Wednesday, 25 January 2023

Review: An Anatomy of Laughter by Richard Boston

 I picked up An Anatomy of Laughter by Richard Boston from the cheapie section of my favourite bookshop because I like the ‘anatomy’ approach, using lot of different sources to tug and pull at a subject. When I looked at the book closer and saw there were whole chapters about Laurence Sterne and Samuel Johnson, I was very glad I had.

The book was written in the 1970s by an eccentric journalist who launched Britain’s first eco-magazine and was also a large part of the campaign for real ale, despite the fact he preferred gin. Looking up his obituary before reading this book, an ex wife said he was always laughing and was the only person she had ever known who’d woken himself up with his own laughter. The sources and attitudes in the book are a little white guy with a classics education but are livened by the genial, generous attitude of the writer.

He starts off with a chapter where he describes how the current era (the 1970s) has a rather queasy laugh and how some have declared it the end of humour and comedy. To be fair, though some sitcoms from the 70s still hold up okay, there is much of 70s humour, such as the club comedians, which have not aged well at all. In contrast, now (in the 2020s) comedy is in rude health, at least if that health can be judged by the swarming multitude of stand-ups I’ve never heard of on panel shows. Boston plays a switch on the reader though, discovering similar write-ups on the ‘death of comedy’ going back for years and years. Rather like music, it seems that many individual’s taste for comedy deteriorates as they grow older and each generation feels like things aren’t as funny as they used to be.

The next chapter is about the physical expression of laughter, mostly using early-modern medical textbooks as Boston seems to enjoy watching people of the past groping towards more accurate physical knowledge. One theory is that the lungs act as bellows, blowing the spirit of life through the body in laughter.

Then there’s a chapter on theories of laughter. These are mostly pretty grim. Plato thought that laughter was caused by the sudden feeling of superiority over another person, whilst Hobbes agreed and included the notion of feeling superior over a past self. A man called Bergson said that laughter policed the lines of conformity, when a person crosses that line they are laughed back into submission. These are all laughter as a form of attack and control which Boston says misses another aspect of laughter, the one based in the joy of play and pretend. There’s the laughter at pure inventiveness, silliness, fun - even the more attack-based laughter of a stand-up comic bantering with an audience is aggression that takes place in a suspension of real life, a kind of pretend. He concludes that the things that make us laugh involve aggression, obscenity or playfulness, often in combination.

The book then looks at different ways of making people laugh. There’s a chapter on mediaeval fools (which I read a few books about in 2019), one about slapstick and the silent comedians (he’s a Buster Keaton fan more than Chaplin, as he thinks the sentiment disables the laughter). There’s a chapter dividing wit (which yokes two dissimilar ideas together in a persuasive way) and humour (which involves the comic observations on the frailties of the human species). Incidentally, France tends to pride itself on wit and Britain on humour, though both have had examples of each. None of what is said is particularly original, I’ve heard that comment about Chaplin many times, but they are nicely put.

The book also has a great time in finding examples of wit, humour and such to give to the reader. Some of these I had heard of, like Spooner telling the student he’d ‘tasted the whole worm’ or the very funny textbook English as She is Spoke. Others were new to me, like the witty vicar, Sidney Smith, who could dissolve a room into tears of laughter, or Daisy Ashford, the nine-year-old author of a grown-up society novel, The Young Visiters.

Then came the case studies. The first was Rabelais, whose work I was planning to read this year anyway. It gave me a good grounding in Pantagruelism, ‘jollity of mind, pickled in the scorn of fortune’ and made me rush the book right up in my reading plans. Another was about Shandeism, emphasising how Tristram Shandy has not lost it’s power to tickle, antagonise and amuse readers - I’ve read it before but I’m reading it with my book group in April.

Another case study was Samuel Johnson, who seems like an unusual choice for a book about laughter to the uninitiated, though when Johnsonians get together and talk about him, there’s often laughter. Unfortunately, the chapter doesn’t really talk about how funny a writer he can be, it’s not about Johnson as a comic but as a laugher. Many accounts of him describe how his long, insistent laughter was quick to arrive, long to stay and could cause other people to laugh even if they didn’t know what he was laughing at. I was reminded of the Tom Davies quote that he laughed ‘like a rhinoceros’. Boston also made the point that Johnson often laughed at very small things, whether it was the rats line in Grainger’s Sugar-Cane, or a friend making his will. Johnson’s huge laughter was equal to his huge depression, a vital boost in his battle against his own melancholy feelings.

The next chapter ran with this idea, talked a lot about Byron and talked about a book called The Savage God by by Al Álvarez, mostly about Sylvia Plath but also about a Romantic obsession with suicide. He slices that idea right down, emphasising the laughter among the Romantics, saying that the doomed Byron is the least interesting, and not very accurate. 

