Wednesday, July 27, 2011

2,555: Gormenghast Readalong: Week Four of Gormenghast

What is it with Mervyn Peake?  He just can’t seem to stop himself killing off major characters.  Just cast your mind back to the beginning of Titus Groan and compare the cast list to those still standing at the end of Gormenghast.  There are crime and horror writers out there who’d be proud of this kind of body count.  You’ve basically just got Titus, the Countess, the Prunesquallors and Rottcodd left and, let’s face it, only Titus and the Countess have really been central to the story.

In a way, I’m a little uneasy about beginning Titus Alone as we near the final part of the Gormenghast Readdalong.  There is something so final and so appropriate about the ending of Gormenghast that I have a feeling Titus Alone may feel a bit unnecessary, a drag on the first two books.  We’ve seen Titus from birth to adulthood, striding out from a storm-drenched Götterdämmerung into the wider world, having thrown off the shackles of Gormenghast’s deadly ritual.  I’m not convinced that his next steps won’t, in hindsight, reduce the impact of the climax of Gormenghast.

Having said that, I’m not actually greatly impressed with young Titus.  As I said in my post on Jackie’s Farm Lane Books Blog last week, I have trouble with Titus’ selfish impulse to run away from his responsibilities.  Yes, I know that he is young.  Yes, I know that the dead hand of tradition must have been weighing heavily on him but I can’t help feeling that he should have stayed and used his position as Earl Groan to begin to change things.  I feel more strongly about this now that we know that he is viewed as a hero by the castle community for the killing of Steerpike.  He must have been able to take advantage of this goodwill to instigate some changes.  Instead, he chooses to leave, to venture out into the world.  Perhaps the loss of Fuchsia broke the final emotional tie to the castle.

I’m also struck by the almost organic way in which old habits and customs reassert themselves in the castle after the storms, the folds and the deaths.  The Poet assumes the role of Keeper of Ritual that Sourdust, Barquentine and Steerpike had all held (I wonder if he had any second thoughts, given the grisly ends his predecessors came to?) and begins to make matters even more elaborate.  At the very end, there’s a palpable sense that the very castle itself is exert itself to make things fall back to the way they were.  Almost as if the castle were healing itself.  I wonder if Titus Alone will feature the castle at all.  I’d like to see what happens there as well as what happens to Titus.

Another thing that has jumped out at me in this last part of Gormenghast is the Icarus-like nature of Steerpike’s fall.  Having plotted, manipulated and killed his way to the top, his hubris at trying to seduce Fuchsia and wanting to kill and replace Titus has attracted the wrath of Gormenghast’s gods and his descent into disgrace, madness and death follows inevitably.  There’s also a nice symmetry to his death.  At the start of Titus Groan, he uses the ivy on the castle walls to help him climb up and away from the kitchens.  At the end of Gormenghast, he is slain while hiding amongst the outgrowth on the castle wall.

The most striking part of the book, however, was not, for me, any of the set pieces or big deaths.  It was this small gesture:

“The face of the Countess showed nothing, but once she drew the corner of the sheet up a little further over Fuchsia’s shoulder, with an infinite gentleness, as though she feared her child might feel the cold and so must take the risk of waking her.”

For so much of the story, the Countess has been portrayed as feeling nothing for her children but here, at the end of things, no words are necessary.  I guess that all of us who are parents will have done this, or something similar to our sleeping children, pulling a cover up, tucking a stray limb back into bed or brushing an unruly mop of hair away from a small, sleeping face. I’ve certainly done it on many nights.   With everything that’s been in the news over the past few days, I’ve had cause to spend time reflecting on how heart-rending the loss of a child must be and so, when I read this sentence, I felt a lump in my throat. The Countess didn’t need to say anything but, with this single action, I felt her love for Fuchsia and her grief.

Gormenghast has been moving and thrilling – Titus Alone has a hard act to follow.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Choose a million books to give away on World Book Night 2012

Following the success of World Book Night 2011, during which 1 million copies of 25 titles were given away to members of the British public (and I scored a free set of the chosen 25 from the Times), World Book Night 2012 has been scheduled, appropriately enough, for April 23rd 2012, the same day as UNESCO’s International Day of the Book (presumably a little like the Day of the Jackal without the killings and the assassination attempts).

This year, the 25 titles that were given away were chosen by an expert panel of authors, publishers, booksellers and other figures from the literary world.  A panel will again select the final 25 titles for next year’s event but there will be a large amount of input from us, the reading public.

Everyone who registers on the World Book Night website will have the opportunity to submit a list of their ten favourite books (fiction or non-fiction).  Following the cu-off date of 31st August for submissions, the 100 most popular choices will form a long list which will then be cut down to the chosen 25 by the learned panel in the autumn.  It is likely that they will have the latitude to go off piste for a few of the selections but, for the most part, what the UK public chooses will form the backbone of the final selection.

