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!

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.