   “Johnson and Byron experienced life as something disorderly and irrational, that needed the disorder and irrationality of laughter to make it bearable.” 

This book, while in many ways a scrapbook of quotes and (slightly worn) anecdotes does manage to be a fairly enlightening look at laughter from physical, emotional and cultural perspectives. It is also frequently funny, Boston having a good turn of phrase himself, and good at bringing the reader to other funny things. Ultimately it proves the point he quotes from Scottish poet, Norman Cameron, that laughter is ‘the sunlight in the cucumber’.

Wednesday, 18 January 2023

Review: Coelebs in Search of a Wife by Hannah More

 I read Hannah More’s Coelebs in Search of a Wife for something of a dare. The Dr Johnson Reading Circle took a literary tour around Bath and I’d sampled a little something from most of the stops except Hannah Moore’s. We were told of her only novel, an interminably boring tale of a man looking for his perfect wife and, as a single man, was at the receiving end of a number of jokes that it might hold useful information. I decided to read it, just so I could say I had.

One of the biggest problems of the book is that Coelebs isn’t really in search of a wife. Not only has he been raised in such a way that most women wouldn’t fulfil his peculiar and exacting standards, he’s been raised in a way that only one woman can. This woman has herself been raised to be the perfect wife for him - a plan cooked up by both their fathers when the children were born. What’s more, Coelebs has been told to hold off his decision until he meets this woman, so when he’s meeting others, he already has that in the back of his mind. He hardly talks to any of the prospective candidates and actual spends far more time thinking about their mothers.

This is another problem with the book, Coelebs is weird. His ideal woman in the prelapsarian Eve as depicted in Paradise Lost. He particularly cites a moment when an angel pops down to see them and Eve can easily knock up a scrumptious meal and then doesn’t join in the conversation because the men are talking big talk. He doesn’t have any opinions that don’t come from his own father or from a rigid selection of books. When one woman says she enjoys literature, he starts a conversation her about Latin poetry and is very disappointed that she can’t read Latin. (When it turns out Lucilla, his made-to-order bride does read Latin, it’s treated as something of a dirty secret.) Coelebs is far more interested in the parents and educational theories that have shaped the potential wives, than the women themselves, having long conversations about how the woman was disciplined as a child and such. He’s a weirdo.

Most of the potential wives are barely characters, very few of them having dialogue, with far more attention paid to their mothers’ failings. Lucilla is allowed to speak for herself a little. She’s not an unpleasant person but so cowed under by her upbringing that she regards complements as dangerous to her spiritual welfare. She’s been educated to be knowledgable about music, literature and art but has been utterly discouraged to think of herself as a musician, writer or artist - what would women have to say in these mediums after all? (Says the female author…) Her sister Phoebe shows a little more life but that’s being ground out of her by maths lessons.

Lucilla’s father, Mr Stanley is presented as the ideal Christian. He is naturally kind and charitable but these acts are motivated by his deep faith. Many of the other characters in the book don’t quite reach his saintliness as they have all the right faith but none of the right actions, or all the right actions but none of the faith. He’s the worst. He hogs conversations, assuming that everyone wants to hear his opinions. He has been training his children in carefully manipulative ways, and training one of them to specifically be a perfect wife to Coelebs. He looks down on most people but if complemented says that he is just the same as other people with dark urges - we never find out what these are. He might not be outright abusive but his wife and children have been badgered and bothered and brainwashed into agreeing with everything he says.

The worst thing about this novel is that is is 400 pages long and dull. Even the potentially interesting notion of a search for a wife is squandered. There are no twists, turns or events in the book and there’s almost no dialogue, just monologues in succession. Despite being written by a woman, it reads like boring old man with nasty, narrow views opining on the world after a glass of port. It’s not a good book.

Wednesday, 11 January 2023

Review: Hermsprong by Robert Bage

 Marketed as satire, Hermsprong should be sold as an out-and-out comedy, it’s a very funny book written in a deft, playfully ironic tone similar to the one I love in Fielding. 

I expected the book to start in the third person, telling the birth and childhood of the young Hermsprong amongst the natives of America. Then I expected him to get into some misunderstanding or romantic disappointment which sent him travelling into England, arguing with various representatives of the status quo. I thought the narration would be pretty straight-forward and a little flat, the highlights being the caricatures of stuffy English types. Instead, the book starts in the first person, told by the wonderfully ridiculous and ham-fisted Gregory Glen, who decides to settle down in the quaint village of Grondale. Then we are introduced to the key characters in Grondale, their quirks and flaws, before Hermsprong turns up and stirs the pot. As such, it’s structured a little more like a sitcom and rather than being tied to the slightly-dull Hermsprong, we spend more time seeing how he effects the other far more interesting characters. 

