Thursday, 28 January 2010

Caleb Williams by William Godwin


I'd expected a novel by William Godwin to be politically charged; what I didn't expect was that it would be such a gripping and sophisticated narrative.

Caleb Williams is a young, naive and bookish man from a humble family. He is hired as a private secretary and librarian by a local country squire, Ferdinando Falkland. Falkland seems to be the best of men - a cultivated, humane, liberal and kindly man. But a shadow hangs over him - years ago, his rival, a neighbouring squire called Tyrell, a vain, cruel and tyrannical man, was found murdered shortly after an altercation with Falkland. Falkland is tried and found innocent; soon afterwards, evidence is found that the murder was done by Hawkins, a former tenant of Tyrell's, and his son. Father and son are hanged. However, reputation being such a great deal for him, Falkland is crushed by the fact that his name has been dragged into a murder investigation, and forever after becomes morose, withdrawn and moody, while retaining his benevolent side. At least, that's what an older servant tells Williams when the latter runs afoul of Falkland's more morose moods.

Williams has a severe case of hero-worship when it comes to Falkland; despite which, he has a sneaking suspicion that Falkland murdered Tyrell. What follows is a story that moves from an investigation into slumbering evil to a crazed flight from that evil, now awakened.

The rest of the novel is a tale of unrelenting suspense, but also one that is full of damning portraits of society and institutions in Godwin's times. Williams himself, in the final event, is unable to completely shake off the regard which the social structure forces him to hold his persecutor in; despite his own recriminations in the end, we are able to see that he is the victim of both individual and systemic injustices. The attitudes Godwin criticises are so deeply ingrained that Williams is even unjust to himself in the final analysis.

Political comment, social critique, an unreliable narrator and a gripping thriller-like story; Godwin accomplished many things with this novel. The only real down sides are that he tends to dilate a lot on every emotion that flits through Williams' head and his style tends towards passive reporting rather than active description. If you re-calibrate your reading sensibilities a bit, these are not major hindrances.

Monday, 25 January 2010

THE ITALIAN BY ANN RADCLIFFE

Oh, man. What's happening to me? I really enjoyed this book.

It's essentially the story of two young people who conceive a deep and abiding love for each other on the strength of a very brief acquaintance, largely consisting of longing for each other from afar after a brief initial meeting and subsequently spending a few boating trips together, chaperoned by suitably respectable relatives. The boy is from a noble and proud family; the girl, apparently, is from far more humble stock. His parents, hearing scandalous rumours about goings-on between the two, forbid the union. The boy's mother goes a step further and, prompted by her Confessor, an ambitious and sinister monk, has the girl kidnapped and sent to a convent. The boy tracks his girlfriend down and they escape,only to be captured again. He's sent to the prisons of the Inquisition, she's sent to a desolate sea-side spot to be killed. How will they ever break free of their tormentors and be reunited? Who is the girl's real father? What secrets lie in the evil monk's mysterious past?

A series of events no less absurd than complex eventually bring things to a happy resolution. Along the way, we learn a few more Gothic truths of life:

A well-bred girl, while travelling, will only stay in the local convent and not in a common inn, even though convents are dens of infamy that exist for the purpose of entrapping such girls into lives of gloom and celibacy.

Just because someone is today a monk or nun does not preclude them from having had a rich and varied career beforehand, including the begetting of assorted progeny and the commission of various sins.

The Inquisition takes a really long time to get to the point.

Mrs. Radcliffe was a writer of ridiculously convoluted and completely gripping novels.

Thursday, 21 January 2010

The gothic revival carries on with The Monk by Matthew Lewis (1796)

So melodramatic! But also very richly textured, with various little odds of folklore thrown in, such as a spectral nun and the wandering nun, various apposite folktales in the form of poems and a wildly fraught dual storyline that somehow manages to converge at the very last.

What I learned: if two women in a Gothic novel love the hero, one of them is going to die terribly at the hands of the villain.

Also: don't deal with the devil unless you've thought out your list of demands beforehand. Fool!

Wednesday, 20 January 2010

I seem to have embarked on a re-exploration of the gothic genre. After finishing a re-read of The Castle Of Otranto by Horace Walpole a couple of days back, Last night I finished Vathek by William Beckford, a novel which also stems from the trend for Orientalist fiction which played upon the exoticism of an imagined Arabic setting, largely inspired by translations of The Thousand And One Nights.