The World Book Night organisation has just released the current Hot 100 in order of popularity and it makes for interesting reading.  As at this afternoon, the Top Ten  comprises:

1.         To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee
2.         Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen
3.         The Lord of the Rings – J.R.R. Tolkien
4.         The Book Thief – Markus Zusak
5.         American Gods – Neil Gaiman
6.         The Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams
7.         Jane Eyre – Charlotte Brontë
8.         The Time Traveler’s Wife – Audrey Niffenegger
9.         Good Omens – Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman
10.       Wuthering HeightsEmily Brontë

With a couple of hardy perennials like Tolkien, Austen and Brontë, the Top Ten doesn’t bear a huge amount of resemblance to most UK “Top Books” lists I’ve seen, which do normally seem to be quite consistent.  I don’t know whether it is down to the kind of self-selecting voter for World Book Night, the relatively small sample size so far or some other reason but it is quite striking.  Maybe people are selecting books they would want others to read and not just their own personal favourites.  It is also interesting that Harry Potter only comes in at number 11 at present – I would have expected it to be significantly higher.

Some other interesting statistics (as at today):

Number of titles voted for: 4814
Number of titles with more than 1 vote: 943
Number of non-fiction titles in top 100: 2
Number of children's books in top 100: 3
Number of 'classics' in top 100: 25
Author with most books on the list: Neil Gaiman
Authors with more than 1 book on the list: Neil Gaiman, Jane Austen, Margaret Atwood, Kazuo Ishiguro, Haruki Murakami, Ian McEwan, JRR Tolkien, Khaled Hosseini, Terry Pratchett
Number of authors in top 100: 85

I haven’t yet submitted my Top Ten but will be doing so before my summer holiday at the end of August.  As you’d expect, my thinking on this is constantly shifting but my current proposed selection is, in no particular order:

1.         The Lord of the Rings – J.R.R. Tolkien
2.         The Mating Season – P.G. Wodehouse
3.         The Sword of Honour Trilogy – Evelyn Waugh
4.         James and the Giant Peach – Roald Dahl
5.         The Name of the Rose – Umberto Eco
6.         The Dark is Rising cycle – Susan Cooper
7.         Animal Farm – George Orwell
8.         A Study in Scarlet Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
9.         Dracula – Bram Stoker
10.       The Dumas Club – Arturo Perez Reverte

I think this is quite a nice list and I hope some of them get onto the final 25 (or at least the Top 100).  But what do you think?  I will reserve the last place on my Top Ten list for a wild card selection from you.  Comment and tell me a book that you think should be on my list and which of my list you would replace it with.  The best (in my not so humble opinion) idea will replace one of my choices.  

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Gormenghast Readalong: Week Three of Gormenghast

Last week, the minor inconveniences of having to earn a living and wanting to spend some quality time with my family meant that I got woefully behind with the Gormenghast schedule and so I didn’t post.

This week, I caught up and am guest posting on Jackie’s Farm Lane Books blog.  If you would like to hear my thoughts and join in the discussion, click HERE.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Top Ten Tuesday: Books for Teenagers

My teenage years were probably the best years I’ve had so far when it comes to reading.  I had time, I had an inquisitive mind, I was in an academic environment where I was encouraged to read outside the narrow confines of my school subjects and, most importantly, I had access to a huge range of books through my school (and later university) library, home library, the generosity of my parents and the kindness of many of my school teachers.  I read countless books, from timeless classics to total trash, from books of great learning to, well, more total trash.  There are books that have stayed with me for decades and books that I forgot as soon as I closed them.  In brief, how on earth can I comply with the demand of the Broke and the Bookish to list just ten books that every teen should read.  I mean, really?  Just ten?

I’m sure they would be happy if I listed twenty, or fifty, or even more but I don’t have the time or, frankly, the inclination.  So, ten will be your lot.  They probably wouldn’t all be in my real top ten, if it were possible for me ever to define a top ten but they are all books that I would recommend to a bright and inquisitive teen.  Mini-Falaise has a decade to go before she hits her teens but I am already contemplating what should be on our shelves for her entertainment and edification.

I've inmposed one rule on myself, as the universe of choices is so large and have restricted myself only to books I had actually read before the age of 18.  So, eyes down and off we go:

1.         The Collected Works of William Shakespeare.  Why?  Because all life can be found within these pages.  Love, hate, ambition, jealousy, sacrifice and loads more besides.  He enriched the English language and left a huge legacy to Western culture.  Look, he was English but the French are still prepared to like him!

