Wednesday, 24 April 2013

In Search of Lost Time (Swann's Way - Volume 1)

Having read Swann’s Way, clocking in at a mere 500 pages, I have finished only a seventh of this great behemoth of a novel (the longest novel ever written). I’m happy though. This book was such a joyful ride, that it is very exciting to have gallons of book left in the tank.

 In Search of Lost Time is largely told by a narrator who recounts his earliest memories (including the famous episode of the madeleine). The biggest chunk of Swann's Way, though, tells a deconstructed love-story that happens before the narrator is even born. 

Swann, a society man with brilliant connections, inexplicably falls in love with a girl that he is scarcely even attracted to. It starts with a Parisian social group that deliberately sets itself apart from the rest of high society, declaring them bores and demanding the slavish obedience of its members. Odette, a beautiful women who happens to be part of this set, pursues Swann, who, although repelled, feels he has to humour her advances. Somehow he falls in love with her. Almost as soon as this happens, she starts to pull away from him, which fuels a growing obsession. This withdrawal is vividly portrayed, and we learn about what is happening purely from a description of Swann’s changing feelings. Eventually it is revealed that she is a fallen women, and completely unsuitable for a man like Swann, but by this time, he is snared.

My thoughts

For me, the best part about reading is finishing a paragraph and thinking ‘Yes! That’s exactly how I feel, but before now I didn’t even know it’. In that moment, you learn something about yourself, but it also creates a joyful feeling of being at one with the human race. Suddenly you’re not some weirdo for having those kind of feelings, instead, you realise, everyone does! Often the things that people think are the most private are the most universal, and great literature lets you constantly discover this. My favourite books are full of these kind of moments. Tolstoy, for example, really sees the the little things that make up a life.

Just a quick related aside. I write all over my books. I underline, scribble, make notes, highlight and sometimes even doodle. To some people that’s sacrilegious, aren’t I ruining them? I don’t think so. I underline the parts that change my life, the sentences that give me that rush I just described. This means that my books are personalised to me; I’ve changed them, moulded them, made them mine. I find it really difficult not to. Say, for example, I buy a book that costs ten pounds, and a page of it changes my life, well to me that’s invaluable so I’m damn well going to underline it with a big red felt-tip pen.

I say all this for context, because Swann’s Way is my most ever underlined book. It is simply bursting at the seams with sparks of hidden truth. Every page, every sentence in Swann’s way shimmers with those 'Yes!' moments . I’m serious. I literally read this book going Yes! Yes! Exactly! Yes! and furiously underlining almost everything in it. Whilst the resale value of my copy has plummeted, I’m excited to read and underline the rest of the novel. It also led me to a lovely thought, perhaps this book is Proust’s annotation on real life. Maybe Proust looked at his world, and - like me reading his work -  wanted to underline *everything*. Well, In Search of Lost Time was him doing just that.

Life +

I learnt so much from Swann’s Way, that I think no other book could compare. It has to be the best novel to gain micro-understandings of how people think, and for seeing what other people’s inside worlds might look like.

One thing that stood out for me is the meta-lesson of obsession in Swann’s Way. The things we want, we want because of the context not the content. Actually the content of the things we desire is changeable, vapid and meaningless. Maybe it’s a flat-screen TV today, a new bike tomorrow, fame or a pretty girl. The thing that is driving our wants is not the thing itself, it is the surroundings - the peer pressure, the advertising and the methods they employ. There are troupes of people in our world who are quite cynically employed to manipulate our desires using all the techniques that Proust exposes.

A Reader's Guide

If reading Swann’s Way is challenging - and I’d argue that it isn’t - it’s worth it because it has really great return on investment. What you get back from this is so much more than you put in.

In reading it, I seem to remember a section of about 50 pages at the start of the third part which I found a little bit dull - the narrator goes through a list of place names and the association they trigger in his mind. There were also a couple of segments, perhaps 25 pages each, which were taken up with a description of random characters that hadn’t been previously introduced talking in a party. Other than those small sections, I found the whole of the rest just brimming with joy.

In Fewer Words

Swann’s Way puts you firmly behind the eyes and into the mind of its characters. And so completely will you borrow their thoughts, feelings, and passion, that they become entangled with your own. This isn’t just a good book. It’s hard to define, sublime and infinitely underlineable; but ultimately, Swann’s Way is nothing short of a walking tour for the human mind.

