Wednesday, 15 January 2020

Plans for 2020

This is just a little note to sketch out the year as I see it.

Death of a Dream-Pedlar is finished, utterly finished, put-to-bed, done and I am now going through the tedious, soul-sapping and laborious business of showing it around to agents. I really hope that I get some bites this time and I can start this new decade with something getting close to a book deal.

I am exploring some ideas toward a funded PHD, though I am a little hesitant to say much about that at the moment, if anything comes of it, it would mean a move and the chance to bury my snout deep in some archives like a happy hog.

I am also working on a brand new novel, provisionally titled Inanna Underground. It starts with the body of a woman called Inanna being found in a disused WWII bunker in North West London. She belonged to a group of people with a special interest in old bunkers and underground spaces. Most of the novel is told in flashback and tells the story of Inanna’s entry to the group and builds up the various reasons members of that group may have wanted to kill her. Who it was that killed her and why are revealed at the end.

As the story is pretty simple, I need a challenge to keep me invested. I have two. The first is a simple one of time, I hope to finish a rough draft by Easter Sunday, I estimate this should be about a thousand words a day. The other challenge is the narrator, he’s a humourless, unimaginative, detail-orientated nerd who gives loads of information but very rarely the big picture. It’s a difficult character to get in the head of and even harder to try and make the story interesting when the narrator is interested in completely different things for me. I haven’t cracked it yet but as the chapters pile up, I’ll work out ways to handle it.

Other than that, I shall post Dr Johnson’s Reading Circle posts every other month and try to post something every Wednesday. If I miss this schedule, it’ll be to try and get that first draft of Inanna done.

If all goes to plan, I should end the year with some genuine steps towards a full time writing life in some form or another. If the decade goes well, maybe I could achieve my dream of writing interesting stuff for a living and sometimes talking about it. I can only hope.

Wednesday, 8 January 2020

Top 10 Best Books of 2019 (Part Two)

Last week we had numbers 10-6, not sure if there were any surprises there, this top 5 includes books that I was not expecting to love as much as I did.

If you want to see what I read last year in total, check out my list-challenge here and see how many you have enjoyed.

Elizabeth and the German Garden by Elizabeth Von Arnim

I didn’t know it at the time but this was the book I was really after (having read the depressing ‘The Tattooist of Auschwitz’ and the baffling ‘The Dalkey Archive’). I knew I wanted something funny, life-affirming and above all refreshing and I found it all here.

A fictionalised account of a year in Elizabeth Von Arnim’s life, it deals with her relationship with her garden and her relationship with society in general. The relationship with nature is the one that gives her the most unconditional pleasure, other people can be a pain to be around.

Her wit shines throughout the text, she is pretty good at coming up with a memorable (and possibly even true) epigram. I was caught by the end of the first paragraph where she declares;
   “I shall not let myself get frightened by the sarcasm of owls.”

This is also an example of the extreme levels of anthropomorphism in the text. The animals and birds behave like people, like the rooks ‘fussing and flustering’ squabbling for their perches. The flowers in the garden also behave like people, some are hardy fighters while others are shy. One particular breed of Rose is described as haughty and demanding, spoilt and petulant. She feels the flowers sleep in the winter, sing in the spring and show-off in the summer. Even furniture and objects are anthropomorphised, she describes the dismay she would feel; “If my furniture ever annoyed me by wanting to be dusted.”

The only things not given human characteristics in this book are some humans. Her discussion with her husband about the immigrant Polish and Russian workers is full of animal imagery, her description of rich hausfraus also has an animal quality. Elizabeth is warm to the reader, witty and so encouraging in her great pleasure in small things but she also comes across as snob - and she’s bitchy too, delighted to note when her eldest daughter drew a moustache on with pencil so she could be like her governess.

I’ve read some rather heavy condemnation of ‘The Man of Wrath’, her nickname for her husband. I think it’s the nickname that is the cause for a lot of it, as he never seems to get angry. Sometimes he is perplexed by his wife’s unorthodox passion for eating little, socialising less and spending all weathers in the garden but it doesn’t make him angry. Theirs seems chiefly a relationship of teasing and there are a few hints (other than three consecutive children) that imply they have a physical and romantic relationship. I think his character is best summed up by the reaction he has to a fiery sermon being preached against him by a parson he has fired, he smiles.

‘The Man of Wrath’ also comes out very badly from the two, fairly lengthy, discussions about ‘a woman’s place’. In the first he declares that the Russian peasant’s reaction to marital strife, to hit his wife, is in many ways preferable to the constant negotiating the two of them have to do. In the second section, he tells a group of three women that womankind will never have political power because they aren’t interested in politics, are susceptible to any kind of flattery or lie and have the worldly wisdom of children. Though these might indeed have been his opinions, in the first case he is teasing Elizabeth with his praise of hitting a wife, just as she teases him throughout the book. In the second, I think it is more likely he is trying to irritate Minora, an unwanted houseguest who has irritated him.

