Category Archives: books

Art versus life in Hawthorne and Poe

Butterfly etchingPoe’s The Oval Portrait and Hawthorne’s The Artist of the Beautiful both illustrate the Romantic artist’s preoccupation of art in favour of everyday life, but reach very different conclusions.

In Poe’s story, a painter’s portrait of his wife consumes him. Initially the painting is a tribute to the real woman, ‘proof not less of the power of the painter than of his deep love for her’. Becoming ever more obsessed with the painting in favour of the woman, on completion he remarks ‘This is indeed Life itself!’, only to see that his wife has died.

There are many similarities between Poe’s story and Hawthorne’s The Artist of the Beautiful. Like Poe’s painter, Owen Warland dedicates himself to ‘putting spirit into machinery’, to the detriment of his profession and relationships. After shunning his would-be sweetheart Annie Hovenden, he loses touch with the outside world. When he has finally created the mechanism, Annie is married and has a child.

Whereas Poe’s story is a straightforward indictment of favouring art over life, Hawthorne’s story is more complex. Initially, butterflies symbolise to Warland a ‘beautiful idea’ that he aspires to mimic with machinery. When he succeeds, the mechanism is, to all intents and purposes, a butterfly. Whether or not he is its creator has become irrelevant: he now appreciates the majesty of the real butterfly. When the butterfly is crushed by Annie’s wilful child, Warland – who created the box showing an image of a boy in pursuit of a butterfly – understands that the search for the beautiful is itself the ‘beautiful idea’.

There is a striking difference between the stories. Poe suggests that favouring art over life results in the loss of corporeal treasures, leading to despair. While Hawthorne’s story supports this incompatibility of approaches, it suggests that pursuing an artistic ideal is a noble undertaking, with transcendent rewards.

Submitted to Coursera as essay 05 for Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Human Mind, Our Modern World.
Coursera peer grade: Form 2 / Content 2

Frankenstein and communication

Frankenstein frontJohn Locke, in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, describes the newly-formed mind as a tabula rasa or blank slate: ‘white paper, void of all characters, without any ideas’, and states that all knowledge derives from experience. In Frankenstein, Mary Shelley suggests that, as well as experience, the ability to communicate is crucial to understanding.

Frankenstein’s creature is initially rational but struggles to order his thoughts:A strange multiplicity of sensations seized me, and I saw, felt, heard, and smelt at the same time’. When he deduces that the sounds that the De Lacey family make are a method of communication, he describes speech as a ‘godlike science’. He masters language and reading, which he describes as a ‘wonder and delight’.

Later, the creature describes his main obstacle as the inability to communicate in the manner he would wish. He tells Victor Frankenstein, ‘I will revenge my injuries; if I cannot inspire love’. Failing to communicate with ordinary townfolk or with Frankenstein himself, the creature insists that he be provided with a female creature, the only possible companion with whom he may communicate without inspiring fear.

Shelley’s novel is defined by communication. Robert Walton’s letters to his sister form a framing device, but the tale within is transcribed from Victor Frankenstein’s own storytelling. In turn, parts of Frankenstein’s narrative are transcriptions of the creature’s own experiences. Therefore, the novel is dependent on placing trust on each storyteller in turn. Without each character’s ability to communicate fully and clearly, there could be no story.

The subtitle of the novel, ‘The Modern Prometheus’, refers to the theft of the Gods’ fire for human use. One could argue that the ‘fire’ in Frankenstein is not only the life that Frankenstein gives to his creature, but also the ability to communicate.

Submitted to Coursera as essay 04 for Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Human Mind, Our Modern World.
Coursera peer grade: Form 2 / Content 2.5

Images of weather in Dracula

Whitby abbey

In Dracula, images of weather associate Count Dracula with the forces of nature and build in intensity as he gains strength.

Initially, the unseasonal, ‘late-lying’ snow in Transylvania creates a muted effect like a ‘white blanket’ upon the land. Jonathan Harker’s coach ride is described as ‘a boat tossed on a stormy sea’, prefiguring the Demeter’s arrival in Whitby. Within the castle, Harker’s remarks on the ‘wind [that] breathes cold through the broken battlements and casements’. When Dracula interrupts the preying female vampires, Harker experiences the Count ‘as if lapped in a storm of fury’, linked to the forthcoming Whitby scene.

The day of the Demeter’s arrival in Whitby is ‘marked by myriad clouds of every sunset colour’ but with dark areas of ‘colossal silhouettes’. These images create a feverish backdrop to Dracula’s arrival. The description of the Demeter’s approach is filled with imagery linked to the Count’s threatening status: ‘dead calm, a sultry heat, and that prevailing intensity’. After appearing to the crew during a rainstorm, Dracula creates the ‘tempest’ which accompanies his arrival, producing an ‘onrushing mist’ which be later recalled during his physical transformation into a ‘pillar of cloud’.

Before Lucy is attacked by Dracula on the hilltop, the sky is clear with a bright full moon. As Mina sees Dracula, ‘heavy black, driving clouds’ obscure her view, mirroring Lucy’s swooning confusion.

At the end of the novel, snow at first reflects Dracula’s power over the elements (‘The wind came now in fierce bursts, and the snow was driven with fury’), but as the group of vampire-hunters  gain the upper hand, the snowfall recedes. Finally, the settled snow represents a return to the calmness of the beginning of the story and represents cleanliness and purity. Quincey, seeing that Mina’s scar has disappeared, says, ‘The snow is not more stainless than her forehead!’

Submitted to Coursera as essay 03 for Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Human Mind, Our Modern World.
Coursera peer grade: Form 3 / Content 2.5

Alice’s struggle for identity in Wonderland

Alice big

Alice struggles to maintain her identity during her adventures in Wonderland, and it is only when she has fully established her identity that she is able to leave.

