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.

Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Tristram Shandy

For some reason, I didn’t get on with this book. But, unlike with other novels that I’ve read this year, I don’t have any desire to criticise it. Sometimes books annoy me or I think I can see flaws in them, but I didn’t see many flaws in Tristram Shandy. In a way, I wondered whether it was just a bit cleverer than me. Perhaps Tristram Shandy is like the cool kid on the playground and had better things to do than explain why it was so awesome to a loser like me. But whatever the reason, we just weren’t friends.

How I read

I think partly, it comes down to how I read books. My mind tends to focus in on what it thinks is ‘important’. I’ll follow one narrative thread, and make sure I know what’s going on. That means that books with a split narrative can be frustrating to me because my mind wants to zoom in on one set of events.

I also often think about other things whilst I’m reading. My mind will briefly flutter to work, the news or economics (weird, right?). I think it’s a bad habit and I’m trying to improve my focus, but right now it’s the way I read. The question I subconsciously ask when my mind crashes back into the book world is, ‘did I miss anything important?’ If the story is where I expect, I read on. If not, I’ll skim backwards to find out what I missed.

All of this completely conflicts with reading Tristram Shandy. Because it isn’t a split narrative, it’s an exploded one. So I found I would read down the page, think about something else for a second, come back, and ask the question ‘did I miss anything important?’, and the answer would invariably be ‘I don’t know what the hell is going on’. The narrative was always in an utterly different place.

And it conflicted in another sense too. The whole of Tristram Shandy is one big joke. There are scores of pages on how the narrator's father believes bigger noses are a sign of higher intelligence. This goes on and on and on, culminating in a thirty page ‘extract’ from a fictional philosopher telling a story that illustrates this point. So when my mind asked ‘did I miss anything important’, the question always seemed a bit irrelevant - nothing in Tristram Shandy is ‘important’ at all...

Going deeper

I read for lots of reasons, but the main one is to learn things about life, to become wise, to gain knowledge of what makes us human. I think Tristram Shandy offers a more... aesthetic experience.  It’s designed to be funny, humorous, and clever. It’s a book to be enjoyed in the moment, rather than giving you anything you can really take away. It’s not deep, it’s not emotional, instead it’s clever, humorous, a hoot.

And I have to confess, I found it quite hard work. I felt like I was expending a lot of energy in forcing my mind to plough through hundreds of pages of light jokes that I didn’t find funny. There was also a lot in there that I just didn’t understand, and I think I missed a lot of the cleverness. There were many references, for example, to things that I had never heard of. Overall, this has been the book that I’ve least enjoyed this year. I hated Wide Sargasso Sea, but it was more of a problem with what it stood for than any lack of reading enjoyment. Tristram Shandy, on the other hand, was a real struggle for me.

The End

Tristram Shandy has been described by the Guardian as the seventh best novel of all time, and was originally thought of as ‘too popular’ to really be a literary success. I loved the concept. It’s a raucous send-up of the idea of a novel,  a seminal textbook of metafiction, and imbued with a riotous disregard for form. Frankly though, a lot of the time I felt lost and confused. I blame myself entirely, and I’ll file this under ‘one to read again’.

Wednesday, 18 September 2013


Frankenstein is my second Gothic Horror this year - and I absolutely loved it! Mary Shelley was only 18 when she wrote this novel, but she had astonishing skill and wisdom for one so young.

Dr. Victor Frankenstein spends his nights in the laboratory putting together human parts in a bid to create life. One night, he succeeds and sees a set of ghoulishly-pale eyes open from the newly-formed being lying on his table. The creature escapes, and Dr. Frankenstein is horror-struck at the crime against nature he has surely committed. This feeling increases when he finds his brother has been brutally murdered. In his heart, he fears that the perpetrator is the monster he so foolishly brought into life. Eventually, this being confronts him, and tells Frankenstein that he has spent his short, miserable existence yearning – like all of us – to be loved. Victor filled with dread, denies the creature the friendship he so craves, and the monster, in a fit of hell-bent fury, promises to to wreak a terrible revenge – to smite and destroy everything that Dr. Frankenstein holds dear.

