Monday 30 April 2012

Clarissa Review, April...Apology.

This is the bit where I should be writing my considered views on the April letters from Clarissa, but where I'll have to make a grovelly apology for not doing so, as I am not nearly far enough through April to get an idea.

However, I am not yet out this game, I will defeat this chunk of stagnant words and do a bumper April/May post.

Check out the struggling survivors here.

Until then, happy reading.

Tuesday 24 April 2012

Review: Man of Feeling - Henry Mackenzie

I don’t believe in the concept of guilty pleasures. I think a person should stand up loud and proud about their pleasures, especially when it comes to music, books and films. 

That said, there are corners of my cd collection that occasionally make me blush; I love girl groups, especially Phil Spector/ Joe Meek ones, I know all of the words to ‘Leader of the Pack’ and ‘Baby Love’ and I have a big soft spot for twee-pop. 

 What has this to do with The Man of Feeling? I hear me ask. Simply that I imagine reading this book is rather like listening to a Talulah Gosh album, something to do behind closed doors in case people think you have become completely, impossibly and irredeemably soft. Even the title, The Man of Feeling gets you sympathetic ‘aawwws’ on the train, I’d probably have found myself grabbed and forcibly hugged had they known it’s contents. 

The plot (as it is) consists of the entry of Harley, a young man of exceptional strength of feeling, into the big bad world. He takes a trip to London where he feels sorry for some people, on the way back he meets some more people he is sorry for, along the way people tell him stories about when they felt sorry for people and in the end he is denied love from the woman he worships, feels sorry for himself and dies. The narrator is not only sorry for Harley but (in the last line), feels sorry for all the people of the world. To call this book pitiful, could be taken literally as an apt description, this book is full of pity.

 There are also a lot of tears. The copy of the book I have includes a Victorian addition to the text, an ‘Index of tears - not including choking &c.’ There are 49 incidences of different kinds of tears listed. Considering the book does not even reach a hundred pages, it means that over half the book has some kind of tear in it. The tears are listed by type, my favourite being ‘beamy moisture’. 

 The tears are to be expected, this being a cornerstone of the sentimental novel which was designed to provide a succession of scenes that are meant to call forth the tender emotions from the reader. It’s not my first encounter with the genre, I am a big fan of The Vicar of Wakefield, in which a man looses everything and learns nothing; A Sentimental Journey, which I read as the travels of a randy old vicar, then there were the sentimental parts in Tristram Shandy like the bit about Le Fevre. I’d even go as far to say that Fielding dips into the sentimental with segments like the tale of ‘The Man on the Hill’. Despite this preparation, the sheer onslaught of tears and tear-inducing scenarios wearied me even though the book was tiny. 

Another peculiar factor about the book was the way the story was presented. The story of Harley was narrated by an un-named narrator, who occasionally interjects to tell us how we should be feeling, but doesn’t have much personality himself. 

We are brought further back from the story by the frame, two men are going out hunting and the manuscript of the novel is what one of them has been using for wadding. For this reason, the story of Harley starts at chapter eleven and is fragmented from there. 

Add to this, that a lot of Harley’s story are tales he hears second-hand and we sometimes found ourselves to be four times removed from the action. This seems an odd choice for a book that is meant to stir the emotions but maybe removing us several times from the action takes away some of the ludicrousness.

 The fragmentary and scattered nature of the book also means nothing seems properly thought about or finished. There are lots of different issues raised in the book; about whether keeping a moral stance is wise or foolish, whether pity is a humane gesture or a self-celebrating act that highlights the pitier’s own sense of moral worth, about the love and attachment between family and friends and whether they can survive the harsh world - but none of it is developed.

This means that although the book does have some moments of genuine thought and interest, none of it feels properly discussed and the book is ultimately unsatisfying. 

Despite this, and despite the fact that he is utterly wet and a weed, there are moments when the character of Harley is quite likeable. He has a genuine wish to do the right thing, acting strange to his peers but always in a way that shows his own internal life. There is one quote I particularly liked that described his thought processes. 

 ‘He did few things without a motive, but his motives were rather eccentric; and the useful and expedient were terms which he held to be very indefinite, and which therefore he did not always apply to the sense in which they are commonly understood.’ 

 I’m glad I read the book, even given my prior experiences with the genre, it was like nothing I have read before and I wouldn’t mind reading The Man of the World or other books like it, but not too often. 

 Now it’s time to man up and listen to some Ian Dury and read some more biography of Henry Fielding. 

 All yours

Friday 13 April 2012

Samuel Johnson Puts The Pyramids in Their Place.

