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From terror to persecution in six links

We start this month’s Six Degrees of Separation with Stephen King’s It.  But first I have a confession. Not only have I not read this book, I have never read anything by Stephen King. I know he’s a master storyteller but I have a low tolerance level of anything horrific so never had much interest in his work.

If I were ever to overcome my fear and pick up a Stephen King novel, I doubt that it would be It, based on the fact that it’s about a town where children are terrorized by an entity that takes on the form of a clown. Apparently some of the key themes are the power of memory, childhood trauma and its recurrent echoes in adulthood.

RoomA traumatic childhood is the key element in my first link: Emma Donague’s multiple award-winning novel Room. Inspired by the true life case of Josef Fritzl in Austria, Room tells the story of a five-year-old called Jack, who is held captive in a single room with his Ma. He has never been outside. The room is his entire world.  Despite its subject matter Donaghue has said that Room is not a horror story or a tear-jerker, but a celebration of resilience and the love between parent and child.

L shaped roomFor my second link I’m heading to a different room for another story about resilience in the face of challenges.  In The L Shaped Room by Lynne Reid Banks, Jane, an unmarried, out-of-work rep actress is turned out of the family home when she becomes pregnant following an affair with an actor. She moves into a dingy room at the top of a smelly boarding house in London, inhabited by bed bugs and a mix of exotic characters. Ultimately her time in the L-shaped room is just a phase in her life before she finds happiness and independence. The people she leaves behind are not so fortunate however; they are so steeped in poverty that they have little hope of escape.

English authorsThere doesn’t seem much hope of escape either for the characters in the novel that provides me with my third link: Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens. In the Victorian era if you couldn’t pay your bills you could end up an inmate of the Marshalsea prison. It was nigh on impossible to pay off the debts because inmates were not allowed to work. Such becomes the fate of William Dorrit who moves his entire family into the Marshalsea when he becomes a bankrupt. His youngest daughter Amy (the Little Dorrit of the title) is born within its walls but like her siblings is sent out to work while her father grows increasingly proud of his status as the prison’s longest-serving resident.

thedevilinthemarshalseaantoniahodgsonFather Dorrit was fortunate that his children’s efforts meant he never ended up in the prison’s most fetid section,  known as the “Common Side”, where inmates were highly likely to die from starvation or fever. Such is the fate that faces Tom Hawkins, the rakish protagonist of the fourth link in my chain: The Devil in the Marshalsea by Antonia Hodgson. He can save himself if he can solve the mystery of who killed another prisoner but he also has to keep out of the way of the brutal governer and his henchman.

dorian grayTom is a gambler, a drinker and a womaniser but like all rakes he has a charm that entices. The figure of the lovable rogue and the bad boy abounds in literature so I am spoiled for choice for my fifth link. I’m plumping for a book that featured a handsome, narcissistic young man who indulges in every pleasure and virtually every ‘sin’:  The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde. Wilde of course was one of the ‘bad boy’s himself, and his book so offended the moral sensibilities of British book reviewers, many of them said he should be prosecuted for violating public morality. He did end up going to prison, for gross indecency.

petalsWilde was not the first – and certainly not the last – writer to be imprisoned. Some like the Marquis de Sade were accused of sexual offences; others like William S. Burroughs and Paul Verlaine for violent assualt. Still more writers have been incarcerated for their political beliefs and their refusal to stay silent. Petals of Blood  by the Kenyan author Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o so incensed his country’s government because it criticised the newly-independent nation, that they imprisoned him without charges. His arrest provoked a worldwide protest and led to his adoption by Amnesty International as a Prisoner of Conscience. He left Kenya upon his release after a year in custody.

And so we end on a sombre note. Having started with a fictional horror I somehow ended up with a real-life situation that I find truely frightening: imprisonment without trial and due process of law.

Six Degrees of Separation hosted by Kate of Books Are My Favourite and Best  is where we start with one book and link in stages to six other books to form a chain. I’ve adopted my own rule to link only to books that I’ve read, even if that was many many decades ago.

 

 

Is audio the future?

Some readers love them. Others don’t think they count as ‘real reading’. But it seems the British public are falling in love with the idea of listening to words rather than reading them. According to the Publishers Association, sales of audio books in the UK have doubled in the last five years. It’s a remarkable turnaround from 2010 when publishers were fearing the days of the audio recording were numbered. From sales of £4M then, last year saw the figure jump to £10M.

