It’s time to play the Six Degrees of Separation game again. The starting book this month is The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver. I know it was highly regarded when it was published but I didn’t care for it that much. However I read it so long ago I can’t remember exactly why it didn’t hit the spot, just that it didn’t. Maybe if I read it again I might have a different reaction (that often happens) but I have far too many unread titles to go down that path.
Kingsolver’s novel features a family who go to The Congo as missionaries intent on converting the local population. This was at a time before there were two countries both using the word Congo in their name. Today we have the the Democratic Republic of the Congo to the southeast and its smaller namesake, the Republic of the Congo. It’s to the latter that we go for my first link…
Alain Mabanckou’s Broken Glass is set in a seedy bar in a run down part of the country’s capital. One of its regular customers, a disgraced teacher is asked by the proprietor of the Credit Gone West bar to capture the stories of his clients. They turn out to be a misfortunate bunch all thinking they have been hard done by and wanting to set the record straight.
They’re not unlike some of the characters in Kingsley Amis’ Booker Prize winning novel The Old Devils. This lot are university pals living in a rural part of Wales and, having been regular drinkers in the past, like to spend their time in the pub. Their hostelry of choice is called The Bible and its here that they meet, often not long after breakfast, to while away the hours with gossip, updates on their various medical ailments and generally complaining about almost everything.
They might have more justification for their complaints if they were inmates of the place which is the setting for my next book in the chain: The Devil in the Marshalsea by Antonia Hodgson. The Marshalsea is a fetid, stinking prison for debtors – once in, unless you have private means to pay for ‘luxuries’, you end up in the worst section, the “Common Side” where death is inevitable.
Fortunate then the man who can find a way out of this as does Charles Dickens’ Mr Dorrit. In Little Dorrit, her father William gets his escape ticket when it’s discovered he is the lost heir to a large fortune. Dickens uses this novel to satirise the bureaucracy of government (brought to life in the form of his fictional “Circumlocution Office”). He also takes a pop at the class system and its notions of respectability.
A desire for respectability also makes its appearance through two childhood friends in Zadie Smith’s novel NW. To leave behind her black working class upbringing, one girl changes her name, becomes a successful barrister and moves to a plush home in a desirable part of London. Her friend has less success, though she has a degree in philosophy she is still living in a council flat not far from her family home. But their past refuses to remain hidden.
Identity is the theme of my sixth and final book, one that I bought on my first trip to the Hay Festival and so caught up in the moment that I came away with an armload of books by authors completely unknown to me. Fortunately, one of the them, All Our Names by Dinaw Mengestu proved to be a thought-provoking book. An African boy arrives in a mid Western USA town on a student visa. Little is known about him, only his name, his date of birth and the fact he was born somewhere in Africa. But he’s a fake, a boy who escaped from a civil war in Uganda by swapping identities with a friend who becomes a paramilitary leader.
And so we end as we began in Africa. Along the way we’ve visited a few bars, a prison and a suburb of London. As always I have included only books I have read.
Where would your chain take you? You can join in by visiting Books Are My Favourite and Best
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.
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?
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.
A 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.
Slightly later than it should be but this is my snapshot of what I was up to on the 1st of March.
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.
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.
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??
Technically 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.
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.
It 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.
And 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………..