Soon after arriving in Wonderland, Alice speaks to herself (‘Come, there’s no use in crying like that!’). We learn that she is fond of ‘pretending to be two people’, demonstrating an already tenuous grip on her own identity.

Alice’s changes in size further challenge her self-image. She asks herself, ‘was I the same when I got up this morning?’ and goes on to question whether she might, in fact, be another child. Both the changing body-image and reliance on whether ‘I know all the things I used to know’ show that she values external indicators of self, rather than having a hold on her identity.

Other characters challenge Alice’s identity, and she struggles to establish herself. In response to the Caterpillar’s question she replies, ‘I—I hardly know, sir, just at present—at least I know who I WAS when I got up this morning’. As before, she considers changes to her personality and body to have been imposed upon her from external sources.

Similarly, when the White Rabbit mistakes her for his maid, Mary Ann, Alice nevertheless complies with his commands. The Pigeon insists that she is a serpent, using mistaken logical arguments to prove his case and Alice is forced to defend her identity.

The arc of the story follows Alice’s growing certainty of her identity. When she first meets the Queen of Hearts she is only tentatively sure of herself: ‘My name is Alice, so please your Majesty’. In the final courtroom scene Alice scoffs at the jurors who write down their names in case they forget them (‘Stupid things!’), identifies herself clearly (‘”Here!” cried Alice,’) and then leaves Wonderland with the realisation, ‘You’re nothing but a pack of cards!’.

Submitted to Coursera as essay 02 for Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Human Mind, Our Modern World.
Coursera peer grade: Form 2 / Content 2

Punishment of spouses in Grimms’ tales

Clever Else

In Grimms’ tales, the perceived incompetence of a spouse is punished with a loss of identity and abandonment. This recurring theme indicates the concerns of a contemporary readership.

In ‘Clever Else’ and ‘Fred and Kate’, the husband’s worldview predominates. Both stories begin with the expectations of the new husband. Hans is assured that Else ‘does not want for brains’ but insists that she must also be ‘careful’; Fred entrusts Kate with specific tasks in readiness for his return.

The perceived failing of both wives is to approach life imaginatively rather than practically. Else’s forebodings about potential injuries to a hypothetical child at first impress others. Kate’s misfortunes are also a result of foresight, as she tries to perform multiple tasks at once.

Both stories end in the same way: after sleeping in a field the wild imagination of both Else and Kate lead each to mistrust her own identity. Hans and Fred each insist that their wife is already at home and so the true wives are abandoned, having lost their identities.

Grimm FishermanSimilarly, ‘The Fisherman and his Wife’ depicts a wife whose ambition opposes her husband’s practicality. Her granted wishes come with new identities of king, emperor and pope. These identities are ultimately stripped from her as punishment for imaginative greed, and she is returned to her original identity.

The stories suggest differing moral lessons to apply to different contemporary readers. While women are expected to aspire to be supportive wives, contemporary male readers would recognise a perceived need to reward a wife’s practicality and to prevent imaginative approaches that may lead to disaster. The stripping of identity and the abandonment of both Else and Kate may be seen as male wish-fulfilment fantasies, punishing wayward spouses. While the fisherman’s wife is not physically abandoned, the husband’s expression in Walter Crane’s tailpiece illustration makes clear that she has been shunned.

Submitted to Coursera as essay 01 for Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Human Mind, Our Modern World.
Coursera peer grade: Form 2 / Content 2

The things I most enjoyed in 2012

End-of-year lists are always self-indulgent, but this is more self-indulgent still. I wanted to capture all the things that were new to me this year that summed up what I most enjoyed in 2012. I realise that this is only really of interest to me.

Albums

Feelies

Transverse (Carter Tutti Void, 2012) was the single album of 2012 that stands alongside my favourites from other years. I missed New History Warfare Vol 2: Judges (Colin Stetson, 2011) and An Empty Bliss Beyond this World (The Caretaker, 2011) in 2011 but they became firm favourites this year – Colin Stetson for Tube journeys and The Caretaker as a background to writing. Biokinetics (Porter Ricks, 1996) became my soundtrack on countless rainy train journeys, a heartbeat layered on top of the hum of travel. World of Echo (Arthur Russell, 2001) gradually became less an album heard than an album felt. My go-to album for relaxation this year was the reissued UFO (Jim Sullivan, 1969). And Crazy Rhythms (The Feelies, 1980) and Midnight Cleaners (The Cleaners From Venus, 1982) were the two albums that made me upset at time wasted before having heard about them – my favourite pop albums of 2012.

Live music

Boredoms

The American Contemporary Music Ensemble’s performance of Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet (Gavin Bryars) at All Tomorrow’s Parties was one of the most perfect things I’ve ever experienced. Boredoms at the same ATP festival was one of the bravest and maddest, featuring five drummers and a tree of guitar necks hit with a stick.

Films

Shout

I loved working through Les Vampires (Louis Feuillade, 1915), influential in technical respects but with its own weirdly dreamy qualities. The imagery has stayed in my mind longer than any other film. The Shout (Jerzy Skolimowski, 1978) was my hidden treasure of 2012, perfectly tailored to everything I like about films, and a great companion piece to Berberian Sound Studio (Peter Strickland, 2012). The latter was perhaps not the best-crafted film released in 2012 (surely The Master), but the one I responded to the most enthusiastically. I thought my high expectations for F for Fake (Orson Welles, 1973) would make it a disappointment, but it was totally surprising despite the fact I expected surprises. The same applies to That Obscure Object of Desire (Luis Bunuel, 1977), especially the first 15 minutes or so, with a remarkable story structure. The Silence (Ingmar Bergman, 1963) was an epiphany, the first Bergman film that I’ve had an emotional reaction towards and predating David Lynch by 20 years. The Bespoke Overcoat (Jack Clayton, 1956) and Certified Copy (Abbas Kiarostami, 1990) featured the most sympathetic performances, within beautifully humanist films. And Vampyr (Carl Theodor Dreyer, 1932), performed with a live soundtrack by Steven Severin, was the trippiest film experience, with Rose and I half-awake with woozy colds.

