Monday, 20 January 2014

Should everyone read Northanger Abbey?

Northanger Abbey is generally considered to be the weakest of Jane Austen’s novels. Well, not the very weakest – she wrote some ‘juvenilia’ which doesn’t bear talking about, and she didn’t finish a few of her later novels, so we can’t really count those. But there are five ‘major novels’, and this isn’t classed as one of them.

Trashing it

So should you read it? The critical summary on the back of the copy I read, absolutely trashed it. It took the tone of ‘it’s not quite as terrible as everyone says. Well... actually it is, but that’s what makes it so charming’.  To understand Northanger Abbey’s diminutive literary reputation, the first place to look is the plot. Being a Jane Austen novel – of course – it’s centres around a girl and boy who fall in love...

“The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid.” 

Catherine Morland, a naive girl of seventeen, tries to escape the boredom of provincial life, and so goes to live in Bath with some friends of the family. There she meets a guy that she thinks is really rather nice (Henry Tilney), becomes firm friends with his sister and another girl, and a beastly man – who she doesn’t like in nearly the same way – starts to follow her around. After a time, she goes to stay with Henry and his sister in their father’s home – Northanger Abbey. Growing ever closer to Henry – after a few hurdles –  they declare their love for each other and are soon married.

So what’s wrong with that? Well critics talk about a lack of structure and coherence. In Jane Austen’s other novels, the plot slots together like a jigsaw, and love only forms between two people when they fit.  But in Northanger Abbey, everything feels a bit rammed together.  For example, the central love story. Catherine Morland and Henry Tilney don’t seem fated to be together at all. Henry is ironic, witty and intelligent, whilst Catherine is naive, honest, and demure – and completely misunderstands everything he says.

Starship enterprise on warp-drive

Indeed, towards the end, Jane Austen seems to have got quite bored of writing the book. She wraps up all the outstanding details of the plot in scarcely a page – giving just a summary rather than a proper ending.  The pace of the plot goes from a gentle canter on a well-fed pony to the Starship enterprise on warp-drive, ignominiously dumping the reader at the end of the book.

So should you read?

So should you read Northanger Abbey? Well, it’s important to say that it doesn’t appear to have lots of hidden wisdom (perhaps it’s too well-hidden). In fact, it seems quite difficult to extract any life lessons from Northanger Abbey at all. The characters, by and large, don’t make tough choices, still less do we see them wrestle with any difficult moral conundra. Catherine is so naive that the personal growth she experiences – allowing her to become a slightly wiser person – is not instructive. The reader remains two or three steps ahead of her at all times.

That said, there are lots of reasons why someone might want to read this book. The overall tone is winning. It has a real youthful feel that gets in and drives it, and an air of springtime, gayness and naïveté. It seems to have been written to be enjoyed with a sense of gleeful optimism. That’s really quite wonderful, and a breathe of fresh-air against a literary milieu of cynicism and jaded done-it-alls. Through Jane Austen’s youngest novel, we experience the world with new eyes, and the pleasure of being a child again, discovering love for the first time.

That said, I think Northanger Abbey might struggle to be called a ‘great’ book. It probably wouldn’t be classed in the top one hundred – or even the top five hundred books – of all time. It’s the kind of book that, if you scrupulously read only the books you simply had to have read, you might miss out and not feel too guilty.

To hell with it

But that would be a shame. Frankly, I think we should fight back against this culture of over analyzing the merit of every book – judging them all by a set of predetermined criteria. So what if the author’s hand is ‘visible’? So what if she omnipotently makes things happen without recourse to the proper sense of flow? And so what if Henry and Catherine aren’t perfectly suited (and end up divorced in a few years)? And, hang it all, so what if Austen finishes the novel rather quickly? Books should be more than a sum of their details, and Northanger Abbey should be judged by how it makes you feel. And that feeling is, quite simply, happiness.

So should you read it? I say yes, and the reason is simple. Because if you don’t – you’d be missing out.