I think the key to this book’s humour and pleasure is Gregory, the narrator. First, it unsettles the reader, learning of his own birth as a bastard and how he was paid to stay as far away from his noble father as possible, so he settles in Grondale with enough money to mooch about - he’s a sap and not the person the reader expects to meet first. When he is mildly unlucky in love, he plans to throw himself in the sea like Sappho but faints before he gets the chance, instead of this being treated sentimentally (or even mock-heroically) it’s treated ridiculously - the reader learns that this isn’t going to be a romance full of sighs and tears. 

What’s more, Gregory’s tone is so wonderful. Early on, he has a go as a poets and, “produced some poetry which I though sublime. I could not bring the booksellers to coincide with this opinion.” - If that’s not an accurate description of being an unsuccessful writer, I don’t know what is. The zingers keep coming, whether it’s describing “the agreeable garrulousness of a fretful woman” or a young man “with a sweet, pretty face and two well-enough shaped legs” which then goes on for a page describing how that young man’s sense of self is built on those legs.

Gregory also has Shandean moments where imaginary interlocutors from the readership mock and question him. Once pesters him to get on with the story itself, there’s a small digression about digressions and, when he actually enters the story as a character, he awkwardly explains that he’s going to refer to himself in the third person and he actually does. I loved him as narrator.

My other favourite character was Miss Fluart. She’s the female protagonist’s funny, outrageous best friend - and she is. Indeed, she’s a little too vivacious and sometimes puts the meeker, more sensible female protagonist in the shadow. She’s an orphan taken in by the eccentric Mr Sumelin and his less eccentric family. She has personal wealth and doesn’t have the pressure of carrying on a family name, or marrying for stability, as such she is free to play and have fun. Her name sounds like ‘flirt’ and she does but not to climb social ladders or advance herself. She flirts to distract unwanted men away from her friend and to have fun. Never lost for a witty remark, she even manages to lead Lord Grondale on, without ever promising anything (even getting a peek into his pornovallion), as she also distracts the odious Lord Chestrum. She and Hermsprong have a fun, teasing relationship and it’s her that gets him to loosen up the most.

Lord Grondale makes a great villain, he’s vain, conceited and expects respect and love because of his wealth and titles. He’s a blustering, noisy baddie, yet there is a little sadness for him at the end of the book even as he brings the comeuppance on himself. He’s joined by the slimily upward mobile priest, Doctor Blixen and helped by the lawyer, Corrow. At one point this lawyer gives a speech where he tries to make Hermsprong look bad in court and so magnifies somesome small inconsistencies about him. Corrow’s speech starts, “At a time when the nation is so greatly, excessively, alarmingly alarmed, agitated and convulsed” and goes on in that thesauristical vein for two pages.

Another inconvenience is Lord Chestrum, a weak, mummy’s boy who applies to Lord Grondale to be his daughter’s husband. His daughter is Miss Campinet, who loves Hermsprong but is too dutiful to her father to marry without his permission. The chapter where Chestrum chats her up for the first time but is so ham-handed about it that she doesn’t realise is very funny. Though Miss Campinet isn’t as lively as Miss Fluart, she’s not a total wilting lettuce and she gets some good lines in against Chestrum. When he declares that he’d die if he can’t marry her, she replies that she’d die if she did and if one of them must die, she’d rather it was Chestrum than herself.

But what about Hermsprong, the title character himself? He’s intended to be the ‘natural’ man, honest to a fault, full of benevolence and free of selfishness and vice - he’s rather dull. It’s a real merit to the book that his main role is to pop in and out, causing problems for our bad characters and benefits to our good ones. His playful, unserious flirting with Miss Fluart is fun though and he readily admits that his private wealth make things easier for him, “One lives well everywhere if one has money, and ill, if one does not.” (Is this a famous quote? I’m sure I’ve heard it before.) There’s also the interesting sting in the tail that Hermsprong wasn’t as impartial and disinterested as he made out.

All in all, this book was far more engaging and enjoyable than I expected and deserves to be better known.

Wednesday, 4 January 2023

Top Ten Books of 2022 (5-1)

 Last week I counted down my  books of the year 10-6. 

If you want to see if you’ve read what I’ve read, here’s the list.

I’ve also been naughty and bought too many books and here’s that list.

In at Number 5

The Pantomime Life of Joseph Grimaldi - Andrew McConnell Stott (also What Blest Genius?)

