Wednesday, June 29, 2011

2,559: Titus Groan by Mervyn Peake - Week Four of the Gormenghast Readalong


It’s a good job that we can start the second book in the pseudo-quadrilogy (I’m not convinced that the new fourth book should be seen as part of the whole, as Peake himself only really contributed outline notes for it) immediately as I would have been most disgruntled at having to wait for it.  For, at the close of Titus Groan, the shadows of change are gathering around Gormenghast Castle.

As I have said previously, I have had a go at reading Titus Groan before and gave up after only a few pages.  Had it not been for the fact that I am taking part in the Gormenghast readalong, hosted by Jackie at Farm Lane Books, I may well have similarly fallen at the first hurdle this time. I persevered though and have been thoroughly rewarded as it is a truly rich and immersive book.  It is true that Peake’s language can be dense and indigestible at times but this is probably the price that needs to be paid for the almost three dimensional sense of his descriptive writing.  

This last instalment brings together many of the strands of the novel and leaves matters nicely poised with the main characters positioned by Peake almost as if they were pieces on a chess board.  Steerpike has succeeded in getting closer to the Groan family and, judging by this quote clearly has plans for both Fuchsia and Titus:

“Steerpike was watching Fuchsia through the branches.  She would be difficult, but it was only a matter of careful planning.  He must not hurry it.  Step by step…………….There was Titus, of course – but what were problems for if not to be solved.”

He is a most splendid villain and Peake has made him mesmerising, both to most of the castle’s inhabitants (Flay and Prunesquallor honourably excepted) and to the reader.  I desperately want him to get his just desserts but know that the books would be much duller without him.

The main theme of Titus Groan has been the tension between tradition and change.  Steerpike has been the main agent of change but in a purely personal fashion, indirectly provking the madness of Sepulchrave and hence his death.  At the end of the book, however, it feels as if another source of disruption is emerging.  Titus’ actions at the Earling clearly portend a breal in the numbing ritual of the castle and I hope that, as he grows, he will sweep away much of the must and rust of the castle.

One of my gripes about earlier sections of the book was the seemingly redundant sub-plot relating to Keda, the former wet nurse of young Titus but we can now begin to understand what Peake is trying to achieve as Titus, having cast aside his Earling props into the lake, faces Keda and her new-born – his foster-sister.  Maybe another symbolic theme is beginning here.  Titus, the product of a loveless but dutiful marriage and his foster-sister the product of Keda’s apparent love for both her suitors may come to be counterpointed as time passes.

As the first act of the Gormenghast novels comes to an end, the character who has grown emotionally and even morally the most is also my favourite, Fuchsia.  From her beginnings as a wild, unruly girl, she has grown over the book into a loving and caring young woman, trying to connect with her father through his madness, almost reversing roles with Nannie Slagg and even starting to take an interest in her little brother.  It is becoming increasingly apparent that a romantic sub-plot involving her and Steerpike will come to the fore and I fear for her – Steerpike does not strike me as a kindly or selfless lover.

There’s plenty to look forward to in Gormenghast.  As well as the above plot strands, the gruesome twosome of Cora and Clarice are still at large, a threat not only to Steerpike but also to everyone else in their simple malice.  Prunesquallor, another character who has grown in my estimation is slowly coming to suspect Steerpike.  We shall see whether he manages to do anything about him. And, finally, Lady Groan is threatening to take over the care of young Titus, something that would probably concern the Gormenghast regional social services office, if there were one.

There’s more going on in Gormenghast than in your average soap opera and it’s much better so why not join in the readalong as we start Gormenghast next week.

Further thoughts on Titus Groan can be found by:

1.         Jackie at Farm Lane Books;
2.         Margaret at Books Please; and
3.         Ellie at Curiosity Killed the Bookworm.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Top Ten Tuesday: Bookish Interwebby things

OK, I’m going to get it all out up front: this post is a big, fat fraud.  This week’s Top Ten Tuesday from the Broke and the Bookish is all about our top ten bookish websites, apps, thingummydoodles and wotsits.  I don’t have a top ten of these.  In fact, excluding other book blogs, I have the following:

1.         Amazon.  Sorry but I love the site.  And they are even on my phone.  Penury, thy name is Falaise!

2.         Alibris UK.  This is a jolly good online store for out of print and secondhand books in the UK.

3.         Fantastic Fiction.  Pick an author who writes or wrote in English and there’s a pretty good chance that they will be listed on here, with a potted biography and, more importantly, a complete bibliography.  Good for sad completists and order junkies like me.

4.         London Libraries Consortium.  This site has put online the entire library catalogues of 12 London boroughs.  You can make reservations and order books to borrow from all of them.  Excellent for book lovers in the participating boroughs.

5          Online newspaper review sections.  Oddly enough, I am not a fan of the Times book section online which is poor, despite being behind a pay wall.  I do like the Independent and the New York Times book sections.

