Wednesday, 31 July 2013

The Good Soldier (Ford Madox Ford)

This might be the saddest story ever! 

Our man marries the girl he loves - Florence. She then tells him just after the wedding that she has a heart disease. So he looks after her for years. He cares for her, nurses her, and accepts that they cannot make love because of her condition. The couple meet and make friends with a charming British husband and wife, Edward and Leanora. They have a nice time until one night, our man finds Florence... dead. He sees a bottle of heart medication next to her body, and assumes her heart has killed her. He mourns bitterly. 

To his horror, he later finds out that his wife has committed suicide. Further she had been having an affair for ten years with Edward, the British husband, and she killed herself because she realised that Edward had started to love someone else: a young pretty girl called Nancy. Even worse, our man finds out that his wife Florence’s heart problem turns out to be a lie that she told to trap him (what a hussy!)

To make things even sadder, Nancy moves away, and Edward the British Husband slits his own throat in depression. Nancy goes crazy, and our man - who has begun to love her - spends the rest of his days looking after her. But she can’t say a word.

Gripping stuff.

The Good Soldier is a brilliant story. It is also very told in a very clever way. The writer Ford M. Ford builds up the story in layers. Just like toffee ripple ice-cream. The whole thing is like a friend telling you a story next to a hot fire. He’s got a big glass of wine in his hand, and misses bits out, goes back over things, and generally just pulls you into his tale. Like a friend, he forgets things, misses things out, and accidentally tells untruths whilst spilling his wine and commenting on how big and white the moon is. I felt like a friend was crying on my shoulder in a bar. And I wanted to buy him another drink.

What it teaches you about life

Whenever I read a good book, I always want to try and pull out lessons from it. What is it going to teach me about life?

The Good Soldier has lots of lessons.

Number 1. - Bad things happen.

Without getting all Buddhist; suffering is part of life. It is completely unavoidable, even if you’re basically a good person. So how you deal with it is incredibly important. Our man handles it in completely the wrong way.

When he realises his wife has messed him around, he blames himself. And then he repeats his mistakes, but taking care of another invalid who doesn’t love him - Nancy.

The obvious lesson is to learn from your mistakes. But it’s a hard lesson to learn. Beating yourself up for things that have gone wrong - whatever they are - is pointless. But it’s easier than doing things differently. The easy route, is not always the best one. Sometimes, you just have take responsibility and change the thing that you did wrong.

Number 2.  -  Being a good person, doesn’t mean you do good things.

Edward is a charming British philanderer. He is a really good person. He saves people from drowning. He risks his own life to help others. And he is always friendly. Through and through, he’s a thoroughly decent chap. The best of British.

But he cheats on his wife relentlessly. Perhaps he just loves the world too much.

Psychologists call it the halo effect. If you see one good trait, you will assume someone has others too. We think someone who is warm and friendly, will likely be a better friend. 

It’s worth remembering though that good character traits are completely uncorrelated. Someone might seem like a nice guy, but it doesn’t tell you anything about how they’re going to behave. 

In fact, no one is a good person. Or a bad person. If we’re going to judge, we should judge actions, not people. And that includes when we judge ourselves.

The last word

Woah. The Good Soldier is sad. Like seriously go-home-and-cry-under-your-duvet-sad. But you know what, at the end, it made me feel pretty good about life. Pretty good about people too. There are lots of bad things in this book, but there is no whining or moaning. Just a man telling a good story. And I like that. It’s a great attitude. If life goes well - great! If life screws you over, then at least you get to tell a good story.

Wednesday, 17 July 2013

The Odyssey

Homer’s Odyssey only needs one word to describe it: epic. Seriously, this thing is absolutely awesomely, brilliantly epic. 

Everyone knows the plot of this book. It was written two and half THOUSAND years ago, and it is ingrained into the fabric our society. References to it are everywhere. The Odyssey is the fountain of all literature, but it's also responsible for huge swathes of the material that our lives are made of. The Odyssey has influenced the stories we tell ourselves, our ideas about who are, and the narratives that shape our lives.

