And there is also poking fun at the self-aggrandizing former Fuhrer:

“Now my razor-sharp gaze pierced the darkness between a jar of bulls-eyes and one of sugar drops, where the bright light of the moon soberly illuminated my brainwave like an icy torch.”

But the bulk of Vermes’ satire is reserved for modern society, for this Hitler becomes a star. He appears on an alternative comedy programme and his rants become huge hits on YouTube. People think he is satirising Hitler and yet this means Hitler’s rhetoric is once again endorsed by the masses. Vermes challenges what we laugh at and why, and the unquestioning nature of modern media. As Hitler becomes more popular, it is so easy to see how he, or someone like him, could rise again, and also that some of what happened has never gone away.

“It still remains a mystery to me why that relationship never worked. How many more bombs would we have to drop on their cities before they realised that they were our friend?”

Satire is a demanding form and Vermes is not entirely successful. Look Who’s Back is a bit overlong and flags in places. Considering it’s about a fascist despot it all feels a bit too restrained at times and the plot doesn’t really develop beyond the original premise. But still a worthwhile read, and – in terms of showing how easily an insane media personality can achieve real power *cough* – a little bit terrifying too.

Secondly, The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst, which won the Booker in 2004. Set in 1983, 1986 and 1987, Maggie Thatcher’s government is systematically destroying Britain to extent from which it will never fully recover  elected by overwhelming majorities and Nick Guest is down from Oxford to stay with his friend Toby’s family, headed by an ambitious Conservative MP, Gerald Fedden.

 “Gerald was a knowing, self-confident speaker, trained at the Oxford Union, polished at innumerable board meetings, and his tone combined candour and insincerity to oddly charming effect.”

The ruling class, ladies and gentleman.

Nick is from an ordinary family and grew up in an ordinary town. He has a strong aesthetic sensibility and is carried away by the glamour of the Fedden’s money and power, and ability to surround themselves with beautiful things.

“Nick felt he had been swept to the brink of some new promise, a scented vista of the night, and then held there.”

Nick is also gay, and the story is about his sexual development within a backdrop of thinly disguised homophobia and fear of AIDS, which cut a swathe through the gay community during the decade.

 “It wasn’t their fault they didn’t know – Nick couldn’t tell them things, and so everything he said and did took on the nature of a surprise, big or little but somehow never benign, since they were the aftershocks of the original surprise, that he was, as his mother said, a whatsit.”

Despite being a fairly long novel (501 pages in my edition), The Line of Beauty is not overly plot-heavy. Nick stays with the Feddens and struggles for a sense of purpose beyond pursuit of various lovers, Gerald gets elected MP and enjoys his life of extraordinary privilege, and the 80s rumble on with cocaine fuelling a deregulated City. The novel is a mix of pithy attacks on political elites and the shallowness of relentless acquisition, whether of power, money or the next high:

“Gerald had still not received the accolade of a Spitting image puppet in his likeness, but it was one of his main hopes for the new Parliament.”

And a broader, more melancholy consideration of love and loss. The descriptions of the characters who succumb to AIDS are truly moving, and unexpected in this novel populated by self-interested self-promoters.

“He commanded attention now by pity and respect as he once had by beauty and charm.”

Like Look Who’s Back, I felt The Line of Beauty was overlong, and not the strongest Booker winner there’s been, but at the same time the characters were recognisable and fully realised, the 80s were brilliantly evoked in all their horror, and Hollinghurst is capable of writing truly stunning passages:

“He caught the beautiful rawness of those days again, the life of instinct opening in front of him, the pleasure of the streets and London itself unfolding in the autumn chill; everything tingling with newness and risk, glitter and frost and glow of body heat, the shock of finding and holding what he wanted among millions of strangers.”

To end, despite the horrific politics of the time, I’m finding 80s YouTube videos a good respite from all the madness of the world at the moment (as you may have gathered from the one at the start where Cher wears a costume made of black dental floss and sits astride a giant canon – what’s not to love?)  Here is another one I employ to great effect, but a word of warning: I am a hardened user of 80s pop-culture. If this is one of your first forays, you might want to ease yourself in by watching Wham!’s Wake Me Up Before You Go Go video first, or else your eyes might start crying deely-boppers and mismatched fluorescent socks, or something. I’m not kidding – there’s a blouson leather dinner jacket at one point…

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“I wanna be anarchy” (The Sex Pistols)

Do you ever get the feeling you want to kick over the traces and run away?  I’m really fed up with my job and while I daydream about jacking it all in through some dramatic gesture before setting off to backpack round the Greek islands, it’s not going to happen. Not if I want a home to return to – the pesky mortgage will insist on being paid.