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

The wisest book of all time? Pilgrim's Progress

'I’m busy, why should I read a blog post about an old book?' you might ask.

Well, Pilgrim’s Way is a classic – no question. One of those ‘must-reads’. The second best book of all time, in fact, according to the Guardian. What if it’s chock full of wisdom and deep insights into life? And what if this post sucks out all that valuable gold-dust – buried deeply inside – and lays it all out nice and snappy to be consumed in four, life-changing minutes? 

Here’s a quick run-down of the plot

Christian feels a burden on his back, and, after reading an ancient book, he knows in his heart that he must set off on a journey. His wife and children will not come with him, so he leaves them and goes alone. Soon he meets a friendly man called Evangelical who gives him detailed instructions to get rid of his burden. His pilgrimage starts at a gate. He passes through and straight away is challenged by a hill called Difficult, which he struggles up, and meets a companion called Faithful. After finding the Interpreter who is able to shed a little bit of light on the path, he has many adventures. Christian does battle with a fiendish monster in the Valley of the Shadow of Death, is locked in a castle by a Giant Despair. Eventually he gets to the end of his journey, and finds a river that he must plunge into, trusting himself to the lord. 

Later on, Christian’s wife seeing her error in not going with Christian decides to set out in his footsteps. She goes and is protected by one Great Heart as she travels and becomes wiser and more mature. Eventually the day comes for her to be appointed by God, and there the book ends.

Why is it mind-blowing? 

Well it is chock full of hidden wisdom. Here are the three key insights:

1) Clever people will disagree with you
Pilgrim’s Progress makes plain that doing anything worthwhile is a difficult journey. And, as Christian finds, life is full of people trying to throw you off your course. Those people will have whole systems of logic in their heads to support their view. As well as whole networks and hierarchies of people who agree with them. In fact, what they say might even make sense – for them. But in order to get what you want, you have to go through these obstacles. The way to do that is not by convincing them, or by compromising on your destination, it’s by sticking to your way: the straight and narrow.

2) People don’t want you to change
Christian’s wife and children cannot see any rationale for his leaving – they think it’s all in his head, and so they stay behind as he sets off. That’s true of life too. The people around you probably don’t want you to go on the journey. They don’t want you to change or leave because they like you as you are. That means if you want to do something different, not only will they not want to come, but they will resent you for leaving. They might even laugh at you, or look down at you for it. But – and this is important – when you succeed people will follow you, just like Christian’s wife eventually does. People like well-worn paths. They might not help you blaze one, but they’re sure to follow once you do. 

3) Being a hero is a choice
Ultimately, Pilgrim’s Progress is a chronicle of every hero's journey. A lone man, setting out by himself is tested and pushed to his limits, but he stays true to his mission and, with help, manages to succeed in his goal. Later people follow him.  But unlike, say, Odysseus – who was a hero in stature – Christian is a hero because of the choices he makes. He isn’t especially strong, or clever, or bold. He’s just a man who chooses to take a journey to seek what he thinks is right. Being a hero isn’t about who you are, it’s about the choices you make, and the journeys you take. Being a hero is a choice.

Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Silas Marner (George Eliot)

Silas Marner – a young man, shy and early-wronged – lives an inward life. He works, and weaves, and becomes fixated by the gold he receives in payment. He collects it, piles it it up, and takes it out just to stare at its shimmer. One day, this precious bounty is stolen and, now forced to lead a life free of luster, his world falls apart. Meanwhile a rich aristocrat in his village has secretly married a peasant girl, who has born him a child. But the women dies, and the body and child are found by Silas half-frozen on the side of a road. The aristocrat, unwilling to compromise his reputation, says nothing. Silas takes the child, and finds awakened within himself a deep-rooted compassion, only dormant it seems, not dead, during his period of reclusivity. Silas nurses this young girl, keeps her safe, and – finding her full of living gold – she  becomes his redemption. Slowly and surely Silas’ human side is drawn out, but this fragile recovery is threatened by forces far outside of his control....