But in case you don't know it, the plot goes as follows. The patient Odysseus, after fighting honourably in the Trojan war, sets out on his journey home. A few things get in the way. When the story opens he is imprisoned by a nymph called Calypso who cruelly forces him to make love to her, beautiful Goddess that she is, for seven long years. With a prodding from another god, he takes leave of this divine temptress, escapes and starts his journey home. As before, things are not smooth and he encounters innumerable setbacks. These are caused by – Yes – another God, Poseidon the earthquake maker, a fearsome foe who seems to have taken against him. En route, a one eyed giant imprisons him a cave, syrens try to tempt him to wreck his ship on the rocks, and he has to make a quick little detour to the land of the dead. Finally he arrives home. Joy! But – oh no! – he finds his house over-run by suitors competing to marry his wife. The forgiving and merciful Odysseus thinks this a bit of a faux pas, so he and his son brutally slaughter them all, leaving just a pile of gory corpses on the floor. His wife, seeing the results of this murderous frenzy, runs to Odysseus, her love renewed, and they cosy up in bed together happy to have some snuggle time at last.

My thoughts

Everything about this book is astonishing. The world it describes is vivid – full of palaces, feasts, gold, gifts, sacking of cities, and men that look like Gods. And it’s full of Gods too from Athene of the flashing eyes, to Poseidon the bringer of earthquakes, and Hermes the giant killer. It’s mythology, obviously - but everything about it is unreal. The world it’s describing never exists. Ancient Greece, while incredibly advanced, was still very primitive. And the time it’s written in doesn’t exist either. Because Homer’s poem was told orally over a span of 500 years, the time periods are all squished together into one timeless epic.

Before I embarked on the journey to read the Odyssey, I thought it would be a difficult read. In my head I pictured long genealogies, perhaps lengthy battle descriptions, and dull sub stories. That couldn't be further from the truth! It turned out to be one of the more enjoyable books I’ve read this year. This book is pure myth, and it’s great fun. I was completely absorbed by the world that it creates, and I was astonished at just how modern it is to.

I found the relationship with the Gods in Homer fascinating. Their impact on human life is so limited. The most common power they exert is to ‘send a following breeze’ behind a ship. That's not really that impressive. Sometimes they will 'close someone’s eyes in sleep'. Thanks, but that kind of happens on it’s own. Even the mighty Poseidon - the earthquake maker -  just whips up a few storms. The God’s also physically talk to people, but often take the forms of other people they know when they do this. I love that. For the Greeks, God’s weren’t someone with ‘divine’ powers - they couldn’t ‘answer your prayers’, or do ‘magic’, they simply were the thing that created all the awe-inspiring stuff around us. And that is a kind of magic if you think about it.

It’s also interesting because even though The Odyssey is a myth - and in the world of the myth the Gods are unambiguously real - but everything the Gods do can be explainable without them. Breezes are often following, people often go to sleep and sometimes there are storms. The limits of their power are never explicitly outlined. Athene could presumably just magic Odysseus home.

Somehow the Odyssey feels real. I unquestioningly believe in it, even though I know it is all made up. It feels deeper than made up - like it’s an archetype surging through my mind, or part of the software that my brain runs on.

Should everyone read it?

You know what, everyone has already read it. It's written into our dreams, into our stories, into the very world we have built around us. This epic poem has been squeezed like a lemon, until every last drop of influence has poured out into society. Read it or not, it's already in your head. 

But should everyone read the actual thing? Yes, probably - it's great fun!

Wednesday, 10 July 2013

Gulliver's Travels (Jonathan Swift)

This is one of the best things I have ever read. It is almost a cliche now to describe Gulliver’s Travels as a biting satire, but it is utterly true - and a wonderful one to boot. In a shortened, picture form, Gulliver’s Travels is one of the world’s most popular children’s book so the plot feels familiar and almost nostalgic. Along with rice cakes and marmite sandwiches, reading it took me back to my childhood. Suddenly I was eight again and running around the playground.