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Fundamentally I’m not an anarchist, however much I might like to think I’m a free-wheeling, free-thinking rebel.

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So I’ll just have to compensate by watching Marlon Brando films (any excuse) and reading about anarchy.  The novel and play I’ve chosen suggest anarchy may not be the best way to go anyway.

Firstly, The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad (1907). I studied this for ‘A’ level and it’s no exaggeration to say it was the bane of my life.  I hated it.  I found it so unbearable I never actually finished reading it and wrote my exam essay based on the chapter summary at the back of the edition we used (not an exam technique I recommend, kids).  Events conspired against me and about ten years later I had to read it again for a course I was doing.  Much to my surprise, I didn’t mind it so much this time and found it quite readable.  A lesson there that I should return things I’ve previously written off – at the very least I can confirm my prejudices, which is always fun.

The Secret Agent was inspired by an actual event in 1894, where a French anarchist, Martial Bourdin, accidently blew himself up in Greenwich Park.  Conrad sets his story two years later, and the opening of the novels sets everything up expertly:

Mr Verloc, going out in the morning, left his shop nominally in charge of his brother-in-law.  It could be done, because there was very little business at any time, and practically none at all before the evening.  Mr Verloc cared but little about his ostensible business.  And, moreover, his wife was in charge of his brother-in-law.

The shop was small, and so was the house.  It was one of those grimy brick houses which existed in large quantities before the era of reconstruction dawned upon London.  The shop was a square box of a place, with the front glazed in small panes.  In the daytime the door remained closed; in the evening it stood discreetly but suspiciously ajar.

The window contained photographs of more or less undressed dancing girls; nondescript packages in wrappers like patent medicines; closed yellow paper envelopes, very flimsy, and marked two-and-six in heavy black figures; a few numbers of ancient French comic publications hung across a string as if to dry; a dingy blue china bowl, a casket of black wood, bottles of marking ink, and rubber stamps; a few books, with titles hinting at impropriety; a few apparently old copies of obscure newspapers, badly printed, with titles like The TorchThe Gong—rousing titles.  And the two gas jets inside the panes were always turned low, either for economy’s sake or for the sake of the customers.

This basically tells you all you need to know: the grimy sordidness of Verloc’s existence, the fact that he is involved in some sort of subterfuge, and the involvement of his family at the edges, with his wife, Winnie, devoted to her brother Stevie.

Verloc is utterly unlikeable – lazy and self-serving, he is not an anarchist dedicated to a higher cause.  His ‘comrades’ are equally despicable and pathetic, except for The Professor, who is altogether more sinister:

The Professor’s indignation found in itself a final cause that absolved him from the sin of turning to destruction as the agent of his ambition.  To destroy public faith in legality was the imperfect formula of his pedantic fanaticism; but the subconscious conviction that the framework of an established social order cannot be effectually shattered except by some form of collective or individual violence was precise and correct.  He was a moral agent—that was settled in his mind.  By exercising his agency with ruthless defiance he procured for himself the appearances of power and personal prestige.  That was undeniable to his vengeful bitterness.”

Conrad is highly sceptical of the motivation of those proclaiming themselves agents of societal change.  The group of would-be anarchists plot a violent act, and unfortunately, skirting around them is Verloc’s brother-in-law:

“There was no young man of his age in London more willing and docile than Stephen, she affirmed; none more affectionate and ready to please, and even useful, as long as people did not upset his poor head.”

Stevie is an obvious choice, for those who would not want to risk their own lives in carrying out terrorist acts, to manipulate and control.  The Secret Agent is fairly predictable, but the flash-forward/flash-back structure works well at sustaining plot tension, and its utter bleakness, while unrelenting, is effectively ironic in evoking politics where the principle is self-preservation above all else.

