Monday 30 January 2012

Clarissa Big Read, January

I was a little concerned about reading Clarissa. It was not just the length, but also the reputation as a book with much dry moralising preaching and some rather icky sexual politics that I had heard made some modern reader’s skin crawl. Apart from anything else, I was worried about the detail of the piece, this whole slab of pulped tree details the events of only one year, I was worried it was going to be slow going and hard work.

So far, I needn’t have worried, the book pulls you in, fast and firm. It is more immediate then Evelina, less arch then Tristram Shandy and more coloured then Defoe’s works. Only Fielding’s works (except Jonathan Wilde) grabbed me into the story quicker, maybe Vathek also. 

    We start with Clarissa explaining to her friend Miss Howe that her brother has been injured by a dual and that she is being blamed for getting him into it. We are then given (surprisingly concisely) the longstanding enmity between her domineering, unfriendly brother, James and the charming but egotistical Lovelace. This dislike flaring up into a dual, partly over his attentions to Clarissa, which he paid only after her shrewish sister brushed him off. 

In these 20 pages we are given a clear picture of how the family works, it’s tight-nit structure and the dominance of her brother and uncles over her father and mother. We see her position as the kind, thoughtful patsy who gets pushed around. The characters and relationships are extremely detailed and full, without feeling flabby or overwritten. The only thing I would like is that Lovelace is less described and more dramatised - but I suppose that is building up to what I hope to be a grand entrance in a bit.

Samuel Johnson was once asked whether he preferred Tom Jones or Clarissa, and he replied Clarissa because it was ‘the first book in the world for the knowledge it displays of the human heart’ and I can see what he meant. Where Tom Jones gives us delightfully larger then life characters, Clarissa gives us the minute details that make a person live and breathe. Here are three I particularly liked.

The first, was Clarissa telling her friend that she wished she had died in her last fever when everyone loved her and surrounded her. I thought this a very accurate sentiment, and there are times I have wished I had died or disappeared before the bad times came.

The second was the description of how her sister played hard-to-get with Lovelace and failed because ‘My poor sister is not naturally good humoured...she must, therefore, I doubt, have appeared to great disadvantage when she aimed to be worse tempered then ordinary.’ Which I found to be a very funny description for a book (and author) I had been lead to believe was humourless. 

Finally, and my favourite was the description of her mum, a lady of such amiable stoicism that “had she been of a temper that would have borne less, she would have had ten times less to bear then she has had.” Which I think was such a lovely description of her mum, and possible in some ways any mum. They all put up with more then they have to from their children - I know mine does.
So, January had proved to be very engaging, and the family are proving to be a fascinating group of people when it comes to their minute politics.

Let’s see what February brings.

Read everyone else's views here.

Saturday 21 January 2012

Review via Badly Photoshopped Poster.

Just watched this dull piece of film.

The Artist is good though.

Clarissa 'January' post coming soon.

Saturday 14 January 2012

Review: Trivia, by John Gay

My copy of the poem was in this book, alongside some interesting essays.

Yes, it’s an extended poem about walking around London but that doesn’t necessarily mean it is crap - it rhymes at least.
John Gay takes the part of ‘The Walker’, a seasoned perambulator of the mean streets of C18th London. He tackles weather, cheats, pickpockets, porters carrying heavy goods and fops and dandies covered in powder. Never aiming to get somewhere in particular, he gives us advice on the perils of the city whilst observing its inner workings. 
The poem is organised into three books, the first is about the preparations for walking, the second about walking in the day and the third about walking in the night. The poem has little summaries down the sides of the text, allowing you to navigate it. These summaries seem to serve a similar role to the long chapter titles of some C18th novels. They include such things as; ‘of walking with a friend’, ‘signs of rainy weather’ and ‘useful precepts’. The informative nature of these summaries help create the effect of a ‘how to’ book that greatly add to the ironic tone - more about that in a bit.
The poem makes hundreds of interesting points about the day-to-day life going on around The Walker. These include a description of some common pickpocketing practices,  advice about buying a decent coat and a particularly nice little bit about the politics of ‘giving the wall’, the wall being the covered part of the path away from the open gutters. This part reminded me an awful lot about that common urban dilemma - who to give up a seat to on a bus. 

Here is a little bit about a winter danger, a rowdy game of football.

‘Here oft’ my Course I bend, when lo! from far
I spy the Furies of the Foot-ball War:
The ’Prentice quits his Shop, to join the Crew,
Encreasing Crouds the flying game Pursue.