The last third of the book is about the visit of two women over Christmas and New Year. The first is Irais, a good friend of Elizabeth, who is sprightly, flippant and extremely catty. One of her best qualities, according to Elizabeth is that she is never awake for breakfast as;
   “No friendship can stand the breakfast test.” The other woman Minora, a stranger who the family have invited as a favour to a friend. Minora is ‘unsnubable’, though Irais and Elizabeth do their best to snub her. She is inquisitive, slightly insensitive and feels she is an intellectual superior to the two of them as she is writing a travel book about Germany. As much as the two women create daft alliterative titles for her chapters, feed her nonsense to go in the book and offer her moral advice as; “It is much easier, and often more pleasant to be a warning than an example” - she remains a humourless, and annoying thorn in her side. 

It could be easy to dislike Elizabeth, she is sarcastic, privileged and comfortable in a life where she doesn’t have to work, cook, clean or do anything in particular. What makes her winning is that she knows and acknowledges these things and does her best to use her (relatively) safe position to create meaning where she can surrounded by her; “books, babies, birds and flowers”. 

They Were Sisters by Dorothy Whipple

I’ve learnt that anything in Persephone Books grey is worth checking out and ‘They Were Sisters’ is no exception. It’s the story of three sisters with different personalities, who marry three different men and whose lives turn out in three different ways. The key to its success is the attention to realistic psychological detail which pulls the reader in hard and fast.

Many books deal with courtship and find their climax in a marriage, this one knocks three out in the first chapter and takes it from there. The key question is, can a happy ending be possible? 

The middle sister marries first, she’s a trusting, loyal and shy woman who marries a rambunctious, fun-loving man with lots of confidence. There are immediate hints that all might not go well, he makes the wedding all about himself, leaving his wife in the shade. In response, the younger daughter, who is head-turningly attractive and fun loving, marries a solid, stable but slightly dull man. Now the eldest, who had abandoned her university career to help raise her sisters, can marry a loving if laconic man.

In the second chapter, the sisters have been married for ten years and are meeting up for the first time in two years. The careful negotiations of their past roles and their new selves are wonderfully evoked. It completely reminded me when my auntie and uncle come to visit my Mum with the complicated mixture of love and irritation that sum up family relations. It’s even accurate to the detail of the husband feeling that the two younger sisters rely on his wife too much but loving his wife too much to tell her.

The middle sister’s marriage to the over-confident man has obviously soured but we see how much in the next few chapters. His initial need to be the centre of attention has become a driving need to control. He doesn’t physically hurt anyway but he uses sarcasm, insults and the giving and taking of affection to drive his family to despair. When he is in a bad mood his children are frightened to eat noisy food like celery and apples but when he is in a good mood he wears a tea-cosy during breakfast. With the exception of the youngest daughter, each family member enjoy his company so much when he is loving that they excuse him when he’s an arsehole. It’s a beautifully subtle and realistic portrayal of abuse and it effects the different characters in different ways.

The younger sister is enjoying her marriage, she is the beautiful hub of the social set in a northern city. Her two daughters are raised by staff and her husband is dull but ignorable. Things go well for her until her mother-in-law (who’s been controlling the purse-strings) dies. This causes the husband to rethink his life, divorce his wife and lead her into reduced circumstances.

The oldest sister tries to hold the whole family together and often the only one thinking of the children. She has none herself but has a happy marriage and a happy life which she regards as being due to her ability to ‘take an absorbed interest in things’ and her faith. Whether that is enough to save the children, that’s up to the reader. 

It’s a beautifully observed, written and absorbing drama and I recommend it to anyone.

Samuel Johnson in Context edited by Jack Lynch

I went into more detail about this book here. What makes it shine is the way the book shines so many different lights on Samuel Johnson that it brings him and his world to life.

The Driver’s Seat by Muriel Spark

I loved ‘The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie’ but was pretty ambivalent to ‘The Bachelors’ so when I found a copy of ‘The Driver’s Seat’ in a charity shop I was in two minds - I’m so glad I did buy it because this little novel is excellent.

It starts in the present tense, with a very strange woman called Lise being absolutely devastated that a dress she is trying on is made from stain-proof fabric. The next paragraph is a flashback to the moment just before this, including a repeated telling of what we have already heard and then the book goes back into present tense. It’s a mindbogglingly controlled use of tense, catching us up to where we came in - and quickly alerts the reader that this will be a strange book, and a very precise one. No wonder the book is short, it pulls taut with all its might, any longer and it might snap.

Lise is a fascinating character (and this is a book up for a re-read). She lives in a flat filled with anonymous foldaway items, she buys the most obnoxiously colourful clothes she can find, she picks up all other odds and ends on the way (why a blender?) and she tries on personalities. She has the ability to speak four languages but she pretends to be all sorts of different people. The book tells of a holiday to an un-named (probably Mediterranean) country and it’s like she is using her anonymity to be anyone she pleases.