The Secret Agent was made into a film in 1996 starring Bob Hoskins as Verloc ,Patricia Arquette as Winnie, and Batman Christian Bale as Stevie:

Secondly, Accidental Death of an Anarchist by Italian theatre legend Dario Fo (1970), which you can read here. Like The Secret Agent,  it is based on actual events. Giuseppe Pinelli was an anarchist accused of bombing a bank who fell (?) to his death from a police station window in Milan in 1969. In Fo’s play version, events become farcical, beginning with the Maniac being interrogated at the police station by Inspector Bertozzo. The Maniac denies being a con artist and impersonator, insisting he is mentally ill:

“I have a thing about dreaming up characters and then acting them out. It’s called ‘histrionomania’ – comes from the Latin histriones, meaning ‘actor’. I’m a sort of amateur performance artist. With the difference that I go for ‘Théatre Verité’ – my fellow performers need to be real people, but people who don’t realise that they’re in my plays. Which is just as well, ‘cos I’ve got no money and couldn’t pay them anyway…”

 This metatheatrical theme runs throughout the play, with Fo using the dramatic form to demonstrate how public life can often involve playing a role.  The Maniac poses as a judge to interrogate the officials on the fourth floor and explore the events that led to the fall of the anarchist:

“MANIAC: We’ll stick with the ‘right at the start’ for the moment… One step at a time. So, at about midnight, the anarchist was ‘seized by a raptus’ – these are still your words – he was seized by a ‘raptus’ and went and threw himself to his death from the window. Now, what is a ‘raptus’? Bandieu says that a ‘raptus’ is a heightened form of suicidal anxiety which can seize even people who are psychologically perfectly normal, if something provokes them to extremes of angst, in other words, to utter desperation. Correct?

 SUPERINTENDENT AND SPORTS JACKET: Correct.

 MANIAC: So we need to find out who or what it was provoked this anxiety, this desperation. I suspect that the best way would be if we do a reconstruction. Superintendent, the stage is yours.

 SUPERINTENDENT: Me?

 MANIAC: Yes, go ahead: would you mind re-enacting your famous entrance?

 SUPERINTENDENT: I’m sorry, what famous…?

 MANIAC: The one that brought about the ‘raptus’.

 SUPERINTENDENT: Your honour, there must be a misunderstanding here. It wasn’t me who did the entrance, it was one of my officers…”

 As the role playing intensifies, so does the satire:

MANIAC: It’s true, I’m afraid: your careers are in tatters! Blame it on politics, friends! At the start you served a useful function: something had to be done to stop all the strikes… So they decided to start a witch-hunt against the Left. But now things have gone a bit too far… People have got very upset about the death of our defenestrated anarchist… they want someone’s head on the block, and the government’s going to give them – yours!

 […]

  SUPERINTENDENT: Your Honour, you’re going to have to advise us. What do we do now?

 MANIAC: How should I know?

 SPORTS JACKET: Yes – what would you advise?

 MANIAC: If I were in your shoes…

 SUPERINTENDENT: Yes?

 MANIAC: I’d throw myself out of the window!

In the second act a journalist turns up, the physical comedy intensifies and it all degenerates into total…well, you know.  Accidental Death of an Anarchist is very silly, but don’t let that fool you. The satire is sharp and the theatricality informed and accomplished. It’s a play with plenty to say and it does it with great energy and verve.

There’s really only one way to finish this post:

“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:

 

 

“The book is a film that takes place in the mind of the reader.” (Paulo Coelho)

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that the film version of a book is never as good as the original text.  Except I don’t think that’s true.  This week I’m going to look at two books where I think the film was better, but the novels are still worth reading.  Slightly odd tack for a book blog to take, and I may end up regretting this, but let’s crash ever onwards!

Firstly, The Commitments by Roddy Doyle (1987).  Here’s the trailer for the 1991 film, with a brilliant script by the author, in collaboration with the long-term writing partnership of Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais.

The Commitments is Roddy Doyle’s first novel, detailing how a group of white, working class Dubliners set up a soul band together.  I think in this novel Doyle is really learning his craft, and his writing gets progressively stronger as he goes along.  The Commitments is a far from terrible book, but it’s a bit slight, and filled with so much dialogue it reads more like a script than a novel for much of it.  Still, if you’re going to have a novel filled with dialogue it may as well be written by Roddy Doyle, who has a great ear for how people speak and seems to take real joy in capturing it on the page:

“-Grow a pair o’ tits, pal, an’ then yeh can sing with them, said Billy.

– Are you startin’ somethin’?

-Don’t annoy me.

– Here! Said Jimmy. –None o’ tha’.

The time was right for a bit of laying down the law.

-No rows or scraps, righ’.

-Well said, Jim.

– An’ annyway, said Jimmy. –The girls are the best lookin’ part o’ the group.

– Dirty bastard, said Natalie.

-Thanks very much, Jimmy, said Imelda.

-No sweat ‘melda, said Jimmy.

-What’ll we sing? Bernie asked Joey The Lips.