As you can see, this is written  nice perky little heroic couplets and these couplets trip all the way through the poem. 
The poem also contains two tangents of a mythological strain. The first it the invention of little overshoes called pattens and the second is the story of how Cloacina, the Goddess of Sewers created the shoeshine boy and gave him his trade...these parts are parodies of some classical thing or other but I have to admit were lost on me. Interestingly, on my little Wikipedia look at Cloacina, it turns out she was worshipped with rhymed prayer.

While you would have to be a very worrying type of person to laugh out loud at this poem, it does create a very nice ironic tone between the trivial subject matter of going for a walk and the deadly serious manner it is portrayed. From the title, ‘The Art...’ to the tone of The Walker’s advice, the poem pretends to be a useful and instructional manual for walking around the city - something most of the readers would be used to doing. 

This allows Johnny Gay to do a few things; the first is to poke fun and dramatise the chaos of the city with it’s hubbub of life and movement. The second is to mythologise the small things in life, to bring them to centre stage, a preoccupation in Gay’s work (and Scriblerans in general). The third is to satirise the new strain of people who were using the new urban medium of cheaper books and daily newspapers to set themselves up as experts, he does this in the character of The Walker.
The Walker is a bit of a prat. He starts off self-importantly pontificating about the correct types of shoes, coats and canes to wear and carry for a good walk. He presents himself as the debonair man about town but has no part or place with everyone else. He derides the people that ride and carriages and sedan chairs, saying that walking is the finest way to get places and yet complains about all the obstacles that get in his way. His friends, incidentally, found it hilarious that Gay should have a success with a book about walking where he would have ridden everywhere if he could.

Finally, The Walker presents himself as a tough and streetwise traveller but spends most of his walk fearing and fussing over dirt. In short, he is the kind of know-all-know-nothing sort of expert parading his knowledge for a disinterested audience on a plentiful but cheap mass media object - so an arrogant blogger then, or a TV chef. It is through reading the poem in this light that is probably most enjoyable for the modern reader. 

To sum up: 
Although not a scintillating page turner, ‘Trivia’ manages to be an entertainingly wry read and an evocative slice of London Mythologising. Best read accompanied by ‘The Four Times of Day’ engravings by William Hogarth before leaving the house for a ramble and paying attention to your own area.

Saturday 7 January 2012

Review: The Anatomy of Melancholy by Robert Burton - First Partition, 1621.

The main attraction I had to this book is that it was the one that Samuel Johnson said was the only only one that ever got him out of bed two hours before he intended.

Although I never sacrificed hours of my sleep to this book, I did sacrifice a great deal of money. I saw it in a charity shop for five pounds at a time when five pounds was my entire food, entertainment and travel budget for the week. I remember that week, I had to beg for the bus fare home from a job interview. So, was it worth it?
Yes. This is a truly and completely absorbingly fascinating book. It’s a sort of compendium of everything written about melancholy from ancient days to modern renaissance writers. The works are read, summarised, compiled, digested and explained by Robert Burton, an Oxford scholar and sufferer of melancholy himself. 

Like the earlier Essais of Michel de Montaigne, also a product of a solitary and bookish kind of loneliness, this book is a huge, tangental and deeply human work, although the content of the book doesn’t come from Burton, the style and tone sing out, stamping his imprint all over it.

Durer's Melancolia 1

Burton has tried to organise his thoughts and his words. i
Ironically, it’s his organisation that, in part, makes this book such a difficult book to navigate. Things that seem to naturally belong together to Burton, don’t to me, so you have to learn to trust him. 

If a reader wishes to find something specific, eyewatering diagrams of the layout are helpfully provided. In general, the book is laid in four parts; the first is an introduction ‘Democritus to the Reader’ as well as an abstract and general description of melancholy. The second part is called the ‘First Partition’ and contains the medical background, causes of melancholy and the symptoms - it is these two parts that are being reviewed now. The next two partitions contain cures for melancholy and a special look at romantic and religious melancholy, these will be read and reviewed in time.

Melancholy. Domenico Fetti

It’s hard to summarise what I have learned from the book, as there is so much in it, but I’ll give a few interesting points. 

The first is that melancholy is not what we consider it today. Technically it is ‘black bile’, one of the humours and a natural part of the human body. The disease of melancholy is when this black bile is produced in excess but it reacts differently with different parts of the body, with the other humours in their own varying amounts and with the general quality of a person’s body (usually described in terms of heat/cold and dry/moist). 