Remember the days of these?

Remember the days of these?

The boom has been attributed to two factors: one is the ease with which users can now get hold of a recording. Gone are the days when you had to find a shop selling cassettes and later CDs, and then carry a dedicated player around with you whose battery life was sure to fail just at the exciting point in the book. .Now, just like music, they are easily downloaded  onto phones and tablets, and carried everywhere from trains to planes, from the park to the beach. Well just about anywhere really.

The second factor the publishers claimed to be responsible for the upswing is that  famous names from stage and screen are now regularly turning their skills to narration.  In recent years we’ve had Nicole Kidman reading To the Lighthouse, Kate Winslet narrating Therese Raquin and Colin Firth relating Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair. Then, just last month Reese Witherspoon was named as the voice for the audio version of Harper Lee’s new novel Go Set a Watchman. 

I’ve been an audio book fan for decades. It started when a change of job meant I had a 45 minute commute to work and desperately wanted something as relief from political and world news. Fortunately during the times when Parliament wasn’t in session, the BBC would offer a book of the week.  Otherwise my options were limited because it was expensive buying the cassette recordings myself and if I tried borrowing them from other people, the tape had a tendency to get snarled up in the machine. The advent of the CD was a great relief especially when public libraries began offering them for loan at a very low price. Even more joy came when I bought my first iPod and learned how to record from the CD so I could listen when pounding the treadmill in the gym.

I’ve learned a few things over the years.

One is that the choice of narrator is critical. I don’t care if they are famous – what matters most is whether by their voice they can hook me into the story and make me believe in the character they are inhabiting. Martin Jarvis is one of the best I’ve come across but I also love Juliet Stevenson’s voice. Some recordings I have abandoned simply because the narrator’s voice has grated on me so much I simply couldn’t bear to continue.

Secondly, It’s hard to define the perfect recipe but some books work better than others in certain circumstances. If I’m driving and listening then I need a book with a good story but one that is not too complicated because I need to also pay attention to the road. If it has too many characters or involves a lot of introspective thinking by the main character, then it will demand more attention that I can safely give.

Crime fiction works well which is a surprise because that’s not a genre I read widely in printed format. I’ve exhausted the library collections of Ruth Rendell/Barbara Vine, Ian Rankin, Agatha Christie and the Crowner John series featuring a coroner in fourteenth century England written by a former Home Office pathologist Bernard Knight. I’m now working my way through Peter James.

Some classics also work well. I enjoyed Dombey and Son and The Old Curiosity Shop in audio version (i alternated reading the book with listening which seemed to work really well) but couldn’t get into Barnaby Rudge and failed, again with a Tale of Two Cities.

I’m going to run out of options soon so if you have some recommendations do let me know. The Daily Telegraph published a list of their top 20 audio books yesterday – I’ve not read any of these. Have you listened to any of them?

Home again

Rain and grey clouds were not quite the welcome home I was hoping for yesterday. After three weeks of blue sky and warmth, it was a shock to the system to arrive in Southampton in drizzle and winds. Tomorrow will be an even greater shock though when I have to go back to work. Goodbye lazy breakfasts and even lazier days reading in the sunshine; hello household chores, emails and teleconferences.

helicopterStill, we have some wonderful memories of our week in Zambia, walking through the falls, seeing the sun set over the Zambezi river and taking an old steam train across to Zimbabwe. Pride of place however goes to an exhilarating helicopter ride right over Victoria Falls and then swooping over the rim and down into a gorge to follow the twists of the river. Since I was the smallest passenger I got the premium seat right up front next to the pilot. Simply breathtaking!

Library on Queen Mary 2

The library on Queen Mary 2 – more than 9,000 titles available

After that excitement we got a chance to catch our breath with the two weeks it took us to cruise up the coast of Africa back to the UK. We’d never been on a cruise before but everyone told us the Queen Mary 2 is one of the best afloat. I loved the art deco theme throughout all the public rooms and the formal nights where tuxedos and cocktail gowns were required.