The story goes a bit like this. Gulliver leaves his wife and child to go travelling, and from then on has a set of the weirdest, most fantastical adventures ever set to paper. Shortly after leaving, Gulliver shipwrecks and stumbles upon Lilliput, the renowned land of little people that can walk around on his hand. After the ensuing adventures and a journey home, Gulliver embarks on a further bold voyage, but this time his ship flounders on Brobdingnag, a nation of giants where suddenly it is Gulliver who finds himself a little person. Next, after leaving, he finds all sorts of odd peoples – a floating island in the sky, magicians who can conjure the dead – and finally a land of wise and logical horses, the perspicacious Houyhnhnms. Alongside these omnibenevolent nags, he makes a discovery that turns his blood a-chill. Here, he encounters the infamous ‘Yahoos’. A savage, untameable, splenic animal that seems to bear more than a passing resemblance – in looks and habits – to the species of which Gulliver is a committed member: the unhumble human...

It's wonderful

There is just something so special about this book. It might not be the most significant aspect, perhaps, but I even loved the 16th century-style writing style. For example, every proper noun is capitalised, and letters starting with ‘h’ are always preceded with ‘an’: I saw with mine Eyes, an Hundred Savages advancing upon my poar Self.  This must have been standard at the time, but it now lends the books a delightful realism. I’m sure it gets edited out of a lot of modern editions, but I think that’s a mistake.

Gulliver’s personality binds the whole thing together like an egg in cake batter. His most striking characteristic is an ostentatious gallantry. Beached on Lilliput, and captured by the little people, he quickly pays tribute and accepts the rule of the tiny Lilliputian king, even though he is no bigger than his face; soon describing him as ‘my gracious majesty’. Ultimately, Gulliver feels entitled – being a British citizen of Her Majesty the Queen – to be treated civilly and with decorum. He expects to be welcomed into the court of every king, and for his needs to be met – food, wine and a new ‘suit of cloaths’ wherever on the globe he finds himself. This entitlement can lead him to be dreadfully naive, at times unaware of clear and present danger. 

What makes us human?

Yet what makes the book interesting is how Gulliver sees the world. It is a fascinating sum of contradictions. Gulliver is overtly proud of his country, and acts as an ambassador wherever he goes. But he also embarks on new life-styles with gusto. In three of the places he visits, he settles, stays for years, learns the language and embraces their lifestyle - even though it’s almost the opposite of his own. However, Gulliver thinks of his own society as far more sophisticated and on a ‘higher level’ than any of the civilisations he visits. In fact, nothing gets him questioning his homeland, until he meets the Yahoos....

The Yahoos are a breed of savage humans. Gulliver is repulsed by them because he sees the character of the despicable Yahoo’s mirrored in humans, and the character of the horses as far superior. So, he never quite manages to critique British society and it’s institutions – something that is changeable – but just the human character – which isn’t (especially not en masse). 

I think that’s quite significant, and clearly a Swiftian commentary on something. I see it as saying a range of things from a kind of Thatcherite proclamation that society doesn’t exist, to the idea that culture is just the emergent phenomena that arises out of the character’s of the people that live there. I think that’s dead wrong - and actually so would most sociologists today. Institutions are incredibly important, but Gulliver is only concerned with character. I can’t quite tell which side of the fence Swift himself sat on – but since his most vicious critique is on personality traits, I’ll put flag down and say that he got this one wrong. He savagely critiqued humans character - and finds fault with the echos of our animal urges in the way we live, but he didn’t stop to mention how amazing it is that we’ve developed institutions that work well despite all our Yahoo-like greed.

Life Lessons

I think I missed a lot of the satire in the book – especially since I’m not au fait with the subtleties of George I’s court – but I think I got the main point, and it’s exceptionally clever. By creating and describing so many fantastical species – little men, big men, magicians, talking horses – the book is essentially an exercise in frame setting. It is priming us, by poking fun at imaginary beings, to be able to picture ourselves objectively. Gulliver rocks up at Lilliput and finds a bunch of weird little people, but what if he rocked up in Britain, what strange species would he find there? Humans. 