This different reactions mean that melancholy can have many different effects. Some get sad, some fear pointless fears, some fight everyone, others talk to themselves - melancholia also has physical symptoms, haemorrhoids, flatulence, headaches, aches in general, tiredness - indeed, the holistic nature of the view of the interactions between body, soul and mind is the source of the interest of the book, and the difficulty of it. In reading this book, the reader is entering a completely different intellectual planet, in which mind/body dualism is an interesting idea only beginning to be thought about and expressed. 
One of the delights of the book is how so many of our beliefs of the body now would be nonsense then, and so many of beliefs of the body then would be nonsense now. In a discussion of the (ancient) trope of the melancholy wit, the laughing clown, we get the following explanation for laughter.
    “...abundance in pleasant vapours, which, in sanguine melancholy especially, break from the heart, and tickle the midriff, because it is transverse and full of nerves: by which titillation the sense being moved, and arteries distended, or pulled, the spirits from thence move and possess the sides, veins, countenance, eyes.”
I find this delightful because of this idea of the wholeness of the body - but also the attempts at rigour which now appear risible.   

The Humours

However, the book is not just a relic, because it talks about  issues that are still alive and thought provoking. The book (or at least the intro and first partition) touches on loads of subjects but is really all about the difficulty of being human; the fears and sadnesses we have, the sheer weight of responsibility and agency that comes with being alive (or worse, having those things repressed). 

At the end of the partition, there is a discussion of suicide, where Burton gives us many reasons for and against. It’s a really interesting discussion - written at a time when suicide is still officially a crime and is only one part of the book where the reader is encouraged to look at something from many angles. What lifts the book further, is that he not only gives the big issues but lots of funny little stories as well, such as women giving birth to rats and talking dogs and such.
In terms of style, this book is painful to read. Burton swings from quote to story, lurching around like a mechanical bull - and lots of it is heavily larded up with Latin (which is mostly translated, thankfully). We will get a story about a man who is convinced he has frogs living inside him, to a village tormented by a teasing echo, to a man collapsing after a bite with a dead dog, to a Roman Emperor mourning for his son - nothing is off limits or taboo and very little is considered excess. 

Burton compiles lists that can go on for pages, he never uses one word when 40 will do (and 10 of them in Latin). It is not a tidy read or clean read or concise read. It is a bloated overelaborate mess. (For a delightful example of Burton’s style, listen to a part of the last partition from an audiobook where Burton is simply saying no more then ‘Love is Blind’. ).  

Yes it is hard, it is over-thorough, pedantic, bookish to a fault, overinflated, over-egged, overkill, too much, excessive, like a balloon pumped too far - but it is delightful in its baroque elaborateness, often very funny and these lists help the book power along at a speed. 
I have recently heard the phrase ‘Victory Read’, a book you read to feel the pleasure of conquering it like a mountain. There will be an element of the victory read when I have finished the entire thing, it is a difficult read, and much of the pleasure is hard won but at the same time it is a fascinating read, offering glimpses at a time where the entire view of a person’s relationship with their body and around them is conceived differently. It is helpful we are led there through the amusingly OTT authorial voice of Robert Burton. Sometimes excess is it’s own reward.

[NB: Finished in 2015.] 

The third partition was the most entertaining. Burton is very funny talking about love, he is obviously a man of affections and humour and it shines through very well.

He is also rather tolerant to women - so many of his sources are anti-woman and he merely laughs at them and says that everything said about women could easily be applied to men.

The religious melancholy bit was very interesting, especially as it revealed 17th century views on Islam and atheism. 

The very last bit on despair dragged though - too Bible heavy for me and even more repetitive than usual.

Burton and his pinched smile

Today I will give Burton the last word, the last sentence from the first partition and good advice to us all.
“We ought not to be so rash and rigorous in our censures as some are; charity will judge and hope the best; God be merciful unto us all!”

Monday 2 January 2012

Plans for 2012

Happy New Year - the time when we magically become better and slimmer people.

I have a number of projects I want to work on over 2012.

In terms of my own fiction I will be going through and correcting Death of a Dreamonger and beginning the long, slow submitting process. I hope to send 5 agents letters by Easter and hope to have got somewhere with it by the summer.

I also plan to work on my new project Into the Big City, which I may preview in parts on this site.

There are also places to go and things to see, most excitingly (at the moment) She Stoops to Conquer at the National, and maybe a little trip to Johnson's Birthplace in Lichfield.

As well as all this and the usual topics and such, I plan to do another reading group because I had such enjoyment reading Evelina at The Duchess of Devonshire's I thought I'd do another - but this one's a biggie. I will be reading Clarissa by Samuel Richardson - all 1500 pages. The thing weighs twice the amount I did at birth, so I suppose I will have taken up weight lifting also.

The lovely people organising this immense challenge are;

Lakeside Musing


Tip of the Iceburg

The plan is to take the year of the book's action to read the book - I am a rather impatient reader though, so I'm not sure how I will stick to this, I may jump ahead a little. However, without the support, I can't imagine starting at all.

So a busy year on the reading and writing front planned for me, I am hoping this is the year when I find myself represented and my book published.

I hope your 2012 will be equally enjoyable.