Everything is peculiar and disjointed. She’s looking for ‘her boyfriend’ but it’s clear she hasn’t got one. She latches onto various men, one who runs in fear (and we don’t know why), others who try to take advantage of her and one who is very boring on the subject of rice. The book describes her as like a panther, trying to smell out this man - though it might be that the man doesn’t exist. She also tags along with a homophobic old woman and had adventures in a shopping centre - neither of them properly talking to the other. Oh, and she bought a novel that she’s waving around like a secret signal to people - we never learn what the novel is, or what the signal might be, be I have some notions.

This would all seem like nonsense if the writing wasn’t so very clear and specific about what it is doing. We might not know what is happening, but the author certainly is. Occasionally we get little bursts of flash forward into the future tense, we know bad things will happen but we don’t really know why. What’s really wonderful is we get to the end, have our questions answered and yet they aren’t properly answered. 

This is a small book that packs a huge punch and I can’t recommend it enough.


David Copperfield by Charles Dickens

I approached David Copperfield with caution, as you should any outsized beast. Now, I know that Dickens doesn’t bite and that he is a very enjoyable companion but there is something very intimidating about the length of the book. Of course he won me over by the preface, by the end of chapter 1, I was fully on board - who couldn’t be with the digression about his uneasy feelings of having his birth cawl auctioned off as a preventative against drowning to a widow who had never been to sea. Nor could I resist the strange yet compelling introduction of Miss Betsey Trotwood, peering in through the window.

It’s not like Bleak House, where the sheer weight of plots and subplots pile in to create its size, the focus of David Copperfield is rather narrow, a look at his life, the trials he goes through and the people he meets. If it has a grand overarching theme, it’s probably about how people are shaped by their upbringing and how they either overcome the weight of it or crumble under it. 

Each character has a backstory that shapes them and is shaped as the years go on. David Copperfield himself has a spoilt and happy childhood that is ruined but he rises above with the help of his aunt Betsey and his friend Agnes. Betsey herself also has a tragic backstory but through loving David she brings new forces of love and protection in her life. Characters like Uriah Heep and Steerforth are swallowed by their histories, one having nothing to challenge or focus his talents and energies, the other by the need to be ‘umble and his wish for revenge and power.

As always, Dickens is really good with details. There are little things like the hard Miss Murdstone’s purse that is tight like a prison, Littimer prising open his watch and viewing it like an ‘oracular oyster’. There are larger things, like Mrs Mowcher, modelled on Dicken’s own chiropodist who puts a brave, cheerful face on with plenty of jokes and gossip to cover the fact that she is different to other people and vulnerable. 

One of my favourite scenes which showed lots of brilliant eye for detail was rather pointless in terms of plot. In this scene, David Copperfield goes to an uptight dinner party. The guests fancy themselves as above other people and talk incessantly about the importance of ‘blood’ or breeding - in fact, they talk so much about blood that they ‘sound like a party of ogres’. At this same party there is a lady dismissively referred to as ‘Hamlet’s Aunt’, who shares the family trait of soliloquy. There is also a ‘young man with weak legs’ who keeps saying the phrase ‘you know’ in a very modern way.

A great strength of Dickens is his eye for detail and his ear for language. Many of the characters sounded like real people. A very minor character has the ‘peculiar habit of whispering the letter s so distinctly, that he seemed to use it oftener than any other man.” I hear women in trains like this all the time. The only accent that really grated was Mr Peggotty’s, particularly in the chapter he narrated.
The book brilliantly dramatises the act of memory, with it linked to certain moments, images, smells, sounds and objects. The childhood parts feel like a child’s eye perspective, the parts where David Copperfield is a naive young man keen to make a go of the world but not really sure how, is very accurate. 

Although Dickens’s world might seem a little sexless, there’s a lot going on under the surface. David and Steerforth have a clear more-than-friendship and one of the first things Steerforth says is how he wished that David had a sister just like him, "If you had had, I should think she would have been a pretty, timid, little bright-eyed sort of girl. I should have liked to know her." Perhaps his womanising is self denial.

Then there’s the fact that David falls in love with someone with the sweetness of his mother and quickly discovers that she is unsuitable to adult life. It is Dora who asks that David thinks of her as his ‘child-wife’, so that he doesn’t feel angry when she is unable to do adult things. Dora is very irritating as a character, especially with her bloody dog, Jip but I can dimly see the attraction.
As David has a child-wife, Mrs Strong refers to her husband as her father-husband. The age gap is large and the other characters reckon she must be playing away from home but she isn’t. Although she had a shock when she found out the man she regarded as another father wanted to marry her, she loves him and is dedicated. 