 

Books

LovedOne

I’m pickier with books than films, perhaps due to time investment. I’ve liked and/or appreciated lots of books this year. Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Collins’s The Moonstone and Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther come close, but the only book that made me bubble over with enthusiasm was The Loved One (Evelyn Waugh, 1948), a perfect and perfectly concise novel.

TV

Carlos

Carlos (Olivier Assayas, 2010) was the most compelling thing I saw on TV this year, making a case for longer treatments of complex events than films can offer. It also had the best soundtrack. The Olympics opening ceremony (Danny Boyle, 2012) was the broadcast that made me happiest, possibly due to watching it with a hangover and letting the spectacle wash over me. Sherlock: A Scandal in Belgravia (2012) felt like the best kind of ‘event’ TV fiction, and among the best scripts that Steven Moffat has yet produced. Black Mirror: The Entire History of You (2012) was the TV episode most tailored to my interests – fingers crossed for more Twilight Zone for the C21st. Breaking Bad Season 4-5a (2011-2012) was the most moreish TV experience once the show broadened out in scale, having earned our sympathy for the characters. The Thick of It Season 4 Episode 7 (2012) was the most surprising TV episode, using comedy characters to hint at something huge and dreadful just off-screen.

 

Theatre

SergeyBoris

The puppet show Boris and Sergey’s Vaudevillian Adventure (Flabbergast Theatre) at the Edinburgh Fringe made me feel like a child and made my face hurt from smiling and laughing.

Art

Saville

It’s rare for visual arts to get me in the guts. The Jenny Saville retrospective at Modern Art Oxford did just that. And the Speed of Light night-hiking/neon joggers/sound art performance at the Edinburgh International Festival was an event that was at once hilarious and baffling.

The Sorrows of Young Werther (and Alan)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’ve just finished reading Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s 1774 blockbuster hit, ‘The Sorrows of Young Werther’. It’s a far more slight and breezy novel than I’d expected and is the first novel in a while that I’ve finished in just a couple of sessions. The bulk of the book is structured as letters written by Werther, mainly to his friend Wilhelm, whose replies we aren’t shown. The final third features an ‘editor’ who steps in to provide other characters’ viewpoints. At a glance it’s (SPOILERS!) a tragedy about a young man who falls in love with a girl, Lotte, who is unavailable who doesn’t return his love. He pines for her, then he kills himself.

But here’s the thing. I read the first two-thirds of the book, until the ‘editor’ steps in, as a broad comedy. I think if I had taken Werther’s account at face value, I would have rejected him and his self-indulgent whinings entirely. I was genuinely surprised when the editor’s comments seemed to validate the majority of Werther’s views. But treating Werther as an unreliable narrator made the book a huge amount of fun for me.

For instance, take the September 10 entry. Lotte says,

“Whenever I walk by moonlight, it brings to my remembrance all my beloved and departed friends… but shall we know one another again, what do you think?”

Werther appears to misunderstand her, thinking she’s referring to the two of them meeting after death. It’s a classic misunderstanding and I laughed out loud.

I’ve read elsewhere that the instances where Werther’s grammar breaks down demonstrate his grief. But read this passage:

“And what grieves me, is, that Albert does not seem delighted as he—hoped to be—as I—thought to be—if—I am not fond of dashes, but it is the only way of expressing myself here—and I think I make myself sufficiently clear.”

To me, it illustrated Werther’s pomposity and his tendency to over-egg sentences with extra clauses and tangents. It seems as though he’s lost his way until he even becomes distracted by his own punctuation, and the final ‘I think I make myself sufficiently clear’ is laughable.

Werther is utterly melodramatic – admittedly, by modern standards. His adoration of Lotte reminded me a great deal of Adrian Mole’s over-the-top fixation on Pandora Braithwaite. In fact, after the initial meeting at the dance, Werther often goes for days without describing the woman he says he adores, and she becomes almost invisible in the middle section of the novel. Instead, Werther concentrates solely on her effect on himself. He seems absorbed with his capacity for love and pain.

I’ve just finished reading the fictional autobiography of Alan Partridge (‘I, Partridge: We Need to Talk About Alan’) and the levels of egomania are pretty comparable, as are the paranoiac revisions and qualifications. It’s a terrific companion piece to ‘The Sorrows of Young Werther’. Werther’s continual closing comments about his own suffering seems as needy and self-serving as Partridge’s repeated closing statement, “Needless to say, I had the last laugh”.

I understand that I was probably reading the novel ‘wrongly’ and had mistaken a serious 18th century portrayal as a modern pastiche. But I wouldn’t have it any other way – my enjoyment was largely based on the fun I had trying to glimpse the truth beyond Werther’s rantings. This article gives an interesting account of some of the parody versions of ‘The Sorrows of Young Werther’ after its blockbuster success (plus Werther merchandising and clothing!). But as far as I’m concerned, the original was already a side-splitter.

Reading list 2011

2011 is, in terms of reading, off to a good start. I’m two novels in, just over one week into the year. Here’s a list of the books that I’ll try to make sure I read in 2011. I think this list of 13 ‘must-reads’ leaves plenty of room for impulse purchases, new publications and recommendations.

Candide (Voltaire, 1759)
After a conversation about humanism, my dad insisted that I read this. What sealed the deal was finding and buying the beautiful new Penguin edition with a cover designed by Chris Ware – one of the most enticing books I’ve seen in a long time.

Freedom (Jonathan Franzen, 2010)
I’ve been in near-feverish anticipation of this book since The Corrections – and the reviews upon publication last year were stellar. And yet, I was still a little too stingy to shell out for the hardback, so this will have to wait until the paperback comes out in April.