Our consciousness rarely registers the beginning of a growth within us any more than without us: there have been many circulations of the sap before we detect the smallest sign of the bud.” 

George Eliot is my favourite writer.  Since Middlemarch, Mill on the Floss and Adam Bede are all amongst the best things I’ve ever read, I was likely to come to the conclusion I did: Silas Marner is bloody fantastic.

Spring Water

Most fiction that you read is like wine – rich, delicious, flavourful. George Eliot’s is like water – pure, clean, and essential. She writes about life almost style-lessly; her fiction is a snapshot of real life. But it’s better than that.  Her books have the most wonderful – almost mathematical – coherence. The plot seems to be driven entirely by the characters, and these characters are driven by their thoughts, and these thoughts are influenced almost entirely by other events and characters within the world of the novel. It’s a great big sea of causation. I think George Elliot gets too little credit for the simple intellectual difficulty of what’s she achieves. She manages to solve the nth-level, simultaneous equation of causation  within the novel, and turns it into a coherent – and riveting – story.

Silas Marner is slightly different – it’s a little parable, a short novel that packs a big punch. It feels almost concentrated. This novella is as stylistically sparse as other of Eliot’s novels – there is no rhetorical flourish, improbable circumstances or unexplained moves. it is as inner-driven as the others. Real characters make real decisions in a world that seems real, yet, somehow, the resulting story is as concentrated as a myth, an allegory, an essential component of human life.

That’s amazing! George Eliot has developed a foundational, archetypal expression of human existence, just by describing a situation that you feel could really happen. Hamlet needs huge drama, huge sweeping emotions - great speeches, betrayal, death. George Eliot simply takes a seemingly random snapshot of life and comes out with a similarly profound result.

Eye of the Tiger

I think there’s hidden wisdom in there too - and it’s pretty coherent. By hoarding gold, Silas Marner is fostering love for something internal – his work, his wealth. Don’t we all hoard things, inside of us? The novel is saying that losing that thing you love – that you feel you rely on – will hurt you badly, but it won’t destroy you, and, perhaps, is is the loss that will make your redemption possible. And, ultimately, that redemption will be found both in giving love to somebody, and allowing yourself to need help. It is found in a focus, not inward on your own pain, but on the world around you. 

Silas Marner is a triple distilled story,  as pure as mountain melt-water. This is myth making at it’s most sublime. Eliot’s story is full of wisdom, but stylistically clean - it seems to just be a slice of life, imbued with qualities that make it more than real life, more than fiction. It is almost something magical, with a simple trope: the path to saviour is love.

Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Three Men in a Boat

"I like work; it fascinates me. I can sit and look at it for hours.” 

The Guardian describes Three Men in a Boat as one of the funniest English books ever written. Which is an interesting description for a book that – as evidenced by its title – aspires to nothing more than the gentlest of humour. The plot ingeniously keeps to the same pace as the proverbial boat, a leisurely drift down the Thames. And like that eponymous boat, you could never say it was making slow progress, but only because it decidedly isn’t trying to get anywhere. So put your feet up on the prow, pour yourself a porter or three, and watch the sunlight dance lazily on the riverbank.

The actual plot goes likes this: three lazy hypochondriacs decide to take a trip down the Thames to get a change of air, thinking it will be good for their various catalogue of imaginary ailments. They set-out, and basically nothing really happens to them. This is fiction at its least embellished. Highlights of the book include a struggle to put up a tent, someone falling into the water, and – I’m scraping the hull here – a man drinking lemonade. There was nothing in this book that could be described as a plot, and you’d have to push the boat out for ‘caper’.

“You can never rouse Harris. There is no poetry about Harris- no wild yearning for the unattainable. Harris never "weeps, he knows not why." If Harris's eyes fill with tears, you can bet it is because Harris has been eating raw onions, or has put too much Worcester over his chop.”