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Lolita - Vladimir Nabokov

I have no idea why this novel was written. It is the most beautiful book; the language, the word-play, the finely-tuned emotional resonance, but, like a mouldy orange, it's written around a rotting core...

“Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta. She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita.”

The central theme of this book is deliberately shocking. A man - our narrator, Humbert Humbert - is obsessed with girls, nymphets as he terms them, under the age of 14. He lodges in a house, and becomes infatuated with the landlord’s 12 year old child, Lolita. He then marries the mother who promptly discovers his shameful secret and, by coincidence, dies immediately afterwards. Humbert takes off on a two year ’joy-ride' with the Lolita (now his step-daughter). Soon, they notice they are being followed; creepy events start to occur with increasing regularity, and their sick but stable world begins to unravel.

Reading Lolita is, quite profoundly, a disturbing experience. Our narrator describes his deviant interactions with a child as though the two of them were in a (consummated) adult relationship. He tells us that Lolita is playing games with him, leading him on, teasing him, flirting with him. As a reader, I had to constantly force myself to remember that the object of his affections is twelve, and that the narrator - monstrously - is not reliable.

My thoughts

Reading this novel, I sometimes felt like throwing the book down and yelling ‘why was this written?’.This is not a question with which Nabokov had much sympathy. Sardonically, he writes:

‘Besides the lambs who read [Lolita].. in a spirit of ‘why did he have  to write it?’ or ‘why should I read about maniacs, there has been a number of wise [people]’

I think ‘Why’ is an important question to ask though. And the more I think about Lolita, the more I consider it donut shaped. There is a lot there, but nothing in the centre; no morals to bind it all together, no deeper purpose, no crusade, no point even. It just is. And that's quite difficult to accept.

Nabokov's genius was writing a horned-melon of a book. One that is so breathtakingly good that it must be read, and yet the reading of it will torture you. It will give you glimpses of true beauty, and yet - wantonly - prickle and probe with no desire to leave you a better person.

And that barbed, spiny, nettlesome nature runs down deep into the book’s veins. Because it’s impossible to be shocked continuously for 400 pages. The gritty reality of what is being described leaves you anesthetised and numb. As a reader - just by reading - you tacitly accept Humbert’s behaviour. Worse, we’re all complicit in it, by, as Anthony Burgess termed it ‘nodding scandalised assent’ to Humbert’s crimes.

Lolita almost seems to use the propaganda technique of the Big Lie. By repeatedly framing the the interaction between a 40 year old man and his 12 year stepdaughter as a relationship - when it isn’t that at all - the reader cannot help but think inside that frame. And that’s a scary commentary on the human capacity for acceptance. But also a reason for questioning the author’s motivations.
Because again and again, my mind returns to why. Nabokov felt strongly that he didn’t have to justify why he wrote Lolita, and he claimed that ‘Lolita has no moral in tow’. I disagree. Nabokov doesn’t just touch on taboo behaviour, he has written a book which - on the surface - provides a justification, an excuse even, for horrendous crimes. I think it is obvious that the book does not attempt to provide that justification, but that doesn’t relieve the pressing and unanswered question. Why?.

Life +

Lolita opened my mind to the beauty of language. Nabokov’s writing is quite simply stunning. Not only did I learn lots of new words reading it (crepitate, for example), but I’ve also never seen writing like it. Nabokov makes the words on the page bend precisely to his will. If you want to write, I don’t think you can afford to miss seeing what this author can do. It is almost like a super-power.

I think I took away something about real life too. Humbert's main characteristic is his lack of accountability. Throughout the whole novel, he’s happy to take responsibility for his actions - calling himself a monster etc. - but he sees these actions as inevitable and uncontrollable. He commits the gravest sins without any attempt to stifle his inner demons. We never see him wrestle with himself, still less manage to exercise self-control.

Humbert acts as if a poet’s mind was taped to a robot body. The poet watches and soliloquizes, and writes beautiful expressive words about the actions of this robot. A robot that is programmed to act like a monster and, Humbert feels, completely outside the sphere of his control. In this sense, he is a caricature, most of us don’t abandon our free will so freely, and most don’t have urges so dark. But part of the reason reading Lolita causes us such pangs, is because that same faculty is in us all. We all spend most of the time looking down, watching ourselves acting out our lives. Perhaps we need to wake up.

