Monday 20 April 2015

Under the Glass...Three - Castles in the Air

These ‘Under the Glass bits have somehow become one of the most personal elements on this site. Todays one may be the most personal of them all.

It comes from the (brilliant) introduction to ‘The Essay of Humane Understanding’ by John Locke.

When I say the introduction is brilliant, I mean it. There are some wonderfully tuned phrases about the intrinsic joy of knowledge which I will probably look at another time. Todays quote is the following;

‘If mine prove a castle in the air, I will endeavour it shall be all of a piece and hang together.’

Within the context of the introduction, it serves to make a point found in many early modern prologues, that the work about to be presented may have its flaws but is presented with all the best possible intentions. 

I was instantly struck by the image, not of the castle in the sky, but of it being of a piece and hanging together. That mental picture of a huge, solid edifice, detailed and carved with time and effort and love with an internal cohesion that defies its possibly shaky foundations.

But like most of these quotes, it’s what it means outside of context and into the context of my own life that gives it such meaning to me - and like many of these quotes, it serves as a way of cheering me up and encouraging me to go on. It’s a personal rallying cry.

A rallying cry for what? Here’s where it gets a little personal.

It was at university, while avoiding a course I detested, that I began and completed my first novel. I had made my first scratchings at it in my lonely room in the first term of the first year and finished it in the lonely room in the easter break of the third. By the end of this year, I knew what I wanted to be for the first time in my life. I wanted to write novels that other people would read.

With this being my only real goal, I left university, not into a job or placement but to carry on working my student job in York, live in a shared house with some classmates, write and wait for my literary ship to sail triumphantly in. What really happened was that the shared house fell through and I ended up moving back to my parents in a city that all my friends had left.

I found it hard to get work and ended up getting the same job I had during sixth form when I was saving up to go to university, but due to new laws, for a lesser wage. At the same time, swathes of my extended family died and the house was deep in mourning for a few months. What’s more, despite a few positive notes, it was clear my ship was not sailing in any time soon. I was lost.

To give myself some momentum, I decided to go back into education and take a part time MA in writing. I took simple jobs that would be flexible around my university and writing time. Sometimes those simple jobs did not come through and I found myself unemployed for eight months, and for  a couple of months I lived off £5 a week, borrowing money off friends and family and even having to beg on the street for travel money to get to interviews.

Since then I have come into a steady job with a reliable (if unspectacular) wage and an unprecedentedly good deal on my rent. In June, the house will return to its private owners and I will need to rent a normal priced room again. I’m not sure I can. Even for a pus-ridden scum-hole, the monthly rent leaves me with almost nothing for food, travel and books - it looks like I might have to go to the bad old days.

To remedy this, I went on an urgent and focussed job hunt. It would appear that my CV, a combination of relative academic achievement, dead-end jobs and mediocre writing success are not the employer catnip I was hoping for. I can’t even get a job selling books at the Museum of London bookshop - despite the fact that I’ve read almost all their stock, and can use a till.

The fact is, the choices I have made, whether good or bad, all stemmed from my wish to become a novelist. Whether I went about this realistically or sensibly (almost certainly not) they were made with that goal in mind. It is my castle and although the foundations still seem to be in thin air, at least the edifice itself is all of a piece and hangs together. 

Plus, this new draft of ‘Dreamonger’ is turning out brilliantly…

Saturday 11 April 2015

Top Ten Eighteenth Century Works (Part Two)

And here it is, after the clamouring, shouting and pleading; the second part of the Top Ten Eighteenth Century Works.

Number 5

Jubilate Agno by Christopher Smart.

The only person to have two entries on the list but I don’t think it’s cheating, the Christopher Smart who wrote Jubilate Agno is not the same as the one who wrote The Midwife.

Midwife era Smart is playful and silly, not seemingly serious about anything. Jubilate Agno era Smart is still playful, still sometimes silly but this time there is something he takes extraordinarily seriously, his faith. This is a rich, constantly perplexing work. I think someone on a dessert island with nothing but Jubilate Agno and a Bible would ever get to the very bottom of it.