 

View from library of Queen Mary 2

View from the library of Queen Mary 2

In between listening to classic recitals and lectures I found plenty of time to just laze on the deck, watch the ocean go by and catch up on some reading. I tried to synchronise the books with some of the countries we visited or sailed past:

  • Cry the Beloved Country by Alan Paton (South Africa)
  • We Need New Names by No Violet Bulawayo (Zimbabwe)
  • Fiela’s Child by Dalene Matthee (South Africa)
  • The President’s Hat by Antoine Laurain (France)
  • The Fortune of the Rougons by Emile Zola (France)
  • Read all About It by Paul Cudahy (England)
  • The Shock of the Fall by Nathan Filer (England)

I also finished Life of Pi by Yan Martel that I was half way through when we left for our trip and am part way through Mansfield Park (not one of my favourite Austens but I decided to give it another go).

Pretty impressive eh?

The cost of internet access meant I couldn’t post very often – I did manage to do a review of The Old Curiousity Shop and posted a few general pieces:

 

Kafka’s views on reading

Oliver Goldsmith’s Vicar of Wakefield

Choosing an author to represent England

Books from Indonesia

I’ll get around to posting my reviews eventually and will also do my best to catch up on all the blog sites I follow.

 

Dickens and society in The Old Curiosity Shop

Old Curiosity Shop

According to Hippolyte Taine, one of the leading literature critics of the nineteenth century, ” the novels of Dickens can all be reduced to one phrase, to wit: Be good, and love.” In Taine’s view, Dickens work suffered not only because of this lack of variety but also through theauthor’s  simplistic philosophical outlook and his excessive imagination. Taine’s view prevailed long after it was published in 1856.  Not until F R Leavis published The Great Tradition in 1948 was there an acknowledgement that Dickens skills as a writer put him on a par with Jane Austen, George Eliot and Henry James.

Reding The Old Curiosity Shop it’s easy to see how Taine came to his conclusions about Dickens. This is after all the novel whose central character so entranced its first readers with her infallibly good and angelic nature that they cried on hearing of her ultimate fate.

The character in question is the orphan Nell Trent (known as Little Nell) who lives with her grandfather in The Old Curiosity Shop in London.  It’s a lonely life for the poor girl who has no friends except for Kit, an honest boy employed at the shop whom she is teaching to read.  Her grandfather loves Nell so dearly he cannot bear the idea that she will die in poverty as did her parents. He begins gambling but becomes heavily in debt to Daniel Quilp, a malicious, grotesquely formed dwarf.  Quilp seizes the shop and evicts the pair.  Nell, in fear of her grandfather’s disturbed mind determines to get him away from Quilp even if it means they become beggars. Their journey takes them across many miles to the industrial heart of England. But their pursuers are not far behind them.

Multiple trials and tests confront the pair on their travels but Nell radiates goodness throughout. She has a maturity well beyond her thirteen years,  protecting her grandfather from his gambling habits and walking many miles every day though her feet are bleeding and her belly is empty. Every person she meets along the way becomes enamoured of this beautiful young child from Mrs. Jarley, proprietor of a travelling waxworks show, who takes in Nell and her grandfather out of kindness to Mr. Marton, a poor schoolmaster.  Dickens shows how Nell’s goodness radiates from her, changing the lives of those around her.  To be sure readers understand the point Dickens ends with a scene in which Nell is held up by Kit as a model of how all children should behave.

The little group would often gather …. And beg him to tell again the story of good Mis Nell..  and when they cried to hear it, he would teach them how she had gone to Heaven, as all good people did; and how, if they were good, like her, they might hope to be there too, one day, and to see and know her as he had done… In my edition of the book the final page even includes a little sketch of a girl born away from earth in the arms of four angels.

Goodness isn’t confined to Nell however. Christopher ‘Kit’ Nubbles, Nell’s devoted friend and servant, is used as an example of the virtues of loyalty and integrity. He watches out for Nell when she is left in the shop alone at night (although she doesn’t know he’s there) and will ‘never come home to his bed until he thinks she’s safe in hers’. He is a devoted son and employee too, and the respect he gathers from many characters rescue him from prison and transportation so that he can eventually become a devoted father and husband. And then we get Richard ‘Dick’ Swiveller, a young man who owes money to just about everyone and goes through life as if it’s a huge joke. But in the end, he learns the error of his ways and is eventually a force for good himself, helping to rescue Kit from prison and rescuing a young servant from a life of drudgery.