2.         1984 by George Orwell.  Why?  Because every generation needs to be reminded of the importance of free will and freedom and the dangers of state power.

3.         The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien  Why?  Because I believe that teenagers should be encouraged to imagine and to escape and LotR is an incredibly textured and detailed imaginary world in which a teenager can immerse him or herself and escape from the trials and tribulations of growing up for a while.

4.         The Diary of Anne Frank.  Why?  Because we all need to be reminded of both the best and the worst of human nature and they are both present in this book.

5.         Animal Farm by George Orwell.  Why? Because the earlier a teen learns that power tends to corrupt and that the noble aims of revolution have a tendency to wither, the better.  And it’s also a good, coded history lesson.  I’m not embarrassed about listing Orwell twice – I believe he is that important.

6.         Dracula by Bram Stoker.  Why?  Because, if you’re going to get all gothic and vampy, you might as well read the lodestone, the Ur-vampire rather than any of its pale imitators.  I’m prepared to make an exception for Anne Rice but that’s the limit.

7.         The Great Railway Bazaar by Paul Theroux.  Why?  Because he writes like a dream and I want my imaginary teen to know that there’s a big world out there to be explored and that they should feel empowered to board that train or to step down that road to see what’s there.  If Theroux irritates you, feel free to sub in Jupiter’s Travels or anything by Thubron, Leigh-Fermor, Lewis or Newby.  But Theroux is the best.

8.         All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque.  Why?  Because an entire generation of young men was cut down before they had a chance to live and it’s wrong.

9.         The Mating Season by P.G. Wodehouse.  Why?  Because being a teenager can be difficult and sometimes quite lonely so I’d like to give the gift of something that is pure happiness and joy to my young teen and Wodehouse is sublime.  There’s also a sneaky educational thing there too as Wodehouse is an exquisite stylist.  You could substitute almost anything he ever wrote other than his school stories, which are relatively lifeless.

10.       If This Is a Man by Primo Levi.  Called Survival in Auschwitz in the USA, this is such an incredibly powerful recording of the horrors of the death camps that I think everyone should read it at least once.  If you like, feel free to substitute Night by Elie Wiesel or, for a different camp system, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn.

I said at the beginning that ten books were too few for a list like this and I feel even more strongly about that now.  There are literally dozens of books that are leaping into the forefront of my mind.  Perhaps we should have a collective effort to create a definitive list of books for teens to get their teeth into – maybe 1,001 Books to Read Before you’re 18?

Monday, July 18, 2011

2,556: Master and Commander by Patrick O'Brian

When I was younger, I read and thoroughly enjoyed the Sharpe series by Bernard Cornwell, a cycle of books following the career of Richard Sharpe, a working class lad who starts his military career as a private in Britain’s Napoleonic-era army and ends up as a Lieutenant Colonel at the Battle of Waterloo.  The series managed to combine classic action-packed historical fiction with an emphasis on the character of Sharpe and his circle and the struggles he faced in the rigid class system of the time.

I recommended the series to my father, who ate them up but, when he returned the favour by recommending Patrick O’Brian’s  Aubrey and Maturin series, I issued a firm nolle prosequi and decided that they were going to be just like the Hornblower series, full of ships and, therefore, not for me.

A couple of weeks ago, however, I was ambling languidly through the latest posts by some of my favourite bloggers when I came across a review of Master and Commander, the first in the series, by Alex at the Sleepless Reader.  As the book had received a big thumbs up from Alex and as they were already in my mind from a recent visit to my parents’ house for Sunday lunch, where the complete set still resides in my father’s study, I prodded the screen a few times on my iPod Amazon app and a couple of days later, a spanking new copy of Master and Commander arrived.

The backdrop to the Aubrey and Maturin series is the Napoleonic-era Royal Navy.  Captain Jack Aubrey is a bluff naval officer who, at the beginning of the story, is granted his first captaincy, being given command of a sloop, the Sophie.  Stephen Maturin is an Irish-Catalan doctor, a dark, slightly mysterious individual, who meets Aubrey by accident at a musical soirée.  The two rapidly become friends and Maturin agrees to become the ship’s doctor of the Sophie.

Although the novel is ostensibly about the naval tour of the Mediterranean that Aubrey and his Sophies take and Aubrey’s struggle for cash and honours in the face of Captain Harte, Aubrey’s superior, with whose wife Aubrey is having an affair, in reality, it is a character-driven affair, centring on the friendship between Aubrey and Maturin.  In fact, I would go as far as to say that the plot, which is really a succession of sea chases and battles, interspersed with examples of Aubrey’s propensity to behave badly on land, is of relatively little importance.