In fewer words

Prickly, disturbing and energetically amoral, Lolita is a wild trip, a great read, a vibrant splash of colour, and a fizzling fire-work of great writing. One thing’s for sure, as soon as you open the front page, Lolita will reach into your guts and pull you on a madcap rush to places that you don’t want to go. It’s a mouldering orange, a horned melon, an exploration of beauty, and a declaration of perpetual decay. It simply aches to be read; after all, the rest is rust and stardust.


You can get Lolita here.

Friday, 12 April 2013

The Top Eight Plot Holes in the Hound of the Baskervilles

I loved reading Hound of the Baskervilles, but I think the plot is as holey as Emmental cheese (or Pope Francis to coin a pun).  I don't think these plot-holes really take away from how fun the book is. Sherlock Holmes stories suspend your disbelief, and clearly they are not meant to be realistic. Pointing that out might be as obvious as the classic newspaper headline - Teen Pregnancy Drops Off  Significantly After Age 25 - but, just for fun, here are the top eight plot holes in the Hound of the Baskervilles.

This post assumes you’ve read it, so will contain many spoilers. You can check out my review here.

1. The old Baronet Baskerville dies of fright when Stapleton, the murderer, sets a dog on him. But could Stapleton really count on killing the old Baronet ‘of fright’? The hound chased after him, but what if he simply hadn’t died? Sherlock describes this as a ‘flash of genius’, but surely, at the very best, it is quite a flimsy plan.

2. Apparently, the only way Stapleton could get the old Baronet out of the house (in order to frighten him with the dog) was through an incredibly convoluted process. First, he pretends that his wife is his sister. Then he courts a girl in a neighbouring town, making her fall in love with him. He then asks her to write the Baronet a note asking him to meet her by a fence at night. It’s slightly far-fetched, and couldn’t he just have forged the note himself? But more pressingly, if he was bent on murder using 'frightened by a big dog' as the murder weapon, couldn't he simply have released it into the mansion?

3. In the final scene, Stapleton - hoping to dispose of Henry Baskerville - releases the hound on him as he walks home through the moor. But what was he hoping was going to happen? This young man wouldn’t die of fright like the old Baronet.  Sherlock answers this question with a hand-wave, perhaps the dog was hungry and would eat him. 

That seems unlikely, but it also begs the question, why on earth did Stapleton daub the dog in phosphorous and paint for Henry?  He used that to foster the demonic dog myth - but since Henry wouldn't die of fright, what was he hoping was going to happen?

4. Henry Baskerville walks home in the final scene when he is attacked by the hound. Sherlock has to rescue him with a revolver. But why didn't Henry simply carry a revolver himself? The only assistance that Watson and Holmes provided was to shoot the dog. In fact, if Henry Baskerville had just carried a gun around with him, Sherlock Holmes need not have bothered with the case at all.

5. Most dammingly of all, what was Stapleton hoping would happen after killing the two Baronets? He was - secretly - a Baskerville, but had long called himself Stapleton. Presumably he kept the false name so that no one would guess he had a motive for murdering the two Baskervilles. But, clearly, he would have to change his name to eventually claim the fortune, at which point he would reveal his motive. 

Sherlock speculates that perhaps he would go to South America afterwards and tie everything up there. That is pretty weak. So the plan is 1) Kill all the Baskervilles 2) Go to South America 3)??? 4) Profit!

6. Why did Stapleton pretend his wife was his sister? It seemed to serve only the most tenuous purpose, but how in the world could he have known that he needed to make a girl fall in love with him in order to get her to send a note to the Baronet before he came to Devon? The answer - he couldn't.

7. From Wikipedia: Dr Mortimer is an expert on phrenology, heredity and reversion, yet didn't spot that Stapleton resembles the portrait of Hugo Baskerville

8. Lastly, if everyone kept hearing a big howling dog on the moor, and a big dog’s foot-print turned up at the scene of the first murder, why didn’t someone just go look for it? I simply don't understand why everyone would have assumed it was a myth or a demonic ghost. If someone hears a dog howling - especially Sherlock Holmes, the bastion of rationality -  then the most likely explanation is that there is a dog near by. 


You can buy Hound of the Baskervilles here

Alternatively, this book looks quite fun. It's called:  Sherlock Holmes was wrong, reopening the case of the Hound of the Baskervilles

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Hound of the Baskervilles

File:Cover (Hound of Baskervilles, 1902).jpg
What a gripping little chocolate of a book! This twisty, turny, installment of Conan Doyle’s famous detective series tastes like the real stuff.

“I tell you, Watson, this time we have got a foeman who is worthy of our steel.”