Multiple examples in this novel support Taine’s assertion that sentimentality and simple morality characterised much of Dickens’ work. But there is another side to Dickens which Taine failed to acknowledge. Many of Dickens’ novels reflect and highlight his concerns with the condition of England and particularly the effects of industrialisation and urbanisation on the lives of ordinary people. In Great Expectations for example we see how commercial trade makes upward social mobility a realistic prospect, this challenging the established class structure based on inherited wealth. In Dombey and Son, commercial interests and love of money take precedence over love for a wife and a daughter and we see some of Dickens harshest comments on the desperate conditions created for the poor who live in cities churning out the products upon which the new merchant class rely.  Those same conditions are reflected too in The Old Curiosity Shop, not to the same extent as in Dombey and Son certainly but they are definitely present.

To take one example, as Nell and her grandfather escape from the city, they encounter some of the poorest districts that lie on the fringes of London.

A straggling neighbourhood, where the mean houses parcelled off in rooms and windows patched with rags and paper told of the populous poverty that sheltered there.. Here were poor streets where faded gentility essayed with scanty space and shipwrecked means to make its last feble stand, but tax-gatherer and creditor came there as elsewhere and the poverty that yet faintly struggled was hardly less squalid and manifest ..

Damp rotten houses… Lodgings where it would be hard to tell which needed pity most, those who let or those who came to take, children scantily fed and clothed spread over every street and sprawling in the dust…

As they approach the more industrialised part of the country (the area around Birmingham) they witness the destruction of nature caused by industry.

A long suburb of red-brick houses – some with patched of garden, where coal dust and factory smoke darkened the shrinking leaves and coarse rank flowers and where the struggling vegetation sickened and sank under the hot breath of kiln and furnace…

The factories and furnaces responsible for this desolation appear to take on a human form, “writhing like tortured creatures; clanking their iron chains … as though in torment unendurable and making the ground tremble with their agonies. …in their wildness and untamed air, screeching and turning round and round again… never ceasing in their black vomit.”

Proximity to these engines, Dickens observes,  makes the people themselves yet more wild and lawless, running with firebrands and swords through streets ringing with the sound of hungry children’s cries and the rumble of coffin-bearing carts.

It’s true, as George Orwell complained, that Dickens doesn’t offer any solutions for these ills but they do show a different side to the author from the one Taine presented. An author who was keenly aware of the world around him and sought to reflect that while still pleasing his readers with tales of love and goodness.

Celebrate St George’s Day with English authors

St george's dayA few years ago a colleague asked me to recommend a novel or a writer that would epitomise England. It was a question I found nigh on impossible to answer at the time. The passage of years hasn’t made it any easier.  But in honour of St George’s Day today I thought I would revisit the topic.

I posed the same question in 2013 when I started my  world literature project and started with Reading the Prime Meridian (reading one novel for each of the countries through which the meridian runs). The  responses I received, which you can view here. I deliberately asked people to avoid recommendations for Jane Austen, Charles Dickens or George Eliot.  Of course they typify a certain side of England — if you want a view of life in rural and provincial England in the mid nineteenth century then who better than Eliot? Or if you want a picture of how urbanisation was changing the nature of the city, then Dickens is certainly your man.  All good choices and ones I suspect would be top of mind for many readers. But they give us only one facet of England. And one that is now a few centuries past.

What about something more recent? Evelyn Waugh was one suggestion. If we’re talking Brideshead Revisited then yes that would give us a view of the English gentry on the eve of World War 1. The stately home, fox hunting side of England if you like.

Other suggestions came from friends: Grahame Greene (Brighton Rock); Iris Murdoch (The Sea, The Sea); Peter Ackroyd (Hawskmoor, The Lambs of London), Ian McEwan . All good suggestions but I don’t see them as typifying England.

The more I thought about this and the more suggestions that came in, the more I realised that there was one aspect of England that wasn’t getting reflected at all. And that is the multicultural dimension. Visit London on any day and the number of accents you’ll here is astonishing – and I don’t mean accents of tourists or day visitors. I mean people who live and work in the city. Polish, Australian, Indian, Chinese, French, Arabic, Canadian … and those are just ones that I recognise. This isn’t a phenomena confined to London, you’ll get the same impression in Birmingham or Leeds.