The first thing that leaped out at me from the book was the sheer amount of research that O’Brian must have carried out.  The level of detail on every aspect of early 19th Century naval life is astonishing.  The book simply drips with authenticity in terms of description, naval terminology, battle tactics and even speech patterns – the book reads as if a 19th Century author could have written it.  Of course, most of this I have to take on trust as I am certainly no expert but it has a real feel of accuracy and I am sure critics would have pounced if there had been material inaccuracies.

At times, the accuracy and amount of learning threatens to act as a drag on the book.  The detailed descriptions of sailing techniques can be baffling and I have to confess that, at times, I gave up the struggle and just allowed myself to be carried along on an impressionistic wave.  It’s a credit to O’Brian that the detail doesn’t overwhelm the book.

O’Brian has often been compared to Jane Austen, one of his favourite writers.  As I have not (yet!) read any Austen, I can’t comment on this but James R. Simmons, an English Literature professor who has written on 19th Century literature described O’Brian’s work as a “thirty year homage to Jane Austen” and Time magazine once said, “If Jane Austen had written rousing sea yarns, she would have produced something very close to the prose of Patrick O’Brian.”

Whatever the truth of this, there is depth of character and meaning in Master and Commander that lifts it out of the realms of standard action-based historical fiction.  There are 19 and a bit (the last volume in the series is incomplete) more books in the series in which the friendship between Aubrey and Maturin will develop and in which many of the characters already introduced will feature.

Alex began her post by declaring her love for Master and Commander so I will book-end her by declaring mine at the end of this post.  And, also by apologising to my father for, once again, having failed to recognise and accept his good advice.  I would say that it won’t happen again but, let’s face it, it probably will.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Top Ten Tuesday: Dying to meet you.

This week’s Top Ten Tuesday from the Broke and the Bookish is an interesting one, asking us to list ten authors living or dead who we would die to meet.  Now leaving aside the inconvenient fact that if I have to die to meet an author then that presumably implies that the author should also be dead and further implies that there is an afterlife, I’m not actually convinced I particularly want to meet any of my favourite authors.

You see, unconsciously we build up a mental image of an author based on what he or she has written and I’m not sure that our images would necessarily be reflected in the actuality.  In the same way as comics are not always fun in real life and rock stars may prefer a cup of tea and a digestive to vodka and Class A drugs, wouldn’t it be a downer if our literary heroes turned out to have feet of clay, to be false idols or simply a little bit mundane.

Anyway, I will suspend my doubts and will assume the existence of a post-death bar or restaurant where I can entertain some dead literary folk in order to comply with this week’s brief.  So, in no particular order:

1.         Jane Austen.  Unlike most of you, I’ve never read any Jane Austen (although I am hoping to correct that with Risa from Breadcrumb Reads’ August group read of Sense and Sensibility.  But an autograph manuscript of her unfinished novel the Watsons is being sold at auction at Sotheby’s in London on Thursday.  It is the only such manuscript remaining in private hands but, even so, has an estimate of £200,000 - £300,000 on it.  I’d like to ask her what she thinks of that (and ask if she could quickly knock another one out for me!).

2.         William Shakespeare.  He may be Exhibit A in my argument that our images of literary folk may be out of sync with their actual personae.  Will was a working actor and a bit of a small time businessman.  There is evidence that he was a bit of a money-grabber and rather keen on the readies.  This doesn’t fit nicely with the image of the universal playwright, throwing off effortless lines of high-minded verse.  Still, there was a lot of tavern-going amongst the acting profession of Elizabethan England and I reckon it’d be fun to have a couple of jars of ale with Will, Christopher Marlowe and the rest of the gang.

3.         Colin Dexter.  I could actually have met him.  He was a mate of my Latin master at school and was the Chief Examiner of Latin at my exam board when I took my A-level.  I’d certainly like to ask the creator of Inspector Morse a few pointed questions about some of the questions he set.

4.         Agatha Christie.  Over 80 detective novels, over four billion sales, translations into 103 languages and the longest running stage production in the world, just where would you start with the Queen of Crime?  And come on, who could resist the opportunity to say, "So, Agatha, why didn't they ask Evans?"

5.         P.G. Wodehouse.  Anyone who reads this blog will know how much I love P.G. Wodehouse.  I could sit and talk with him for hours.

6.         J.R.R. Tolkien.  Tolkien and I are alumni of the same Oxford college (as is Philip Pullman incidentally).  I’d really like to ask him what things were like in his day and, more specifically, which room he lived in, just in case it was the same as mine.  Obviously we could chat about his books as well.

7.         Ernest Hemingway.  PAAAAARTY!!!!

8.         Dorothy L. Sayers.  Basically, I love the Lord Peter Wimsey stories and I’d like to ask her about the missing foreskin of the body in the bath in Whose Body?