There are some normal pairings though, Barkis and Peggotty are a good couple and his laconic courtship is one of the pleasures of the book. Tommy Traddles gains a wife who is his equal but must also put up with all her relatives (though he seems happy with that). David and Agnes are also a relationship of equals, though it takes a long time for David to realise it. Mr and Mrs Micawber are also well suited to each other, both are dramatic and childish, prone to massive mood swings - they manage to be warm and likeable but in a way that is tinted by annoyance.

Usually, when I’m reading a long book, even if it’s great and I’m enjoying it, I fancy a bit of a change. Bleak House was wonderful but it grew heavy on me as I read it - I could have happily lived in David Copperfield for longer, a very rare thing.

Wednesday, 1 January 2020

Top 10 Best Books of 2019 (Part One)

Happy New Year!

I always had a superstitious notion as a child that the 2020s were going to be my golden years, I have no idea why I decided this, I think I just liked the sound of the date. The 2000s and 2010s didn’t quite do it for me so I am hopeful for the next decade.

One thing 2019 did give me was a lot of good reading material. I read some great stuff this year, knocked a few big names off my internal ‘to-read’ list and discovered a few gems. In the next two posts, I shall be looking at my top ten favourites.

If you want to see what I read last year in total, check out my list-challenge here and see how many you have enjoyed.

When I Was Otherwise by Stephen Benatar 

One of my odd little pickups. I was attracted to it because of how it had been written, inspired by a small article in the Guardian newspaper, the story is a fictional answer to ‘how did that happen?’

The book starts with that article, police have broken into a house after fears of neglect to find the rotting remains of an old woman who had been dead for over a year, the recent remains of another old woman and a befuddled old man. They were related, the old man and the recently deceased woman were brother and sister, and the woman who had been dead longer was their sister-in-law.

The book then takes us to the day they moved in together and the party they had to celebrate that move. As the characters reminisce we are taken back to other times the characters had met up and then the book takes us away, drifting back and forward in time, telling parts of their story as we go. It’s like a web or a tapestry, most of it told through conversations and often over food and drink. In particular we follow Daisy, the sister-in-law and she is a fascinating character.

Through snippets scattered throughout the text we learn that she grew up in a family she hated for being too strait-laced, became a nurse at the front in WWI, married a man with TB who onlu lasted a couple of years, carried on nursing in Britain during the Blitz, moved into a friend’s house after hers was bombed, nursed the friend through her final years and was left the house, sold the house and moved into little bedsits before finally moving in with her husbands relatives. We find out that she hated her mother-in-law (and has a problem with authority and conformity generally) and that she was kept at a distance from much of the family.

As a person, she is both scathing and kind, manipulative and painfully honest, confident and secretly very insecure. This insecurity most often shows in her habit of pushing people away with rude jokes, her need to be on top and her painful, painful passive aggression. She is always running down her looks, apologising for being a burden and trying to prod people into giving her compliments. My favourite was this; “Will somebody tell me please if I’ve received a compliment? It doesn’t happen often and I’d like to know.”

Daisy also cadges drinks (coffee, tea, sherry, whisky - anything liquid), and carefully rationalises all her selfish acts with selfless reasoning. However, there is a glimpse of her good sides. She does care for those she loves, encouraging her husband to stand up to his tyrannical mother and nursing her best friend for years. She’s interesting because she is so contradictory but we get the feeling if a few more people accepted her, she may have turned out much better.

Daisy and the sister-in-law, Marsha, also have an interesting relationship. Scared by her forthrightness, the two hadn’t met up much but when Daisy comes to dinner they almost get on. What’s more Daisy gets on much better with Marsha’s husband, Andrew, than she does. Marsha and Andrew have been married a year or so and although he finds her sweet, he is irritated by her sheltered upbringing, her naïveté and her painfully obvious ways of being affectionate. More intrigued by the prickly Daisy, the two meet secretly behind Marsha’s back to have meals and joke about everyone else. The relationship never gets physical though and is later broken off.

When they are elderly and move in together, Marsha takes the role of nagging mum, Dan takes the role of easy-going father and Daisy as rebellious teen (even though she’s the oldest). It would seem the most likely to snap is Daisy but Marsha is not as in control as she seems… It is telling that she rates her greatest accomplishment as snipping the end of her husband’s condoms.
(The brother-in-law, Dan is nice, a bit dopey and doesn’t come into the story all that much.)

I love the way the book is written. The conversations are well-observed and the characters are full and interesting. I also loved how the structure, of little snippets back and forth, lets the reader accumulate detail - I bet it’d be a completely different book on reread. Finally, I really enjoyed how the main characters of the plot are old people - proper old people like the ones that were around when I was little. They eat painfully unappetising food, have a pot of tea at the ready, reminisce about handsome old film stars and constantly break into old songs. Like the old people I remember, they have war stories and stick to their old ways, not adopting new technologies and styles. It’s a funny book, a grim book and a well told one. I really liked it.