All those conspiricy theories and such, all those people saying they were built by aliens and other nonsense. I much prefer Johnson's description in Rasselas about what they were for.

Tickled me is all.

Thursday 12 April 2012

Rasselas Review

In an effort to remind myself how much I love reading, I decided to reread Samuel Johnson’s longest bit of prose fiction, ‘Rasselas’. Maybe because I am attempting to break out of my own content Happy Valley and find myself at a crossroads but I found this short book about ‘the choice of life’ to be very engaging, provoking and moving.
Rasselas is a short book, just over a hundred pages, and I recommend it as a brilliant introduction to Samuel Johnson’s writing and thought but first I must issue a warning, this is not a novel, it’s more a leisurely thought experiment. There is some action, but that is only a tool to give rise to the discussion and thoughts, not the focus itself.
The thought experiment starts in the Happy Valley, a place where every wish, need or entertainment of life is pumped in for the safe and docile life of it’s inhabitants, mainly princes and princesses, their attendants and those lucky enough to be chosen to live in the opulence afforded. Unfortunately, with all amusements on tap, the Prince Rasselas cannot find his life anything but pointless and decides to escape and ‘choose life’.

He is aided by the well travelled Imlac, his sister Nekayah and her favourite servant, Pekuah. The gang head off to Egypt where they meet people from all walks of life and quiz them about whether those are happy lives. On a trip to the pyramids, Pekuah is snatched by Arabian raiders, but later returned after having a nice time learning astronomy. They meet up with an astronomer who believes he controls the weather who they slowly heal from the delusion by distracting him from his madness. Then they all go home to follow their own projects, safe in the knowledge that none of them will achieve all they want, nor will they find happiness unmingled with sadness. The end.
True, a recap of the plot does not focus on the book’s strong point, where Johnson excels is, as always, his beautifully delicate understanding of human behaviour and emotion and although the plot is not too hot, I think other reviews I have read on this book are very unfair about Johnson’s characterisation. Although Johnson could never sublimate that grand Johnsonian voice in his characters (as Goldsmith put it, his little fishes would sound like whales) he does differentiate the characters and give them journeys and arcs to go on.

Rasselas starts off pampered, bored and idle. He mopes around the Happy Valley and is easily discouraged from pursuing his wishes. There is one very telling early part, where facing a set back he spends four months ‘resolving to lose no more time in idle resolves.’ This is a man who knows indolence, and also I thought, one of many sardonically humorous parts of the book. It’s a timely reminder to not dilly-dally with mulling over failures but to move on with the next success.
As Rasselas starts to put life under his own control, he starts to enjoy things for the sake of them, ‘rejoicing his endeavours, though yet unsuccessful, had supplied him with a source of inexhaustible inquiry.’ When they escape the Happy Valley, he learns more. He learns that people put on a face of happiness they might not be feeling, that sages might ‘talk like angels but live like men’ and that being a ruler cannot certainly bring happiness to either him or his people. Finally, he reaches a point which I will discuss later.
Rasselas’s sister, Nekayah, goes on a similar journey, her big moment is when her servant is kidnapped and she discovers the shock of grief, but also the slowly growing ability to carry on. Her servant, Pekuah changes the most. Before being kidnapped she is superstitious and uninterested in the world around. When she returns she is calmer, more focused and with knowledge of the stars she didn’t previously know. The two women in particular help the mad astronomer to come back to himself. 

The only character who doesn’t change is Imlac. He has already been around the block and knows most of the things his companions will learn. There is a nice point that Imlac enjoys watching Rasselas and Nekayah enjoying the novelties of the world, as he can share a little in what it was like to see them the first time. Imlac reminds me of no-one more than The Doctor, in Doctor Who. He’s seen it all, knows the general outcomes of things, has something to say about most things and views it all from an unusual kind of distance. If I ever write an episode of Doctor Who, I would want to have The Doctor meet Samuel Johnson, and I would certainly somehow link Imlac and The Doctor.  
Finally, the most interesting part of the book is the ending, or the ‘conclusion, in which nothing is concluded’. In this, they decide to choose the life they will pursue after their extensive research into happiness. What is interesting is that each of them chooses the thing they would have chosen already. In a chapter earlier, the characters confessed the mad delusions that play around their mind, that could if unchecked go out of hand. In this latter part of the book, they maintain those delusions and decide to pursue them, with one small difference...
‘Of these wishes that they had formed they well knew none could be obtained.’ The lesson they have learnt, the thing that allows them to carry on with their fantasies, is the knowledge that they won’t be able to live the lives they hope to. It is the hopelessness that allows them to safely pursue it. It seems to me to be a completely radical idea, a real balm after the weak and floppy, positive-thinking/ law-of-natural-attraction nonsense. The thought that to rationally and realistically pursue a dream, in full knowledge that it will never bring unmingled happiness, but ready to face the woes along with the pleasures, is a powerful and peculiarly positive thing. That an acceptance of the difficulties of life, and a rejection of the hope of complete, total and lasting happiness is the key to living honestly, is very appealing to me. Especially as I have just finished my own novel which reaches a similar conclusion - that novel is Death of a Dreamonger, and I will talk more about that another time.
Unlike the natural philosopher in the tale, Johnson is not ‘one of the sages whom he should understand less as he heard him longer.’ To be honest, I could listen to Johnson being solid and miserable for a very long time. There is a hope in Johnson’s hopelessness, a goodness in his insistence on being good, even if by force of will. I think Johnson tried to live virtuously, but never well, because as he said, ‘to him that lives well, every form of life is good’. Poor Johnson found much of life to be not good, he really did endure more than enjoy. Let’s hope we can learn from his lessons and live well and enjoy it.
Here’s to living well,

