Time for another round of Six Degrees of Separation in which the idea is to form a chain of connections from a starting book.
This month our master Kate wants us to begin with Tales of the City by Armistead Maupin, the first of his books in a saga based in San Francisco. This isn’t a book I’ve read though I did start to read the first in the series once. I know its hugely popular but it wasn’t to my taste.
So I’m switching to a different city for my first book.Beauty and Chaos: Slices and Morsels of Tokyo Life is a collection of articles in which journalist and university professor Michael Pronko reflects on the character of this city. He considers the idiosyncracies of its inhabitants and their predilection for maps, drink vending machines, noodles and posh shopping bags. It’s a fascinating exploration of facets of a city that tourists would be unlikely to see or understand.
From there it’s an easy leap to a different representation of Toyko, this time seen through the eyes of the Japanese author Haruki Murakami. Norwegian Wood takes us into the world of the city’s nightclubs, bars and even a porn cinema, a world that provides a wonderful contrast to the books other setting of a sanitorium in Kyoto surrounded by snow-clad hills. It was my first – and to date only – experience of Murakami’s work and as far as I can tell isn’t typical but I was so glad a colleague recommended it to me.
But enough of the Japanese landscape, let’s move to somewhere closer to home which also boasts some fine specimens of trees though I’m not entirely sure what kind of tree Thomas Hardy had in mind with his novel Under the Greenwood Tree. An English oak I suspect. This novel is a celebration of the pastoral life in the Victorian era but although Hardy shows this in terms of continuity and harmony there are points at which the plot involves a confrontation between the old and new orders. The Mellstock choir, for example, which provides one of the two plot lines, are threatened by the vicar’s attempt to replace them with a new mechanical church organ.
The clash of new and old also figures in the novel that is probably the finest example of mid nineteenth century realist fiction: George Eliot’s Middlemarch. This is novel that teems with ideas, about relationships, ambition, social mobility, integrity to name just a few. But Eliot also showed a new spirit of the age with political reformers going head to head against the established gentry, how ambitious young doctors with their antipathy to blood-letting were seen as upstarts and how the new railway age was feared by rural workers. You won’t find a finer novel…..
I wonder what Hardy and Eliot would have made of my next book? Harvest by Jim Crace is also about disruption to the rhythm of the countryside. Crace isn’t sentimental about rural life but he show that the pursuit of “Profit, Progress, Enterprise” is dangerous. The threat in his novel comes in the form of enclosure of common land where, for generations, villagers have tended to their flocks. But their lord and master decides they’ll be more profitable if he turns them over to crops – throwing the villagers out and leaving them without a source of income. This is a novel which verges on poetry at times when it speaks about the connection of man and his environment. I don’t understand why the Booker judges overlooked this for the prize in 2013.
They also (equally unbelievably) overlooked my final book in this chain. Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing takes us to China in the build up to the protest and subsequent massacre at Tianenman Square, Bejing in 1989. This is the background against which she sets her tale of three highly talented musicians whose lives are turned upside down when the Communist-led government decides their music is not appropriate to the new order. This is a novel that is breathtaking in its scope. If you enjoyed Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China by Jung Chang, then I highly recommend Thien’s novel.
And with that we’ve returned to a city landscape though one that couldn’t be more different than San Francisco. We’ve also had a little sojourn in English woods and fields. Where would your chain have taken you?
What distinguishes a truly great classic for me is that no-matter how many times I read it, I can still discover something fresh within its pages. It’s why I love George Eliot’s Middlemarch so much and why I never tire of going back to it. This is a novel stuffed with big ideas, from Darwin’s natural selection to advances in medical sciences, from the Great Reform Act to industrialisation; all organised within a central metaphor of “the web” of society. Yet it’s also a very human novel; one that deals with ambition and the loneliness of failure whether in love or theological research or the desire to bring great benefit to mankind.
To read it is to see Eliot’s creative imagination as its most mature. But you can see in Adam Bede, the novel she wrote some 14 years earlier, (it was in fact her first full length novel) her first steps towards the themes and approaches that will become prevalent in Middlemarch.
I first read Adam Bede more than 30 years ago. What I remember mostly is how sorry I felt for poor gullible Hetty Sorrel, a milkmaid who dreamed of love and a life beyond the drudgery of the cowshed and dairy only to be abandoned by the dastardly squire’s son. Reading it now however it’s evident that in focusing so much on the doomed love triangle between Hetty, the carpenter Adam Bede and Captain Arthur Donnithorne, I overlooked many of the key themes of the novel. In particular I failed to notice how Eliot in this book – just as in Middlemarch – considers the idea of vocation and how individuals can achieve a sense of fulfilment through work.
A commitment to working hard is one of the chief differences between the ‘good’ characters in Adam Bede and those whose behaviour we are lead to despise. Most of the ‘admirable’ characters are hard-working peasants who labour on farms, in mills, or in shops, like Mr and Mrs Poyser who are renowned for the way they manage their farm on the Donnithorne estate or like the millworker Dinah who selflessly visits the sick and the sick at heart to give succour wherever she can. In contrast Captain Donnithorne, the handsome heir to a substantial estate, dreams of doing good things when he comes into his inheritance but actually does little other than ride and visit his prospective tenants. It’s not until he goes off to join the militia that he seems to find fulfilment.
If there was ever any doubt that this is a novel about work, the first chapter of the novel gives us the key to Eliot’s intention. It’s set in a place of work – a carpenter’s shop – where, as they bend over their workbenches, discuss the idea of duty. The work ethic runs particularly deep through the veins of the foreman Adam Bede. When his co-workers stop work instantly they her the church clock mark the end of their day. Adam alone continues working, chastising them for their lack of dedication “as if they took no pleasure i’ their work and was afraid o’ doing a stroke too much … just as if he’d never but a bit of pride and delight in ‘s work.” (Chap 1). Though the other carpenters tease him, what Adam shows is his belief in the intrinsic value of work and of a job well done. It’s a lesson he repeats just a few chapters later. Arriving home to find his father has gone off drinking instead of finishing a coffin promised for the following morning, Adam rejects bed and supper in order to get the job done.