Frankenstein is very different from the popular idea of the halloween monster, daubed in yellow with a bolt sticking out of his neck. The monster is different – and more human – than his namesake today, but the most surprising element of the novel to me was a long section that was strongly reminiscent of Arabian Nights...

On responsibility

Frankenstein has a lot of wisdom in it, for example on morality. Frankenstein’s monster essentially feels that he would be nice if someone showed him love. He then goes on to murder a series of people when he finds that love and compassion is not forthcoming. Of course, this isn’t exactly a good temperament. I think most people would judge that you cannot be described as a good person, if your good actions are conditional on receiving some benefit for yourself. However, the question it raises is, is it possible to do good in the world – to be a good person – if you never receive anything but hatred and disgust in return? If, like Frankenstein’s monster, nothing you can do will stop people hating and fearing you, then your incentive to do good, is practically zero.

Looking at this another way, would we want to say that there should be nothing that can drive you to commit as deeply an immoral act as murder? Even if you have been given no incentive to act well, and, like the monster been given no moral education? Consider this, everything in the monster’s genetic makeup was given to him by his creator, Dr. Frankenstein. And the Dr. gave the creature no moral education, leaving his temperament to be sculpted by the ravages of a wild and feral environment. So who is to blame for the monster’s murders?

It’s tricky to answer that question. If you say the monster, then I think that’s the same as saying people with serious mental illnesses should be held fully responsible for any crimes they commit. If you say Dr. Frankenstein, then you’re also saying that the parents of serial killers should sometimes be incarcerated rather than the killer themselves.

I think the answer to this question is that these two people – Dr. Frankenstein, and his monster – are simply at different points of the causal chain which led to the monster’s crimes. In general, causal chains for any action, but crimes especially, are very long and complicated, and ‘responsibility’ is always just an arbitrary line we chose to draw somewhere on that chain. We always want to be able to point the finger at someone. It’s comforting to have someone to blame, but in reality the causes that lead to any action are both unknowable and unquantifiable. I think the implications of that are astounding. If we can’t identifying who is ‘truly responsible’, then there can be no role for punishment in society. By this I mean we should aim to rehabilitate offenders, and confine people who pose an immediate danger, but not punish them.  Put simply, how could we even begin to determine who to punish if the idea of responsibility is grey and murky?

On appearance

The thing I found most striking about Frankenstein is that the monster was shunned by humankind largely because of its appearance. True, it turned out to have a rather evil temperament, but the reader is lead to believe that this could have been avoided if the monster was treated with some humanity. The truth is that appearance still has a stranglehold on our society:  it is still completely acceptable to judge people’s value by the way they look. We all do it all the time, but it seeps into the background of our lives and we scarcely notice it.

The last word

Mary Shelley, somehow, came up with an idea for a horror-story that is so strong it almost guaranteed a fantastic book. The implications of someone creating intelligent (yet hideous) life are just incredibly interesting, and from many different angles - moral, psychological, legal etc. Just like Frankenstein’s monster, I think Shelley’s idea developed a life of it’s own, flying out of her head and demanding to be turned into a book. Because whilst the horror story is fun, the idea, the concept, of Frankenstein probes and prods the human condition in completely new and unusual ways. There is a lot of wisdom in there.

Wednesday, 28 August 2013

Heroes and Villains (Angela Carter)

This for me was a holiday read, and perhaps I didn’t read Angela Carter’s very best work. I’ll say right at the outset, I’m a bit mystified as to what she was trying to do.

In a dystopian future, a young girl called Marianne is brought up in a village shut off from the world. Dissatisfied with the clinical and routine-driven nature of her life, she runs away with a barbarian who lives in the wild outlands. Half-prisoner, she stays captive in his village, where she experiences a kind of sexual awakening with her barbarian king. Eventually she becomes his bride. They live a disgusting life, surrounding by filth, savages and garbage. But Marianne finds that although, in a rebellious bid for freedom, she has broken away from her rigid upbringing, the constructs inside her mind keep them both more imprisoned than any fence ever could.

