Wednesday 25 December 2019

Review: Candide by Voltaire

Merry Christmas everyone, I thought I’d celebrate with a special Christmassy post. Namely, the long promised, long awaited and long forgotten Candide review.
I came to Candide through Rasselas and it’s fascinating how similar the two texts are, despite how dissimilar the characters of the writers. The books are similar lengths, both deal with characters who travel around examining different modes of living and both came out within a week of the other. Both books were also written to defray costs in times of trouble. Candide was written by Voltaire to pay for his medical bills in exile, whilst Rasselas was written to pay for the funeral of Johnson’s mother. 
The two writers are absolutely different though. Johnson was a devout Anglican whilst Voltaire was a freethinker who dabbled in atheism. Voltaire had been famous from youth whilst Johnson didn’t make his name until he was in his fifties. Voltaire had known riches, having played the French lottery (incidentally run by Casanova) with the help of a professional statistician whilst Johnson was arrested for debt shortly after the publication of Rasselas and had to be rescued by Samuel Richardson. Also, Voltaire seems more aware of his audience than Johnson, who resolutely writes in his own style no matter of genre.
Candide is probably the more successful work, it’s Voltaire’s most read piece, has been adapted into other media and is till quoted today. Both Rasselas and Candide have never been out of print but Voltaire’s work is more likely to be read by a general audience than Johnson’s.
It tells the story of Candide, a young man who lives a comfortable life and is tutored in Leibnizian optimism by Pangloss, who teaches that ‘all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds’. This means that everything that happens, even the bad things, are the very best thing that could possibly happen. Candide is then kicked out of his comfort and travels the world, initially interpreting things in this optimistic way, oblivious to the reality of the carnage around him. I love how Candide responds to the terrible things that happen to him with a belief that all is for the best, it is a funny refrain and Voltaire takes great pleasure in finding new horrors to befall his characters.
While I find Rasselas to be a funny book, Candide is funnier, it’s also sharper and funnier but it runs out of puff before the end of its hundred-odd pages.
Voltaire is very able to spin a grand paragraph and cut it with a bottom with great skill. There’s a great joke where an anabaptist (people who believed in adult baptism) is drowned, references to my pal Theodore, King of Corsica, trips to El Dorado, a Utopia that is so well run that everything becomes boring.
It moves fast, with thirty chapters of about five-hundred words each but in trying to find new things that happen, the book disproves itself. The big joke is that the world is not an ordered place where the best possible things happen for the right reasons but a violent disordered mess. However, to make the book readable as fiction, the characters learn and develop from their tribulations and actually (more for the need of something to happen than anything else) come back together after being separated. This means that in essence, the plot has served to make the people better and bring them together closer and stronger than they started out - meaning that in some sense everything has happened the best possible way. 
It could be said that this is a comment on the novel itself, that the neat happy ending is a poke at the empty optimism implicit in the novel form. It doesn’t feel that’s the case though, it feels that Voltaire is forced into it by the form. Far better, is Johnson’s approach in Rasselas, to have ‘a conclusion in which nothing is concluded’. 
Whilst Candide is a funnier book than Rasselas, the latter book has a deeper exploration of its themes. I recommend reading both, neither takes very long and both are entertaining. 
So, with that Christmassy post our of way, I hope everyone has a yuletide which is the best Christmas as the best of all possible worlds.

Wednesday 18 December 2019

Video: But What About...Evelina

Somehow, by accident, I have taken to make one of these every Christmas. The rule is that I have a cold and I watch my umpteenth 'A Christmas Carol'.

This time is the big one, Francis Burney's Evelina.

I've talked about it a number of times, in various big reads (1,2,3,4,5,6) and a read for the Dr Johnson Book Circle.

I ramble a bit, I'm not feeling all too good - but here it is.