Of course I can argue that it was ever the same – that England has long been home for people from outside the island. What we think of as Englishness today has much to do with invaders from the Roman Empire, from France and from the Nordic lands. They gave us straight roads (thank you Romans); influenced our language (more than 60% of the words we use in English today have a French origin) and many of our place names (the Viking name for York was Jorvik, any place name that ends in horpe  or thwaite derives from the Vikings). In the twentieth century Italians brought us ice-cream parlours and real coffee  (well before the likes of Starbucks) and Pakistan settlers introduced us to biryani and masalas.

If we want reading that truly reflects England today shouldn’t we look to writers who reflect that cultural diversity? I’m thinking Zadie Smith,  one of Granta‘s list of 20 best young authors, whose novel NW is set in a typical mixed London suburb and brings us the polyphonic nature of contemporary urban life.  it’s a novel about which the Telegraph critic said:

In a hundred years time, when readers want to understand what the English novel was capable of, and what English life truly felt like, they will look at NW, and warm to it.

So there you have it, one novel that could be said to represent England as the country stands today.

 

 

 

Snapshot March 2015

Slightly later than it should be but this is my snapshot of what I was up to on the 1st of March.

Reading

I finally got to open Things Fall Apart by the Nigerian author Chinua Achebe. It’s been on my shelf for about four years and I kept promising myself I would get to read it one day. Thanks to my involvement in the TBR Challenge run by Roof Beam Reader, I shall at last get around to it.

In case you don’t know about this book it follows the life of Okonkwo, a leader and wrestling champion in a fictional Nigerian village. It’s a slim book which so far has been about his family and the customs of his village.

Listening

My daily encounter with Charles Dickens’s Old Curiosity Shop is coming to an end.  It’s not going to be one of my favourite Dickens but still highly enjoyable.

Watching

Having been told that the series The Wire was riveting, we bought a box set. Unfortunately it didn’t come with simultaneous translation so a lot of the dialogue is proving ultra challenging. I’ve seen two episodes and am completely confused. Does it get any clearer??

 

Love and hate in the classics

classicsclub3Technically I missed the deadline for the January topic for Classics Club participants. But I can’t imagine they will expel me for such a minor transgression. Anyway it’s their fault for thinking of such dastardly difficult questions that it takes me all month to think of an answer.

The question on the table is: which character from classic literature do you most despise and why?

Despise is rather a strong word to apply to someone who doesn’t exist in reality. Even though I find Jude Fawley or his cousin Sue Bridehead from Jude the Obscure, two of the most irritating characters I’ve encountered in reading the classics of English literature, I can’t say I loathe them or hate them.  They are just deeply irritating to the point where, of all the Thomas Hardy novels, this is the one that I cannot bear to re-read.

My tolerance threshold does get tested to the limit however when I encounter Mr Paul Dombey in the pages Dombey and Son. Dickens presents us with an emotionally bankrupt figure: a man who is rich in worldly possessions but completely deficient in emotions. He Dombey puts commerce and trade on so high a pedestal that he believes money can do anything and all human relationships can be rendered in terms of monetary value and exchange.  He desperately wants a son to complete his vision of a mercantile firm bearing the legend Dombey and Son and to reflect his own greatness, caring little that his wife dies in the process. She’s simply done her duty.

But his son doesn’t share his father’s way of looking at the world. Paul junior startles his father on one occasion by asking ‘What is money?’

Mr Dombey was in a difficulty. He would have liked to give him some explanation involving the terms circulating-medium, currency, depreciation of currency’, paper, bullion, rates of exchange, value of precious metals in the market, and so forth;Money, Paul, can do anything.’ He took hold of the little hand, and beat it softly against one of his own, as he said so.

Anything, Papa?

Yes. Anything – almost,’ said Mr Dombey.

Why didn’t money save me my Mama,? returned the child. It isn’t cruel is it.?

Dombey’s preoccupation with his son and with the commercial utopia ahead of them that he is indifferent to his other child, Florence, simply because she is a girl. Indifference turns to neglect when Paul junior dies, throwing the dynastic ambitions into chaos. Worse follows when Mr Dombey’s second wife (a relationship more akin to a commercial exchange than a courtship) abandons him and Florence is blamed. Her father’s neglect turns to hatred and then to violence, leaving the young girl alone in the world.