And that is just about it.  I do apologise to any of you who dropped by in hope of finding a hidden Internet gem or a technological bookish diamond in the rough.  Nothing to be seen here, I’m afraid.  I’m just not very up to date with the online world.  I used to be a bit of an early adopter of technological things and always knew what was going on out there but now…..not so much.  Indeed, things are now so bad that I have had to lure you here into my web of techie uselessness to ask two questions.

Firstly, I have a Twitter account (@2606Books).  I’ve even followed a few people and posted a few Tweets but I’m a bit mystified.  What, actually, is it for?  What can I do with it?  And how do I find people on it?  By the way, feel free to follow me if you’d like.

Secondly, I’ve just signed up to Goodreads.  So far, I’ve wasted an enjoyable few minutes at work adding a few books to my shelf but other than acting as a geeky list type thing, again, what is it for and what can I do with it?  All suggestions (of a legal and painless nature) will be gratefully accepted.

I’d like to be better connected and I am enjoying looking at everyone else’s posts. So thank you for all your posts.  Next week, the topic is rebels in literature and, as I will be back on more solid ground, I promise to be more interesting.


Monday, June 27, 2011

2,560: Contested Will by James Shapiro

Thanks to James Shapiro’s Contested Will, I am more than a little relieved to announce that normal service has now been resumed in my mind.  After reading John Michell’s Who Wrote Shakespeare?, I went through a phase of Marlovianism, believing (or, at least, finding it amusing to believe) that Christopher Marlowe, despite his murder in 1593, was the real author of Shakespeare’s plays.  Now, fortunately, I’ve been pulled back from the distant shores of literary lunacy.

James Shapiro is a bona fide “Shakespeare Expert”, being a professor at Columbia University.  In Contested Will, he addresses the fascinating, if tendentious, subject of the Authorship Question.  The usual form for an author in  this field is, firstly, to dismiss the man from Stratford as the echt Shakespeare before trumpeting the qualifications of the author’s preferred candidate and creating some kind of conspiracy theory or circular argument to deal with any inconvenient problems with their pet theory.

The arguments against the man from Stratford tend to revolve around some or all of the following: there was little hagiography or commemoration of him in the immediate aftermath of his death; the author of the plays showed intimate knowledge of, inter alia, the law, Italy, France, falconry, sailing, military matters, which militates against the small-time business man and actor from Stratford; the “real” Shakespeare had an encyclopaedic knowledge of classics, whereas the man from Stratford was poorly educated; the absence of the man from Stratford’s own writing suggests that he may even have been illiterate; and, finally, the author Shakespeare was a man of lofty thoughts and morals, whereas the man from Stratford was a litigious and money-grabbing small time trader.

Having shown to their own satisfaction that the man from Stratford could not have written the works attributed to Shakespeare, the usual next step is to pick a candidate who seems to fit the bill better.  This is often done by imputing some autobiographical nature to the plays and then by twisting some facts to fit the case.  Finally, a more or less plausible story needs to be concocted to explain why the favoured candidate needed to publish under the name of Shakespeare rather than in his or her own name.  It’s even better if a secret code or some wordplay on the candidate’s name can be dredged up.  The poster boys for this technique are Sir Francis Bacon and the Earl of Oxford.  Both these have been touted as lost sons of Queen Elizabeth and, in the latter case, variations of  de Vere, the Oxfordian family name, have been found in the text of the plays – hardly surprising given the number of uses of words such as “ever” and “never”!

Shapiro takes a different approach to the question.  Instead of jumping into the plays and sonnets, he looks at the question through the prism of the lives and times of several of the more prominent anti-Stratfordians to show how they have affected the viewpoints of those writers.

Having refuted the very early claims against Shakespeare’s authorship, Shapiro shows how the influence of the emergence in the early 19th Century of the “Higher Criticism” theory, which used historical methods to examine authorship issues in texts, and its application to the Bible led inexorably to the questioning of the authorship of Shakespeare.  He then traces the history of the claims for Bacon and Oxford through the stories of their leading partisans before ably demonstrating why the criticisms of the man of Stratford as Shakespeare are misplaced.

Unlike many of Shapiro’s Shakespearean colleagues, he treats the authorship issue in a serious fashion, an approach which lends his conclusions even more force.  Shapiro’s views are largely centred around his knowledge of Elizabethan and Jacobean history and theatrecraft.  In particular, the arguments for the alternative Shakespeares depend upon the plays and sonnets being written from an autobiographical standpoint, a style of writing that Shapiro successfully argues was simply not common in Shakespeare’s time.  Shapiro does not deny that some of Shakespeare’s experiences and views would have come through but the extent of autobiography needed to support the alternatives goes way beyond this.