Silas Marner by George Eliot

I have never met a person who has enjoyed this book. There were friends of mine forced to read in at GCSE level, others at A-level, even more at university and they all said it was incredibly boring. Even the ten-year-olds reading a child-friendly rewrite said this was an intolerably dull book. I have to say I was intrigued though, the central notion of a strange, outcast man learning to be part of humanity for his love of a little orphan child touched something in me and I was keen to read it.

Now I have, I can only just understand where the claims of boring came from. There is not much intrigue in the book, the mysteries are scant and the characters are generally quite low-key. I can see a younger version of me thinking that this was a book in which very little happened and took quite a long time to do it. As I am now, I found this book to be full of incident and I found it moving and very engaging.

Silas Marner is first introduced as this strange, alien figure, coming into Raveloe from the mysterious and unaccountable world outside. He is ugly, alone and works at a necessary but othering profession which conducts the alchemy of turning yarn into cloth. What’s more, he doesn’t take part in any of the social activities that bind the community together. As a reader we are let into a little more information, we see that he was an enthusiastic, if unthinking member of a dissenting chapel who previously lived a life of faith (even if his understanding of the Anglican expression of it is minimal). We also learn that he was disappointed in life, that his best friend betrayed him, framed him for robbery and stole his affianced. More than this, when he went to the elders of the church for help, they called on God by drawing lots at that ultimately condemned him. Feeling spurned by God and man, his only joy is to sit, weave and count the money he accrues.

There’s also a whole bunch about the squire’s son Godfrey, his love of a girl called Nancy, his secret marriage and his disreputable brother. I have to admit to enjoying when I got to the end of this bits as Godfrey and his brother seemed more for plot purposes and I could never get on with Nancy, she seemed both so stupid and so sure of herself.

I really wanted to get back to Silas, whose life is empty of anything worth having but full enough to keep going. I was drawn in by his relationship to his gold and worried for him when that gold was stolen. This crisis draws him into the local pub where the men’s pipes ‘twitched like antennae’. The description of the local men made them seem ignorant, unable to change but also homely and having Silas have to deal with this society for the first time was a good comedy of awkwardness but also nail-gnawingly embarrassing.

A little later he finds the little girl he names Eppie sitting at his hearth. The toddler was described in ways I think could have been mawkish but I found sweet. I liked the notion of her bounding around under a mop of hair, exploring ladybirds and emerging from a punishment of being closed in a coal cellar with a great joy in the experience. I loved how the book teased Silas out of himself as he has to present more of the world to the little girl. I completely believed in how the growing of the girl encouraged the growing of the man.

I also found the discussions between Silas and Mrs Winthrop developed. Introduced as a busybody at first, she and he gradually meet as equals and discuss notions of child rearing, religion and the way the world is constructed. Neither of them are educated to any real degree, neither have a solid understanding of their religion or a very clear notion of how the world works but they battle it out together to make something that works for them. It reminded me of Crusoe and Friday’s relationship a little and was a very clear account of a growing friendship.

in the much shorter second section, after fifteen years have passed since the first. the various mysterious are resolved and the characters are sorted into their various end-points. The scene between Godfrey (Eppie’s actual father) and Silas was the sort of confrontation which is frequently underwhelming in novels but frequently momentous in real life and it felt the way such a scene really does. Some of the characters overcame their weaknesses and others succumbed to them, each ending up where they should with a satisfying narrative tidiness.

This book celebrates the things that should be celebrated; renewal, community and love. Sometimes it’s good to read something that does that.
I also found the style frequently inventive with a number of subtle and comic touches with a description of a smile that almost matches Irma Prunesqualor’s in ‘Gormenghast’;
   “(Mrs Crakenthorpe) blinked and nodded, amiably intending to smile, but the intention lost itself in small twitchings and noises.” 

Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell

I must admit to being rather ignorant of Elizabeth Gaskell and of ‘Cranford’. I knew they made a couple of TV series of it starring Judie Dench and that it looked a little like their ‘Lark Rise to Candleford’ TV series and that one of the jokes in ‘Psychoville’ was about an actor being in Cranford and unable to get a phone signal. I didn’t even remember where or why I picked up my copy, only that it’s a slim hardback with an intriguing first page.

We are informed that there are no gentlemen in Cranford. That all the house owners are women, that they have a perfectly ordered social life and would find men more trouble than they’re worth. The next chapters are about one of these rare male visitors to the town, Captain Brown. He causes a stir in the little place, openly admitting his own poverty (while the women gently skirt over theirs) and disagreeing with the principal arbiter of taste, Miss Jenkyns, the former clergyman’s daughter.

This disagreement was a particular interest of mine as it was about a writer I whole-heartedly adore and one I’m learning to love, Johnson vs Dickens. (Incidentally, ‘Cranford’ was originally published in Dickens’s magazine). Miss Jenkyns is a keen devotee of Johnson, getting children to read her ‘Rambler’ essays even though they don’t often understand them, quoting “many a rolling, three-piled sentence” and insisting that ‘Rasselas’ is a perfect example of “light and agreeable fiction.” 