I’m starting with a cheat. I read two Andrew McConnell Stott books and they were both great fun. He has a real skill at telling a fun story, emphasising the most fun parts and finding supplementary fun stories that don’t feel like filler.

I wrote about What Blest Genius here and The Pantomime Life of Joseph Grimaldi here. I think Joseph Grimaldi edges it slightly. While the central story of Jubilee plays far more into my interests, the sheer range and lunacy of the side stories in Grimaldi were too fun to ignore. A book that includes a craze for a ten-year-old playing Hamlet, a clown sailing a ship through a storm and a trained dog called Moustache, is one that has to be in a top ten somewhere. 

Number 4

Moonfleet - J. Meade Falkner

I wrote about Moonfleet here. It’s hard to say any more about it, this book is exciting, well constructed with clear and interesting characters going on exciting journeys. The set pieces are put together extremely well and the whole book wraps up movingly and satisfyingly.

Number 3

The Color Purple - Alice Walker

This is very unfair, because I’d always assumed The Color Purple by Alice Walker was boring because it was made into a prestige film that won Oscars (a film I’ve never seen). However, when I saw it at a local book-swap I gave it a look because I recognised the name. The copy I picked up had the name anglicised into ‘colour’ and had been published by The Coventry Evening Telegraph as the third in a series of ‘Great Family Reads’. I read the first page and was utterly shocked, while it seemed like a great read, it is certainly not a good choice for a family bed time.

The first page features a paedophilic-incest-rape, performed and described terribly matter-of-factly. Shortly afterwards the baby conceived by that act is taken away. Not only were the events terribly shocking but the tone of normality made them more so. Celie lives in a society where, as a poor, Black woman, she is utterly disregarded, mounted by men as they please and passed off to another family because she can keep a household fed and clean. Her world is so narrow and her place in it so low that she barely registers or questions it at first.

I was amazed at how expressive the telegrammatic style could be. When she says, ‘Not much funny to me.’ She sums up how little in her life has been something she could laugh at - there were many other incidences of this throughout.

What made the book truly wonderful was how, despite being ‘nothing at all’, she does grow. First she asserts, ‘I am here,’ and from there she even finds family, purpose, talents and hope. The first key to this is Shug, a blues singer with a tarnished reputation. It’s her admiration and love of Shug that starts her progression. Shug even shows her how to love her body. But Shug isn’t the only one. She accumulates all sorts of broken, wonky people into her found family, even finding space for the husband foisted on her who abused her so. That’s what I loved about the book, every person in it developed and changed and they did it because of the impact of the other characters around them. That we reach a happy ending at all is because of the resilience of the community that Celie builds around her.

Which is to say nothing of the sub-plot about Celie’s sister, finding her own family. The discussions of God that both women have, their refashioning of God into an ‘it’ that can be found anywhere rather than another male with a fragile ego. There’s some very interesting discussions on white people, how the characters in the book almost see them like dogs, they may seem friendly and wag their tails but you should always be wary of their bite. There’s interesting talk about sexuality, about how many of the male characters try to project strength by beating down before discovering joy in something more community.

It’s a short book but it says a lot.

Number 2

The Monk - Matthew Lewis

I wrote about The Monk here. Did I use the phrase ‘ne plus ultra’? If not, I should have, It’s the that of Gothic books. Everything Gothic books has been working towards at that point is accomplished by The Monk in fine, entertaining and grandstanding style. The book even manages to award the stiffness that afflicts later Gothic works. It’s bonkers, it’s genuinely disturbing at times and it’s very memorable.

Number 1

The Woman in White - Wilkie Collins

The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins is a genuine classic, a masterful blend of tight plotting, varied and interesting narrative voices and characters that burst out of the page.

It starts with a sly joke about how the book has been created because the legal system needs too much ‘lubricating by the oil of gold’ to be the proper place to lay out the story and set the record straight. It then warns the reader that the book will be told in a number of different voices, much like witnesses in a trial. These voices are one of the main triumphs of the book. The first is Walter Hartright, he essentially takes the part of prosecutor and his is the most neutral. There’s also the diaries of Marian Halcombe, packed with her forthrightness, bravery and intelligence. There are the voices of various accountants, lawyers and functionaries that show their understanding of their positions. Then there’s Fairlie’s account, a whiny, petulant piece full of complaint and blame. Finally, there’s the narrative of Count Fosco, as amoral, grandiloquent and strangely appealing as the character himself. Victoria novels, especially these serialised ones, sometimes get a bad reputation for eking out a story in long, needless prose but the switching of voices in this book not only adds a range of flavours to the book but show Collins’s skill at ventriloquism. Although I love his friend and mentor, Charles Dickens, the Inimitable could not have put himself in so many roles.