-You know Walking in the Rain?

-Lovely.

– I WANT HIM, Imelda sang.

– It doesn’t exactly have a strong feminist lyric, does it? said James.

– Soul isn’t words, Brother, said Joey The Lips. – Soul is feeling. Soul is getting out of yourself.”

You can see that this is writing really stripped back: minimal punctuation, not always clear who is speaking.  The style suits the tale of a bunch of people with very little creating music with only their voices and few instruments.  It makes The Commitments a quick read, and the characters are evoked with warmth through minimal authorial intervention. By writing in such a sparse way, Doyle allows the characters to speak for themselves. At other times he uses scant detail, rarely embellished with imagery, to portray the lives of the band:

“’Joey The Lips got one of his dress suits dry-cleaned. Dean crawled in under his bed and found the one he’d flung under there. He soaked the jacket till the muck was nearly all gone. Then he brought it down to the cleaners.

Black shoes were polished or bought or borrowed.”

The Commitments is a well-observed story, evocative and humorous. However, a novel about music will always have much to gain from being filmed; hearing the talented cast of the film give their voice to soul classics brings the characters into being in a way that is nearly impossible in print.

Secondly, The Princess Bride by William Goldman (1973).  Here’s the trailer for the 1987 film adaptation, screenplay by the author:

One of my favourite films from childhood that I still love to watch today – a definite winner on a rainy Sunday afternoon.  Again, it’s not that the book is bad (the film is scripted by Goldman after all so you wouldn’t expect a great deal of difference) but the film is better.  It takes all the best bits of the book and distils them into a fast-paced, funny narrative; the book can be a bit flabby at times by comparison.  The film also offers some of the best cameos ever: Billy Crystal as Miracle Max, Mel Smith as the albino torturer, comic genius Peter Cook as the Impressive Clergyman, as well as a perfectly cast set of main characters.  But if you like the film, you’ll like the book.  The same dry, silly humour runs through it, and who wouldn’t love a tale of: “Fencing. Fighting. Torture. Poison. True love. Hate. Revenge. Giants. Hunters. Bad men. Good men. Beautifulest ladies. Snakes. Spiders. Beasts of all natures and descriptions. Pain. Death. Brave men. Coward men. Strongest men. Chases. Escapes. Lies. Truths. Passion. Miracles.”

The tale is one of Princess Buttercup, who falls in love with the stable boy Westley.  He goes off to seek his fortune, and is captured by the Dread Pirate Roberts, who famously leaves no survivors.  Believing her One True Love to be dead, Buttercup agrees to marry the hunting-obsessed Prince Humperdink.  Before they can marry she is kidnapped by a gang comprising the cunning Vizzini (“never start a land war in Asia, [… and] never go against a Sicilian when death is on the line”), the giant Fezzik , and genius-swordsman-with-a-vendetta Montoya (“my name is Inigo Montoya, you killed my father, prepare to die!”) They are followed by the mysterious Man in Black, who seeks to foil their plans… Will goodness triumph? Will true love conquer all? Yes, of course, to both.  This is a lovely escapist fantasy, but at the same time it is a  satire on established rule and its abuses, which gives the story a more serious dimension. Prince Humperdink has arranged the kidnap of Buttercup in order to blame a neighbouring country and start a war.  (Fill in your own contemporary analogy here.)  He tells his henchmen to seek the “villains” in the thieves quarter:

““My men are not always too happy at the thought of entering the Thieves Quarter.  Many of the thieves resist change.”

“Root them out. Form a brute squad.  But get it done.”

“It takes at least a week to get a decent brute squad going,” Yellin said. “But that is time enough.

[…]

The conquest of the Thieves Quarter began immediately.  Yellin worked long and hard each day […] Most of the criminals had been through illegal roundups before, so they offered little resistance.””

Goldman is also able to extend his humour in the novel towards the processes around writing, which he couldn’t do in the film; for example his editor querying his translation of the “original” story by S. Morgenstern:

“this chapter is totally intact. My intrusion here is because of the way Morgenstern uses parentheses.  The copy editor at Harcourt kept filling the margins of the galley proofs with questions: […] “I am going crazy. What am I to make of these parentheses? When does this book take place? I don’t understand anything. Hellllppppp!!!” Denise, the copy editor, has done all my books since Boys and Girls and she had never been as emotional in the margins with me before.”

So there we go: two film recommendations as well as two book recommendations in the same post – call it a late Hogmany present from me to you, dear reader. Enjoy!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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