Hound of the Baskervilles tells the tale of an old Baronet who dies in strange circumstances outside his mansion deep in the heart of Dartmoor. The townsfolk whisper about a revival of an old family curse - a ghostly, devilsome hound that stalks the moors. Alarmingly, this might not be just idle talk. Next to the dead man, a footprint was found that looks horribly like that of a gigantic hound.

Sherlock Holmes is called in, and finds this case a tough nut to crack. The old Baronets heir - Henry, his nephew - goes to inhabit the creepy manor, along with Dr. Watson - Holmes eager sidekick - and we soon come across layer upon layer of delicious caramelly mystery wrapped around that nutty centre.

My thoughts

I enjoyed this book on two levels. On the first, it is a rather gripping detective story. It seems so completely modern and yet utterly familiar. I had never read Sherlock Holmes before, but reading it was instantly like putting on an old, comfortable pair of jeans - or those trainers with holes at the back of cupboard that hug your feet like slippers. And on the second level, I enjoyed seeing how the book conducted the tension in my own mind. It was almost symphonic, now rising and falling in different tones and pitches, building towards it’s gripping finale.

The description is constantly evocative too - the words merely passed across my eyes, diaphanous, as I saw behind, lucidly, Doyle’s dark, and windswept moor. For me, reading Hound of the Baskervilles was a bit like watching TV, someone reading to me and eating a chocolate all at the same time.

“It is murder, Watson—refined, cold-blooded, deliberate murder.”

I recommend you read this book by surfing along the current of the plot, enjoying it intensely, and living in the scenes it creates. But don’t for one second stop and think about it. You’ll drown in plot holes! Every moment my mind spent analysing the plot, I seemed to be dragged down further into a bog worthy of Doyle’s fictional Great Grimpen Mire. Just for fun, on Friday I’ll go through the top eight plot holes in Hound of the Baskervilles.

Read it, live it, love it - but try not to think about it!


You can buy Hound of the Baskervilles here

Friday, 5 April 2013

The mind blowing books project

This year I set myself a challenge. At midnight on the first of January - as the clock rung in the new year - my eyes narrowed and my jaw clenched. A New Year's resolution had crystallized in my head, and it was the first one I ever made. In 2013, I will read 50 books.

I've always wanted to spend more time reading - as most people do - so this year I gave myself a mission to do just that. Reading 50 books in a year is roughly one book a week. Clearly, how difficult that is depends on the length and complexity of the books I pick.

The thing is, I don’t want to read just any book...

Otherwise I could spend the year reading, say, the complete works of John Grisham  and Stephen King. I think that would be a damn good time, but I want a little bit more out of this.

When I'm done, I want to come away with something amazing. I want to be challenged. I want my world to be expanded. I want to have new ideas roaming around my head looking for a fight. And I want my mind to be rinsed out liked a sponge, and then filled back up with lovely new stuff.

So I decided the books I would read this year had to meet two simple criteria. I want to read them, and I want to have read them.

For me, the books that meet these two rules can be summed up in three words. The best ones! The way I see it, if I’m going to spend a chunk of my life reading, why wouldn't I simply work backwards down the list starting with the very best?

Of course, ‘the best books’ are not that easy to define. Everyone has their own views. So I’m picking books that don’t just appeal to me, but cry out my name. Books that I think will change my life, will blow my mind, and also that are 'stamped with the mark of permanence'. Books that I would argue are among the best ever written. 

I have a good list in my head - probably a thousand long - of books that I think must be read. But to guide me, I’ve also made liberal use of lists, like this and this.

So, why am I doing it?

I think there are four key reasons.
  • One - I feel almost a rushing, giddy excitement about breathing-in the world’s greatest literature. The very best of the world - amazing ideas, the vibrancy and crush of real life, and the poignancy dreams -  is squeezed like juice into these tiny little books. And I can pour all that wonderful stuff straight into my brain.
  • Two - How could I go my whole life without having read Bleak House? Or War and Peace? To me, that’s inconceivable. I've always wanted to see everything, to do everything. So how could I neglect a book that someone says is the best?
  • Three - Great books are a way to improve your experience of life. They teach you to make better sense of - and express better - the constant, surging stream of reality. I  can't imagine anything much more worthwhile. Living is all we have, so why not learn how to do it better?
  • Four - Finally, I feel like a man on a threshold about to plug himself into a machine. Who knows where this will take me, and what these earth-shattering, mind-changing ideas will do to my brain. I can't wait to find out...