There is a huge amount of research and knowledge in this book and Shapiro writes in an entertainingly trenchant fashion, whilst dismissing the anti-Stratfordian arguments. His book is a great contribution to the debate and deserves to be read by everyone with an interest in the issue.  It has certainly changed my belief, not just by his examination of the evidence and his contextualisation of the times in which Shakespeare lived but also by his core belief, which he summarises thus:

“We can believe that Shakespeare himself thought that poets could give to ‘airy nothing’ a ‘local habitation and a name’. Or we can conclude that this ‘airy nothing’ turns out to be a disguised something that needs to be decoded, and that Shakespeare couldn’t imagine ‘the form of things unknown’ without having experienced them firsthand.  It is a stark and consequential choice.”

Denying the man of Stratford as Shakespeare is essentially to deny the power of imagination and creativity and to accept that one can only write about what one has experienced.  I don’t buy into that.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Gormenghast Readalong: Week Three of Titus Groan

As the library burned and as Steerpike’s face popped up at the window, ready to save the day, I had a momentary mind meld of the aforesaid villain and John “Hannibal” Smith of the A-Team and could almost see a thought bubble of “I love it when a plan comes together!” appearing above his head.

Things are going pretty well for the boy in this third instalment of the Gormenghast readalong, hosted by Jackie at Farm Lane Books.  If we remember that only a short while ago he was a ragged escapee from Swelter’s kitchen and now he has manipulated his way into the lives of Cora and Clarice, is seen as a hero for having rescued the family from the burning library and has had a piece of luck in seeing Flay, not one of his greatest fans, banished from the castle by Countess Groan.  Yet, it’s just not enough for him and he is already, I suspect, beginning to insinuate himself into Earl Groan’s favours by promising to sort everything out for the Breakfast as he and Prunesquallor are dismissed from Sepulchrave’s bedchamber.

It’s not going all his way, though.  The sisters are making rumbling noises about getting their prize for having burned the library, Prunesquallor is suspicious and I have a feeling we will be seeing more of Flay, despite his banishment.  More importantly, he has failed to anticipate the inevitable influence of tradition in the appointment of Barquentine to succeed his father, Sourdust, as Master of Ceremonies.  The theme of tradition and ritual runs through Titus Groan, as seen in the frequent mentions of some pointless ritual, its meaning forgotten but its performance prescribed.  Steerpike is an agent of change and revolution, an upstart breaking the bounds of precedent in the castle, but I wonder how he is going to continue his rise when the higher he goes, the stronger the weight of tradition and inheritance.

Steerpike is beginning to exercise a malign fascination for me, rather like the hypnotic sway of a rearing cobra.  He is ruthless, manipulative and deceitful.  And those are just his good points.  He is extremely dislikeable but you can’t help but watch him.

There is something ominous starting to happen between him and Fuchsia.  I am starting to feel quite paternal towards her.  She is starved of affection from her family with only Prunesquallor and the frankly deranged Nannie Slagg showing her any love and it is becoming increasingly clear that she is yearning to be loved.  I found that the scenes where she starts to connect with Sepulchrave through the shadow of his growing madness were touching and herein lies the danger.  Fuchsia is a romantic and I fear that, in this instalment, we are witnessing the first stirrings of love.  I am worried that she is starting to fall for the loathsome Steerpike.  He is adventurous, energetic, ambitious and “different”.  It’s Bad Boy Syndrome.  For his part, Steerpike is going out of his way to establish a relationship with her.  I want to shout, “No!!  He’s only going to hurt you!”  Not that it would do any good.  The omens are not looking good for Fuchsia I fear.

I am now completely hooked on this book, although the density of language lends itself to reading by instalment rather than ploughing through large chunks of it.  I still find Keda and her wretched suitors pointless and distracting, although I can dimly see how she, at any rate, may become significant.  We have found out from her encounter with the Old Man that she is pregnant.  Her child, when he or she is born will be a natural counterpoint to young Titus, whom Keda wet-nursed.  Maybe, there is some significance here that will give Keda’s fictional existence some reason.

I am torn between wanting to see Steerpike get his comeuppance and wanting to see how he manages to acquire more power in the castle.  We can, I think, also look forward to seeing more of the Flay-Swelter grudge match and the continuing descent of Sepulchrave into madness.  Maybe he will hurl himself off a battlement, thinking he is an owl?  My only worry is that Fuchsia will not be able to see through Steerpike.  We shall see.

Further thoughts on this week’s instalment can be found by:

1.                  Jackie at Farm Lane Books; and
2.                  Bellezza at Dolce Bellezza.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

2,561: Field Grey by Philip Kerr

There’s a sub-set of the crime/spy/thriller genre that comprises novels set in Europe either just before or during the Second World War.  A typical example would involve an ambiguous, morally compromised hero (although “hero” may be too loaded a word; “protagonist” may be more accurate) who tries to maintain his values amidst the political upheavals of Central Europe or the totalitarian regimes of Germany and the Soviet Union.  The star writers of this sub-genre are the likes of Alan Furst, David Downing and Philip Kerr.

