Wednesday 27 March 2019

Review: ‘The Basilisk of St. James’s’ by Elizabeth Myers

‘The Basilisk of St. James’s’ by Elizabeth Myers is another one of those basement of a Charing Cross bookshop discoveries that occasionally reinvigorate my reading. It tells the London adventures of Jonathan Swift during the end of Queen Anne’s reign, from the ousting of Marlborough to being sent back into Ireland. In this novel, Swift is pulling the secret strings of government, hating humanity with a passion, having secret passions to reform humanity, detesting all womankind with all his passion… and falling in love with a woman.

I think I hated this novel. I certainly left the novel with a feeling of hatred. What I couldn’t decide was whether I was supposed to feel that hatred. Certainly, I felt there was more happening in the book than I was understanding. Whether my feelings of disgust are a result of my attitudes as a reader, or a result of the book itself was something I couldn’t decide. Was it a bad book or did I not just read it right?

My first reaction to the book was a feeling of it being overwritten. I wrote the phrase ‘flagrant graveyard depths of his mind’ as an example of this overwriting but I could have picked many phrases from every page. Not only was the book overwritten but it frequently felt overstuffed. Page 17 was one I picked out in particular, it’s a description of Swift walking through London and the page is packed full of lists of different jobs, types of people and buildings. Never did the book let up on this denseness. 

Even in the quiet moments, the page is stuffed with the characters’ thoughts and feelings. What’s more, the point of view swings wildly around, sometimes being very close to Swift, then to other characters and then somewhere in the middle. When we explored a character’s thoughts, they were as stuffed and overwrought as the main narration and as every other character. The combined effect of all this, is that I was constantly exhausted to no particular end.

Using my notes to write a review of this book is difficult as they are so repetitive. For my third note I wrote, ‘are they going to keep calling Swift great?’. A few notes on I wrote, ‘I hope they stop telling me how great Swift is.’ A little later I wrote the quote, “hampered as he was by the extravagant and extraordinary outlook of his genius.” A little later I write frustrated, ‘narrator repeatedly tells us how vital and important Swift is.’ One of my final notes reads, ‘Why does everyone have long, detailed thoughts about life, love and how great Swift is?’ Obviously, I was getting a little irritated with being told of Swift’s greatness. What made this worse was that I could never believe that Swift (in this book) was great, only that he sincerely believed he was. 

In terms of plot - there isn’t one. Things happen. Some of them are Swift’s interminable political wrangling, some of them are bad romance and some of them are strange, like the scene where he went into a brothel and was led to the corpse of a woman he had once known. I think the purpose was to use the political stuff to show Swift’s political clout, the weird, grimy stuff to show us his misanthropy was justified and the romance stuff was supposed to be the core of the book - but it all simply piled on each other.

I’ve read a few of Swift’s works and found them sardonically funny. The only biography I’ve read of him is the one Samuel Johnson wrote for his ‘Lives of the Poets’. Johnson sees Swift as a vicious, misanthropic man whose hatred and lack of connection with humanity make him a bad writer and a worse person. 

Peculiarly, Elizabeth Myers seems to see Swift in exactly the same way and seems to love him for it. What I couldn’t decide was whether Myers admired Swift his misanthropy or happened to enjoy writing it. There are so many ‘people are evil’ chunks but even more ‘women are especially evil’ parts. Is Myers a misogynist, or just have fun writing women-hatred stuff? What made the misogyny even stranger was that this is a love story. 

  Swift, who hates all people, especially women, falls in love with a woman he calls Vanessa. His hatred of women makes romance a little difficult. He mainly hates the woman he loves but sometimes he loves her but he never gives her any real love and what’s worse, she is fine with that. He mainly views women as malleable clay to mould his own personality on and seems to love them as only extensions of himself. At one point Swift and Vanessa have sex but it’s disappointing for him because he can never escape his own massive, earth-shattering ego. If he can love, he simply won’t because that would mean giving a part of himself.

By the end of the book, Swift has been sent to Ireland where he locks himself from all people and Vanessa has followed him. The last pages of the book present her as a hero for wasting all her love on someone who can’t and won’t return it. Was I supposed to regard her wasted life as a noble sacrifice? I couldn’t ever decide. My final note on ‘The Basilisk of St James’s’ was, ‘what is this book?’

The language kept reaching towards the notion that it was saying something important but I couldn’t work out what it was saying, or even the vague area it was trying to say something about. Was it about the price of genius? The immanence of love? The dirty, nasty, ego-centric mania of humanity?

I think that the book began with Myers’s love of Swift, her interest in the idea of a noted woman-hater falling in love and the implications of that love. I think the over-reaching, gushing tone, the horrible moral about how great romantic sacrifice is, and the hatefulness of Swift’s character were all results of her sincere desire to create something epic out of the material. 