There are occasions when this can be baffling, there are even stretches of boring but there are enough highlights of absolutely stunning originality and moments of clear thinking mixed up with all the Biblical names and battiness.

I would recommend that anybody try this book out.

Number 4

The Citizen of the World by Oliver Goldsmith.

The original audience read these letters as part of a serial magazine but I, like all the readers since 1762, read it in one go and have read it several times since.

My favourite element of the book are the characters. Lien Chi Altangi is a bit of a hypocrite but ultimately loveable, Beau Tibbs is also a flawed but interesting character and The Man in Black is one the best characters in all of eighteenth century writing.

I’ve written a whole review of this before but if you can find a copy, read it.

Number 3

Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne.

I’ve not read many other books like this. It is such a frustrating thing. It’s the most annoyingly digressive, objectively pointless and nail gnawingly ridiculous bit of work. But, my goodness, it is something wonderful.

The key to it are the characters. Tristram is very little himself but his father Walter and his Uncle Toby are beautifully realised people. Everyone in the world of Shandy Hall has a hobbyhorse, one key obsession that drives their lives. But from this one hobbyhorse, whole characters evolve. Uncle Toby is obsessed with wars and fortifications, he lives and breathes battles and sieges but is himself the most peaceful of people. If trapped in a room with an irritating fly, he will remove the fly rather than kill it. It’s details such as this that make you want to follow him and those around through their labyrinthine journeys.

That and the book is staggeringly original. If the reader learns to relax and enjoy the ride, then they will be treated to constant surprises and always shifting floors but the reader must give into it.

Number 2

Tom Jones by Henry Fielding.

This just edged Tristram Shandy because although it didn’t have the loopy originality of that book, it is a much more satisfying read.

I liked Tom, I liked Sofia, I loved Squire Western, Partridge, Thwackum and Square. The characters in this book are wonderful and lively. Henry Fielding knows exactly how to set up and present a set piece better than almost all the other eighteenth-century writer. The chapters at the Inn in Upton are some of the busiest, liveliest and most sparkling I’ve ever read.

Also, Fielding has the most wonderful voice. He is constantly ironic and uses the tools of hyperbole and understatement with the fine hand of a master craftsmen. Almost the whole of the first book of Tom Jones is written with almost total irony. It’s a breathtakingly impressive bit of work.

...and of course.

Number 1

The Rambler by Samuel Johnson.

I’ve had a shit day; the children in the school have driven me crazy, the staff have driven me crazier, the bank crazier still and my house seems dingy and sad. It is one of those days when the sky is so heavy and nothing goes right and I am irritable with everything and everyone.

Then I make a cup of tea and read a few Ramblers.

I have a theory that the length and flow of a Johnsonian sentence has a calming property; on one hand is his ability to summarise a complex point in few words and on the other is his ability to contrast that with an equally complex and well summarised point that defies the first. He is even able to get the synthesis in the same sentence. This ebb requires concentration to follow but Johnson never waffles, he always hits at least one, usually a few more, points a sentence. It’s like the mental equivalent of breathing in and breathing out, it’s impossible not to relax.

And the content, it is pure Johnson. He said his other works were watered down but the Ramblers were his ‘pure wine’. It’s Johnson in his utmost Johnson-ness; warm and wise and often very funny.

It’s like medicine, a bit miffed to long dark night of the soul,  a few Rambler essays will ease the pain. As Johnson said (in a review and not a Rambler unfortunately) “The only end of writing is to enable readers better to enjoy life, or endure it.” Samuel succeeds marvellously here.

All yours

Wednesday 1 April 2015

Top Ten Eighteenth Century Works (Part One)

In January I made a list of my top fifteen favourite books of the previous year. I had wondered why the list had been fifteen and not the usual ten, then I tried it. It was hard. 

Well today, I am going to try something even more difficult; I am going to try an make a list of my top ten favourite eighteenth-century bits of writing. I have decided to include everything from periodical essays to plays. If it fits the time period and I have read it, it counts.