As for the plot, it starts proper with Walter Hartright walking down the Finchley Road at one in the morning and meeting a woman who seems a little ‘off’ though not dangerous, so he helps her out. As someone who lives a little away from that road, I have often met such people whilst coming home late at night, though none have embroiled me in a labyrinthine plot of abduction, identity theft and false imprisonment. The reader is given the pieces of the main plot fairly early on but because the villains themselves are concocting the plot as the book goes on, the reader can’t predict ahead too far as the villains haven’t got there yet. It walks that beautiful tightrope of being feasible whilst being outlandish and has a particular spiciness because one of the villains is fiendish but stupid and the other is too clever to cause harm where it’s not necessary.

There are some huge coincidences in the book and it’s a weak and slightly peculiar conceit of getting Hartright to go on a barely explored Patagonian adventure with disease, cannibals and shipwrecks - but the big things land right and comeuppances are as sad as they are satisfying. A big, driving element of the plot is the keeping of Sir Percival Glyde’s Secret. While The Secret doesn’t seem worth all the energy and heartache it took to keep, it ties in with the theme of how flimsy such things as identity, position, wealth and sanity really are. 

If the book soars above many others, it’s because of the characters. Walter Hartright is a decent-enough hero character and his love interest, and the centre of shenanigans, Lucy isn’t an awful example of that Victorian ideal child-woman. The fact that some of her experiences actually reduce her as a person and make her more pathetic than before is actually quite moving and show her relative agency before.

Marian Halcombe, her half-sister is a different prospect. She’s initially described as a butterface with a moustache but such ‘deficiencies’ allow the writer to treat her as a proper agent in the story. She’s smart, sneaky when needed, strong and loyal. She speaks her mind and reads a room. She makes plans and acts them out. She’s great. Unfortunately, she does get relegated to her sister’s keeper but her strength in the first half, and the respect she gets from Fosco keeps her flame alive in the second.

Fosco is a brilliant character. He’s undeniably evil, utterly amoral and goal orientated but he does have a sense of kindness (if principally to small, cute animals) and his intelligence dictates that he doesn’t cause suffering he doesn’t deem absolutely necessary. Marian says she is won over by him despite herself, and I, as a reader, found myself won over by him too. The biggest suggestion of his darkest side, the utter devotion of his wife, he attributes simply to that, devotion. I’m not convinced there isn’t a far nastier backstory there somewhere. 

I also loved Anne, the woman in white, an utterly unreliable witness but deeply intriguing. I also has a huge soft spot for the wimp, Fairlie, he’s so deliciously, selfishly pathetic. 

It may be no surprise, seeing as I have gushed over this book, but I thought it wonderful and would easily recommend it. 

Wednesday, 28 December 2022

Top Ten Books of 2022 (Numbers 10-6)

 It’s that time of year again, time to count the top ten books of the year. I’ve read around 100 books this year and I enjoyed most of them but the best books shone brightly, making it an easy choice.

If you want to see if you’ve read what I’ve read, here’s the list.

I’ve also been naughty and bought too many books and here’s that list.

In at 10

The Belly of Paris - Emile Zola

I wrote about The Belly of Paris here. I’ve read quite a few French books over the year, many of them were depressing and money-obsessed, though very engrossing reads. (As an aside, my big take away from Les Miserables is that it’s not about misery but about hope. It’s also let down by sheer size, the great parts get swallowed up by all the other parts, good or not).

The Belly of Paris contained some elements of joy, a sheer ebullience of detail, a frothing cornucopia of food that ferments as the book continues. The first chapter, in Les Halles Market, with the dew soaked fruit and vegetables piled up in the early morning gloom is beautifully evocative and the last line is a wonderfully sardonic joke.

At number 9

Hermsprong - Robert Bage

I shall shortly review this book. As a spoiler, it’s far more entertaining than it suggested itself to be, a sitcom more than a satire. The character of Hermsprong himself might be a bit dull but his impact on those around him is very funny.

Number 8

I’m The King of the Castle - Susan Hill

I’ve read two Susan Hill books before, The Woman in Black and The Small Hand, both of them ghost stories. I’m the King of the Castle is far more haunting.

The Hoopers, father and son, live in a gloomy house in the country. Mr Hooper invites the widow, Mrs Kingshaw to be his housekeeper, though he’s hoping a relationship might come from it. She brings her son, the same age as Mr Hooper’s and they two single parents expect their sons will hit it off and become friends. That’s not exactly what happens.