Personally, I have argued a number of times that ‘Rasselas’ is a lot funnier than it’s reputation suggests and I have often laughed out-loud at a ‘Rambler’ or two, but I am prepared to admit that Dickens (especially in his ‘Pickwick Papers’ guise) must have been a far more accessible work. It’s also interesting that Dickens was a big Johnson fan, an even bigger Goldsmith fan and signed his early work ‘Boz’ in reference to Boswell. Poor old Captain Brown though, in saving a small girl from a railway accident, he is killed and Cranford is all female again.

I was fond of the fierce Miss Jenkyns and I was unsure, when the reader was informed of her death in chapter three, where the book would go next as she seemed to be the main character. This is a good time to look at the structure of the book, a loose assemblage of short stories with a light narrative flow-through - and also a good time to look at the tone. This book is intensely gossipy. The narrator is a former resident and frequent visitor who writes to the reader as a confidant, relaying the stories of our mutual friends. There is frequent use of ‘we’ and as a result, we are quickly drawn into the world.

For a start, it’s clear that ‘Cranford’ isn’t exactly about the people of Cranford. It’s a small town, there are of course men and more than the six or so ladies (ladies, not women) we meet but those ladies believe that they are Cranford and so what is important to them is what is important to the town. They remind me of a school clique (pronounced ‘cleek’ not ‘click’) and I wouldn’t be surprised if they wear pink on Wednesdays. The ladies live lives of pleasant boredom, read little, sew much and have secret fears of watching eyes, people under the bed and ghosts. There are big tragedies, Captain Brown getting run over by a train, the madness in the eye of a mother who has lost multiple children, sickness and death but the tragedies that most affect these ladies are those of social order and respectability.

I did wonder where the book was going to go next now the main character had died but as the book progressed it slowly revealed that the whole thing was about Miss Jenkyns’s timid sister, known as Miss Matty. She’s an unprepossessing hero, indecisive, timid and used to living life in her sister’s shadow but when genuine calamity comes her way she shows a nobility, a strength and a determination that show her true self. When things get bad, her “unselfishness and simple sense of justice, called out the same good qualities in others”. What felt like a lightly pleasant laugh at some slightly out-of-touch old biddies became a hymn to the real strength of a decent person.

- And at the end, our narrator was gifted a large bound volume of Johnson’s work.

The World in Thirty-Eight Chapters or Dr Johnson’s Guide to Life by Henry Hitchings

I described this book as perfect, the kind of book that I would have written if I had the chance, so why is it relatively low in this list? I simply found the book too well catered to my taste and feelings to engage with it as fully as I could. It’s still one of the best books of the year for me though.

The Rapture by Claire McGlasson

Another book I reviewed on this site. While I question some of the history, the novelising is great, it’s a tense book with rich characters and a fascinating situation. I voted this as the best book that came out this year on Goodreads and I stand by it.

Wednesday, 25 December 2019

Review: Candide by Voltaire

Merry Christmas everyone, I thought I’d celebrate with a special Christmassy post. Namely, the long promised, long awaited and long forgotten Candide review.
I came to Candide through Rasselas and it’s fascinating how similar the two texts are, despite how dissimilar the characters of the writers. The books are similar lengths, both deal with characters who travel around examining different modes of living and both came out within a week of the other. Both books were also written to defray costs in times of trouble. Candide was written by Voltaire to pay for his medical bills in exile, whilst Rasselas was written to pay for the funeral of Johnson’s mother. 
The two writers are absolutely different though. Johnson was a devout Anglican whilst Voltaire was a freethinker who dabbled in atheism. Voltaire had been famous from youth whilst Johnson didn’t make his name until he was in his fifties. Voltaire had known riches, having played the French lottery (incidentally run by Casanova) with the help of a professional statistician whilst Johnson was arrested for debt shortly after the publication of Rasselas and had to be rescued by Samuel Richardson. Also, Voltaire seems more aware of his audience than Johnson, who resolutely writes in his own style no matter of genre.
Candide is probably the more successful work, it’s Voltaire’s most read piece, has been adapted into other media and is till quoted today. Both Rasselas and Candide have never been out of print but Voltaire’s work is more likely to be read by a general audience than Johnson’s.
It tells the story of Candide, a young man who lives a comfortable life and is tutored in Leibnizian optimism by Pangloss, who teaches that ‘all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds’. This means that everything that happens, even the bad things, are the very best thing that could possibly happen. Candide is then kicked out of his comfort and travels the world, initially interpreting things in this optimistic way, oblivious to the reality of the carnage around him. I love how Candide responds to the terrible things that happen to him with a belief that all is for the best, it is a funny refrain and Voltaire takes great pleasure in finding new horrors to befall his characters.
While I find Rasselas to be a funny book, Candide is funnier, it’s also sharper and funnier but it runs out of puff before the end of its hundred-odd pages.
Voltaire is very able to spin a grand paragraph and cut it with a bottom with great skill. There’s a great joke where an anabaptist (people who believed in adult baptism) is drowned, references to my pal Theodore, King of Corsica, trips to El Dorado, a Utopia that is so well run that everything becomes boring.
It moves fast, with thirty chapters of about five-hundred words each but in trying to find new things that happen, the book disproves itself. The big joke is that the world is not an ordered place where the best possible things happen for the right reasons but a violent disordered mess. However, to make the book readable as fiction, the characters learn and develop from their tribulations and actually (more for the need of something to happen than anything else) come back together after being separated. This means that in essence, the plot has served to make the people better and bring them together closer and stronger than they started out - meaning that in some sense everything has happened the best possible way. 
It could be said that this is a comment on the novel itself, that the neat happy ending is a poke at the empty optimism implicit in the novel form. It doesn’t feel that’s the case though, it feels that Voltaire is forced into it by the form. Far better, is Johnson’s approach in Rasselas, to have ‘a conclusion in which nothing is concluded’. 
Whilst Candide is a funnier book than Rasselas, the latter book has a deeper exploration of its themes. I recommend reading both, neither takes very long and both are entertaining. 
So, with that Christmassy post our of way, I hope everyone has a yuletide which is the best Christmas as the best of all possible worlds.