The hero of Kerr’s series is Bernie Gunther.  Bernie has spent much of the ‘30s as a senior officer in Berlin’s Kripo, the police agency responsible for investigating “ordinary” (as opposed to “political”) crime.  Struggling to maintain his integrity and professionalism as the Kripo becomes increasingly politicised as the Nazis gain power, he eventually can’t stomach any more and leaves, setting up his own private detective agency.  At other points in his pre-War career, he is also Head of Security at the Hotel Adlon.

Philip Kerr wrote the first three Bernie Gunther books 20 years or so ago and, having written ten other novels and tried to break into Hollywood in the interim, returned to him in 2006.  Since then, he has added a further four instalments to the series, with another, Prague Fatale, due out this autumn.  My love for this series can be seen in the fact that I have already pre-ordered a copy (and should some enterprising publisher’s PR person wish, I would be only to happy to review a pre-publication copy – I can always dream!).

Field Grey opens in the familiar Kerr style.  Gunther, who could easily have stepped straight out of the pages of a Raymond Chandler novel, is in pre-Castro Havana, still exiled from Germany, where he is (unfairly) wanted as a war criminal.  However, it soon becomes clear that this is not another detective story with a period setting.  In fact, the ostensible plot, the tracking down and identification of a French war criminal, Edgard de Boudel, is all but discarded and takes up a relatively small part of the book. Although I would not have minded another Bernie Gunther detective story at all, what Kerr has done in Field Grey is altogether less expected and, really quite brave.

The core of the story is the twisted relationship Bernie has with one Erich Mielke (yes, the Erich Mielke who became Head of the East German Stasi), a Communist whom Bernie rescues from a Nazi gang in 1930 and subsequently encounters during and after the War.  As the book progresses, their relationship becomes more and more important, until, by the end, it is clear that it has been the centre of the story.  What this permits Kerr to do, though, is to tell for the first time the story of what Bernie Gunther actually did during the Second World War.  Up to now, each of Kerr’s stories has been set either before or after the War and Bernie’s wartime exploits have only been alluded to.

It is brave of Kerr to do this because, you see, Bernie Gunther spent part of his War as a member of an SS police battalion on the Eastern Front. All of a sudden, Good Old Bernie, the professional policeman who kept his moral compass amidst the evil of the Nazi regime, starts to appear a lot less sympathetic.  Kerr faces up to this and, although he makes it clear that Bernie was not involved in the murder of Jews or any part of the Holocaust, objects to the atrocities being carried out in Russia and is removed from that theatre by his ex-boss, Kerr is prepared to allow Bernie to have killed Russian partisans.

This could have been a death blow for Kerr’s series.  If the tale of Bernie’s service in Russia had been botched, Bernie’s character could have been tarnished so badly that he would no longer have been viable as the hero of the series.  Instead, he is tarnished but to a degree and in a manner that has enabled him to maintain our sympathy and engagement whilst adding another layer to the book’s central theme.

Field Grey is, at its heart, an examination of the moral grey areas that arise for individuals seeking to survive in the midst of war and the clash of totalitarian ideologies.  Bernie is a compromised man.  He ha not come out of the War wholly clean.  He has sacrificed part of his soul and his self-respect for physical survival but also for the preservation of his basic inner beliefs.  He has accepted being pushed and treated as a pawn by the forces of Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, the CIA and the French but has somehow come out alive, bloodied, damaged but not destroyed.

To be honest, Kerr is not in the same class as either le Carré or even Alan Furst when it comes to dealing with moral ambiguities and there are also a number of irritating jumps and cutaways from one time and place to another, which disrupt the flow of the story.  Nevertheless, Field Grey was a gripping and interesting read and another great instalment in the Bernie Gunther saga.

One word of advice:  I suspect that Kerr originally meant the series to be the trilogy he wrote 20 years ago and so the stories jump around in terms of time and place.  Although you can read them out of order or as standalone pieces, I would recommend that you read them in order.  And read them you should.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Gormenghast Readalong: Week Two of Titus Groan

If the first part of Titus Groan is the set-up, an exposition of the setting and the introduction of the main dramatis personae, then this second instalment of the Gormenghast readalong, hosted by Jackie at Farm Lane Books, starts to position the characters and set up what promises to be a key set piece in the book, the burning of Lord Sepulchrave's library.

Some of the characters, such as Rottcodd, Sourdust and even the Earl and Countess are moved into the background, with Sepulchrave in particular beginning to fill a role as someone around whom the action revolves rather than a protagonist himself.  By contrast, the oleaginous and increasingly ominous Steerpike has moved front and centre stage and much of our second instalment is concerned with the way he stealthily claws his way up from lost kitchen boy to having a Svengali-like hold over Sepulchrave’s sisters.  Indeed, I can see a parallel between the way Peake moves his characters around the imposing stage of Gormenghast and the way that Steerpike manipulates the other inhabitants of the castle to enable his plans to come to fruition.

Another sub-plot that is slowly starting to heat up is the Flay-Swelter feud.  This one kicked off in the first instalment with Flay giving Swelter a lashing with his chain of office and is now motoring along with Swelter sharpening his knife and practising his stalking.  I am looking forward very much to seeing who is going to come out on top in this grudge match.