Immediately, the strange and petulant Hooper send Kingshaw a note to inform him that he’s not welcome. He’s boastful and bullying, insisting on his mastery of the house over Kingshaw. When he discovers some of Kingshaw’s fears, he makes use of them, locking him in the room of dead insects and putting a stuffed crow in his bed. What’s impressive is that although Kingshaw is scared, and he grows to be very scared of Hooper, he fights back occasionally but, more impressively, doesn’t.

Kingshaw decides to run away and goes into the deep wood, Hooper follows him. In the wood, the roles are reversed, Kingshaw finds himself far more competent than Hooper, he also finds himself braver. When a thunderstorm hits the wood, Hooper wets himself in fear, but soon after, he’s trying to assert himself again. It’s a brilliant depiction of a bully, Hooper is scared of many things but at the times he isn’t filled with fear, he is on the attack. Kingshaw shows that he is a better person, helping Hooper when he bashes his head when trying to fish. There was a point when I thought the rest of the book would take place in the wood and it would have been an interesting book if it had. However, I think it was a better book to save them from the wood and show how quick the status quo resumes.

There’s a chapter later in the book which actually takes place in the ruins of the castle. Again, it showed Kingshaw’s decency and the fear that drives Hooper’s actions. 

The boy’s war of attrition is contrasted with the growing romance of the single parents. Their actions also show how little they actually observe their children and their decision to become a family is the final push into tragedy. A tragedy that Hooper responds with ‘a spurt of triumph’.

This book is a chilling look at the a bully/bullied relationship, the weakness that drives the bully and the helplessness of being bullied. Forget ghosts, the real chills come from the people.

Number 7

Memoirs of the Formosan Fraud - George Psalmanazar

I’ve written about this book not only one part, not only two but three.

I found George Psalmanazar fascinating and I was so excited to hear him in his own words. I got more than I expected. Not only did I get to find out the strange and thrilling story of a man from France who pretends to be Taiwanese and, for a time, succeeds; I also got a wonderful account of what it was like being a hardworking denizen of Grub Street. It’s possibly the fullest account of that hack life that I’ve read and it was a great bonus.

Number 6

The Chase - Louisa May Alcott

Little Women was my favourite book the year I read it but it was interesting to find out that Louisa May Alcott thought it boring. She was more into her racier novels and when asked to write one for serialisation she wrote A Long, Fatal Love Chase, which was deemed ‘too sensational’ for publication. My copy, published in 1995 is more simply (and less spoilery) titled The Chase.

Eighteen-Year-Old Rosamund Vivien declares that she’s sell her soul to Satan for a year of fun and then essentially does just that, becoming the bride of Phillip Tempest, a sexy man in his mid-thirties who arrives at her island home on a boat and in a storm. She’s swept away by him and they have a glorious year together before she starts seeing cracks in his facade (other than the fact he’s always boasting about how evil he is). Realising her marriage is a fake and her not-husband is a murderer she runs away and he chases her, ending in a grand climax which proves fatal - the spoiler was in the title, or indeed in the vision he tells her in the second chapter.

The fun in this book comes from the whole ‘dun-dun-dunnnnn!!’ level of goofy the book frequently provides. Our first overtly evil action of Phillip is in the one chapter which we spend away from Rosamund, where he murders a man with a heart condition by making his take extreme exercise and then making him go in a stuffy church. The pattern of the book is that Rosamund does something fairly Loony Tunes (like crossdress or hide in a basket) to escape Phillip and he does something equally Loony Tunes (like crossdress or bribe a priest) to find her again. When he suddenly turns up, it’s handled as a cliffhanger of a cheap soap, a moment of shock but also a moment of lust. It’s not directly in the text but there’s a dual ‘oh-no’ and ‘hubba-hubba’ element to his reappearances - at least for the first few. After a while the reaction becomes a little more ‘oh, you again’ but the book ups the ante shortly after and ends with the cheesiest statement of possessive love I’ve ever read. This would make a wonderfully cheesy mini-series.

I principally enjoyed the book for the inventive escapes and captures and to laugh during the over-the-top moments, but I’m sure I was laughing with this book rather than at it. The heightened nature of it all invites a playful approach to the text and it certainly provided me with a lot of entertainment which is the core purpose of commercial, serialised fiction. 

Next week I shall count down 5-1

Wednesday, 21 December 2022

Review: The Manuscript Found in Saragossa by Jan Potocki

 The Manuscript Found in Saragossa is one of the most difficult books to describe when asked what it's about. Far easier is to describe what it’s doing, a character goes about and meets people who tell him their stories, and in their stories are people who tell them stories, and in those stories there are people that tell stories until it’s a big nested set of stories in stories in stories. Though people tend to look a bit confused when you explain that so you explain the author was a Polish count who killed himself with a silver bullet because he thought he was becoming a werewolf - that tends to end the conversation.