What signifies how long it takes me? Isn’t the coffin promised? Can they bury the man without a coffin? I’d work my right hand off sooner than deceive people with lies i’ that way. It makes me mad to think on’t. (Chap 12)
Adam’s dedication flows partly from a sense of responsibility and because he knows he needs a secure financial base before he can marry Hetty. His industrious manner enables him eventually to rise from being a mere employee to own his own business. But he also sees a higher order value in work, one that is connected to the long term improvement of human lives: “It’s all I’ve got to think of now—to do my work well and make the world a bit better place for them as can enjoy it.” (Chap 48).
Adam’s attitude to work is similar in many ways to the estate manager Caleb Garth in Middlemarch. He too regards his work of managing other people’s land as a mark of honour.
It’s a fine thing to come to a man when he’s seen into the nature of business: to have the chance of getting a bit of the country into good fettle … and putting men into the right way with their farming and getting a bit of cgood contributing and solid building work done – that those who are living and those who come after will be the better for … I hold it the most honourable work that is … it’s a great gift of God (Book 4, Chap 40)
What both Adam and Caleb represent is the honesty and integrity of work and a belief in its ability to be a force for good. Where many other nineteenth century novels show work as a physical activity (often making a social point about its exploitative nature) what Eliot seems to do in these two novels feels rather different. Instead of portraying work itself, she shows the idea of work as a vocation, in order to underline her belief that all individuals need to think beyond themselves. Endeavours that fulfil the intellectual, spiritual and emotional needs of the individual are important – but what is even more critical is that in doing so they contribute to the general and long term improvement of other human lives.
The Classics Club spin landed on number five which means I will be reading Adam Bede by George Eliot. This was the first novel she wrote, published pseudonymously in 1859 at a time when, as Mary Ann Evans, she was a highly respected scholar. Its merit was recognised immediately though not unanimously. An anonymous review in The Athenaeum in 1859 praised it as a “novel of the highest class,” and The Times called it “a first-rate novel. Henry James however was irritated by the narrator’s interventions and many critics have accused Eliot of concluding the novel in a way that undermined the moral lessons learned by her main characters.
The novel follows four characters’ rural lives in the fictional community of Hayslope—a rural, pastoral and close-knit community in 1799. The plot revolves around a love “rectangle” among beautiful but self-absorbed Hetty Sorrel; Captain Arthur Donnithorne, the young squire who seduces her; Adam Bede, her unacknowledged suitor; and Dinah Morris, Hetty’s cousin, a fervent, virtuous and beautiful Methodist lay preacher.
When I read this the first time, many years ago, I enjoyed it simply as a good story and sympathised particularly with Adam, the loyal intelligent carpenter and man of integrity. At that time I wasn’t aware of Eliot’s theory that authors should extend their sympathies to all their characters, a theory she put into practice in Middlemarch where the narrator makes us realise that even the distasteful Casubon has his inner doubts and feelings. I’m going to read Adam Bede with an eye to whether she had already began to use this notion in her early work.
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.
This year’s Book Expo America kicks off today but since I can’t make it across the Atlantic for the in person event, I’ll have to content myself with joining in the armchair version. I’ll be in good company since this virtual form of participation is a really popular idea, giving bloggers around the world a chance to connect and talk about the topic we all have in common − books and reading.
This is the third time I’ll have participated in Armchair BEA. As in past years the organisers have come up with some good topics for us to talk about on each day of the event. Hence you’ll see a lot more activity on BookerTalk this week. I’m also going to make a conscious effort to read more of the posts contributed by other participants.
To kick off, here is the post where we introduce ourselves with the aid of some questions from our hosts.
What genre do you read the most?
My reading falls into three categories right now: novels that have won the Booker Prize; books that loosely can be called classics and novels written by authors from parts of the world outside my own experience. I do occasionally read non fiction but
What was your favorite book read last year?
I don’t use a star rating system otherwise this would be an easy one to answer, I’d just look up the books I awarded five stars. Looking at the list of what I read in 2013 it would be very difficult to choose just one title so I’m going to bend the rules a bit and select one favourite from each of the three categories of books I tend to read.
In my Booker Prize list, my favourite was John Banville’s The Sea. I know it wasn’t a popular choice for the prize but I loved the lyrical style of his writing.
From my classics club list I’m choosing Grahame Greene’s Heart of the Matter. It was actually a re-read which tells you something about how much I love this book.
From my world literature list I’m selecting Petals of Blood by the Kenyan author Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o. It was the hardest book I read all year because of its subject but well worth the effort.
What’s your favorite book so far this year?
It has to be Emile Zola’s L’Assommoir. This is the third book from his Rougon–Macquart series I’ve read and I was hoping it would be on a par with the other two (Germinal and La Bete Humaine) and it was. An absolutely gripping novel about poverty and desperation in nineteenth century Paris.
What is your favorite blogging resource?
Apart from the many, many other bloggers whose sites give me inspiration, some of the websites I make a point of reading will be familiar to most bloggers I suspect — like Book Riot or Publishing Perspectives. I also enjoy The Bookseller though haven’t taken the plunge to get a regular subscription yet; I just buy an edition if I see something that interests me.
Share your favorite book or reading related quote.
This comes from my favourite book of all time, George Eliot’s Middlemarch, a book which if I were in the undesirable situation of being stuck on a desert island would be my must have companion.
“If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence.”