Wednesday 11 December 2019

'The World in Thirty-Eight Chapters or Dr Johnson’s Guide to Life' at the Dr Johnson Reading Circle

Where do you start if you want to get into Samuel Johnson? Do you begin with his own writing, with Rasselas or his poems? Perhaps you leap deep into the essays and tackle them head on, or pick away at the edges with prefaces. Maybe you collect Johnsonian quotes and work from there, though are Johnson’s quoted comments his best ones? 

This is one of the discussions prompted by the Dr Johnson Reading Circle’s reading of The World in Thirty-Eight Chapters or Dr Johnson’s Guide to Life and we were joined in the discussion by the author, Henry Hitchings. It’s part biography, part self-help book which aims to argue for the importance of Samuel Johnson in the modern world and to get under Johnson’s skin while bringing him to a fuller and more rounded life.

One of the more controversial techniques of doing this in the book was to refer to the main figure as Sam. This started out as a necessity in a chapter about talking about Mr Johnsons senior (Michael) and two junior (Samuel and Nathaniel) but became one of the ways to disassociate the figure of Dr Johnson with his bold pronouncements, from the actual man. While it is true that he did refer to himself as Sam in letters and in person, there was a question as to whether it was too presumptuous to call him the diminutive without the opportunity to ask his permission. Seeing as Sam had the habit of bestowing nicknames on his friends, with Boswell becoming Bozzy, Langton becoming Lanky and Goldsmith (much to his dislike) becoming Goldy, I don’t think he would have minded all too much. Although it worked smoothly in the book, it did sometimes sound strange to hear him referred to as Sam out loud.

Samuel Johnson, when he is known of at all, figures in literature as a monument, pictured in numerous portraits as an old, surly looking grump, throwing out firm judgements with a dismissive ‘Sir’. As the book says;
“When someone calls me “Sir”, I suspect that I am about to be told off (‘Sir, get in line’ at the airport) or patronised (‘I’m afraid, sir, that this is not a public area’)”.

This caricature, created partly in his own life, partly by writers like Boswell and partly by writers since, serves to distance the public from someone warmer whose most used words were not one of certainty but words like ‘but’. When reading his writings, especially the essays in The Rambler, Adventurer and Idler, Sam is a man who weighs up ideas, whose seemingly axiomatic sayings are often part of longer and more considered sentences. Though some may have treated him like an oracle he was nothing of the sort, full of doubts and dark feelings but also possessed of an openness that let him deal with all manner of subjects from many different angles. It is true that the conclusions he did come to, he held onto firmly but everything else was fair game - he was even mocked for his incredulity for not ruling out the existence of ghosts.

Another false image of Sam the book addresses is the notion of him as (in Samuel Beckett’s words) an ‘aspermatic colossus’. Sam was a married man with sexual urges that were described by some close friends as ‘very powerful’. It’s hard to think of him as young, and descriptions of his marriage to Tetty are few and not particularly favourable but relationships are closed doors to the outside world. That Sam and Tetty seemed a mismatch to those who knew them (and more frequently to those who had never met Tetty)  is besides the point. A relationship has a real and secret life between that posterity knows nothing about, and probably has no right to know.

It’s clear from the book and from our discussion that this is a personal book for Henry Hitchings and the group shared a fondness for Sam, as a gauche youth (one of those sixth-formers), an angry young man and as an older man who never felt that he had exactly found his place in the world. It was also a personal book in the way the lessons of Sam’s life and work are constantly contextualised with the life lessons of Hitchings, always bringing the person of Sam into the world we live in. 

That’s not to say that it’s a humourless book, or a heavy one. The thirty-eight chapters are short and lively and contain thoughts on facebook, the joy of friends, the mystery of relationships and the pleasure in being a little silly sometimes. We laughed a lot as we talked about the book and it felt a little like we were talking about a mutual friend, a man called Sam who was “rational but full of feeling, stern but compassionate, orthodox in many things but unenamoured of conformism.”