Swift want us to take a long look at what we really are. For him it’s obvious. We’re just savages, monkeys, a slave to our urges. And we've painstakingly built a society that pretends we’re not. That’s problematic, because it means we’re literally unaware of how stupid some of our actions are. Once you start looking as Jonathan Swift wanted us to look, everything becomes ridiculous. From living in houses that are so far superfluous to our needs, to border conflicts, to political slanging matches. This is all comes from animalistic, primal urges – which are just stupid. And yet we pretend that there’s a good intelligent reason for everything, that things are the way they are for a reason. As a culture, we do not live rationally. Our selfish, grubbing instincts are built into the very fabric of our society. But, as I mentioned earlier, that’s only half the story. Actually, society is brilliant, amazing, incredible - and it’s a testament to human ingenuity that we’ve managed to design ourselves a system that succeeds not despite, but because of, the character of the human race. 

And yet, we can do more. We can continue to strive towards building a better world. To be better, to live better together, and to help those that get left behind. It's not all doom and gloom, but there's no time for complacency either. Let's get cracking...

Tuesday, 2 July 2013

Things Fall Apart (Chinua Achebe)

Things Fall Apart is a great book. It centres around the mighty Okonkwo. Living in a tribal village in Africa, he made his fame from a young age as a wrestler and a warrior. We see Okonkwo building his wealth through hard grit and taking part in village life in the tradition of the tribe. The village is steeped in ritual, and everything has a way. During a wrestling match which his son is taking part in, Okonkwo accidentally kills a tribesman when his gun misfires. He suffers the punishment he must, and is exiled from his village for seven long years. The time away is hard, and he misses his friends and tribe. Eventually the time passes, and he prepares to reenter the village. But when he does, he finds the tribe completely changed. Now there are missionaries trying to convert the villages to Christianity. Okonkwo finds it all strange and struggles to adapt to this alien presence that is slowly infiltrating his tribe. 

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

My thoughts

I enjoyed Things Fall Apart very much. Whilst I found some of the descriptions of African tribal rituals a little hard to get my head around, the whole thing was vivid and powerful. 

I really enjoy books that take me into a world that I don’t know and teach me all about it. They let me live someone else’s life. But for that to happen, trust is important. Although stories are obviously made up, I have to believe they could happen. And I did believe in Things Fall Apart. I trusted that the descriptions of tribal life, and the emotions felt by the characters, weren’t just flights of fancy, but instead described what living in that world was really like. 

The characters are great too. Okonkwo is a fearless warrior, a tiger, and a man. But is he a real man?  He has many manly characteristics. He is strong – physically and mentally. He won’t admit weakness, and has few words to say. He is often short tempered, sometimes brutally so, with his family. And he would die for his people, and his village. Okonkwo is an untamed warrior, a fighter, full of self-motivation, and ambition. He thirsts for success and victory. Is he a real man? Okonkwo certainly ticks some of the boxes, but not all of the ones we would expect from a modern man. He isn’t subtle, shrewd or patient. Okonkwo is a man of the past. And, for better or worse, the world is always rushing onwards towards the future. Not only does his village life fall apart as it begins to embrace Christianity. But even the idea of manhood that Okonkwo embodies is becoming outdated. And in the end, he falls apart. 

Perhaps in another world, Okonkwo could have been a hero. Things Fall Apart follows a similar structure to some of the classics. Okonkwo could have been an Odysseus or Beowulf. How would any of those greek heros, from Hercules, Achilles, even the tragic Oedipus fair today? They would be living in a world that rejects the very notion of their kind of man – and their kind of hero. In a different time, the godlike Okonkwo could have set the world aflame, as he shot across the sky in spectacular glory!

The final point

Things Fall Apart, but new things are built in the rubble. The process of creative destruction is brutal, and people, villages, identities and whole cultures lie in its colossal wake – a watery grave of things that the world rushed by, impatient to get to the next thing. Our atoms are built from stardust, and our culture is too. It is worth remembering that every single thing in our world – everything that we know and love – we have because other things have died to make room for them. But it’s also worth looking back from time to time and mourning everything we’ve lost.