I still can’t bring myself to detest Dombey however and that’s because Dickens cleverly tempers his satire of this wooden man by a degree of compassion in the final stages of the novel. It would be spoiling the ending for me to reveal that — suffice it to say that by the final pages I was even beginning to like him.

Dickens’ Little Dorrit: A review

English authorsCorruption; inept officialdom; capitalism, the pretensions of social class and status:  few elements of Victorian life seem to escape Dickens’ scrutiny in Little Dorrit. 

Published in monthly instalments between 1855 and 1857, first reactions from the critics were not very favourable. They completely overlooked the social critique element  and focused their attention instead on what they considered an unnecessarily incoherent plot and insubstantial, two-dimensional figures.  Fortunately the mid twentieth century saw a revival of interest in the novel and a significant shift in attitude. In fact attitudes shifted so far that George Bernard Shaw claimed Little Dorrit was a more seditious text than Marx’s Das Kapital while  George Orwell declared that “in Little Dorrit, Dickens attacked English institutions with a ferocity that has never since been approached.”

Much of Dickens’ ire in Little Dorrit is focused on government bureaucracy. He brings it to life with the wonderfully imaginative  invention of the Circumlocution Office. It’s a government department run entirely it seems by the incompetent and the inept (ring any bells???). Its sole purpose is to frustrate and obstruct anyone who has the temerity to ask for information or assistance. Forms need to be filled in just to request permission to fill in more forms to ask for an appointment.(the Soviets learned a thing or two from the Circumlocution Office methinks).

marshalseaSome of his greatest anger is directed at debtors’ prisons such as the notorious Marshalsea in which people who owed money were imprisoned until they repaid their debts.  It was an impossible situation because they were not allowed to work so had to rely on family or friends to help pay bills and to provide food and clothing.  Such becomes the fate of William Dorrit who moves his entire family into the Marshalsea when he becomes a bankrupt. His youngest daughter  Amy (the Little Dorrit of the title) is born within its walls, becoming a true child of the Marshalsea.

But even in prison the appearance of gentility and the gradations of class and status must be maintained.  The Marshalsea inhabitants  refer to themselves as “collegians” rather than prisoners; Papa Dorrit pretends ignorance about the fact his daughters go out to work every day to put food on the table, and openly solicits financial gifts from visitors, masks their true nature by calling them  “tributes”  and ‘testimonials’. As his status within the prison rises and he becomes the longest-serving resident, so his consciousness of his status increases, going into orbit when he is released upon discovery  that he is in fact a very wealthy man.

What Dickens shows is the personal cost of such esteem for one’s position in life. Mr Dorrit is so blinkered by his sense of his own importance that he fails to connect with the one person who loves him without question – his daughter Amy. Though she has loved him without question for decades, cared for him and undergone personal suffering so that he would be spared, he does not recognise the debt he owes her.  Instead he subjects her to criticism over petty mistakes and castigates her when she doesn’t wholeheartedly welcome and adopt the trappings of the family’s new-found wealth.  Does he repent on his deathbed as characters do in so many novels?  I won’t spoil the plot by disclosing that; you’ll just have to read the novel yourself.

The Dorrits are a far cry from the epitome of the happy loving families found in Dickens’s earlier works. None of the families in Little Dorrit actually fit that particular description being neither loving nor happy. They’re all rather dysfunctional in fact. When Arthur Clenhome, one of the book’s good guys, returns to London from China where he ran the family business for twenty years  he gets as much of a welcome from his mother as if he’d just returned from a weekend in Brighton.

Like most of Dickens’ big novels, the plot does require attention to keep all the threads intact but this book isn’t anywhere as complicated as Bleak House. It also relies on a remarkable series of coincidences – the first two characters we meet in a prison in France not only turn up again in London many many chapters later and somehow manage to play key roles in the plot. But it wouldn’t be Dickens without coincidence would it. Nor would it be Dickens without a wildly extravagant female character. Just as Dombey and Son has the dippy Miss Lucretia Tox, and Martin Chuzzlewit has the drunken nurse Sarah Gamp, in Little Dorrit Dickens serves up the garrulous Flora Finching to entertain with her gushing and breathless simpering talk of nothing in particular. A brilliant invention.