There’s a pleasing increase in momentum in this second part and I am now totally sucked in.  Plots are beginning to coalesce and Steerpike’s progress is dreadful in its fascination.  Lies, theft, manipulation and now arson.  What is he going to do to top that?  And what on earth is he going to do with the purloined swordstick?

What is truly impressive is the way Peake is holding my attention and interest in what, let’s face it, is a pretty unappetising collection of characters.  Even Keda, previously the most sympathetic character, is starting to morph into something much less attractive with the way she has treated her suitors on her return to the village of the Dwellers.

Actually, I wish that Peake had not bothered with the whole Keda sub-plot.  It doesn’t feel like a natural part of the book and doesn’t seem to add anything to the main narrative.  I didn’t want to bring in another Tolkien reference but I find Keda a bit like Tom Bombadil, an exercise in pointlessness, the excision of whom would not subtract anything of value from the narrative.  I now await the wrath of Keda and Tom fans everywhere!

There are a couple of other small quibbles – I find that Peake’s writing style doesn’t deal particularly well with changes of pace and Steerpike’s ascent has been a little too quick for my imagination to accept fully.  These are minor, however, and I am now thoroughly enjoying Titus Groan, something I didn’t think would happen at the beginning of the readalong.

Week two thoughts can also by found by:

  1. Helen, guesting at Farm Lane Books; and
  2. Bellezza at Dolce Bellezza.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

2,562: Shakespeare on Toast by Ben Crystal

I very nearly didn’t read this book.  Having unwrapped it from its Amazon packaging, I casually gave the back cover a glance, just to see what the blurbs said and saw this quote from BBC Radio 5:

“the Jamie Oliver of Shakespeare.”

It was fortunate that there wasn’t a wastepaper bin within easy throwing range or you may very well have been reading something else on this page today.  It’s not that I have anything in particular against the aforesaid Saint Jamie of Oliver.  I appreciate that he is very well-meaning and has been prepared to put his money where his mouth is when it comes to his causes.  I’m even happy to say that he has done a great deal to improve the diets of British schoolchildren (often against their will!) and to encourage proper home cooking, something that can only be applauded in our age of ready meals and fast food.  It’s just that the cheeky chappy manner and the toe-curling catchphrases make me want to kick a hole in the TV screen.  I swear to God that if I hear the words, “pukka” or “delish” one more time, I may swallow my own tongue in disgust.

You see, Jamie Oliver is actually a very smart guy.  He runs successful restaurants, is a brand in himself and has been a mainstay of UK television for over a decade.  He’s nobody’s fool.  Yet, he insists on acting like a teenager.  A pretty decent teenager, I will admit, and not one of your feral hoodied yobbo teenagers but, nevertheless, a teenager.  I also feel uncomfortable when I see him being all matey and concerned on TV with people who will never even have a tiny fraction of his estimated £106 million fortune.  I don’t begrudge him a single penny of it – I just find the mateyness a bit false.

Anyway, as I said, there wasn’t a wastepaper bin to hand and so I decided to read Shakespeare on Toast rather than consigning it to the recycling.  And I’m so glad I did.

Ben Crystal is an actor and also the son of David Crystal, a renowned British linguist, who has also written about Shakespeare’s language.  As well as acting, Crystal has carved out a career in running workshops and broadcasting about Shakespeare, with the intention of demystifying him and making him more accessible to modern audiences and in Shakespeare on Toast, he attempts to do so in print.

Crystal believes that the key to understanding Shakespeare’s plays lies in an understanding of their context.  He sees the plays as, essentially, manuals, telling Elizabethan actors how to perform their parts.  If we have a small amount of background knowledge of the Elizabethan theatre and how plays were published and performed and we keep this in the back of our minds, all should become clear.

Shakespeare on Toast, therefore, gives us a quick tour of life for an Elizabethan dramatist, actor and theatre-goer to set the backdrop to Shakespeare’s plays.  It then proceeds to discuss Shakespeare’s language in an attempt to dispel the common notion that it is “difficult” for a 21st Century reader to understand.  Crystal does this very successfully, pointing out, for example, that 95% of the words used in Shakespeare’s plays are exactly the same as they are today.  He also reveals how an understanding of the use of “thou” and “you” can increase one’s appreciation of the plays.

Having dealt with Shakespeare’s language, Crystal then explains Shakespeare’s use of verse, setting out Shakespeare’s hierarchy, wherein prose sits at the bottom, tending to be used for prosaic and unemotional speech, topped by blank verse, then rhyming verse, sonnet and, finally, song.  Having explained with this, there is an extensive consideration of Shakespeare’s use of the iambic pentameter, why it is so wonderful, how Shakespeare riffs on the form like Miles Davis and, finally, how Shakespeare, known for the lack of stage directions in his plays, gives his instructions to his actors through the structure of the verse itself.