9.         H.P. Lovecraft.  Lovecraft’s audience was quite limited during his life and his popularity and current standing really only started to take place after his death.  I’d like to tell him about this and ask if he ever thought it would happen.

10.       Jean-Paul Sartre.  Look I think his politics (especially his attitude towards Mao’s China) stank but he wrote some cool existentialist stuff and I quite fancy the idea of hanging out with him at the afterlife’s version of the Café de Flore, wearing a black roll-neck sweater and sunglasses, smoking Gauloises and generally being far cooler than I actually am.

Monday, July 11, 2011

2,557: The Sweet Life in Paris by David Lebovitz

Appropriately enough with the Tour de France wending its way through France en route for the Champs-Élysées on Saturday 24th, Bastille Day this Friday and the French women’s football team knocking us out of the World Cup at the now-traditional quarter-final stage, it is Paris in July month, hosted by Karen at Bookbath and Tamara at Thyme for Tea.  If you are not already participating, I do recommend you pop over to see what is going on.

But, zut alors!  With my usual lack of organisation, I failed to contribute anything during the first week of July.  I do intend to remedy that sad state of affairs this week, however, starting with The Sweet Life in Paris by David Lebovitz.

David Lebovitz is an American pastry chef, a long time chef-patissier at Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California.  In 2004, he moved to Paris, from where he writes and runs his own blog.  The Sweet Life in Paris is his sixth book but the first non-recipe book.

In the book, he tells the story of his move to France and how he became accustomed to a very different way of life to that of San Francisco, where he had been living previously.  There are a number of recipes, for both sweet and savoury dishes at the end of each chapter.  I have to say that these are very inviting and I am definitely going to be trying some of them, especially as he thoughtfully includes both US and European measurements in most of them.

Lebovitz’ writing style is fluid, self-deprecating and witty.  As someone who has worked in Paris and spent a lot of time there over recent years, some of his observations on Parisian life are bitingly accurate and his comments on a couple of Parisian restaurants that I have visited ring several bells.  If you are a foodie, you are likely to become quite jealous of his life, even though he tries very hard to dispel the image that he spends his life wandering around Paris sampling delicious products before either cooking gourmet meals or dining at swanky restaurants.

The structure of the book is very interesting: each chapter is very short and it is easy to see the influence that food blogging has had on his writing.  In fact, one could almost see the book as a collection of lengthy blog posts.  This has both its good and bad aspects.  On the one hand, it makes the book a good “dipper” as you can read a little, put it down and then pick it up again without worry.  The writing is quite informal and so is an easy read.

On the other hand, it is all a little bit disjointed and does read like a collection of short pieces rather than a coherent body.  Not a real issue for me but I could see some people finding that annoying.  It’s also a little bit “surface”.  In an effort to be humorous and engaging, Lebovitz doesn’t really delve very deeply into things.  The chapter on his experience with the French health service is a case in point: he could easily have introduced a little more thought without sacrificing the readability but doesn’t do so.  I appreciate that he is trying to entertain but I found that, even for a light, humorous book, it was a bit unsatisfying.  I also have one quite serious niggle.  Lebovitz actually doesn’t seem to like quite a lot of things about living in Paris.  There’s a sense of cognitive dissonance in the way chapter after chapter he criticises Parisians and Paris whilst continually protesting that he loves the place and the people.  Well, a lot of the time you could have fooled me.

Overall, this is a light, easy read.  If you are a foodie or you dream of living in Paris, you’ll enjoy it, although I would also direct you to Julia Childs’ My Life in France, some of MFK Fisher’s books or On Rue Tatin by Susan Loomis for more substantial “foodie in France” fare.  The Sweet Life in Paris was a bit like a  nice Madeleine – light, sweet but pretty insubstantial.  Mind you, I would happily eat a tray of David Lebovitz’ lemon glazed madeleines (recipe in the book)!

Friday, July 8, 2011

Literary Blog Hop: Sometimes a Pig is Just a Pig

Literary Blog Hop
As even a cursory glance at this blog would reveal, I am not an expert on literary theory.  My formal study of literature ended when I was 16 and I’m far more interested in reading books than in analysing them to death.  So, don’t expect any conceptual fireworks or literary revelations in my post for this week’s Literary Blog Hop from the Blue Bookcase.  You won’t be finding an explanation of hermeneutics or a description of mimesis.  Postmodernism makes me itch and textuality just makes me snigger in a juvenile kind of way.

There are, however, a couple of literary devices or ideas that I both understand and like.  None of them are particularly earth-shattering but I’m afraid it’s the best I can do this week.  So, I am going to talk a little about allegory.