Blood Meridian (Cormac McCarthy, 1985)
I read and loved The Road, and this is shorter than committing to McCarthy’s entire Border trilogy. Everyone I know who’s read this recommends it, and everyone else seems intent on reading it.

The City and the City (China Mieville, 2009)
This has been on my shelf for six months and is one of the books I’m most looking forward to reading. I normally try not to read book blurbs too closely, so while my expectations involve detectives and parallel worlds, I still don’t know quite what to expect.

Doctor Faustus (Thomas Mann, 1947)
Taissa and I have made a pact to run a two-person book club in which we’ll read weighty novels that we wouldn’t otherwise get around to reading. This was her suggestion, but I’ve had my eye on it for a decade or so. I’ll probably read this one in parallel with easier, shorter novels.

How I Escaped My Certain Fate (Stewart Lee, 2010)
I’ll certainly finish this one, as I’ve already started it. Sure, it’s ‘only’ a comedy memoir, but Lee’s deconstruction of his work (mainly in the form of lengthy footnotes) is considered and serious, while the transcripts of his stand-up shows are typically genius.

Flow (Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, 1990)
I meant to read this last year. Csikszentmihalyi’s ‘flow’ principle (people are most effective when they’re tackling tasks involving a balance between familiarity and challenge)  is often quoted with respect to videogame design. I imagine it’s appropriate reading for my day job which involves, among other things, commissioning educational interactive resources.

Lucky Jim (Kingsley Amis, 1954)
I know not a thing about this novel but Kingsley Amis seems like an author I should have read. The edition that my dad lent to me has a funny caricatured cover, so appears accessible.

Our Town (Thornton Wilder, 1938)
I read and was blown away by Wilder’s The Bridge of San Luis Rey at the end of 2010. I then followed it up with Timequake, in which, coincidentally, Kurt Vonnegut waxes lyrical about a performance of Our Town. Must find and read a copy of this soon.

Nights at the Circus (Angela Carter, 1984)
Carter’s The Magic Toyshop was great, but felt like a young novelist flexing her muscles. Nights at the Circus is the novel I’d meant to read first, and the one that people at my book club most recommended.

A Universal History of Infamy (Jorge Luis Borges, 1935)
I think this is the one work by Borges that I’ve not yet read, and I found a copy in Wigtown just before new year. I’ll probably put off reading this as long as I’m able, because this will be an indulgent treat.

Disgrace (J M Coetzee, 1999)
Recommended by Chris as the best novel he read in 2010. I know almost nothing about the book, but that recommendation is good enough for me.

Human Diastrophism (Gilbert Hernandez, collected 2007)
I read the first collection of Palomar comics, Heartbreak Soup, a few days ago. It was a fantastic experience (reviewed on Goodreads here), and this follow-up collection is the graphic novel I’m most looking forward to reading this year.

What I read in 2010

I saw a similar list on the blog Worlds in a Grain of Sand, and couldn’t resist. These are the books I read in 2010, in the order I read them.

The Victorian Chaise-Longue (Marghanita Laski, 1953)
A young mother recuperates from tuberculosis in 1950s London, lying upon a Victorian chaise-longue, and dreams, or perhaps becomes, Milly in 1864. Little in terms of mechanics is explained, but the view of Victorian society from a 20th century perspective is fascinating.

I Am Legend (Richard Matheson, 1954)
Far closer to the fantastic 1964 film adaptation, The Last Man on Earth, than the 2007 turkey. The final act makes a huge amount more sense in the novel, linked to a double-meaning in the title. If more modern vampire films could use the more routine elements of this novel as an influence, they’d be better for it.

City of Glass (Auster/Karasik/Mazzuchelli, 1994)
Firstly, Paul Auster’s original story (part of the New York Trilogy) is one of the finest and most concise short stories I’ve read. The surprise is that this comic adaptation retains almost all of what is striking about the text. The additions – wordless explorations into recurrence of patterns and images – add an aspect that’s now fused with the original story in my memory.

Telling Tales (Melissa Katsoulis, 2009)
A great account of literary hoaxes and swindles. My favourite were the cases where the hoaxers produced their finest work under a pseudonym, whilst attempting to mock the establishment.

5 is the Perfect Number (Igort, 2003)
A classy affair. Igor Tuveri’s style is pretty spare and the characters are treated coldly, but I enjoyed this graphic novel about a workaday Mafia hitman.

Apples (Richard Milward, 2007)
Richard was in the year below me at secondary school – this novel charts teen relationships in a rundown suburb of nearby Middlesbrough. The dialogue is spot on (Irvine Welsh contributed a cover comment to Richard’s followup, Ten Storey Love Song) and it’s easy to see why this talk-heavy analysis of teen idiocy was adapted for the stage.

The Lovely Bones (Alice Sebold, 2002)
My first book club title of the year, and certainly a novel I wouldn’t have read in other circumstances. Perfectly neat and all, but other than the character of the father, it didn’t lodge in my mind.

Castle Waiting (Linda Medley, 2006)
A mainly feminist reinterpretation of fairy tales, this graphic novel is rambling and full of heart. Perhaps not as special as the beautiful cover promises, but a cosy experience all the same.

Lunar Park (Bret Easton Ellis, 2005)
I had an enjoyable struggle with the amount of foreknowledge that Ellis expects of his readers, and the first third of the book had me hooked. But I quickly tired of (character) Ellis’ self-obsession, and the recurring images (the Terby, the peeling walls of the house) felt hammered home. The novel may have been intended as a parody of Stephen King-style thrills, but I felt that it fell for its own joke.

Fup (Jim Dodge, 1983)
A happy way to spend an hour or so. This wafer-thin novel features stars a man who believes he is immortal, and a duck. It’s wry and warm.