This discussion of the iambic pentameter was the real eye-opener for me.  When I was doing my Latin O-level, many, many years ago, one part of the exam paper always asked you to scan a few lines of Latin verse, to mark in the stresses and caesuras and to identify whether it was iambic pentameter or hexameter.  It is actually possible to do this with no understanding of verse or verse structure at all, provided you followed a few simple rules.  As such, the question became an exercise in deduction rather than language or literature.  Crystal’s discussion of Shakespeare’s verse has transformed my understanding of this and I can now see exactly what I should have been seeing all those years ago.

The final part of Shakespeare on Toast has Crystal putting everything together in a fascinating analysis of one of the key speeches in Macbeth.  It’s a real tour de force.

Crystal has the knack of explaining seemingly difficult concepts in a simple and entertaining manner.  He is also clever enough to slip in plenty of Shakespeare trivia among the analysis and explanation to keep things nice and light.

I think this book is wonderful.  I have learned plenty from it and I suspect anyone other than an English literature academic would do the same.  If, in the years to come, mini-Falaise is struggling with Shakespeare, I will simply reach for the shelves and hand her this book.  I reckon it should be compulsory reading for all teenagers studying Shakespeare and so, for that, Saint Jamie of the Bard gets my vote.

Monday, June 13, 2011

The Books of my Life III

This particular instalment of my irregular series of posts on books that bear special memories for me is a bit of a cheat.  A stretching of definitions to breaking point, if you will.  I’m not actually writing about a book, you see.  I’m writing about a play and not even the script or a stage performance.  I’m writing about a film of a play.

To really get a sense of the time and the place of this one, you have to imagine yourself back in the early 1980s.  It was the time of Duran Duran, the Eurythmics and Culture Club, the era of Magnum, Dallas and the A-Team.  If you were around then, you were probably wearing ripped sweatshirts, shoulder pads or even the dreaded stretch pinstripe jeans.  I say “you” were probably wearing these as I was stuck in a small, country boarding school wearing a tweed jacket and a shirt and tie six days of the week.

And in the midst of the light and frothy pop culture that had emerged from the gloom and doom of the recessionary ‘70s, our English teacher, let’s call him Mr Chicken (as he had a twitch reminiscent of a chicken pecking at the ground as well as a faint whiff of fried chicken about him), had just about recovered from introducing our class of 14-year olds to Shakespeare through a reading of Twelfth Night.

To be honest, it hadn’t gone all that well, although even now, having never read it again since that time, I can still recite the first few lines. In any case, it had proved not to be the kind of fare that was going to get our class of teenage boys hooked on Shakespeare.

Mr Chicken was a pretty good teacher and a supportive and kindly man.  He loved literature and obviously wanted us to appreciate Shakespeare at least a little and preferably enough to get us decent grades in our English Literature O-level.

So, one morning we trooped in to our English classroom to see that a TV and video had been set up.  It was not unheard of to get to watch a TV programme of film in class, although it was pretty rare and usually seen as a chance to have a snooze.  As such, it was a happy form of boys that settled into their chairs.

The classroom lights were turned off and the TV turned on.  We saw a beach and witches digging a hole in the sand and burying a man’s arm.  Soon after, we got a scene in which a naked young witch beckons a man into a hovel in which there are a whole host of naked witches.

It was, of course, Polanski’s version of Macbeth.  From this provocative start, we got huges slabs of the macabre, of gore and, yes, THAT scene.  Lady Macbeth’s naked sleepwalking scene.  From the first few minutes, we were hooked.  Let’s face it, nudity, violence and mayhem – exactly what you want to put in a film to grab the attention of the average teenage boy.

It was Mr Chicken’s master-stroke.  Over the next few weeks, we finished watching the film and then read the play in class.  We didn’t just read it, discuss it and enjoy it, we got it.  Shakespeare would never be the same again.

I’ve not come across a performance or film of a Shakespeare play that has had the same lasting impact as Macbeth, although seeing Ian McKellen in Richard III at the National Theatre came close and, after all this time and having read many more of the plays, Macbeth is still my favourite.  I have absolutely no idea whether I would have got into Shakespeare after the failed Twelfth Night experiment if the next attempt had been Othello, Romeo and Juliet or one of the histories.  Fortunately, I don’t have to worry about that, thanks to Mr Chicken’s brainwave.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Gormenghast Readalong: Week One of Titus Groan

Jackie at Farm Lane Books has taken on the thankless task of hosting a positively huge summer readalong of Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy, comprising Titus Groan, Gormenghast and Titus Alone.  The timing of the readalong is, intentionally I am sure, very timely.  2011 is the centenary of Mervyn Peake’s birth and, in addition to the publication by the British Library of Peake’s Progress, a selection of his writings, edited by his widow, Maeve Gilmore, will also see the release this month of Titus Awakes, a fourth Gormenghast book.  Titus Awakes was largely written by Gilmore, using notes left by Peake and was discovered last year by their granddaughter in an attic.