Allegory is the technique of making a point or expressing an idea by talking about something totally different.  Or, if you prefer, it is the art of conveying a secondary, figurative meaning through a surface narrative.  I’ve heard it said that an allegory is a metaphor stretched to encompass the whole story.

Allegory has a long and varied history.  Aesop’s Fables, dating back to around 600 BCE, are, of course, allegories.  At the risk of alienating Christian fundamentalists or other believers of the literal truth of the Bible, the Bible is full of allegorical writing (Jonah and the Whale, for example).  The Faerie Queene, Pilgrim’s Progress and the Water Babies are all allegorical, as is The Wind in the Willows.  Medieval and Renaissance literature and art are studded with complex symbolism and allegory.  Moving to more modern times, Orwell’s Animal Farm is classic allegory.

Allegory demands thought from the reader.  To appreciate allegory, the reader must be able to hold at least two different ideas in his or her head throughout the reading.  On the surface level, Animal Farm is an entertaining tale about what happens when a group of animals overthrow the farmer and take control of their own farm.  However, it’s also a specific allegory about the Russian Revolution, the early days of the Soviet Union and the gradual corruption of its ideals.  Moreover, it’s also a general allegory about the tendency of power to corrupt.

The problem of allegory, however, is that it is tempting to read it into everything.  Reams have been written to discuss whether The Lord of the Rings is at least partly an allegory about the Second World War, an interpretation lent credibility by the fact that much of the book was written during that period, or more generally about the dangers of totalitarian government or even about the atom bomb (apparently, the One Ring).  There are elements of the book that can clearly be fitted into this kind of reading.  Not so, cried Tolkien, who maintained that it was not an allegory, either general or specific, but was open to interpretation by the reader.

But here’s a thought: maybe it is actually an allegory, despite Tolkien’s denials.  Maybe Tolkien sub-consciously created an allegory.  Silly?  Well, take the case of Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death.  On the surface, it is a tale about a world being destroyed by a plague and a party thrown by its callous ruler, intending to see out the plague time in luxury.  There is a commonly-expressed view that it is actually an allegory about the futility of trying to stave off death.  Indeed, as John Sutherland says of the story, “Allegorical?  Surely yes, Edgar.

Here’s the thing though.  Poe hated allegory and said so.  It is difficult to see that he would have actively written something allegorical.  So, is it possible that a writer can sub-consciously write allegorically?  Or can we, the reader, impose allegory on a suitable text?  Or are we so obsessed with hidden meaning that we stretch allegory, seeing its ghost in places where it was never meant to be?

Personally, I prefer to see it as something that the author must intend.  Otherwise, the whole idea of allegory is tainted and weakened.  It becomes less clever, less skilful.  If Orwell really intended just to write a fairytale about some pigs and horses, I suspect Animal Farm would be considered in a very different light these days.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Gormenghast Readalong: Week One of Gormenghast

Our Gormenghast Readalong, hosted by Jackie at Farm Lane Books has moved this week on to Gormenghast, the second book in the original trilogy, and five years have passed since the Earling of Titus.

Peake opens with an ingenious way of recapping events from Titus Groan, presumably for the benefit of new readers (or existing readers with a short memory!).  The ghosts of the dead from Titus Groan swirl around young Titus and we see from his perspective what he knows of the events of those earlier years and of what he is still ignorant.  There’s an ethereal, almost mystic feel about his writing at this point and, I am afraid to say, I found the first few pages as difficult to get through as the beginning of Titus Groan the first time I tried to read it.

Although the pacing of this first part of Gormenghast is quite slow, there is a huge amount going on.  Interestingly, the book so far is focusing on characters who played relatively minor parts in Titus Groan.  We are beginning to see a different aspect to Countess Groan who, in the first book, appeared to be almost devoid of normal human feelings, being only capable of showing care and affection towards her army of white cats and the birds of Gormenghast.  Here, however, she is starting to wake to the atmosphere of uncertainty and change that is hanging over the castle and there is even a vestige of maternal protectiveness in her desire to crush the animating spirit behind the change she feels:

“She drew a deep breath and then, very slowly: ‘…and I will crush its life out: I will break it: not only for Titus’ sake and for his dead father’s, but more – for Gormenghast.”

It remains to be seen whether this is a true awakening for the Countess but I am beginning to have more of a feeling for her.

The same cannot be said for Steerpike, about whose malignancy surely noone can now have any doubt.  We see not just ruthlessness but also an element of sadism in his treatment of Cora and Clarice. In a lesser, more predictable book, I would be confident of his ultimate fall from grace but here, who knows?