Wednesday, 18 December 2019

Video: But What About...Evelina

Somehow, by accident, I have taken to make one of these every Christmas. The rule is that I have a cold and I watch my umpteenth 'A Christmas Carol'.

This time is the big one, Francis Burney's Evelina.

I've talked about it a number of times, in various big reads (1,2,3,4,5,6) and a read for the Dr Johnson Book Circle.

I ramble a bit, I'm not feeling all too good - but here it is.

Wednesday, 11 December 2019

'The World in Thirty-Eight Chapters or Dr Johnson’s Guide to Life' at the Dr Johnson Reading Circle

Where do you start if you want to get into Samuel Johnson? Do you begin with his own writing, with Rasselas or his poems? Perhaps you leap deep into the essays and tackle them head on, or pick away at the edges with prefaces. Maybe you collect Johnsonian quotes and work from there, though are Johnson’s quoted comments his best ones? 

This is one of the discussions prompted by the Dr Johnson Reading Circle’s reading of The World in Thirty-Eight Chapters or Dr Johnson’s Guide to Life and we were joined in the discussion by the author, Henry Hitchings. It’s part biography, part self-help book which aims to argue for the importance of Samuel Johnson in the modern world and to get under Johnson’s skin while bringing him to a fuller and more rounded life.

One of the more controversial techniques of doing this in the book was to refer to the main figure as Sam. This started out as a necessity in a chapter about talking about Mr Johnsons senior (Michael) and two junior (Samuel and Nathaniel) but became one of the ways to disassociate the figure of Dr Johnson with his bold pronouncements, from the actual man. While it is true that he did refer to himself as Sam in letters and in person, there was a question as to whether it was too presumptuous to call him the diminutive without the opportunity to ask his permission. Seeing as Sam had the habit of bestowing nicknames on his friends, with Boswell becoming Bozzy, Langton becoming Lanky and Goldsmith (much to his dislike) becoming Goldy, I don’t think he would have minded all too much. Although it worked smoothly in the book, it did sometimes sound strange to hear him referred to as Sam out loud.

Samuel Johnson, when he is known of at all, figures in literature as a monument, pictured in numerous portraits as an old, surly looking grump, throwing out firm judgements with a dismissive ‘Sir’. As the book says;
“When someone calls me “Sir”, I suspect that I am about to be told off (‘Sir, get in line’ at the airport) or patronised (‘I’m afraid, sir, that this is not a public area’)”.

This caricature, created partly in his own life, partly by writers like Boswell and partly by writers since, serves to distance the public from someone warmer whose most used words were not one of certainty but words like ‘but’. When reading his writings, especially the essays in The Rambler, Adventurer and Idler, Sam is a man who weighs up ideas, whose seemingly axiomatic sayings are often part of longer and more considered sentences. Though some may have treated him like an oracle he was nothing of the sort, full of doubts and dark feelings but also possessed of an openness that let him deal with all manner of subjects from many different angles. It is true that the conclusions he did come to, he held onto firmly but everything else was fair game - he was even mocked for his incredulity for not ruling out the existence of ghosts.

Another false image of Sam the book addresses is the notion of him as (in Samuel Beckett’s words) an ‘aspermatic colossus’. Sam was a married man with sexual urges that were described by some close friends as ‘very powerful’. It’s hard to think of him as young, and descriptions of his marriage to Tetty are few and not particularly favourable but relationships are closed doors to the outside world. That Sam and Tetty seemed a mismatch to those who knew them (and more frequently to those who had never met Tetty)  is besides the point. A relationship has a real and secret life between that posterity knows nothing about, and probably has no right to know.