Sam’s writing isn’t necessarily easy, it takes a while to ease into and often could do with some context. The World in Thirty-Eight Chapters or Dr Johnson’s Guide to Life serves as a great introduction to the man and his writing but also a really good reminder of why he still deserves to be read today - also, did you know the dictionary has the word ‘duvet’ in it?

Wednesday 4 December 2019

Review: The Tale of the Lady Ochikubo

Something a little different today, rather than an early novel from a Western tradition, here's an early novel from Japan.

‘The Tale of Lady Ochikubo’ is a tenth century Japanese monogatari, if the translation is fair to the source material, it’s essentially a novel. I know very little about Japanese culture nothing about Heian period, yet I have read other early novels and I found myself surprisingly at home.

There’s something about this book which is not a million miles away from late seventeenth century  or early eighteenth century literature. There is the same focus on money and prestige, the difficulty of matching money and manners, a character who has all the noble qualities and is not treated such contrasted with an ignoble character who has a high position. Japan in the tenth century was far more like modern Europe than Europe in the tenth century was - we were telling each other Beowulf and sagas of century long feuding - these people have traffic jams, conspicuous spending and snarky poems.

There was also something very like eighteenth century novels in how the central figure of Lady Ochikubo was a relatively uninteresting, blemish-free character but the characters who surround her are really interesting. Her maid was a particular delight, snarky, sassy and very in control, she was essential in improving the lady’s life with her ingenuity. I also loved the maid’s relationship with her husband, they argued, shared common jokes, teased each other and loved each other - it felt like a real relationship.

The story has equivalence in ‘Cinderella’, Lady Ochikubo is a stepdaughter who is constantly under a barrage of indignity and commands from her stepmother. She lives in a tiny room where she does everyone’s sewing but gets little to wear herself. She of course finds her prince charming and marries him - but that’s only at the midpoint. From there, her husband keeps rising in power and status, using that power to revenge himself on the family who so badly treated his one love. He gets an influential man to pull out of one marriage, engineers a fool to marry another and constantly gazumps and one-ups them at every turn. When he has done this and gained even more power, he then uses it to help the family who spurned Lady Ochikubo, find good positions for them and ultimately make them sorry they were ever horrid to her.

The best part of the book was the middle section. Where the first felt like a Eliza Haywood-esque improbable romance, the second had a more Fielding-esque feel. The little snubs and big power plays that Lady Ochikubo’s husband has with her former family are mostly satisfying and funny, making them look silly rather than any outright violence. Although the details of tenth-century Japanese life and early eighteenth-century European life were different, the values were eerily similar and made the text pretty easy to navigate.

The main difficulty in following the text came from the lack of names. Except in times of extreme emotion, most of the characters were simply not named at all, only appearing under their titles. This meant that as the characters moved up and down in the social hierarchy, their names changed and although the text tried its best to keep things straight, it still took a bit of following.

Another huge difference between this text and what I’m used to is the institution of marriage. There seems to be a ‘try-before-you-buy’ system, where the couple sleep together three times before making a decision. It also seemed that marriage was pretty easy to back out of and it was possible to have multiple wives. In some ways this lessened the tension I’m used to in early European novels, in those you can only get married once so it had better be the right one. In other ways it heightened it because it seemed very possible for a man to abandon a wife without much censure.

I was also unsure about the existence of lucky or unlucky days, years and even directions. Religion was treated as something of a joke in this text, people who were unhappy declared their intention to become nuns and religious life seemed a choice suited to old people who had nothing better to do. Add to that, the travellers on pilgrimage elbowed each other out of the way to get to the shrines and took each other’s rooms, almost coming to an all out brawl. Whereas people seemed to hold dignity very high in personal and professional life, there didn’t seem to be much in religious life.

Ultimately, I was surprised how much I enjoyed this text and how much I felt like I was following it, given my utter ignorance of the culture that produced it. It seems there are similarities in novel-producing cultures, a sense of social order and the individual’s position in it, a certain mercantile greediness and a love of the witty putdown. I might even seek out ‘The Tale of Genjii’.