Sunday 1 April 2012

Clarissa Big Read, March


I am still impressed by the amount of true and realistic psychological detail included in this book of a kind that many novels cannot (or choose not) to portray. I can’t, offhand, think of a book that feels more like going into a real situation with real people. However, Richardson has now included in the book an element of life that I’d rather not have in my fiction, repetitiveness and tedium.
It started well, with the lovely and spritely Miss Howe. I love Miss Howe, she is my favourite character. I love how she openly says things like, ‘I have no patience with any of the people you are with,’ and the way she longs to be in Clarissa’s shoes for a month so she can solve her problems with her bolshy ways. I also enjoyed her description of Solmes, particularly of his scary smile, one that settled back to its ‘natural gloominess’ slowly, as if his smile muscles were ‘rusty springs’. It seems a perfect description of a certain kind of person.
Perfect too was her advice about men, ‘distance to the man wretches is best I say’. If only it were possible for poor Clarissa. 
So, the net tightens, everything is becoming claustrophobic, the letters are increasing in length and frequency. It’s at times uncomfortable to read as her formally close and beloved family clamp down on her. Her brother and sister are prodding and poking her for fun, her uncles have no sympathy, her servant has been dismissed and a Mrs Norton, who she greatly admires, has been banned from visiting - but still Clarissa refuses to even consider Mr Solmes. As she says,  “I believe the gentlest spirits when provoked...are the most determined.”
The main action in March consists of different members of the household arguing their case for Clarissa to marry Solmes, and her replies against the idea. As the month goes on, she tries different tactics - agreeing that she does have a soft spot for Lovelace to appease them (even though she mostly doesn’t) offering to be locked up with her friend or work up in Scotland at her brother’s house there. She tries being angry, she tries being reasonable, she tries pleading and begging but none of it is working for her. 
I found the earlier debates with her mother to be the most effective. Two women, both utterly trapped by their position as meek, agreeable women on opposite sides of an issue and neither able to back down or compromise whilst at the same time seeing each other’s point of view. I found these parts affecting and effective. But it does start to go on, arguments going back and forth for 214 pages does become as repetitive as listening in on a Harlesden phone call (“Do you know what I mean bruv? Bruv? Bruv? Do you know what I mean? Bruv, Do you know what I mean?” &c. &c.)
Some highlights... well, we get a poem. The ‘Ode to Wisdom’ by Elizabeth Carter, the lady that Samuel Johnson boasted “Could bake a pie as well as she could translate Epictetus.” I enjoyed the poem more for change of pace then any other reason.
We also met Lovelace. Once in the garden as reported by Clarissa, where he behaved very well and also in his own words to his mate Belford. Unfortunately for the modern reader, his learned and jokey tone that I presume to be very hearty and lively to an eighteenth century reader adds a little more distance between him and the modern day reader then I expect was originally intended. 
He writes two letters in March. One detailing the inn where he is staying at the budding romance he observing between a girl he calls his ‘Rosebud’ and her possible lover, Johnny; the other about Clarissa. I prefer the first letter. There is something about his close observation of the girl, the romanticisation of her in his mind and his pleas to Belford not to destroy her that manage to be both creepy in a stalkerish, obsessive way, and oddly magnanimous. The second letter, where he shallowly extolls Clarissa’s wonderful purity and in the same breath details his desire to revenge the family immediately places him in the role of moustache twirling villain. I hope he is developed more and we get to meet the man that readers fell for.
Other hopes for the future, that a little more happens or at least a few more memorable parts.
We keep persevering.

As always, get the rest of the gossip from the big read by clicking here.
All yours