I’ve decided to split this up, 5 today and five tomorrow.

So with no more ado…

Number 10

Pompey the Little by Francis Coventry.

The books that didn’t made this list; Evelina, Captain Jack, Joseph Adams, Rape of the Lock, John Ball… And I have put Pompey the Little above them. Why?

It’s fun. The narrative voice is similar to Henry Fielding but is younger and more optimistic about life and the people that weave through it. Although he doesn’t have Fielding’s mastery of the ironic tone, his youthful pleasure makes up for it.

The novel doesn’t get boring. Pompey moves from owner to owner with such rapidity that no one owner drags for too long. The people who take him in are also different enough in station and personality to keep the journey varied and interesting. What’s more, Coventry is so good at his brief pen-portraits that the characters Pompey meets are full of life for the brief moment he knows them.

Besides, anyone who can write a moment of such beauty and clarity as the following extract, deserves to be on the list.

“‘Mr Rhymer was walking home in a pensive solitary mood, wrapped up in contemplation on the stars of heaven, and perhaps forgetting for a few moments that he had three-pence half-penny in his pocket.”

Number 9

Vathek by William Beckford.

This is a strange book.

We are introduced to Vathek, with his eyes that could kill and his unimaginable wealth and we are already unsettled. This is a man who is hungry for knowledge and flesh and will do anything to pursue them. The prophecies of a mysterious merchant send him on an insane quest for the ultimate in power and knowledge but lead ultimately to Hell.

This is the book I was hoping ‘Castle of Otranto’ would be. It is is deranged and obsessed and builds up a remarkably strong sense of inexorable doom for its short length. The reader comes out the other side feeling sullied by it, borne on its constant push towards the mouth of Hell at the end.

These strong, emotional, almost abstract effects, distinguish it from all the other books on this list and set it apart.

Number 8

The Midwife by Christopher Smart.

Here we get Christopher Smart before his incarceration and he is silly and funny. 

The Midwife is a magazine written in the character of Mary Midnight, an old spinster who is the secret fount of wit and wisdom in Europe, or so she would believe.

More rambunctious then the Spectator, slyer then the Grub Street Journal and sillier than The Rambler, this set of magazines remind me a lot of Spike Milligan’s Q Series of TV programmes. There are mills to grind people young, learned discourses about fossilised turds, romantic advice to ancient widows and all other manner of parody and all out silliness.

I would deny the notion that there was biting satire secreted in the pages that got Smart unjustly locked away for being mad, and say that the politics in this are like those of the Goon Show; anarchic, anti-establishment and for the ordinary person. And I’d recommend the reader to dig some out.

Number 7

Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift.

Although Vathek is the book on this list that operates most on an emotional level, Gulliver’s Travels is the one that lingered longest.

It’s such a bitter book when viewed as a whole. Gulliver is inflated, deflated, tossed around the unknowable sea of learning and then anchored with the rational Houyhnhnm before being wrenched from them and landed back on our shore.

Gulliver is a changed man by the end of the book and I think the reader is in a small way. It’s an elegant book, it’s a funny one but it is rooted deep in the ‘savage indignation’ declared in Swift’s epitaph.

I recommend it as so much more than a fun adventure but warn the reader they may want something jollier to cheer them up afterwards.

Number 6

The Beggar’s Opera by John Gay.

I think I know the words to most of the songs. This is the first bit of eighteenth-century writing I came into contact with and the love has remained. 

Like a lot of my favourite stuff, the characters are clear and relatable without being fully types. I root for Macheath even though he is a scoundrel, I love the argument song between Polly and Lucy, I enjoy the scheming of Peachum and Lockitt. Even the naff happy ending makes me smile.

In some ways the view of life is as pessimistic as in Gulliver but the characters themselves never realise it. They carry on scheming, loving, drinking and singing because it’s all they can do.

‘Think of this maxim and put off your sorrow, the wretch of today can be happy tomorrow.’

So, what will the top five be? I think it’ll be pretty obvious but I’ll pretend there’s a mystery.

All yours