But there is relatively little of Steerpike in the first part of Gormenghast.  Instead, we are given our first lengthy glimpses of the new Earl Groan.  He likes to ride his grey pony and to explore the castle and its environs.  He takes pleasure in discovery and has the makings of a rebel himself in his willingness to skip class to explore Gormenghast Mountain.  His actions as a toddler at his Earling were the first clues that he was not going to follow the calcified ritual and tradition of his forefathers and the character that we are starting to see is a further strong hint that Steerpike is not the only disruptive personality in the castle.

The centrepiece of this first instalment, however, is the school part of the castle and its collection of absurd and grotesque schoolmasters.  It looks like they will play a significant role in not only the plotline involving Titus and his education and growth but also in the comic sub-plot of Irma Prunesquallor’s search for love.

Indeed, one of the strongest impressions of Gormenghast so far is the comedic tone.  Peake is actually genuinely funny in a dry, sardonic kind of way.  As well as the overall comedy of the situation and the lampooning of the social and intellectual peculiarities of the staff, there are several witty asides and barbed comments:

“As for their being ‘gentlemen’ – perhaps they were.  But only just.  If their blood was bluish, so for the most part were their jaws and finger-nails.  If their backgrounds bore scrutiny, the same could hardly be said for their foregrounds.”

There is an interesting contrast between this overt comedy and the more serious tone that Peake uses when describing Titus and his thoughts and deeds which may be intended to highlight the importance of the development of Titus’ awareness and hopes by comparison to the self-important small-mindedness of many of Gormenghast’s other inhabitants.

There’s a very different and, I believe, more complex feel to Peake’s writing in Gormenghast as compared to Titus Groan.  Different voices are being used not only for different characters but also for different plot elements.  It’s clever but it does take more effort to follow through.  I hope that I will get more accustomed as the book progresses – there is certainly a lot going on and many plotlines need to be developed.

Further thoughts on the first instalment of Gormenghast can be found by:

1.         Birdie, guest posting at Farm Lane Books.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Top Ten Tuesday: Hot Tramp, I Love You So!

Whenever I hear the word “rebel”, the opening riff of David Bowie’s Rebel Rebel leaps into my mind.  It’s pretty much a Pavlovian response.  Fortunately, it’s a great track so it’s nowhere nearly as annoying as the way in which the theme tunes to Mini-Falaise’s favourite CBeebies programmes lodge themselves in my head.  Anyway, enough rambling and back to business……

This week’s Top Ten Tuesday from the Broke and the Bookish wants us to come up with a list of our top rebels in literature.  It would be easy enough to come up with a list of people who stood up for their beliefs or who espoused an unpopular point of view in the face of mass opposition but I think the true “rebel” is one who opposes or fights established authority and not just majority opinion.  It’s a narrow definition but, as far as I am concerned, it’s one that fits my understanding of the word best.  So, here we go.

1.         Winston Smith.  Despite his ultimate capitulation – because everyone ends up loving Big Brother -  Winston is one of literature’s true rebels and 1984 remains one of th great dystopian novels.

2.         Romeo and Juliet.  They defied their families and parents to be together.  Romeo and Juliet were rebels for love.

3.         V from V for Vendetta.  I am slightly ambivalent about V, the anti-hero of Alan Moore’s classic graphic novel.  There’s no question that he is a rebel, causing chaos at the heart of the fascist government of a dystopian Great Britain but I can’t help feeling that his true motivation is revenge for what was done to him and the other prisoners at the Larkhill camp rather than a true desire to restore freedom and democracy, which lowers him slightly in my estimation. It’s a great story anyway and he does wear some cool gear.

4.         Asterix the Gaul.  All of Gaul is divided into three parts. No, four — for one small village of indomitable Gauls still holds out against the Roman invaders.”  Maybe I should have included the whole of the village and maybe they aren’t really rebels, only wanting to be left alone in peace, but I think he merits a place here.

5.         Sauron.  The chief villain of the Lord of the Rings was not always thus.  Originally a Maia (a kind of minor immortal spirit and kin to the Valar), Sauron was ultimately corrupted and turned to evil and to war against the Valar, the original offspring of Eru (Tolkien’s God analogue) and, along with the Maiar, Ainu.  Tolkien wrote of "the absolute Satanic rebellion and evil of Morgoth and his satellite Sauron.”

6.         Steerpike from the Gormenghast Trilogy.  This is quite a topical one for me as I am currently participating in the Gormenghast Readalong but Steerpike is a quintessential rebel, laying waste to the fossilised traditions and customs of Gormenghast Castle.

7.         Guy Montag.  I wasn’t anywhere near as enamoured of Fahrenheit 451 as many other bloggers but I can’t deny that Guy Montag is a bona fide rebel.

8.         Prometheus.  When Zeus withholds the secret of fire from Man, Prometheus rebels against the tyranny of the gods and steals the secret back to give to mankind.  For the Romantic poets such as Shelley and Byron, Prometheus was the ultimate rebel.