So in case you haven’t twigged by now, yes I did enjoy this book. And yes I would definitely read it again.

Sunday Salon: A Dickens of a Week

sundaysalonIt took nineteenth months for the first readers of Dickens’ Little Dorrit to get to the end of the story. Fortunately I don’t have to wait a month for the next instalment but even so this is not a book that can be read quickly, nor do I really want to since I’m enjoying it so much. It’s a relief after trying and failing miserably to read two other Dickens novels that are also on my  Classics Club list (namely Tale of Two Cities and Bleak House).

Dickens has been in and out of favour many times since the 1840s. F R Leavis even left him out of The Great Tradition, his 1948 seminal work examining the works of authors he considered the greatest of English writers. He didn’t rectify the omission until 197o when he published Dickens the Novelist. One frequent criticism levied at Dickens is that was he created stereotypes rather than fully rounded characters; another is that all his plots really come down to the same thing: ‘love and be loved’; George Orwell complained that even Dickens’  much vaunted social criticism was over-rated since he never offered any real solutions to the problems he highlighted.

There’s a degree of truth in all those complaints but for me they overlook two things  — one is that this is an author who is a master of the complex plot.  He can be verbose sometimes especially when he wants to have a rant at a social injustice or when he gets carried away with his descriptive powers. But he assuredly knows how to tell a good story; one that makes you want to keep reading if only to find out what happens next.

English authorsAnd secondly, this guy has a superb ear for patterns of speech, using them to create characters that may not be fully formed but are so wonderfully larger than life , they linger in the memory well after the book is closed. In Little Dorrit, we have some fine examples. There’s the French murderer Rigaud, whose evil eye makes others tremble and the downtrodden servant Affery Flintwinch whose very odd dreams give clues to some of the nasty secrets in her mistress’s house. But the prize for the most comic character of all goes to Flora Finching, a gone to seed widow who mistakenly believes she is still a young, and highly attractive young girl and who simply cannot shut up. To hear her stream of consciousness speeches is to experience the verbal equivalent of the Japanese Bullet train.

The withered chaplet my dear,’ said Flora [to Arthur], with great enjoyment, ‘is then perished the column is crumbled and the pyramid is standing upside down upon its what’s-his-name call it not giddiness call it not weakness call it not folly I must now retire into privacy and look upon the ashes of departed joys no more but taking a further liberty of paying for the pastry which has formed the humble pretext of our interview will forever say Adieu!’

Phew. I’m glad I don’t have to share my home with her………..

 

Sunday Salon: Wrestling with Dickens

sundaysalonWe’re almost at the end of January and I realised today I hadn’t posted my answer to the Classics Club question for January. So that’s what today’s Sunday Salon is about — a reflection on recent experiences reading the classics. The question this month is:

 What is the best book you’ve read so far for The Classics Club — and why? Or, if you prefer, what is your least favorite read so far for the club, and why?

Before I get into answering that in detail, I have a confession. I’ve spent more time debating which books to include on my list; adding some, removing others, than I’ve actually read in the past few months. I set out to read 50 classics in 5 years and I’m still committed to doing that, but the progress is rather slower than I expected. No excuses other than too many other interesting novels caught my attention. So my options for a favourite are far too limited. But I do know which book has been my least favourite so far.

Pause for dramatic effect. It is. . … A Tale of Two Cities. Now I know it has a huge army of devotees and I know it is one of the biggest of all classics. But it’s just left me cold. I have tried, I really have, to read it. But I can’t get further than Chapter Five in Book One. I have started this book three times over a period of about 10 years and every single time I come to a halt at roughly the same point. It’s the point at which I’m so baffled about who the old man is and what he has to do with the people we’ve already encountered, that I decide I don’t really care and find something more interesting to read. I even tried a tutored read of this on LibraryThing towards the end of 2012 but to no avail.

I’m not naturally averse to Dickens’ work. Far from it. Great Expectations and Dombey and Son are both outstanding novels for me with their strong plots, psychological insight and challenging social comment to stimulate my thinking. I’m reading Little Dorrit at the moment and while it’s early days, I’m enjoying the experience. But A Tale of Two Cities seems in a different league. I must be missing something here. Can anyone enlighten me? Is it worth perservering or shall I ditch it forever??

 

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