The frame story itself is far more interesting than I expected. Beyond the outer frame of a French soldier finding it in an abandoned house in Saragossa, the inner frame of Alphonse, the Walloon officer is fascinating in itself. The blurb seemed to suggest that Alphonse was stuck in an inn and would listen to the stories there, rather like The Decameron or a static Canterbury Tales, instead it’s a whole peculiar adventure in itself.

If anything Alphonse’s story reminded me (at first) of the first book of Don Quixote. Not only is Alphonse a fairly quixotic character himself, dedicated to a specific military form of honour but he wanders the Sierra Morena and gets into scrapes. Not only that, but the interpolated stories in The Manuscript Found in Saragossa structurally similar to Don Quixote. They have a very different tone though, gothic with hints of demons and supernatural goings on. The beginning is almost structured like a nightmare, with Alphonse trying to get as far away from the gibbet as possible but always waking up underneath it.

What’s more, the gothic/supernatural elements are quite extreme. At one point it is heavily suggested that Alphonse has partaken in an incestual, diabolic, necrophiliac, gay threesome and that numerous other characters may have done also. Being a fan of the gothic, particularly the more outré versions of it, I was fascinated by these sections and was really keen to know what was going on, who were the mysterious Emina and Zubeida and what was the deal of the Great Sheikh of the Gomelez.

In the early parts, I particularly liked the character of Pacheco. He had been visited by the possible succubi who had led him to devils. One of these devils had pulled his eye out and “darted his burning tongue in my eye socket and licked my brain” before ripping his leg open and playing the tendons like a guitar. My favourite thing about him is how he lurched about, an Igor like figure until the hermit commanded him in the name of his saviour to speak and then he let out a howl of pain before telling his story in a cultured and straightforward manner - it’s like a Mel Brooks joke.

Alphonse meets other characters; a cabbalist and his cabbalist sister, a man who sees the whole world through mathematics who annoys the other characters with his pedantry, and a Gypsy Chief. This Gypsy is the main source of stories through the middle and into the end of the book, with the people in his stories often telling stories also (and those in them, and those in them). The nature of the stories then change, veering away from the uncanny. The Gypsy’s own story is a classic bildungsroman, he finds himself in many stations in life, takes on many identities and sees his society from top to bottom as he grows older. Unlike many figures in these sorts of stories, he even spends some time as a young lady when he swaps with a woman who is not interested in her suitor. This is drawn right up to the line and I almost thought he’d end up being married. He even repeats the crossdressing act a little later.

The stories the Gypsy collects are largely amatory tales and amatory farces. Chief among these is the story of a merchant’s son who falls in love but is constantly thwarted by the ‘help’ of a meddling idiot called Busqueros. This character is probably the one who changes the most in the book as he is met by other characters in the stories in stories at different points. I suppose most of the people we ‘meet’ in the book are largely at the end of their story but Busqueros, never actually being met is always in a state of change. He changes from being a meddling idiot to a grade A creep, describing his childhood as a peeping Tom, a habit he continues into adulthood. As the stories then take a turn away from the romantic and towards the political, he becomes a spy and the chief antagonist of those within the story of the story.

The introduction to the book by the translator, Ian Maclean is really good, especially because it doesn’t spoil any of the surprises in the book but it does say the ending falls a little flat with most people. It did with me as well. All the exciting, peculiar gothic stuff at the beginning of the book was orchestrated as a set of trials to test Alphonse’s suitability to father the heirs to the Grand Sheikh of the Gomelez, a (literal) underground society of shiite muslims. There were no succubi or demons and my boy Pacheco was a circus performer playing a part. Maclean suggested in his introduction that Potocki had changed his mind about the tone and veered into something more grounded, but I actually think the reveal is consistently set up.

After the introduction of the Gypsy Chief, the stories do become less supernatural and the supernatural occurrences in all of them are eventually explained away. Busqueros poking is head in a window is mistaken for a ghost and the ‘dead’ Leonora is a fake out. Most telling was the story of the Knight of Torres. He was a playboy who didn’t worry about purgatory until his friend told him he was going to a duel and if he died would confirm or deny purgatory to him. That night, the Knight here’s a sound outside his window, flings it open and calls to the air if his friend is dead. A voice replies in the affirmative. He then asks it if there is a purgatory and the voice again replied ‘yes’. It’s over a hundred pages later when we get the story of Lope Soarez, who climbs up a ladder to see his love, gets the wrong window, is knocked out by a flung shutter and dazedly answers ‘yes’ to the questions he’s asked. This story establishes that even earlier supernatural stories in the book have daft but worldly reasons. As such, the second half of the book build a slow disenchantment which sets up the ending. The book is set in a world in which people go to fantastical lengths to reach their goals but there’s no hocus pocus.

