Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Hamlet

This play is - of course - brilliant, archetypal, riveting and confounding all at once. On finishing it, I just wanted to read it again in order to pick up on all the things that I had missed. And then, no doubt, again. In fact, I got the feeling that life wouldn’t be too bad if I just listened to a recording of Hamlet on repeat endlessly, forever.

After one parse, there is just so, so much that I missed. But I think I got a lot too. I read an Open University text with a page of explanatory notes on the left of each page of play - that helped.

Hamlet is a play worth thinking about. Unlike with lots of fiction, asking yourself why the characters act the way they do, trying to go beyond the words into the psychology of the characters is very fruitful. There is always a good reason for everything.

The mentality of Hamlet losing his nerve as he yearns to murder the usurping king seem so... human. Whilst reading - and afterwards - I found myself slotting parts of my life in the Shakespearean mold; the narrative helping me to understand the world around me. Much of life is described in this play.

And of course, it’s a tragedy. I don’t think it’s too much of a spoiler to say that everyone ends up dying in a heap on the floor. The drama builds and builds, and the tension ratchets up until the final explosive scene. I found the play quite claustrophobic. The plot revolves around a tight band of courtiers and kings who become cloistered, feeding off each others contrivances, grievances and dark impulses. There is no light from the outside world to disinfect this rank pit of emotions.  Their lives become mentally unhealthy, a steaming cesspool of bubbling murkiness and frustrated desire, that eventually overflows into spectacular and chaotic doom.

My thoughts 

I recommend reading Hamlet. I have seen the play on stage twice, watched the film and listened to a radio production. But reading enabled a completely different - and richer - experience. Watching Hamlet as a play allows you to pick up on the context. You can see what’s going on by the expressions and intonation of the actors. It makes the play seem alive.

However, Shakespeare is very densely packed with information. For example take this phrase:

 “The dram of evil doth all the noble substance of a doubt to his own scandal”,

If I heard an actor say that, I might understand the emotion behind the speech, but I wouldn't have time to decode the metaphor. To me, it means ‘a little evil in someone makes us doubt all their good qualities - which is to our detriment’.

I think that’s quite profound. If someone is generally nice, and they act nastily one day we might say ‘now I’ve seen what they’re really like’. Too often people are willing to let a small amount of bad behaviour colour an overwhelmingly positive experience of someone. I find Shakespeare full of this kind of deep insight about life, and it’s easy to miss when simply watching a play.

I bravely attempt a criticism

I can’t really critique Shakespeare (I think it’s a reasonable assumption that the play is operating on a deeper level that I am), but if someone forced me to, I could perhaps come up with one thing. I was slightly disappointed with a plot device in the last act. Hamlet is dueling Laertes with swords. Laertes, taking part in a plot developed with the king, has poisoned his sword in order to try and kill Hamlet. Half way through the duel they - somehow! - switch swords, with Hamlet now holding the poisoned one. Hamlet promptly stabs Laertes with the poison tip who (spoiler alert) dies.

Wait a second - during a duel they somehow manage to swap swords?! This seems such a random, unbelievable course of events, almost as if it were just a device to make sure that both characters die. There was an asterisk in the text that I read saying ‘this might seem crude, but actually during live action this could happen very easily in a scuffle’. I’m not too convinced. Quite a crucial outcome of the play hangs on Hamlet and Laertes accidentally switching swords whilst fencing.

The last word

Should everyone read this?  God, yes.

Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Germinal (Émile Zola)


I asked a French friend about Germinal, by Emile Zola, and he said that since this book is on the French syllabus, it is often thought about with a groan. That’s a shame, because I loved all the books I read in school. For some people, I can imagine that remembering a novel they were forced to read, takes them back to those dusty, classrooms full of youthful boredom. For me, reading always had the opposite effect; novels I read in school let my imagination soar and transported me to distant worlds far away from the a lecturing, hectoring Mrs Gibbs. I thought Germinal was amazing. This book not only paints a vivid, and necessary, picture of poverty, but also provides some interesting challenges to the economic system we live in.

Germinal tells the story of a miner’s strike in 18th century France. Etienne is a poor but bright drifting worker. Impoverished and hungry, he comes across a mining village and falls into a job hewing coal. It’s backbreaking work. The villagers slog underground all day in the dark and the damp, but are barely paid enough to survive. Etienne becomes deeply radicalized by the suffering he sees around him; the capitalist system that allows this to continue must be immoral and corrupt.  At the same time, the coalmine bosses are trying to reduce the workers’ pay yet further. The villagers are scared that they simply will not be able to live under these harsh new terms. Etienne, with his staunch political views, is well placed to lead the coalminers into a standoff - a strike. This strike becomes bloody and brutal as the workers starve, and the company’s profits dry up. Anger bubbles and festers, and the standoff becomes a war. This is no longer about simply trying to win a bread-line wage. They want to send the whole system to hell. And at the root of it all is a crazy dream – that all men are equal under the sun.