The Gormenghast trilogy centres on the inhabitants of Gormenghast Castle, a huge Gothic pile, within whose walls a largely self-contained society lives, governed by Sepulchrave, 76th Earl of Groan.  Week 1 of the readalong takes us through the first 100 pages or so of Titus Groan, the first in the trilogy.  The eponymous Titus is the newborn heir to the Earldom of Groan and the book opens with Flay, the chief servant of Lord Sepulchrave, making a trip to announce the birth of Titus to Rottcodd, curator of the Hall of Bright Carvings.

I have to confess here that I tried to read Titus Groan many years ago when I was at school and failed miserably, giving up after only a few pages.  The novel is slow moving and much of the first part of the book is given over to scene setting, introducing a number of characters and describing parts of the castle itself.  Indeed, the castle is almost a character in itself and is the centre of the lives of all of its inhabitants.

Peake was an artist and illustrator, first and foremost, and, so far, the descriptive passages of the book are incredibly visual, richly detailed in an almost textural manner.  Peake’s use of language is extraordinary and lends itself perfectly to the depth of imagery so far.  In particular, there is a passage describing the scenes in the kitchens of Gormenghast after Titus’ birth that is so vivid and visceral that I could almost smell and taste the atmosphere.

Having said that, if I’m being totally honest, part of the reason I gave up on Titus Groan the first time around was that there was so much description that not a great deal else was actually happening.  I’m glad I persevered this time though as I’m really starting to get immersed in Peake’s world and am taking the time to enjoy the text.

I’ve also been struck by the near-Dickensian names he gives his characters – Sourdust, Prunesquallor, Steerpike – and the subtle counterpointing of humour and darkness.  Ultimately, Gormenghast appears to be the home of grotesques and I am finding it hard at this point to empathise or identify with any of the main characters.  Titus, who is clearly intended to be the main protagonist of the trilogy, is only a newborn Keda, his wet nurse, who is the only near-normal character so far, is actually just a little bit boring.  The joy and fascination of the book is that of observing the workings of the castle and witnessing the slow development of characters like Steerpike, a fiercely ambitious kitchen boy.  He is starting to show a level of cunning and manipulation that holds out the promise of him becoming a wonderful villain.

Peake is often compared to Tolkien and described as a fantasy writer.  There are, however, fundamental differences between their approaches to fantasy.  So far (and I have no reason to suppose that this will change), there is no magic in Peake.  There are no orcs, elves or wizards.  It appears that any evil will come from inside the human characters rather than from an external, magical agent.  To that extent, I would query whether Peake should be described as a fantasy writer, rather than a writer of the gothic fantastic.  I actually feel uncomfortable with the notion of Tolkien and Peake being put in the same category.

Some commentators have gone as far as to say that if you like one you can’t (or won’t) like the other.  This premise must be wrong but I can see a kernel of truth in it.  Tolkien’s world is an open, expansive world.  His world is full of woods and animals, mountains and open plains.  He peopled his world with different races and species (largely so he could develop his created languages) and he drew detailed maps of countries and lands.

As far as I can tell (and these are early days), Peake, on the other hand, looks inward.  His world is largely enclosed within the castle walls and even the outside world is referenced by its relationship to the castle.  His focus seems darker and lies on the natures of his characters.

The next resting point in the readalong is next Wednesday and will take us another 100 or so pages on in the narrative.  I am intrigued to see what will transpire.

If you want to read more first week thoughts, please visit:
  1. Jackie at Farm Lane Books;
  2. Bellezza at Dolce Bellezza;
  3. Margaret at Books Please; and
  4. Birdie at Birdie's Nest

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Literary Blog Hop: What Influences My Reading?

Literary Blog Hop
This week’s Literary Blog Hop, from the Blue Bookcase asks:

What other outside influences affect your reading experience? Do you think these influences enhance or detract from the experience?”

I believe that there are a whole range of factors that influence my choice of reading material.  Firstly, there are the wholly external and environmental factors.  As I’ve mentioned before, if I am travelling, I like to read something that relates to the place I am travelling to.  The weather can also affect my reading choices – I am far more likely to pick up a detective story or a “feel good” kind of book if it is a cold, dark and miserable day outside.  Conversely, I feel much more capable of dealing with emotional and dark reading material when the sun is out.

There is another set of influences that affect my choice of reading material.  I’ll term them “external” for this post, although, in reality, they are internal to me.  These are the things that are temporary but which have an impact on my choices.  For example, I am prone to bouts of gloom and doom.  It would be insulting to true sufferers to term them bouts of depression but they are spells where the black dog comes to visit and I have difficulty in seeing the positive side of life.  I am lucky to have wonderful people like Mrs Falaise and mini-Falaise around me so these moods don’t tend to last for long but, while I am in one, I will always choose to read familiar books and books that don’t demand too much emotional investment.  I often choose to read escapist books that can transport my mind and imagination to exciting and remote times and places so as to distract myself from real life.