On smiling

Yet, even with so much action packed in, this book doesn’t lose touch with its humourous soul. It’s fantastic. It certainly floated my... water-vehicle, and – for a book billed as humorous – it certainly is funny. Sort of. It’s just hard to describe exactly how. It isn’t rolling on the floor funny, or laugh out loud funny, or even ‘hey guess what I just read’ funny. It is the kind of wonderful book that will make you... smile.  And not one of those big toothy grins, or wide beamers. It’s more one of those little half-cocked, one-sided knowing smiles that drifts from ‘oh stop it... you’re incorrigible’, to ‘ah, isn’t it nice to be alive’.

It is nice to be be alive, especially when reading this book. Even more wonderfully, I think, I learned precisely nothing from reading it. Not only did I not gain any new knowledge or wisdom, I had the strange feeling that I had actually lost some whilst reading it. Not the important stuff, you understand, but I decidedly felt that some of the less useful neurons swirling around the recesses of my mind had jumped ship. Probably a few phone numbers, some school history, and the price of cheese puffs at Waitrose.

Wot I thunk

This is Jerome K Jerome’s magnum opus. A book that stunningly manages to recreate the experience of sitting in a boat for days on end. The murky water of the Thames, and amber nectar of a warm beer will be evocated for you so strongly that you’ll feel like putting the book down and swigging the imaginary ale until intoxicated. But in doing so, you’ll just be drinking the book in - and hey, rather that than Thames water. 

Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Slaughterhouse Five

I picked up Slaughterhouse 5 and skimmed the synopsis on the back. It told me that the book was about the Dresden bombings in World War II. Sure, I thought, I could read something like that. So I was somewhat surprised when, not long after I had started reading, the protagonist had already travelled back in time to another planet where green aliens – that look like toilet plungers – are telling him that, in the perfect book, ‘there is no beginning, no middle, no end, no suspense, no moral, no causes, no effects’. To me, that sounds more like the end of the universe than a good read. But Vonnegut ensures that Slaughterhouse 5 meets the standards set by his fictional aliens. And, you know what, it’s great...

Billy has become unhinged in time, finding himself travelling back and forward into various moments of his unfortunate life. As a young, gawky teenager he is sent to fight the Germans in the Second World War. Completely unprepared and unwilling to fight, he promptly gets captured by the Nazis and, as a prisoner of war, is imprisoned in a slaughterhouse in Dresden. Soon after Billy arrives, the city gets destroyed by the Allies in the horrific and now infamous bombing of 1945. He finds it a scarring experience. Later in life, and now back in America, Billy is a successful, married Optician, but unfortunately finds himself the sole survivor of a catastrophic plane crash. To add to the bad luck, he later gets abducted by aliens - the Tralfamadorians - and taken light years away to their planet in the sky. There he lives in a glass hemisphere, and is forced to make love to fellow abductee, and naked movie star, Montana Wildhack.

Time travelling, Aliens and WAR 

Vonnegut tells the reader in the first chapter that he has wanted to write a book about the Dresden bombings all his life. In the next breath, though, he claims that there is ‘nothing intelligent to say about a massacre’. He then spends the rest of the book studiously writing around the Dresden bombings. It’s barely mentioned. In fact, the reader is made of aware of the event, and its impact on the world, not by an emotional tear-jerking description, but through the effect it has on just one person’s life – a survivor. Even then, we’re not privy to this survivor’s emotional world. We don’t see him haunted by what he has seen, or crying his guts out to his friends. Instead, we see its effect in the very structure of novel: he simply can’t get away from it. Billy is pulled back and forward through time, always returning to the most banal and brutal moment of his life: the destruction of Dresden.

The time travelling worked for me. Symbolically it packs a punch, and it allows for a plot structure that is nice and fluid. I didn’t quite understand the purpose of the aliens in the same way. What for art thou, little green Tralfamadorians? The aliens do allow an interesting outside perspective on, not just the war, but all other human endeavours. They presented a fatalistic view-point, exposing just how inevitable and meaningless it all is. And the planet, light years away, seems to be representative of Vonnegut's own substantial travellings into the world of science-fiction. Overall, I found it interesting that Billy struggles to get any temporal space from Dresden, but, somehow in distance, he manages to get thousands of light-years away. Billy is slipping around in time, but the aliens tell him that there is no time. Symbolic, cryptic, and green, the Tralfamadorians are a mystery.