My thoughts

This book is the perfect antidote to Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand.  In Atlas Shrugged, unfettered capitalism leads to advancement and beatification of the human race. In Germinal it leads to effective slavery, conflict and suffering. I don’t think Ayn Rand’s was blind to the ‘Germinal’ critique, she just didn’t care. I think she would say that if a man let himself live a miserable existence  - in a coalmine or anywhere else - then he was a fool.  But the two books are perfect to read together. At times, they almost seem to be in dialogue with each other putting forward arguments and counter-arguments. For example, Atlas Shrugged posits that since it is the capitalist that takes the risk that creates wealth, they deserve the rewards. But Germinal neatly undercuts this by comparing these wealthy bourgeois throwing around a little of their money, whilst the workers stake their lives on the company.

Socialism

Germinal isn’t exactly an advocate for socialism. In fact, the socialist beliefs and believers are exposed throughout as somewhat naïve and all too human.  However, it certainly is a shrill voice highlighting rottenness at the core of the capitalist system. 

And I think it’s very effective. The descriptions of poverty in the book are vivid and crushing.  It’s always worth remembering that we belong to an economic system that can treat people very cruelly. And also that it is in our nature to accept and live with it, rather than to challenge it. The kind of suffering that Germinal describes is still endemic in the world today, and I feel far too – dangerously too – complacent about it.  Reading this novel flared up something inside of me, and I found it quite deeply radicalizing.  Whatever the cause, and whatever the reason, and however impossible it is to stop – I think it must be a universal declaration that this kind of suffering is wrong.

It is true though, that for those in the West, Germinal’s central point has become less relevant. The story describes how workers might get trapped in horrible working conditions with a wage that is not enough to survive. Today, the legacy of the Union movement has ensured a certain standard of work safety, and we have a minimum wage, both of which largely prevents the kind of situation that Germinal describes. 

Perhaps then, Germinal can be seen today as a good argument against socialism. A problem – poor working conditions and lower wagers - had a good solution within the current system. Beyond this, Germinal describes the wider rumblings of socialism  - calls to destroy the bosses, uniting all the workers of the world, totalitarianism. But none of this is effectual in the book, and none of it has been effective in real life.

I’d like to make one final moderating point. It’s easy to write a story that focuses on a salient example of human suffering, but it is harder to focus on the things that are not as visible. I’d suggest some things to keep in mind whilst reading. 1) If these miners weren’t employed in a coalmine, they might have been in worse work or unemployed, or dead from starvation. 2) The coal they were producing was powering the industrial revolution. This means a) it was directly improving thousands of peoples lives, powering hospitals, schools and saving lives b) it was a temporary phase the West needed to go through to develop. Billions of people are better off now – and that couldn’t have happened if men didn’t go down coalmines. 3) Worker’s conditions did improve, and worker’s did take a greater share of the profits 4) For most of history nasty jobs were normal, and it is only the capitalist system that has ever liberated people from it.

One more thing

Germinal is a really exciting book that will pull you into a dark and unfamiliar world.  Some of the scenes underground, trapped in bowels of this living mine are scarier and more claustrophic than any horror film I’ve seen.  But more than that, Germinal is a question, a challenge, and a call to arms to stand-up for the disenfranchised of the world.

Wednesday, 15 May 2013

Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde


Robert Louis Stevenson claimed that he got most of the inspiration for his writing from lucid dreams. Jekyll and Hyde came to him in a nightmare - his wife concerned at his fitful sleeping cries, woke him.  Disappointed he replied ‘'Why did you wake me? I was dreaming a fine bogey tale.' 

The book opens with Mr. Utterson, a prosecutor, who is friends with a friendly and scholarly man, Dr Jekyll. He has been hearing from various sources about the dastardly exploits around London of one Mr. Hyde. Hyde, gossip tells, had recently wantonly trampled over a girl in the street. Mr. Utterson is concerned as he knows that Jekyll has some kind of relationship with this fiendish Hyde. In fact, Jekyll has given Hyde unrestricted access to his house to come and goes as he pleases. Fearing his friend is under some dark influence, Utterson makes some enquiries. These become even more urgent when Mr. Hyde is believed to have brutally murdered an MP. Finally, Utterson discovers the truth in a letter from Jekyll. It explains that, with the aid of a ghoulish medical concoction, he has managed to split his personality into a good part and an evil part. However, now having run out of potion, he must remain permanently as the infamous and degenerate Hyde. 

My thoughts

This story is phenomenally well known. So much so that the main characters ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ are commonly used to describe anyone whose personality is somewhat changeable. Our cultural knowledge of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is so strong that actually reading the thing feels like going back to your house and finding everything in a slightly different place. There is much less exciting dual personality, good vs. evil, action than you would expect from a book that typifies the genre. Even the title, ‘Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’ feels weird and wrong. 