It's the story of the Caliph Vathek, a sensualist and seeker of knowledge whose quest for novelty leads him into the snares of a diabolical plot. Promised the jewels and talismans of the pre-Adamic kings, he embarks on an inverted pilgrim's progress with a suitable ending.

Vathek was written in a burst of inspiration over the course of roughly three days. It shows. There are many holes in the plot, which is episodic and frequently seems to lose itself in byways. Vathek is depicted as having the power to strike down his foes with a look from one of his eyes when angered; yet he never uses this power at any point in this book. As mentioned above, he is portrayed as a seeker of knowledge; yet, his chief motivations in the course of the novel are greed and lust. We are suddenly informed that he has a brother more than two-thirds of the way through the story. At a certain point, as if realising he could meander about forever, Beckford visibly reins in his plot and forces a conclusion.

But these cavils are beside the point; style is the measure of Beckford's success here, and this novel has style in excess, weaving a sustained cavalcade of visions that must also be the result of its rapid, intense composition. The lush, sybaritic Palaces of the Senses, the many depictions of lavish banquets, the darkly comedic scenes of sorcerous doings by Vathek's mother Carathis and her minions, various scenes of Vathek's villainy and blasphemy and finally the portrayal of the devil and hell itself are all rendered with a fine eye for arresting, original detail. A vein of dark humour, occasionally tending to farce, runs through the story, giving us permission not take it all much more seriously than Beckford seems to have.

Thursday, 14 January 2010

Chatterton by Peter Ackroyd which is rather overshadowed by Hawksmoor which does some similar things, and much better, but is a fine little novel in its own right, exploring the notions of truth and originality as they apply to literature by re-telling the story of Thomas Chatterton, the 18th-century boy-poet who stirred up the literary world with the discovery of wonderful medieval poetry that later turned out to be fakes from his own pen, the painting of Henry Wallis' 'Death of Chatterton' in parallel with the tale of modern-day poet who stumbles upon documents that seem to reveal a very different end to Chatterton's story.

The Book Of Dead Philosophers by Simon Critchley. A very, very uneven book which could have benefited greatly had Critchley refrained from any attempt at humour, and marred by several entries that would do better as sensational pieces in sort of philsophical Ripley's Believe It Or Not rather than the rather overview of philosophical history with a special focus in philosophical attitudes to death which this book manages to be, although not frequently enough. A good book for the layman though, in other words, for me.

Tuesday, 12 January 2010

OSCAR'S BOOKS by THOMAS WRIGHT


'Art, as so often happens, had taken the place of personal experience...'

- Oscar Wilde, The Portrait of Mr W.H.

This is a splendid book about Oscar Wilde - stylish, idiosyncratic and full of insight, much like its subject. Thomas Wright is a character who has strayed from a story Borges may have written - an obsessive Wilde-phile who has conceived the ambition to read every book Wilde ever read, and to amass a duplicate of Wilde's own book collection, either acquiring Wilde's own books where possible or books we know he read in the editions he must have owned.

But these revelations are left for last, after a fascinating, illuminating look at the life of a man who truly seems to have invented himself out of the things he picked up from his 'golden books'. We see the subtle and not so subtle relations between Wilde's reading and his own writings and ideas and follow the lifelong odyssey of a man whose love for reading helped him endure the rigours of a darker fate than he ever deserved.

While Wright might have written a more sensational book by foregrounding his own Wildeian bibliophilic quest, I think he has made the right decision by leaving it for a personal afterword.

Monday, 11 January 2010

The Portrait of Mr. W.H. by Oscar Wilde

I've just finished re-reading Wilde's 'The Portrait Of Mr. W.H.'. What strikes me most are the passages where Wilde speaks of our relationship to art as essentially being a form of self discovery or invention - 'Art...can never really show us the external world. All that is shows us is our own soul...' and again: 'Art, as so often happens, had taken the place of personal experience.'

His vision of a Hellenistic English Renaissance, and his attempts to trace the Romantic movement to it are perhaps as fanciful as the story of the boy-actor Will Hews who inspires Shakespeare's sonnets, but I think they are much more than a coded exposition on the joys of pederasty, or male homosexuality in general as some commentators have insisted. Wilde's vision of Hellenism was of a culture where individualism was of the utmost importance, and intellectual communion was the chief aim of human interaction. A far cry from the conformist, 'for king and country' ethos of his times and an important concept in times when I constantly hear of human beings being described as 'resources' and 'assets'.