Reading the plot summary on the back of the book, I thought the book would be some kind of erotic adventure story. I think the synopsis oversells – or at least mis-sells – the novel. There isn’t really any plot. A girl runs away from home, a few random things happen – there’s some sex, some fighting, some cryptic dialogue – and that’s it.  There’s no narrative structure, or resolution, and the action all takes place in the language of smoke-filled symbolism. So this isn’t one of those plot books, this is one of those say-something-about-the-world books. And that’s fine. The trouble is, I call bullshit...


Richard Boston writing for the New York Times called Heroes and Villains ‘a fable that discusses the roles of reason and imagination in a civilized society.’ The novel definitely does do that, but what’s important isn’t ‘discussion’, it’s what a novel actually has to say, you know, about real life. My feeling about fiction in general is that too many novels use cryptic and symbolic language to make points that are either simple, obvious or even untrue. Further, that unclear or imprecise writing is actually a technique that is used quite cynically to mask meaning that, if it was spelled-out clearly, no one would be interested in or would be obviously wrong. It’s a shame because the best writers use symbolism not to mask their meaning, but to shed light on difficult subjects, or create complicated, intellectually satisfying mosaics of multiple meanings - Moby Dick, or Ulysses spring to mind as almost symphonic in this regard.

I think I’ve got a good bullshit detector, and – I’m sorry – but I picked up a lot of it in Heroes and Villains. Check out this quote:

“What do you see when you see me?' She asked him, burying her own face in his bosom.
'Do you want the truth?'
She nodded.
'The firing squad.'
'That's not the whole truth. Try again.'
'Insatiability,' he said with some bitterness.
'That's oblique but altogether too simple. Once more,' she insisted. 'One more time.'
He was silent for several minutes.
'The map of a country in which I only exist by virtue of the extravagance of my metaphors.'
'Now you're being too sophisticated. And, besides, what metaphors do we have in common?”

I think that’s completely meaningless. I can acknowledge that the writer might have some ideas about her characters that would make that passage make sense. I can ever construct some in my head. Here’s my try: Why does he see the firing squad? Perhaps because her culture is doomed. And insatiable? As it happens, Marianne isn’t particularly insatiable, but it could mean that her culture is. And 'The map of a country in which I only exist by virtue of the extravagance of my metaphors.' Eek. I don’t understand that at all. Perhaps it’s not about the meaning, but about how the words make you feel...

There are several possible half-meanings in that paragraph, but it’s just not clear enough to understand precisely. And any meaning I can extract from it doesn’t really add much value to my life. For example, our civilisation is insatiable and over-reaching itself, and we need to create the idea of savages to in some way define us (I actually don’t think either of those things are true).

The Last Word

So my view is that Heroes and Villains fails. Just like a pun is only funny if it has two distinct levels of meaning, I think symbolism in a book is only clever if the surface level – the plot, the characters etc – makes sense and is engaging. And secondly, hidden meaning is only worthwhile if the meaning you have to work hard to find is profound, or, at the very least, interesting. To me, Heroes and Villains is a masterwork of style over substance - of nice-sounding sentences over ideas, character and plot. I’ll close with this quote. I like how it sounds a lot - but I also think it illustrates well this books deeply vacuous heart:

“Darkness was made explicit in the altered contours of his face. He was like a work of art, as if created, not begotten, a fantastic dandy of the void whose true nature had been entirely subsumed to the alien and terrible beauty of a rhetorical gesture.”

Wednesday, 21 August 2013

The Name of the Rose (Umberto Eco)

Umberto Eco clearly wanted to write a book about 13th century theology. Luckily that’s not what he wrote, or not just what he wrote. I imagine the conversation with his publisher went something like this:

Eco:               I’ve got a great new book concept! The idea is that the hero – instead of being a person – is, instead, medieval papal theology!!
Publisher:       Who in God’s name is going to read that?’.
Eco:               [looks at his feet, taken a back. Suddenly, an idea flashes into his head.]: Well, there’s murders in it too. A few monks get killed off in an abbey, and then another monk basically Sherlock Holmes – investigates.