My thoughts

So far, I’m loving it! Reading is taking up more of my life. But I don't feel that it has displaced anything significant. Rather, reading is filling up the cracks in my life. 

I don’t really watch TV or mope around much anymore. Downtime is now reading time. And that's great. I also find a couple of times a week I have to sit down and have a serious reading session. Maybe after work I’ll go to a pub, have a craft beer and read for a few hours. Or spend Saturday mornings reading before going out.

The time I spend reading probably adds up to an average of 11 hours a week. I think that's very doable. My job takes up lots of hours too. I work typically eleven/twelve hour days in the week and go out most evenings. Before I started, I seriously didn't know how I would find the time to do this. Now I don't know how on earth I used to spend those hours.

So far...

Here's the books I've read so far this year.

2)   Poor Economics (I took a non-fiction turn)
4)   War and Peace (part 1, part 2, part 3 )
5)   Moby Dick
6)   Of Mice and Men
7)   Madam Bovary
8)   Labyrinths
9)   Hamlet (coming)
10) Hound of the Baskervilles (coming)
11) Lolita (coming)
12) In Search of Lost Time - volume 1 (currently reading)

Wish me luck!


Wednesday, 3 April 2013

Labyrinths (Jorge Luis Borges)

They don’t get more mind-blowing than this...

Labyrinths is a selection of the short stories, essays and parables of Borges. Although prolific, and often cited as unfairly overlooked for a Nobel Prize, Borges only wrote tiny, minuscule little stories. His longest is 14 pages!

This is how he explains himself:

“The composition of vast books is a laborious and impoverishing extravagance. To go on for five hundred pages developing an idea whose perfect oral exposition is possible in a few minutes! A better course of procedure is to pretend that these books already exist, and then to offer a resume, a commentary . . . More reasonable, more inept, more indolent, I have preferred to write notes upon imaginary books.”

Borges’s style is tight, utterly compact and full of sweeping themes: infinity, immortality, eternal recurrence, and of course, labyrinths. My Dad described reading his books as the closest thing to playing chess. It’s true. Each story is like a Grand-master opponent. One that will lead you - force you - into completely unexpected places, often paradoxical, contradictory, or just going round in circles as if forced to walk forever on Escher’s stairs.

Borges riffs on labyrinths, using them as an allegory for the mazes in our unconscious mind. And each of his stories - short starbursts of perfection - are themselves little labyrinths, check-mating you into unreasonable, confusing and untenable positions.
“Time is the substance from which I am made. Time is a river which carries me along, but I am the river; it is a tiger that devours me, but I am the tiger; it is a fire that consumes me, but I am the fire

My thoughts

Borges's stories assume complete static and unchanging knowledge of the little world they create. Understanding the start of the story often needs knowledge that is only obtainable at the end. I found this sometimes made the beginnings unintelligible on a first reading, and I required a second parse to gain any understanding. That poses an interesting meta question (could any book need not two, but three re-readings to make sense of it). I found these stories moderately tough going. I would read one and think ‘what the hell was that about?!’. But I’d go back, reread and reliably have my mind blown. Reading Borges is an excellent investment of your time.

Life +

What did I learn from all this head-spinning madness?

Well, perhaps the stable reality we all think we inhabit is not so solid after all. I’m sure it is an obvious point, and the meta-physicians and philosophers have thoroughly chronicled the shifting ground on which our knowledge walks (Descartes’ famous Cogito Ergo Sum was designed to provide just one pinprick of certainty - that we ourselves exist. This claim is now disputed). But what Borges does brilliantly is take you on a roller coaster through this maze of doubt. He doesn’t just point out such and such a logical flaw like a scientist. No, his stories let you experience the plot holes in the real world we live in. They are a one way plane ticket to certainty destruction.

So what I took away is this, if you can’t be certain of even the most basic beliefs - the ones that make up the very fabric of our reality - then at the very least humbleness is required in regard to all beliefs. Because they might not (always) be true. Perhaps nothing is...
“I cannot walk through the suburbs in the solitude of the night without thinking that the night pleases us because it suppresses idle details, just as our memory does.

In fewer words...

Sublime, unique, confusing, these stories are Kafkaesque in their lack of emotion, timelessness and tight internal logic. Each story seems nothing more than a little snapshot of a character lost in an intricate labyrinth; until the final couple of paragraphs when you realise it is you who is trapped, right in the centre of Borges’s mysterious, swirling paradox.

You can get Labyrinths here.