Douglas Adams – of all people – provides a good answer to it. In replying to a reader's question about what really happened in one of his books, he replied: ‘The book is a work of fiction. It’s a sequence of words arranged to unfold a story in a reader’s mind... There is no objective real world I am describing, or which I can enter... It doesn’t exist.’ So, with that in mind, perhaps there’s no point studiously trying to understand why the aliens were there at all. Perhaps they just were. Perhaps everything just is. If that sounds a bit like nihilistic fatalism, perhaps it merely echoes the Tralfamadorians' sense of meaning-free timelessness...

The End, My friend

Slaughterhouse 5 isn’t very emotionally engaging. The description of the bombing takes up less than half a page, and there’s no account of any of the characters having a strong reaction to what they’ve seen. I enjoyed the book, and I found the narrative structure novel and fresh. But for a book about war, it didn’t come up and punch me in the guts. Maybe that’s the whole damn point. The meta-lesson is that however big the punch was, it would never be big enough. And, if you weren’t there, you probably don’t really care about it. Perhaps Vonnegut's right, you can’t write anything intelligent about a bombing like Dresden. After all what can you really say, other than that massacres are very horrible and senseless? And we all know that anyway. So it is.

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Laura (Vera Caspary)

“In my case, self-absorption is completely justified. I have never discovered any other subject quite so worthy of my attention.”

Laura was written by Vera Caspary, who was also my Dad’s Grandfather’s wife. The story is less well known as a book, and more as a film by Otto Preminger, which was one of the first ever film noir. Actually, perhaps it isn’t well known at all these days, which is why I did a double take when I saw it stocked in Foyles in central London. Within minutes I was at the till, and I had finished reading it within hours and metres from that moment.

I don’t want to give too much of the plot away because it’s a first rate twister, but here’s a little flavour. A glamorous girl is found dead in her apartment, and it sure looks like murder. Mark, a hardboiled cliche of a detective, is called to the scene. He gives it a cynical once over. There ain’t much promising there, and he doubts the leads will amount to a hill of beans. The dead dame’s friend starts sniffing round the place too. He’s a fat thespish author who makes a living writing books about God knows what. Mark takes him to dinner to pump him for information, but doesn’t like the glint in his eye. The things he’ll do for for this damned job, he thinks but for some reason can’t get his mind off the dead girl. She sure was pretty. Sophisticated too from the look of her apartment. Mike begins to feel a strange connection with this once-elegant broad. He shakes his head vigorously, weird stuff like this just doesn’t happen to him. ‘Keep you eyes on the job Mike’ he tells himself. But then things take a turn for the down-right mysterious – and fast – when a girl knocks on the door of the apartment. It’s the last person Mike ever expected to see, and suddenly the case blows wide open. Mike looks at his watch with a sigh, ‘this’ll take some time’, he thinks dolefully ‘and just when the overtime sheet’s been suspended too.’

Hidden Wisdom

Is there any hidden wisdom in there? Not really. Some books are written to be thought about. Or to be written about. Others want to teach you about life, or else make some dull and obvious philosophical point. But some books are completely and unashamedly written to be read. Laura is one of those kind of books, and it’s glorious. I lost four hours to it. The time just went. I was sitting on a bench on the South Bank looking at little pleasure boats and the sunlight gleaming off the Thames. I opened Laura, and four hours later, I looked up. The book was finished, and I was bathed in a milky twilight. The time vanished as comprehensively as if I had been watching a film, or dreaming. I opened the book, got in, had a roller coaster of a ride, got off and took the tube home. And that’s exactly the kind of engagement the book wants: Laura is a good time girl.


Laura struck me as very similar to Hitchcock’s Vertigo - in both there is a similar theme of lust and obsession, and a detective-type character falls for a girl who he thought was dead. The intended victim and the murderer are very similar in both stories. The plots are different, but the structure of both films is nearly the same. They could almost double up for each other in an elaborate murder plot...