Publisher        [gives a slow approving nod] Oh yeah, that could work.

And you know what, a phrase swims into my mind after reading it: unbelievable tekkers. Because The Name of the Rose manages to pull off two pretty ace tricks that are rarely found in one book-shaped package  – it’s great fun, and it’s rather interesting too.

A few of my friends told me that they didn’t manage to ‘slog’ their way through this book; they intimated that it was dull and literary in a bad kind of way. This doesn’t resonate with me. I found it nothing but unadulterated fun. That said, there are long sections which involve only monks quibbling about arcane theological points. I found those sections fascinating, and Eco – like the best writers – is able to make you interested in something that bored you beforehand. But sometimes these papal asides happen at quite pacey moments in the plot, and I must admit even I had a few moments of ‘Cooomme Onn, just get back to the plot’. But it’s important to remember at these junctures that theology is the real hero, and the plot a mere exciting distraction. 

The Name of the Rose is well-written and slick, but that doesn’t detract from the books most important and wonderful characteristic: the whole thing is great big dollop of silly. Somehow though, the author manages to convince the reader that it’s a serious work. And it is, in one sense. But it’s also pure silliness, and pure fun. There are mysteries and sleuthing, and shenanigans and secret night-time missions. The book has everything you would expect from a Sherlock Holmes story story set in a monastery, but somehow Mr. Eco imbues it all with a deep gravitas. It’s almost akin to the magician who pronounces to the audience solemnly ‘Ladies and Gentleman, this trick involves real danger, please stay silent at all times’. And the novel’s denouement – don’t worry, I won’t spoil it – is the silliest of the lot, it had me laughing out loud.


Of course, books always get me thinking about life too. I read this book mostly in the wilds of rural Canada – snow-capped mountains to the left of me, and a giant blue lake to the right. What struck me most – in that carefree place – was that in the 13th century people burnt each other at the stake over spurious theological questions. For example, was Christ poor? The bible doesn’t describe him as owning any possessions, and, since Christians seek to emulate Christ, perhaps the church itself shouldn’t own any possessions. Only one problem – the Catholic Church at the time was incredibly rich and powerful, so accepting the doctrine of Christ’s poverty would entail abandoning it’s eminent position.

So – just like Carrie Bradshaw –  that got me to thinking. The history of humans, more or less, is intertwined with the history of bullshit. Ever since we evolved from being a mere squelch of symbiotic slime stagnating on a rock-face, people have been believing in utterly ridiculous things. And partly that’s great, because life is ridiculous and a lot of ‘out-there’ beliefs have changed the world. But there’s also been a lot of genuinely ludicrous beliefs too.  Like burning witches, feeding people mercury to cure them, or ten foot lizards. Two hundred years ago people even thought leeches could cure diseases (oh wait...). We all have the propensity to believe in absolutely ridiculous ideas.

But, what’s interesting to me is that this, humans always seem to behave like humans. Whatever wacky beliefs people have, it doesn’t really affect how they behave at all! The reason the Catholic church burnt heretics was simply because they were protecting their power. The theological differences were merely the surface level excuse. And I think that’s often true. All over the world people believe radically different, contradictory things, but mostly they still act with the same motivations as everyone body else.. Some people are nice, some are nasty, but however lofty their beliefs, their motivations are often all too human.

The last word

On reading The Name of the Rose, be prepared. The book will reach into your mind and thoroughly hook you into the plot. It will then drag you through pages and pages of ancient theology. What I’m trying to say is that I came for the medieval detective, murder-solving monk, but I left with the papal politics and the fractious bickering of defunct Christian sects. And for that I have to say, Umberto Eco, well played sir.

Some other interesting reviews

Irrelevant Scribble
Eye on Everything
Splendid Labyrinths
Distracting from the Now