There is a little part of me though, that thinks that she may have been doing it all as a sardonic joke and even the overblown style is a comment or parody of some grand love narrative. If this is all a joke, then it’s gone over my head and if it isn’t… eesh. Either way, I would like to read another of her books just to get some sort of handle on this one, so in the end, she wins… sort of. (This book was so muddled even the review is).

Wednesday 20 March 2019

Daniel Defoe's 'Robinson Crusoe' at the Dr Johnson Reading Circle

The Dr Johnson Reading Circle met to discuss ‘The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, of York, Mariner’ a mere three-hundred years after it was published. Naturally, we pretended that this was on purpose and not happenstance at all. Often taught as the first English novel, it was one almost all of us ‘knew’ but almost none of us had actually read. Like ‘Treasure Island’ or ‘Sweeney Todd’, the situation and characters are imbedded in culture that there didn’t seem any reason to read it. Old copies were levered out of old bookcases, cracked open and… the reaction was very positive.

‘Why weren’t later eighteenth century novels this gripping’ was one comment readily agreed with. One of the things that makes ‘Robinson Crusoe’ different from other books in the century is the lack of pretensions or ‘showing off’. There is no needless Latin or Greek. Crusoe, despite his extended travels, is never compared to Odysseus - a notion that would have been inescapable for other writers. There is no romance in the landscape, everything on the island is described in its practicable terms, to be used and not enjoyed.  

Nor are there any supernatural elements in the book, at one point Crusoe thinks he sees a demon in a cave but quickly realises it’s nothing but an old, dying goat. This constant grounding, the constant reaching for physical and practical reality, gives the story its texture and its power.
Even when the book touches on areas of religion, it deals with religion as a practical necessity. God is a companion as much as anything else. This means that even in the most religiously-minded parts of the book, it doesn’t feel didactic. As one member said, ‘this is because his religion doesn’t really affect him’, and in many ways it doesn’t, he doesn’t have the luxury for it. 

There were disagreements about whether Robinson Crusoe had much of an ability to think or reflect. Early in the book, his constant need to be somewhere else, to be doing things, is partially what caused his situation in the first place. When he arrives on the island, he is still deep in the process of ‘doing’ things, of making plans, of gathering and growing his resources much as a merchant or plantation owner would at home. His faith is tied with his successes, his mind tied up with the processes of living and then living comfortably. For Crusoe, civilisation is a cooking pot to make stew and a loaf of bread, culture is the ability to make things to control and harness his environment. 

It is the arrival of Friday, much later in the book then we expected, that prompts Crusoe to learn to think. In teaching Friday about European culture and religion that he thinks about them. They work together, with Friday asking difficult questions and prompting Crusoe to more complex answers. As such, the characters of Friday and Crusoe meet more equally than the commonly held notion of them as slave and master. It is Friday’s choice to serve Crusoe, if just to learn the secrets of gun and bread. However, it is not a completely even relationship and as the book moves to its climax and onto a small adventure across the alps, Friday is relegated to a bit part. We wondered if this was because of Defoe’s own prejudices against the character or the actions of a novelist unable to deal with multiple characters in a novel and having almost no examples of the form to guide him. (It is amazing to think that Defoe must be one of the few people to have written more novels than he read - rather like E.L James).

     In learning to think, Crusoe comes to a form of relativism. Although, as a European, he feels his ways are better and feels a revulsion at the acts of cannibalism brought to the island by the natives, he feels he cannot kill them. Crusoe reasons that the natives of the area are created by God for his own reasons and it is not Crusoe’s place to interfere with them or harm them unless he is attacked himself. Crusoe also develops a primitive form of cognitive-behavioural-therapy, using notions of gratitude to re-enforce his mood and practical work to displace his loneliness. Despite his many set-backs and many mistakes, he is able to start again, achieve a little more than the time before and most importantly, to recognise those successes. It’s a lesson which we could all take into our non-desert-island lives.

      The final part of the discussion revolved around the tone of the book and of Defoe himself. Particularly, does he have a sense of humour? There are many parts of the book where ‘Robinson Crusoe’ could be read as satirical, especially Crusoe’s delusions of grandeur as the Governor of his little island. He proudly declared his a benevolent monarchy where free expression of religion was allowed, even as the occupants consisted of himself and a herd of goats. Defoe’s own dedication to realism, to the solid and practical details of the story obscure any larger intentions of the work. I can only suggest readers look at the novel to decide for themselves. At the very least, they’ll have a good time with it.

Wednesday 13 March 2019

Video: Dick Turpin Episode 4, The Poacher

I'm back on the Dick Turpin game, this time we have a foppish Macaroni who may (or may not...but definitely is) a highwayman himself.