20th Century Eightball (Daniel Clowes, 2002)
A collection of Clowes’ early comics, this is far less assured than the only other of his works I’ve read, Ghost World. It’s fun, but there’s little to hold together this collection of short strips.

The Riddle of the Sands (Erskine Childers, 1903)
Good grief, this one dragged. I bought it on the strength of its being included in Penguin’s Read Red series of adventure stories (I wouldn’t have got round to reading the excellent Prisoner of Zenda without this series). At first, it lived up to it’s billing as an early espionage thriller, but soon became bogged down with minutiae about tides and boatcraft. Left a bitter taste and slowed down my year’s reading.

The Reader (Bernard Schlink, 1997)
Following up The Riddle of the Sands with this ponderous novel (another book club choice) was bad luck. To be fair, I would have resented it far less had I not seen the Kate Winslet stinker of an adaptation a few months previously. The view of post-war German attitudes to Nazism was fascinating, but the relationships were not.

Purple Hibiscus (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, 2003)
Another book club pick, which I’m embarrassed about: I rarely read female authors, and had never read a book by an African novelist – so the only way I would have read this was through coercion. I’m really glad this was picked – it was perfectly accessible and the account of post-colonial Nigeria was captivating.

The Unlimited Dream Company (J G Ballard, 1979)
Another novel that I laboured over, although this time it probably wasn’t the fault of the book. This story of a would-be pilot crashlanding in Shepperton, only to become trapped by unknown forces, was a real surprise to me. I’ve not read any other Ballard, and was impressed/baffled by the levels of woozy sexual fantasy. Unlike anything I’ve ever read.

Neuromancer (William Gibson, 1984)
Another author I’d been meaning to read for ages, and this book seemed a sensible place to start. The sci-fi tropes may now be overused, but still felt fresh, and the plot was pleasingly light and action-packed. Compare this with another novel with a similar heritage, Snow Crash – I tried listening to the audiobook of that book and its clunky, meandering prose completely put me off. I’d like to read either the sequels to Neuromancer, or Pattern Recognition, in 2011.

Ubik (Philip K Dick, 1969)
The only Dick novel I’ve read, other than Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, and it was a relief to read his work without it being overshadowed by images from a film adaptation. The humour was unexpected, more like Douglas Adams than highbrow sci-fi.

Never Let Me Go (Kazuo Ishiguro, 2005)
Another defiantly speculative-rather-than-science fiction novel. Never Let Me Go felt effortless, its female characters were wonderfully drawn, and the sense of impending doom was palpable. I felt a terrific amount of frustration with the characters inability or lack of desire to get to grips with their situation, even once they’re fully aware of their fate. My memory of this novel is of a vague, thick atmosphere, as hazy as distant schooldays.

Oryx and Crake (Margaret Atwood, 2003)
I read and loved The Handmaid’s Tale last year, and while this is a bit less distinctive, it’s a solid post-apocalyptic tale with some snarky humour. I’m looking forward to reading the sort-of followup, The Year of the Flood. Margaret Atwood’s books are the ones I immediately think of when trying to pin down a definition of speculative fiction, as opposed to science fiction. The big ideas are there, but she doesn’t get bogged down in technical detail.

The Chrysalids (John Wyndham, 1955)
I recently bought a bunch of Penguin John Wyndham editions with the beautiful 1970s illustrated covers, so I’ll be ploughing through them in 2011. But the edition of The Chrysalids was a later one, with a singularly unhelpful cover (to describe it would spoil the plot, by deduction). Rather than ruining the story, this left me completely unprepared for the turn of events and, in fact, resulted in one of the most rewarding reading experiences I had all year. I have my thoughts on a different outcome to the plot that I would have preferred, but having that kind of strong opinion about a novel was inspiring in itself.

Middlesex (Jeffrey Eugenides, 2002)
I adored this book. I love hunting for the Great American Novel as much as anyone, and this was the best contender I’d read since Michael Chabon’s Kavalier and Clay. Middlesex ought to feel overblown, with several main themes: Greek families, American immigration and hermaphroditism – but it’s a flowing experience. A couple of episodes perhaps too neatly tie in with important events in US history, but on the strength of this novel, I’m anticipating Eugenides’ next book as much as Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom.

Tales of Natural and Unnatural Catastrophes (Patricia Highsmith, 1987)
I’m a sucker for Patricia Highsmith, but this was the first of her non-Ripley books I’ve read. These gloomy short stories are all about beginnings – Highsmith constructs a nightmarish or upsetting scenario, lets the consequences play out for a handful of pages… and then stops abruptly, apparently uninterested in conclusions. A strange contrast to the environment in which I read these stories, my head leaning against an upturned canoe after trips down the River Wye.

Linger Awhile (Russell Hoban, 2006)
I used to be in a band called The Hired Sportsmen, named after the children’s book Captain Najork and the Hired Sportsmen by Russell Hoban. Our singer rang Hoban (who was at the time quite ill), who agreed – with some bewilderment – to us using the name. It was only after this point that we discovered that Hoban was, in fact, a prolific author of magic-realism novels. Since then I’ve read Riddley Walker and Amaryllis Night and Day – the latter of which is one of the most lovable books I’ve read in the last five years. I also love Hoban because, of all of the writer’s rooms photographed in the Guardian Review section years ago, his was the only one which was a total pigsty. Linger Awhile is the most frivolous of Hoban’s books that I’ve read (Hollywood cowgirl is raised from the dead, subsequently becomes a vampire), but the leaps in logic and non sequiturs are wonderful.

Herland (Charlotte Perkins Gilman, 1915)
I came across this title in lists of proto-science fiction novels, and had expected the story of a lost land populated only by women to be a fun curiosity. But this Jules Verne-style exploration tale deals with big issues, and the arguments about the probably success of a female-only society are, while hugely biased, pretty convincing. Even more interesting is the story of Gilman herself: feminist, divorcee, child-abandoner – and editor of The Impress, a feminist journal to which she was the sole contributor.