Jekyll and Hyde is thought-provoking though. To an extent, living in society necessitates suppressing our basest urges. You could think of it like a clown’s balloon. As we squeeze one part of our personality into an acceptable shape, all that energy just pops up somewhere else. I think it’s also quite familiar to feel a distinct shift between modes. We talk of ‘bottling things up’ and then letting them go, or ‘blowing up’. And we notice this in our friends too. Part of the reason I think Jekyll and Hyde is so well known, is it speaks to the truth of this. People often do seem to have different sides to their personality, and this novella is the archetypal narrative of this.

Stories help us understand the world around us. They give us a structure to events. From religious stories to fairy tales and fables each contains pinches of reality, triple distilled down to its very essence. Jekyll and Hyde, then, describes something quite fundamental in the human experience. I think it was the first story to capture  our changeable nature in a way that resonates with the world we live in.

Welcome to the dark side

Whilst Jekyll and Hyde is an exemplar story, I think its morality is quite subversive - and very different - to that of our times. I see it as a deeply and fundamentally a Christian narrative - which is odd because Louis Stevenson rejected Christianity. To me the basic moral takeaway is: don’t dabble with your dark-side, because it will consume you. The plot condensed into one sentence would  be: Jekyll releases some of his inner base urges, finds he can’t control them and get stuck as his shadow self.

Some say that, actually, Dr. Jekyll went too far in suppressing his animalistic urges - when he released the valve it came out like an explosion. But I don’t think that really makes sense. Mr. Hyde is far darker than Dr. Jekyll is good. Jekyll is, if anything, a normal member of society, not some bastion of saintliness. He isn’t helping old ladies cross the street or donating his money to orphan children. In fact he dabbles in a dark laboratory dissecting animals, and says that although he tries hard to be pure he continually experiences dark urges. Hyde, on the other hand, is a murderous thug, almost sub-human in his capacity for evil and lack of regard for social norms.

So to me, the story wants to tell us that in every human there is a bottomless pit of evil which can’t be allowed out without devastating consequences. That sounds very evangelical. Taking one more small step of conjecture, it almost seems that Louis Stevenson took on board all of the teachings of Christianity about the nature of humanity, and rejected just the spirituality. By doing so, perhaps he felt forced into taking the pessimistic view that there was then nothing we could do to control the animal inside all of us. Stevenson even appears to have lived a little of the libertine lifestyle too. 

By my reading, Jekyll and Hyde isn’t really an exploration of good and evil, it is really just a study of the evil - the animal - inside of us.

The last word

Jekyll and Hyde is a short little book - worth a read if you've got an hour to kill. What more could you ask for? It’s a little gripping Victorian horror that explores the consequences of living a double life, but more importantly it’s a good look at the philosophy of what it is to be human.

Wednesday, 8 May 2013

Wuthering Heights (Emily Brontë)


"The action takes place in Hell, but the places, I don’t know why, have English names”  Jorge Luis Borges

I didn’t know much about Wuthering Heights before I started reading it, but I had a vague hunch that it was some kind of society romance. I've since talked to some of my friends about it, and they all think the same thing. I had also lumped it into one of a huge pile of books in the category ‘maybe I’ll get round to it one day’. I don't know how Wuthering Heights got this kind of dull reputation, but it is utterly misplaced. This novel is full of savage, Gothic horror that is cunningly disguised amongst the routines of provincial banality.


The novel starts with Heathcliff, a boy found on the moors and taken in by a father of a young family. Heathcliffe grows up, favoured by the father but despised by the rest of the family except the daughter, Catherine. The two of them have a deep affinity and go for madcap rambles on the windswept and rainy moors. Catherine marries a bland boy, Edgar, and later dies. But Heathcliff's love lives on, deep as an ocean, bending him into a cruel and brutal revenge of Catherine's husbands family and everyone he knows.

“Be with me always - take any form - drive me mad! only do not leave me in this abyss, where I cannot find you! Oh, God! it is unutterable! I can not live without my life! I can not live without my soul!”

My thoughts

This novel really is savage. In the first chapter the narrator visits Heathcliff, the novel’s main character. As he walks into the house, dogs attack him and push him to the ground. They ferociously nash at his face and arms. Heathcliff, seeing this, looks on and laughs at the blood streaming from his visitors face. This is shocking stuff. Here I was, starting a Victorian ‘romance’ novel where passions are normally kept hidden and under the table, and, in the first chapter, there is explicit and feral violence. Very quickly, this engendered in me an intense feeling of claustrophobia and unease.  I wanted to get out of this devilish house where such human shadows lurk, casually hinting at the darkness inside us all.