9.         Psmith.  Pricker of pomposity, Psmith (with a silent “P”) is P.G. Wodehouse’s brilliant non-conformist and genial rebel against all forms of authority.  Less well-known than Jeeves and Wooster or Lord Emsworth, Psmith is well worth getting to know.

10.       Princess Leia.  I know this is a bit of a cheat but there are many Star Wars novels as well as the films and she is the Head of the Rebel Alliance.  How could she not be here!

Friday, July 1, 2011

2,558: A Question of Belief by Donna Leon

Donna Leon is an American teacher who lives in Venice and has, over the past 20 years or so, written 20 crime novels set in the city, as well as a book about animals in Handel’s operas.

Leon’s hero is Commissario Guido Brunetti, a native Venetian policeman, who is ably assisted by his friend, Ispettore Lorenzo Vianello and the formidably glamorous Signorina Elettra, and generally hindered by his boss, the slippery Vice-Questore Patta, and his brutish side-kick, Lieutenant Scarpa.

The Brunetti novels are fairly formulaic, although none the worse for that.  There will, of course, be at least one murder, which Patta will either not want Brunetti to be assigned to or will want cleared up or brushed under the carpet very quickly for political or personal reasons.  There will generally be a theme of corruption, either the endemic corruption of the Italian state system or more specific business or personal shadiness.  The decaying splendour of Venice and life in that unique city always features heavily.

A Question of Belief is the 19th instalment in the series.  It is a hot and sweltering August in La Serenissima.  Brunetti and his family are planning their summer getaway to the mountains, with Brunetti delighting in the fact that he will need to take a sweater with him.  Before he goes, however, Vianello asks him for some help dealing with his aunt, a usually sensible woman who has begun to give large sums of money to a fortune teller of dubious morals.  At the same time, an acquaintance comes to Brunetti with concerns about the conduct of a judge in the Venetian court and one of the senior clerks of the court.  After some preliminary investigative work, Brunetti is on the train north to join his family on holiday when he gets a call.  The clerk, a Signor Fontana, has been found murdered.  Brunetti must return to the city to crack the case and help Vianello.

Where A Question of Belief does slightly differ from other Brunetti novels is in the extremely relaxed pace.  The first murder does not take place until nearly halfway through the book and up until then, it is a slow ramble through the hot summer.  In some ways, however, it is comfortingly like the rest of the series.  There is no clean ending, as is often the case with Leon, who does not lean towards the neat solutions of many crime novels.  The criminal does not always get punished; indeed, sometimes the criminal can look more moral than the authorities.  In many ways, she has a fairly harsh view of the Italian system and, were it not for what, in my opinion, is the greatest strength of these books, they would begin to resemble Michael Dibdin’s Zen novels far more closely.  It is instructive that Leon’s books have been translated into 20 languages but, at her request, never into Italian.  I suspect she does not want her adopted countrymen to see the force of her criticism.

Where Leon really stands out for me is in the portrayal of Brunetti’s family life – in some ways, the books are almost portrayals of a Venetian family, interspersed with a few crimes.  Brunetti is happily married to Paola, a professor of English literature at the university and has two loving – and lovable – children, Raffi and Chiara.  Pick up any of the Brunetti stories and the most enjoyable sections will be those set in the family apartment, especially at mealtimes.  It may just be that I am a greedy pig but the descriptions of the Venetian meals that Paola makes are mouthwatering.  There is actually a Venetian cookbook called A Taste of Venice: At Table with Brunetti, featuring extracts from the novels with the accompanying recipes.  It has an honoured space in my kitchen bookcase.

Having said that Leon’s books are formulaic, I want to emphasise that, in this case, it is not a criticism.  There is a comforting elegance to Leon’s writing and each time I pick one up, I look forward to reading more about the Brunettis.  There are only two minor criticisms I have.  Firstly, it seems as if Leon is struggling to adapt to the passing of time when it comes to Brunetti’s children.  They are important characters in the series but are growing up rapidly and I don’t think Leon really knows what to do with them.  The result of this is that they are starting to disappear from the narrative, which is a shame.  The other minor beef I have is that Signorina Elettra is becoming too much of a deus ex machina for Brunetti and Vianello.  Her role as information gatherer and administrative trouble shooter has grown over the series but seems to be turning into an easy and lazy way out for Leon.  Less Elettra, please, in future.

These are quibbles, however, and, although A Question of Belief is not my favourite Brunetti, it was still very enjoyable and I look forward to the next book coming out in paperback.  If you are new to Leon, however, like the King of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland, I recommend that you begin at the beginning with Death at La Fenice.