A Long Way Down (Nick Hornby, 2005)
Although I enjoyed High Fidelity when I was about 15, it feels that both Nick Hornby and I are unsure whether his writing style can be adapted to mature fiction. The tone wavers between whimsical and navel-gazing, neither of which tend to feel appropriate for this story of four would-be suicides. A book club pick.

Scoop (Evelyn Waugh, 1938)
I’m embarrassed to say that I took ages to get through this one. I loved the Fleet Street and rural episodes, but the bulk of the book, with reporters stationed in a civil war-torn African state, left me cold. Still, I’m determined to read Brideshead Revisited this year.

And Then There Were None (Agatha Christie, 1939)
I hadn’t read an Agatha Christie book since my early teens, and this felt like a real palate-cleansing treat. Most impressive was Christie’s abruptness – it felt sometimes that she could condense what might be a chapter’s worth of exposition into a sentence. Less appealing was her tendency to sketch back stories with just one single image per character, repeated ad nauseum. I paused before the epilogue and tried to convince myself that each of the ten characters in turn had been the murderer, and all seemed equally valid. Expecting a forehead-smacking revelation, I was disappointed with the outcome.

The Magic Toyshop (Angela Carter, 1981)
I’d expected magic realism similar to Jeanette Winterson’s books, but this story of orphaned children, an authoritarian father figure and swan rape was incredibly bleak. I’m still not sure I fully understand the significance of sizeable portions of this book.

A Canticle for Leibowitz (Walter M. Miller Jr, 1960)
Back to my default, this is another post-apocalptic story, but with a difference. Each of the three books follow the events surrounding an abbey: in the first book the monks gather relics of the destroyed civilization and attempt to canonize Leibowitz, an ordinary engineer; in the second book the abbey protects the relics and redevelops pre-existing technology; in the third book the abbey witnesses the second rise of civilization and an impending nuclear war. It’s wryly funny and skippy for such a long book but packs a punch – definitely recommended.

The Bridge of San Luis Rey (Thornton Wilder, 1927)
Wow. I’d thought this novel sounded neat: five people fall to their deaths from a bridge in Peru and a priest researches each life to understand why God chose them to die. But each of the stories is totally engrossing, each character so idiosyncratic and appealing, I just raced through this short book. Page for page, the most impressive work I’ve read this year.

Timequake (Kurt Vonnegut, 1996)
I can’t get enough of Kurt Vonnegut, and, as with Nabokov, I’ve taken to rationing myself so I don’t get through them too quickly. This novel is barely fiction – Vonnegut tells the story of a temporary contraction of the universe which sends everyone ten years back in time, doomed to make exactly the same decisions all over again. But really this conceit is an excuse for Vonnegut to hold forth on his favourite topics: humanism, family and his alter-ego, Kilgore Trout. Since reading this book I’ve regularly been espousing Vonnegut’s wisdom to poor Rose.

I’ve missed out the four books I’ve yet to finish. All are non-fiction: The Rest is Noise by Alex Ross (absorbing account of modern classical music, but I got distracted making companion playlists); The Great Philosophers edited by Frederick Raphael; Teach Yourself Humanism by Mark Vernon; and an analysis of Jorge Luis Borges by Beatriz Sarlo.

I’ve already agonised over my choices of books in an earlier post. Suffice it to say that I didn’t read as much as I’d have liked to, and my to-read list is still longer than the list of books I’ve ever read.

My year of needless data

About five years ago I asked my friend Charley a question: If it were available to buy, how much would you pay for all of the quantifiable data about your life up to this point?

The data would (presumably) include such numerical data as number of hours spent on the toilet, number of times spoken the word ‘shoe’ out loud, but also magically-derived but still quantifiable data like number of minutes spent thinking about sex, and so on.

At the time we both agreed that a Microsoft Excel document containing this information would be worth around £10,000. While I don’t have this sort of money, nowadays I think that £20,000 sounds more like it. Sometimes I think that if only I had access to more data about myself, I’d be able to understand myself, second-guess myself, and become the person I’d like to be. Writing a diary, blogging, logging books read and listing films watched are all ways of building up some kind of data picture about myself.

Anyway, on to more readily available data…

Books

In 2010 I kept a log of all the books I read. I like to think that I read bits and bobs from different eras and styles, but on closer inspection I’m far more conservative than I’d expected.

I’ve always thought that it’s crazy to assume that the best literature (or music, or whatever) is that produced in the last few years – but still, exactly half of the books I read this year were from the 2000s (17 of a total of 34). Similarly, 18 of the books I read were from the USA and 14 were from the UK.

I’m more comfortable with my selection of book genres. In 2010, I made a conscious decision to read more science fiction / speculative fiction, as it’s a genre that I love but have unconsciously pooh-poohed since I was a teen.

Like the near-obsessive that I am, I’ve been rating books in 2010, too. The books I enjoyed most were Middlesex (Jeffrey Eugenides), Never Let Me Go (Kazuo Ishiguro), The Chrysalids (John Wyndham) and The Bridge of San Luis Rey (Thornton Wilder). The four books started but failed to finish were all non-fiction works.

Films

Most films that I’ve seen in the cinema this year (12) would have been made in 2009 or 2010 – but still, 48 of the 79 films I watched in 2010 were made in either the 2000s or this year.

As for films genre, it’s been drama almost all the way. Perhaps my genre tags are a bit lacking here. But still, a pleasing lack of action blockbusters last year.

This next one, I’m less proud of. I barely watched any non-English-language films in 2010.

