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

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