The Last Word

Since it was written by a relative, I felt almost a connection with Laura’s eponymous heroine from the beyond the page. It was like she was reaching out to me, and I couldn’t help thinking that Laura was not some dead-press character, but a real living person. Later I discovered that it was only her look-alike that was fictional, and that, in a staggering twist of metafiction, the real Laura was alive and living in Islington, safe from the ravaging occupational dangers of life in a detective story. Safe, but for how long?

Wednesday, 2 October 2013

Jane Eyre

"What’s your name?"


Jane Eyre"

And with that, I expected Ms. Eyre to tuck her beretta back inside her gown, before ordering a martini with very specific serving instructions. Because with a bit of training, I think Jane Eyre would make a good 007. She’s clearly got the courage for it, but I’m unclear whether she would find the idea of being a superspy morally repugnant. Of course, scared as I’m to receive even imagined vituperations from Jane Eyre’s eponymous heroine, I’ll refrain from any more action-hero comparisons, for now...

Not having read Jane Eyre felt like a big hole in my life. The kind of all-consuming black hole that leads one to break down weeping in the supermarket before panic buying shredded wheat. I’ve previously read two pieces of fan fiction – the Wide Sargasso Sea (eurgh), and the Eyre Affair (awesome fun) – so I was long overdue to snuggle down on the sofa with Jane Eyre, a bottle of scotch, and some evening primrose oil to calm me down if it all got too much.

Jane Eyre tells the tale of a plain girl, brought up short on love, but long on pluck. After being sent to a tough school - somewhere between Twist and Copperfield in severity -  she goes to work as a Governess in a large, and largely abandoned home. One day, the master returns; a severe, crotchety, particular gentleman named Mr. Rochester. He is quickly drawn to Jane, and singles her out as someone he is comfortable talking to. A hop, skip and a tumble later sees Jane and Rochester in love, and, what is more, betrothed to be married. Of course, circumstance gifts them testing times, and the path of their loves runs not smooth. So, can these luck-crossed lovers make it across the desert of despair? Will they endure the outrageous fortunes that hope slings them? The answer is, emphatically, YES, and as Jane so winningly tells us, ‘Reader, I married him’.

Wonderfulness baked in

Buried in this book is a great big dollop of optimism. It’s been alleged that in double blind trials, Jane Eyre fairs somewhere between lithium and barbiturates at helping to cure depression. Unfortunately, no one bothered to try and get legal clearance since, now out of copyright, there’s just no money to be made in its marketisation. Damn you drug companies, you profit seeking fiends!

Anyway, although Jane Eyre has an almost savage facade, much like its main character, the book is 100% heart. Jane isn’t just a woman, she is also a plain, slight Governess, and back then, all of those attributes were seen to diminish her value. Obviously they don’t, and Jane knows it; commanding equality and respect wherever she finds herself. I worried for a while that Rochester seemed to see Jane a bit like a pet or plaything, something to be bossed around. He married ‘below his station’, seemingly purposefully, because he prefered his wife to have ‘pliability’.  But in the end, Jane thoroughly owns him - taking care of him, baiting him and in nearly all senses ‘wearing the trousers’.  

For me, Jane Eyre was like finding an old World War 1 unexploded bomb under my house. I felt I was looking at something that was once explosive but no longer. I imagine that when it was written, the straight-talking, equality-claiming Jane Eyre was a molotov-cocktail into an age of stuffy, cigar-filled gentleman’s clubs. But these days, it’s a bit toothless. I mean, the idea of Governess marrying a richer man isn’t exactly fall-off-your-chair shocking. So I appreciated the novel’s once-revolutionary nature, and thoroughly enjoyed the story, but I think this fighting book has been transformed by time into a simple society romance. And that’s good and bad. Bad, because the book is less impactful than once it was, but good because society has moulded round it and overall become a much more equal and much fairer place.