As for ratings, there were nine films I watched in 2010 that I adored. Five of these were films that I’d seen before (The Conversation, Aguirre, There Will Be Blood, Adventureland, City of God), so the four films new to me that I loved were Adam Curtis’ documentary It Felt Like a Kiss, Kubrick’s 1956 noir The Killing, Tomas Alfredson’s Swedish vampire horror Let The Right One In, and the 2010 critics’ darling, David Fincher’s The Social Network.

Kurt’s Humanism

I’ve been reading an account of the development of Humanism, but in Chapter 21 of Timequake, Kurt Vonnegut sums it up in just one paragraph:

Humanists try to behave decently and honourably without any expectation of rewards or punishments in an afterlife. The creator of the Universe has been to us unknowable so far. We serve as well as we can the highest abstraction of which we have some understanding, which is our community.

Lunar Park and required reading

I’m currently reading ‘Lunar Park’ by Bret Easton Ellis, a book in which the protagonist is a fictionalised version of Ellis himself. I’ve read and watched ‘American Psycho’, and my knowledge of Bret Easton Ellis ends there. Lunar Park appears at first to be autobiographical, but it’s soon apparent that Ellis the narrator is an exaggerated portrayal of Ellis the author. Both Ellises are famous and successful novelists with the same bibliography. Narrator Ellis has extreme drug problems, an illegitimate child, and a self-obsessed and sulky attitude.

Given the caricatured nature of Ellis the narrator, I’ve assumed that there are lots of details in the novel that are also exaggerated or falsified. The narrator is married to Jayne Dennis, a Hollywood superstar actress who has starred in blockbuster films with Keanu Reeves. Now, I’m pretty sure that Dennis is a fictional character, but now I’m wondering about how prepared one should be to read ‘Lunar Park’. Should I read Bret Easton Ellis’ Wikipedia profile to find out whether he did indeed have massive drug problems after the publication of ‘Less Than Zero’? Should I find out who were his celebrity friends? Should I Google Jayne Dennis to determine whether she’s fictional – and if she doesn’t exist, should I try to determine whether the name is an alias for another Hollywood actress? Would my understanding of the novel be lessened if I hadn’t read ‘American Psycho’, and should I have read ‘Less Than Zero’ before starting this book?

Some fiction clearly signals whether there’s required reading. Series or sequels are usually numbered to indicate where to begin. But some novels and films are more difficult to judge. A couple of nights ago I watched Wim Wenders’ ‘The American Friend’, an adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s ‘Ripley’s Game’. The book is the third in Highsmith’s series of novels featuring Tom Ripley, and you could certainly argue that the series is richer if read in strict order. But with Wenders’ title change, and the lack of cohesion across the various filmed versions of the novels, the required reading (or watching) for ‘The American Friend’ is far from clear. Without prior knowledge of the character, perhaps it’s possible to get through the whole film without realising that Tom Ripley is a serial killer, given that in this particular story his motives are quite ambiguous.

Should works like ‘Lunar Park’ and ‘The American Friend’ come with a required reading list, or a set of instructions? What’s the correct or default way to approach them?

Talking of instructions for fiction, I’m interested in non-linear fiction, books that require you to determine some kind of unique path through the work. Nabokov’s ‘Pale Fire’ is a good example: a quarter of the book comprises a fictional work called ‘Pale Fire’, a poem in four cantos. The remainder is an essay on the poem, and yet both of these together make up Nabokov’s ‘Pale Fire’. To read the book you have to decide whether you’ll read first the poem and then the notes in standard linear fashion, or whether you’ll dot between lines of the poem and notes relating to those lines. I’d argue that the latter is the ‘correct’ way to uncover the plot, but it’s up each individual reader to decide. The introduction to Milorad Pavic’s ‘Dictionary of the Khazars’ instructs the reader to refer to dip in and out of the fictionalised encyclopedia entries to piece together the story. Almost every page of Mark Z. Danielewski’s ‘House of Leaves’ requires the reader to decide for themselves how to progress through the fragmented text.

Anyway.

I’m not really trying to reach any conclusions, but there does seem to be a lot to be said about non-linear narratives and prerequisites when approaching fiction. As a side note, it strikes me that while there are good examples of books and, more and more, videogames with non-linear narratives, there are no non-linear films that I can think of, apart from perhaps Mike Figgis’ ‘Timecode’, at a pinch. Maybe someone should attempt to create a choose-your-own-adventure film to be ‘read’ via DVD chapter selections. Or has this been tried already?

If On a Winter’s Night a Traveller (Italo Calvino, 1979)

This isn’t the actual beginning of Calvino’s novel ‘If On a Winter’s Night a Traveller’, but it is the beginning of the first book-within-a-book, also called ‘If On a Winter’s Night a Traveller’ – so it still counts as one of my favourite opening passages of a novel.

The novel begins in a railway station, a locomotive huffs, steam from the piston covers the opening of the chapter, a cloud of smoke hides part of the first paragraph. In the odour of the station there is a passing whiff of station cafe odour. There is someone looking through the befogged glass, he opens the glass door of the bar, everything is misty, inside, too, as if seen by nearsighted eyes, or eyes irritated by coal dust. The pages of the book are clouded like the windows of an old train, the cloud of smoke rests on the sentences.

The skiing scene in King, Queen, Knave (Vladimir Nabokov, 1928)

In just his second novel Nabokov had begun experimenting with narrative conventions. While it’s maybe not quite as impressive taken out of context, I love the trick he plays in the extract below. Chapter 8 of King, Queen, Knave begins in one scenario with Franz and his lover Martha, but as Franz examines a photo of her husband Dreyer, Nabokov smoothly transitions to the scene within the image, lingers for a few moments, then hops out again. It’s an effect that’s simpler to achieve in film, but in prose it takes you by surprise. It leaves you feeling hyper-aware of each sentence as you begin to suspect that any sentence might spring off on an unexpected tangent.