It’s clear from the book and from our discussion that this is a personal book for Henry Hitchings and the group shared a fondness for Sam, as a gauche youth (one of those sixth-formers), an angry young man and as an older man who never felt that he had exactly found his place in the world. It was also a personal book in the way the lessons of Sam’s life and work are constantly contextualised with the life lessons of Hitchings, always bringing the person of Sam into the world we live in. 

That’s not to say that it’s a humourless book, or a heavy one. The thirty-eight chapters are short and lively and contain thoughts on facebook, the joy of friends, the mystery of relationships and the pleasure in being a little silly sometimes. We laughed a lot as we talked about the book and it felt a little like we were talking about a mutual friend, a man called Sam who was “rational but full of feeling, stern but compassionate, orthodox in many things but unenamoured of conformism.”

Sam’s writing isn’t necessarily easy, it takes a while to ease into and often could do with some context. The World in Thirty-Eight Chapters or Dr Johnson’s Guide to Life serves as a great introduction to the man and his writing but also a really good reminder of why he still deserves to be read today - also, did you know the dictionary has the word ‘duvet’ in it?

Wednesday, 4 December 2019

Something a little different today, rather than an early novel from a Western tradition, here's an early novel from Japan.

‘The Tale of Lady Ochikubo’ is a tenth century Japanese monogatari, if the translation is fair to the source material, it’s essentially a novel. I know very little about Japanese culture nothing about Heian period, yet I have read other early novels and I found myself surprisingly at home.

There’s something about this book which is not a million miles away from late seventeenth century  or early eighteenth century literature. There is the same focus on money and prestige, the difficulty of matching money and manners, a character who has all the noble qualities and is not treated such contrasted with an ignoble character who has a high position. Japan in the tenth century was far more like modern Europe than Europe in the tenth century was - we were telling each other Beowulf and sagas of century long feuding - these people have traffic jams, conspicuous spending and snarky poems.

There was also something very like eighteenth century novels in how the central figure of Lady Ochikubo was a relatively uninteresting, blemish-free character but the characters who surround her are really interesting. Her maid was a particular delight, snarky, sassy and very in control, she was essential in improving the lady’s life with her ingenuity. I also loved the maid’s relationship with her husband, they argued, shared common jokes, teased each other and loved each other - it felt like a real relationship.

The story has equivalence in ‘Cinderella’, Lady Ochikubo is a stepdaughter who is constantly under a barrage of indignity and commands from her stepmother. She lives in a tiny room where she does everyone’s sewing but gets little to wear herself. She of course finds her prince charming and marries him - but that’s only at the midpoint. From there, her husband keeps rising in power and status, using that power to revenge himself on the family who so badly treated his one love. He gets an influential man to pull out of one marriage, engineers a fool to marry another and constantly gazumps and one-ups them at every turn. When he has done this and gained even more power, he then uses it to help the family who spurned Lady Ochikubo, find good positions for them and ultimately make them sorry they were ever horrid to her.

The best part of the book was the middle section. Where the first felt like a Eliza Haywood-esque improbable romance, the second had a more Fielding-esque feel. The little snubs and big power plays that Lady Ochikubo’s husband has with her former family are mostly satisfying and funny, making them look silly rather than any outright violence. Although the details of tenth-century Japanese life and early eighteenth-century European life were different, the values were eerily similar and made the text pretty easy to navigate.

The main difficulty in following the text came from the lack of names. Except in times of extreme emotion, most of the characters were simply not named at all, only appearing under their titles. This meant that as the characters moved up and down in the social hierarchy, their names changed and although the text tried its best to keep things straight, it still took a bit of following.

Another huge difference between this text and what I’m used to is the institution of marriage. There seems to be a ‘try-before-you-buy’ system, where the couple sleep together three times before making a decision. It also seemed that marriage was pretty easy to back out of and it was possible to have multiple wives. In some ways this lessened the tension I’m used to in early European novels, in those you can only get married once so it had better be the right one. In other ways it heightened it because it seemed very possible for a man to abandon a wife without much censure.

I was also unsure about the existence of lucky or unlucky days, years and even directions. Religion was treated as something of a joke in this text, people who were unhappy declared their intention to become nuns and religious life seemed a choice suited to old people who had nothing better to do. Add to that, the travellers on pilgrimage elbowed each other out of the way to get to the shrines and took each other’s rooms, almost coming to an all out brawl. Whereas people seemed to hold dignity very high in personal and professional life, there didn’t seem to be much in religious life.

Ultimately, I was surprised how much I enjoyed this text and how much I felt like I was following it, given my utter ignorance of the culture that produced it. It seems there are similarities in novel-producing cultures, a sense of social order and the individual’s position in it, a certain mercantile greediness and a love of the witty putdown. I might even seek out ‘The Tale of Genjii’.