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

Wednesday, 14 August 2013

The Prodigy (Hermann Hesse)

I love Hermann Hesse. He’s written some amazing books. The Glass Bead Game, Sidhartha and Steppenwolf are all among my favourites. So it was with joy and anticipation that I picked up The Prodigy (also called Beneath the Wheel).
The Prodigy is one of Hesse’s early efforts, and it’s a bit different. I think as a finished novel, it’s actually quite weak, but it is an interesting read because you can see the seeds of Hesse’s mental development, and in the second half particularly some of the writing is quite wonderful. Hermann Hesse is famous for crisp writing; his novels are almost fabalistic in their abstraction from every day life. His writing is alway simple, alway concise, and the novel-world tends to be a minimal, essential construction of reality. The Prodigy, well... it isn’t like that. The world is recognisably just the past. And although it never really approaches ‘grittiness’, it puts a dulling filter on life – things seem drab, dreary and imbued with a kind of stale, sepia-tone melancholy. The plot is very simple. A gifted boy called Hans works hard and gets into a demanding school. He struggles to keep pace with the academic and abstruse work he is given. Over time his spirit is broken by this string of zestless esoterica, and his once-eager mind starves on a diet that is so unconnected to the rawness and vitality of real life. It’s a powerful message; an ‘indictment of a conventional education’ according to the blurb on the back of the copy I read. Yet I couldn’t help but feel that Hesse created a caricature version of the real world, and exaggerates how beastly it all is. I agree that learning Latin and Greek in order to pour over the texts of Homer line by line sounds epically dull, especially on a hot summers day. Whilst real education isn’t anything like that today, perhaps it was back when Hesse was writing. But even so, is it so terrible? Sure, I think children could benefit more from learning other things, but Hans has specifically chosen to learn this kind of content. He felt pressured, but actually this is mild ‘pressure’ compared to the rest of the stuff ‘real’ life throws at you. All in all, Hesse’s critique feels a bit wet. Children should learn things that make them connected rather than disconnected with the natural world. However, wanting something and then not getting it, or wanting something then realising it’s the wrong thing, are pretty fundamental parts of life. On education The ending annoyed me too. Hans’ death was narratively inevitable as the only way to effectively represent how utterly the school system had failed him. I accept that the novel isn’t literally trying to say that people are at risk of death from a bad education – because in by far the majority of cases they’re not – but perhaps they are at risk of their spirit ‘dying’, or some other metaphorical expression of death. The annoying part is that Hesse completely fails to talk about what schools give their pupils. In general, I think learning is inherently good and enriching. Even if the kid Hans wasn’t cut out for a conventional education, he still learnt skills and knowledge which would have had a beneficial effect on the texture and quality of his experience for the rest of his life. It’s a sacrifice, and, yes, he probably wanted to be outside snogging girls and jumping through mud. But education is supposed to be an investment. You sacrifice a worse time now, in order to have a set of better quality experiences for the rest of your life. On love Hesse comes alive when he starts describing Hans falling in love. It’s lovely writing. The description of Hans’ heart opening is a beautiful thing. I felt my confidence slightly betrayed though. The kid goes to school and has – all told – a terrible time. When he comes into the real world, he immediately finds some of the pleasures that there exist, including the sweetness of first love. It doesn’t last, of course. But I really thought the book was intending to show how real life is a far better teacher than a school. The book would then have been twice as long, and ten times as good. Instead, the child loses his love, gets drunk and then quickly dies. “When a tree is polled, it will sprout new shoots nearer its roots. A soul that is ruined in the bud will frequently return to the springtime of its beginnings and its promise-filled childhood, as though it could discover new hopes there and retie the broken threads of life. The shoots grow rapidly and eagerly, but it is only a sham life that will never be a genuine tree.” Should you read this? Should you read this? I haven’t read everything else by Hesse, but I have read a fair bit. So I think I could take an odds-on gamble that this is below his average output in terms of quality. That being the case, you’re better off picking a random other Hesse and seeing what happens. I guess that seems like I’m answering ‘No’ to the question – and perhaps I am – but only because I’m concerned about best using your time, not because it isn’t a good read. I enjoyed it.