Reading Wuthering Heights was quite an uncomfortable experience - Emily Bronte is describing emotions powerful enough to break a human. But I loved the parts where Catherine runs away to the moor. It seemed to me to be representative of the wildness in us all. Stories really give us a narrative structure to understand our own lives - almost like lenses with different tints and perspectives, they hone the glasses through which we see the world.  Catherine breaking free, and running away to the wild moorland of moss and brackish pools of water feels to me deeply symbolic. Twisted, troubled child she is, but who wouldn’t follow her onto the freedom of the moor?

Wednesday, 1 May 2013

If on a Winter's Night a Traveller (Italo Calvino)


If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller is one of the more imaginative books I have read. Like a car full of clowns, it’s packed full of wackiness just bursting to get out and make you smile.

This book’s hero is you, the reader. The first chapter describes your attempts to get comfortable and concentrate on this new book you’ve just bought. And then, in the second chapter, the novel begins. It seems like an engaging story, perhaps a thriller, a spy story with hints of espionage. You’re hooked. But then - the third chapter explains - there is a printing error and the part of the book you’ve read is just repeated over and over again. Oh no! You go to the bookshop to try and purchase an error-free version. You end up picking up a pretty girl and a new copy which, in the fourth chapter, you begin to read. But it soon becomes clear that this is not the same story at all... You read on anyway. It is about two people who are about to completely switch lives. How intriguing. And there’s a girl involved. She causes the two main characters to get into a dramatic fight. You’re hooked! But the reading experience is frustrated, and - again - it is possible to get no further than the end of the first chapter.

In fact, every even chapter of Winter’s Night is the first chapter of a new novel. And every odd chapter covers the main story-arc that explains why you are starting all these damn books. This story-arc takes you - the hero - on a wild caper around the world, there’s international book smuggling, rouge-translators, censorious dictators and even space for a little bit of a love.

My thoughts

Winter’s Night brought to my mind At Swim Two Birds, Tristram Shandy, Paul Auster, Nabokov, Borges, and the Eyre Affair. I would file this under inter-textual meta-fiction, and I have a bit of a soft-spot for the genre.

That said, I found reading this novel slightly numbing. Every time I got to a new opening chapter, I would sigh, look up and want to put the book down. That’s because it takes a bit of effort to start reading a new book; you have to learn about a new world and a whole new set of characters. And it would be easy to resent that effort, if there wasn’t a return on your investment. And there just isn’t in this book. Ultimately, since the opening chapters don’t ever go anywhere, it felt slightly pointless reading them. I knew that I was going to be left hanging and disappointed, so I didn’t emotionally invest in any of the characters.

That meant that I found ‘a book of first chapters’ a bit of a gimmick. It’s a really neat idea, but it actually got in the way of telling a good story. Perhaps I would have enjoyed it more if Calvino had in some way wrapped up the myriad of stories he started. But I understand that would have defeated the purpose.

I felt the same way about the main character. When I first opened the book, and saw that it was all about ‘you, the reader’, I got a real rush of delight. ‘That’s me!’ I thought.  But that feeling wore off pretty quickly. Obviously I wasn’t doing any of the things that the book described, so ‘You’ stopped being ‘me’ and simply became just the name of the book’s main character. Again, it felt slightly gimmicky because, although it’s a brilliant idea, keeping it up for the whole book seemed redundant - and even detrimental - to my enjoyment.   

One more thing, the story arc didn’t stick as close as I would have liked to coherence. Great novels can have whacky things happen, and great writing can be written hazily and ambiguously as though looking through a smoke-filled room. But I think Winter’s Night tries to do both of those things in the same novel, and I’m not sure they go. To me, it started to feel like absolutely anything could happen, but it just didn’t matter because none of it was real.

I did like this book. I really did. There was a breathtaking amount of originality in there. And Calvino is clearly a phenomenal writer. Perhaps my reservations just come down to my philosophy of reading. I like books that contain truths about human nature, that deepen my understanding or sharpen my emotions. Calvino offers a more aesthetic enjoyment -  reading as pleasure for it’s own sake, not to get anywhere (even to the end of the book) but simply to enjoy the cleverness, and quality of the writing. It’s the kind of pleasure you get from dipping your toes in a cool mountain stream, feeling the water flow gently over them.

If you like this book, I think you will very much like two novels by Flann O’Brien - At Swim Two Birds, and The Third Policeman. To my eyes they were similar - exceedingly well written, and lots of fun - but even more imaginative, inventive(!) and crazy than If On a Winter’s Night a Traveller.

In fewer words

This book is a little bit bonkers, and it’s bursting at the seams with the sizzling crackle of a technicolour imagination. This book isn’t just in 3D - it’s in 7D! Yeah, that doesn’t make any sense. Neither does the book. But it will overwhelm your senses, and come at you from every direction. And the hero of it all, is you.