There is certainly a homoerotic component in Wilde's loving survey of the boy-actors of the Elizabethan era and his characterisation of the 'essentially male culture of the English Renaissance'. Wilde was certainly walking a thin line here in presenting such 'Uranian' material to the readers of Blackwood's, and one would be amused at his cheekiness if not for the fact that his secret life was eventually made public with such tragic consequences.

Wilde weaves a marvellous story of love and betrayal from the sonnets, one which is complete and coherent on its own terms. But his real achievement in this piece is the sheer range of ideas he is able to explore using the identiy of the 'onlie begetter' of Shakespeare's sonnets as a starting-point.

As to Shakespeare's alleged love, intellectual or sexual, for a pretty boy-actor,there is a definite sense of bisexuality at least, running through Shakespeare's sonnets, a fact which made poker-faced Victorians like Hallam regret that Shakespeare ever wrote them in the first place. This is nonsense because one does not need to share an author's sexual orientation to appreciate his or her works, just as one does not need to be in love with the original subject of a love poem to appreciate the beauty of such a verse. We should be glad that these paragons of staunch heteronormative principles have not had their way in excising the canon of any work that smacks of what they'd call 'inversion'; if they had, we would have lost works like the Sonnets and this marvelous story-essay, with its beauty of form and richness of meaning.

Saturday, 9 January 2010

I think I first started a blog in 2003. A few years later, I created a second blog that was basically a new edition of the old one. Along the way I attempted to document various writing projects with their own blogs and I also ran a music blog for a while, even when I'd shut down my second blog and decided to leave off general purpose blogging. Then I started this blog, thinking I still needed a platform on which to post my views on all sorts of things.

Somewhere along the line, I've lost the knack and perhaps the need to run a blog as a sort of commonplace book and journal. Most of my energy is taken up by writing fiction, something I'm doing more of now than even before (although still not nearly enough). There are social networking sites where I can immediately share photos and links with my circle of friends. I belong to a few online forums where I can engage people in discussions about topics I am interested in rather than setting myself up as a tubthumping orator in a disregarded corner of the web's Hyde Park.

In fact, the only purpose this blog serves any longer is as a repository for jottings about the books I'm reading and a place to maintain a list of everything I read. At this point in my life, I think that's really all I need a blog for anymore. Funny how these things change.

Wednesday, 6 January 2010

Have His Carcase by Dorothy L. Sayers

Something of a mixed bag, this novel begins all jaunty and jolly with Vane and Wimsey trading flirtatious barbs and chasing down clues in a seaside resort town. It gets progressively more complicated as the investigation goes round in circles trying to crack a very clever set of mutually interlocking alibis until finally there is a rather dark and ambiguous conclusion without a clear resolution to the plot, even if the mystery itself is solved. There's a bout a 100 to 150 pages in the last third which is essentially a sort of Ouroboros-like display of the plot eating itself up, and some of the passages here are rather devoid of dramatic interest because Parker plays the confusion upon confusion card a little too freely here. The radical shift in focus, with Vane and Wimsey getting equal billing in the first half and Vane slowly fading into the background thereafter was rather off-putting. Worst of all, there is a factual error: Beethoven's Eroica is substituted for Beethoven's Moonlight at a concert because the 'band parts' for the latter were misplaced. In fact, there are no 'band parts' for the Moonlight, also known as the 14th Piano Sonata, and for the very good reason that it is a piece for solo piano. I find it hard to believe that an orchestra that has just played Bach and Mozart would not have realised that only one of the most famous sonatas ever has no band parts in any case, and must conclude that the error is Sayers'. This is a minor niggle of course, and the main reason this novel does not get a higher rating from me is because of the spiralling plot which rather seems to get away from Sayers at times.

Bulldog Drummond by 'Sapper'

An enjoyable adventure tale about a clearly punch-drunk soldier who yearns for more adventures after WW1, advertises for it and gets it in the form of a chance to foil a sinister conspiracy to take over the UK through a Bolshevist revolution bankrolled by foreign millionaires and masterminded by a criminal genius. The love scenes are the most inept I have ever read, the characters are a parade of stereotypes, the prose is embarrassingly bad at times and the action is fast and furious with nary a real plot twist but several cliffhanging reversals of fortune for our hero, who seems to rescue and then lose a millionaire being held captive by the villains more times than I misplace my specs on an averagely dunderheaded day. I can't in good conscience give this book more than two stars, but it's good at what it sets out to do - while away a few hours of your life with a short, sharp burst of vicarious manic action.