One such blurry morning, a Sunday, when he and Martha in her beige dress were walking decorously about the snow-powdered garden, she wordlessly showed him a snapshot she had just received from Davos. It showed a smiling Dreyer, in a Scandinavian ski suit, clutching his poles; his skis were beautifully parallel, and all around was bright snow, and on the snow one could distinguish the photographer’s narrow-shouldered shadow.

When the photographer (a fellow-skier and teacher of English, Mr. Vivian Badlook) had clicked the shutter and straightened up, Dreyer, still beaming, moved his left ski forward; however, as he was standing on a slight incline, the ski went further than he had intended, and with a great flourish of ski poles he tumbled heavily on his back while both girls shot past shrieking with laughter.

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The Day of the Triffids (John Wyndham, 1951)

The Day of the Triffids is often cited as the first and archetypal ‘cosy catastrophe’ novel. The hero, Bill Masen, is one of the few not to be blinded by the sights of a green comet storm as his eyes have been bandaged in hospital – in the first and most memorable scene he experiences a panicked blindness, then removes his bandages to find that the rest of the population is permanently blind. Only a day into the disaster, Masen discovers a society already collapsed, with many of the blind suicidal or frantically looting food from abandoned shops.

John Wyndham performs a couple of sleights of hand in detailing the background to the disaster. The triffids, strange carnivorous plants with an unknown origin, have dispersed around the world several years before the catastrophe and are common enough to no longer concern Western society. The coincidence that the blinding of the population is enough to allow triffids to gain the upper hand is never explicitly linked to the arrival of the triffids themselves – instead, both the triffids and the green comet shower are usually vaguely linked to human experimentation within an impenetrable Soviet Union.

Throughout most of the novel the Triffids present a persistent obstacle rather than a major threat. Wyndham uses the triffids to illustrate the tenuous hold on power that the human race had before the disaster – but the novel is more concerned with various groups’ opinions on the best way for society to survive. Masen meets several groups with differing opinions, from fatalist isolated communities to benevolent dictatorships.

The primary survivor groups are:

  • Miss Durrant’s Christian group who insist that traditional gender roles and morals are preserved;
  • Wilfred Coker’s initial gang allocating one sighted person to lead a community of blind people in looting supplies in London;
  • Michael Beadley’s practical group who recognize that the human race can only be rebuilt with a version of ‘free love’ and a stable community providing education and safety for future generations;
  • The despotic government offering Masen a feudal lordship over a blind community.

Wyndham appears to stress the need for society’s moral code to reflect the circumstances, and he details Masen’s internal conflict about breaking taboos – for example, stealing from shops or sleeping with more than one woman.

As per Jo Walton’s observations (see my first post, below), while many of the working class survive the initial blinding comet shower, they’re generally wiped out through their greed and inability to adapt. Bill Masen and the eventual stable communities are certainly middle-class and the outlook for their Isle of Wight appears ‘cosy’, while still likely to be fraught with the problems of sustaining a benevolent dictatorship. Peculiarly, Masen is the only character looking for a loved one (and even then, someone he’d met after the catastrophe, not before).

Rereading the novel last month for a book group (the brilliantly garish Penguin copy on the right), I was surprised how little of the novel I’d remembered since reading it age 10 or 11. Other than the blindness disaster, the elements that had stuck were the free-roaming sections where Bill Masen steals one vehicle after another and loots shops for food. I hadn’t recalled the role of the triffids themselves, and even now they seem a McGuffin designed to exacerbate the problems facing the survivors. I’ll be interested to see how the BBC’s new TV adaptation (beginning broadcast on December 29th 2009) treats the triffids, as I’m sure it’s tempting to heighten their role at the expense of the general survival theme.

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Cosy catastrophes

The term ‘cosy catastrophe’ was coined by Brian Aldiss in his science fiction history Billion Year Spree. Cosy catastrophes are stories involving a sudden non-violent event wiping out most of civilization; the cosiness refers to the conceit of a band of survivors left to rebuild society in relative comfort. Aldiss originally used the phrase to describe (with a hint of criticism, perhaps) John’s Wyndham’s novels, particularly The Day of the Triffids.

I think I’ve always been interested in cosy catastrophes, although I didn’t learn about Aldiss’ phrase until yesterday. I read The Day of the Triffids when I was 10 or 11, and while I found the catastrophe itself terrifying (the population watch blazing green comets in the sky, which by morning has rendered them all blind), I was caught by the idea of survivors having free reign over the country, with society in tatters. I’ve since read a bunch of dystopian and post-apocalyptic novels – but I think that the concept of the cosy catastrophe is the aspect that really chimes with me.

But why? I’m starting to think it’s not too healthy an interest. Jo Walton points out that the survivors in the archetypal 1950s cosy catastrophe fiction are from the middle classes (with the working classes conveniently wiped out), and they rarely lose anyone significant to them. This allows the survivors to be nostalgic and yet able to recreate society from a more appealing starting-point.

Is my interest as self-centred as Jo Walton suggests? Maybe. I can think of a lot of aspects of a sudden non-violent catastrophe that appeal:

  • a fresh start
  • a new, clear purpose for life
  • a united background with fellow survivors
  • a need to learn and use practical skills

The final point is the one that often leads me to imagine a post-apocalypse world – i.e. what skills do I have that’ll help me to survive after an apocalypse? (Not many!) For the last few years I’ve been working on lengthy, often meandering editorial projects, so I can see the appeal of immediate and practical work. I guess there’s a self-indulgent excitement about the idea of wiping the slate clean in other senses too, particularly the idea of a less complex post-disaster society.

So, I’ll accept the fact that my interest in cosy catastrophes is a kind of wish-fulfilment fantasy. I think I’m ok with that. I’m keen to think more carefully about fictional cosy catastrophes, partly to understand writer’s wish-fulfilments, but mainly to understand my own.

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