Wednesday 6 March 2019

Review: The Craft of Fiction by Percy Lubbock

This book appealed to me because of the title, ‘The Craft of Fiction’. I have always been convinced that novel writing is a craft rather than an art because a novel is a functional object designed to convey story and characters to the readers. 

The first chapter was a fascinating look at the problems of critiquing a novel because;  “As quickly as we read, it (the novel) melts and shifts in the memory.” We read a novel in instalments, experiencing it as a moving stream of impressions. This means that the structure of the book can’t be held in the brain by itself the way a picture or sculpture can and although we have a sense of character and structure, there is nothing properly solid to analyse. 

What’s more; the language of literary criticism is the same one we use for other arts and don’t properly fit the written word as well. The aim of the book is to try and give the critic or informed reader a way to analyse structure and the language to do it with.

The next chapter was a little more about the relationship between reader and writer. Because an author can’t  “transfer his book like a bubble into the brain of a critic,” it is up to the reader to piece the book back together again. Luckily, the ability to do this is hard-wired into us and we use these faculties all day long to process our impressions of the day into meaningful content.

 “The novel asks for no other equipment in its readers than this common gift, used instinctively as the power of breathing by which we turn flat impressions in out senses into solid shapes.” A good reader is someone who manages to do this with detail and precision so a reader must take some responsibility for the enjoyment of a book. The author’s responsibility is to give all the information to aid this process as easy as possible. 

Great books are distinguished by the skill of the author to lead the reader as clearly and accurately as possible. “The well-made book is the book in which the subject and the form coincide and are indistinguishable.” I would personally agree with this statement wholly, a book as painfully digressive as ‘Tristram Shandy’ works because the characters are interesting but also because the subject of the book is the digressive nature inherent in life. According to Lubbock, a book’s theme can usually be expressed in no more than ten words. 

As much as I agreed with much of this analysis, I did find it interesting that Lubbock never notes how a novel is written in piecemeal as much as it is read that way. To only be concerned with the piecemeal nature of reading seems to miss an important part of the novel’s crafting, often taking a period of months and years.

The book then looks at various books, including ‘War and Peace’ and ‘Madame Bovary’. From his point of view, ‘War and Peace’ is not as good as it could have been as it has two conflicting themes, although he was full of praise for the novel, he paints a picture of a tighter, stronger novel that focuses on one theme. In “Madame Bovary’, Flaubert paints most of the book from Emma’s perspective but needs to pull back slightly at time as Emma and all the other characters lack the perspicacity to fully grasp what is happening.

Most of the rest of the book takes the issue of point of view. He takes great issue with an omniscient author, as the introduction of a storytelling character causes the reader to question how the narrator knows the story and to remove the reader from it. He says that an omniscient author needs ‘charm and genius’ to pull the trick off, to be such a captivating teller that problems of veracity are ignored.

Much more successful, to Lubbock, is the use of a more direct way of telling. “In one case, the reader faces the storyteller and listens to him, in the other he turns towards the story and watches it.” A first-person perspective gives veracity and immediacy to a story but can often obscure the central character as there is no one to describe them solidly. He goes through different methods of fudging and manipulating point of view, describing the different ways authors have done so.

He alights upon Henry James as the ultimate hero of point of view - at this point the book becomes a true Henry James love-in. I have a little problem with this as I have never been able to read a page of Henry James without feeling inescapably sleepy. The special trick of James, as Lubbock sees it, is the enactment of the drama of inward thought, as opposed to simple reportage.

This is the best point of view, as Lubbock sees it, because it gives the strength and veracity of first person but allows them to give a view of the character also. He also sees this to be the best method as it unites his other obsession, the need for authors to show, which he calls ‘picture’, and show, which he calls ‘drama’. A skilled author weaves between the two and he sees Henry James’s method as the most dextrous way to do it.

The struggle between showing and telling comes about because telling is the main method a novelist is given that other narrative forms don’t. As such a novelist can include multiple viewpoints and great swathes of action. The price of this is that telling loses intensity. It’s up to a writer to dramatise great moments in scenes, to choose them and pay them off. However, telling is needed to set them up and often to pay them off. Again, Lubbock sees that Henry James is the most subtle of writers, being able to use his point of view to bring the intensity of drama to the vagueness of thought.

This is a book which I immediately got on board with, but as he went into his details of point of view and showing/telling, he seemed to have another goal in mind, to venerate Henry James. This ultimately lost me.

That said, I am having great difficulty with the novel I am currently writing. I think the characters are okay, the plot and themes are fascinating but the storytelling keeps coming out flat. It revealed to me that the problem with the novel is one of point of view and if I can just get a hold of the right one then I can make the book sing again. I might even submit myself to Henry James.