This is a fascinating and unique book and I recommend it to anyone prepared to put the effort in. While I certainly preferred the stranger first half to the more grounded second, and I did think the book hit a bit of a rut for a while, it’s worth reading and will probably be worth re-reading.

Wednesday, 14 December 2022

Johnson's Selected Essays at the Dr Johnson Reading Circle

On Tuesday 6th of December, the Dr Johnson Reading Circle met to discuss Johnson’s essays, chosen from Penguins Selected Essays. There were ten essays, four from The Rambler and three from The Adventurer and The Idler, with the first nine written while he was in residence at Gough Square. The topics ranged from literary discussion, Johnson’s interest in biography, musing about grief, and the nature of beginnings and endings. 

First, we talked about the physical nature of the essays. That The Rambler and The Adventurer were single sheets, bought cheaply or subscribed to by public places like coffee houses. They were intended as quick reads, to prompt thought and discussion, with an estimated circulation of about five hundred. The Idler was a running column in a larger magazine. Johnson didn’t receive percentages from the sales but sold the copy to the print-seller who could do with the work as they wished.

While not a massive success, collected editions of Rambler pieces, combined with the finished Dictionary were the works that established Johnson’s reputation in the public mind. Boswell was on the hunt to meet Rambler Johnson, not Dictionary Johnson; and Goldsmith, in a piece published before he met Johnson, had him swept to fame for his essays and not his lexicographical work. Even Johnson regarded The Rambler as the truest expression of his works, describing the others as “wine and water” but those essays as “pure wine”. When he showed the early editions to Tetty, she exclaimed;

   “I did not imagine you could have written something equal to this.” A bound copy of The Rambler was his last gift to her, shortly before she died.

Before beginning the first Rambler, Johnson wrote a prayer, hoping for the work to have a positive moral impact and to do good. The first essay comes across a little diffident, shy behind a gruff exterior as Johnson bemoans the difficulty of making a good first impression in as short a work as an essay. He also jokes about how the shortness of the work is a benefit, the reader hasn’t wasted much time in reading it, nor the writer in writing it. The shortness of the essay also meant that the writer could make small experiments, with nothing much lost if those experiments go wrong.

Johnson made use of this benefit, filling his essays with short stories, character sketches, playful rants that could almost be observational comedy, and pretend letters from readers. It’s unfortunate that very little of this can be found in Penguin’s Selected Essays, with David Womersley choosing essays that focus on Johnson the stern moralist, a stentorian voice that reasons from generals to specifics and back out again. Despite that, there was a lot we found universal and recognisable in the essays we did read.

Rambler 23 was about editors and critics. Johnson was obviously getting some helpful comments a few months into his essays about how he should be more like The Spectator and should do jokes about funny clubs. He maintains that he is his own person and his own writer and can only follow his own path. He also makes some interesting comments about how a printed word has authority a manuscript doesn’t and everybody feels they can add something to a manuscript. Some people even feel they need to so that they are not “consulted for no purpose”. The editors in the room nodded at that.

Adventurer 138 talked about the life of writers. He describes them as ‘addicted to complaint’ (see Writer’s Twitter) but that they don’t have it so bad;

  “To write is, indeed, no unpleasing employment,” though sometimes ideas won’t come or seem to disappear as soon as they are about to be written down. Johnson tackles daydreams of inherited wealth in Adventurer 111, saying that, “life affords no higher pleasure than surmounting difficulties,” and painting the idle wealthy as “the useless filler of existence.” There’s a thoughtful discussion on The Black Act, and the widening of capital crimes in Rambler 114 and a fun look at why people disagree with each other in Adventurer 107.

Rambler 60 sets out Johnson’s views on biography. He explains how it’s an easy genre to exercise reflection and empathy, that all lives have their lessons that can be learned by all people and how the lives of ‘great’ people are most telling in their smallest details. No matter who the person is, they are best understood once “exterior appendages are cast aside”. This was precisely what Boswell would go on to do, to describe Johnson’s life in as much detail as possible, from conversation to smallest habit - he never did get a good answer to what Johnson did with his dried orange peel though.

The last Idler is about endings. There’s always a small pain in saying goodbye and so there was when time was up with the meeting. However, this goodbye was delayed, as all the restaurants were full with early Christmas bookings and we sat at a table in Johnson’s house with takeaway. It was a cosy and convivial time and it was with contentment that we said goodbye, happy to meet again in the new year.