I’m also the kind of person that dives deep into subjects when my interest is piqued or when I am reminded of subjects or topics that I enjoy.  As an illustration of this, around a month ago, Lifetime Reader posted a couple of posts discussing a book on Shakespeare that she had been reading.  I used to enjoy reading and watching Shakespeare when I was younger but haven’t really read any for years.  Having read her posts, I recalled that I had a copy of John Michell’s Who wrote Shakespeare? on my TBR pile.  This then lead me to a book buying session and further reading and I now have two more posts on Shakespeare themed books, three more books about Shakespeare at the top of the TBR pile and a new copy of Polanski’s version of Macbeth to watch.  I suppose this kind of influence is external but not environmental.  However I categorise it, it is a very powerful kind of influence for me.

The final set of influences that tend to affect my reading choices are those that are internal and more or less permanent.  These, if you like, are the influences of my character on my reading.  On the whole, these tend to be more permissive than limiting.  Since mini-Falaise’s birth, I have become much more sensitised to books which revolve around graphic descriptions of children suffering or whose plots revolve around child murder or abduction.

I don’t think that the influences that lead me to choose one book over another then either enhance or detract from my reading.  If I have chosen to read a book because it has been recommended or because everyone is raving about it, I tend to be able to approach it on its own terms and not to be over-expectant for it.  Equally, if my mood or the outside world has affected the book I choose to read, then it is the choice of book that is affected and not the enjoyment of the book I ultimately read.

I think it is impossible for anyone’s choices of reading matter not to be affected by a whole host of influences.  In part, this is what defines us as individual readers and helps us form our own sets of critical filters for the books we choose.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

2,563: The Shakespeare Curse by JL Carrell

As you will know, if you read my post on JL Carrell’s first Shakespearean novel, I wasn’t overly impressed.  Nevertheless, I’ve recently been in the mood for easy, throwaway reads and so I downloaded the sequel, The Shakespeare Curse, onto my Kindle.  And you know what?  It wasn’t bad at all.

The novel centres around Macbeth, which gave it added appeal to me because Macbeth is my favourite Shakespeare play.  Carrell’s heroine from her previous book, the Shakespearean director, Kate Stanley, makes a return appearance when she is asked by Athenaide Preston, another returning character, to pay a visit to Lady Nairn, a glamorous Scottish aristocrat.

Lady Nairn, it transpires, was a famous actress before her marriage and her family home is, in fact, the very same Dunsinane Castle that housed the Macbeths.  She and her late husband, Sir Angus, had amassed a collection of artefacts relating to Macbeth and, following his recent death, Lady Nairn wants Kate to direct a memorial performance of Macbeth.

Soon, the cast and crew of the play are gathered at Dunsinane, where a series of strange events occur, which Lady Nairn believes are somehow linked to her belief that Shakespeare wrote an earlier version of Macbeth than the one in the First Folio, a version that included a genuine black magic ritual.

Murder and mayhem ensues and, as in Carrell’s previous novel, the bodies start piling up and Stanley is once again propelled into a search for a lost Shakespeare manuscript.  Carrell stirs in liberal quantities of Wicca, Dr John Dee, Shakespearean trivia, occult themes and, makes good use of the alleged curse of Macbeth and Shakespeare’s lost years.

As with The Shakespeare Secret, the reader is expected to undertake a huge suspension of belief, helped only by the pacing of the book and Carrell’s characterisation is still as wooden as the Birnam oak itself.  Carrell also makes use of a number of the plot devices of her earlier novel, including the “good” character who turns out to be “evil”.  This particular device may explain some of the poor characterisation as Carrell needs to avoid making the twist either too obvious or too implausible.  There is also an unnecessary sub-plot involving her companion and sometime lover from The Shakespeare Secret, Ben Pearl, which crosses the line from pointless to annoying when his new lover is found murdered and he seems to recover from it in five minutes flat, showing virtually no grief or sadness at her death.  This was jarring in and threatened to break my ability to cope with the general implausibility of the plot.

Nevertheless, contrary to a number of other reviewers, I found The Shakespeare Curse to be a improvement on The Shakespeare Secret.  Firstly, Carrell has resisted the temptation to overegg her pudding with too much Shakespeariana, which means the plot is less cluttered.  She has also managed to suppress her pedagogical instinct and there is less exposition than in the earlier book.  I suspect that some readers may find the occult theme and, especially, the suggestion that Shakespeare had undergone a black magic ritual that gave him his talent, just a little too much too swallow.  If you come to it with the presumption that it is a fun novel and not to be taken seriously, however, you hopefully won’t have this problem.

I believe that JL Carrell is currently working on a new novel, historical this time and not featuring Kate Stanley, Ben Pearl or William Shakespeare.  While I wish her luck with that, I do hope that she returns to the Shakespearean theme before too long as, despite their flaws, her novels have been good fun to read.