February’s books

1 Mar

Ladies and gents, I give you – February’s books!

I feel bound to confess that I haven’t read quite as much this month, but in my defence, I haven’t had any time off work and there are also fewer days in February. I have read quite a broad selection, though, so hopefully that’ll make it feel like more. It certainly feels like I’ve read a lot of quite different books.

First up: The Good Soldier, by Ford Madox Ford. The Good Soldier is touted as being FMF’s best novel and tends to be the one that appears on lists of things a person ought to read. I had never heard of it until I started reading about Modernism in the summer; then I picked up Parade’s End (which is four times the size, composed as it is in four parts) because I have this strange problem where I have to read a book before I can see a film or tv adaptation of it. Anyway, there was no such time pressure for The Good Soldier so it’s taken me until now to get round to it.

It was worth it. What I like best about going back to absolutely classic novels is that frequently, the story is still brand new. Nobody has spoilt the plot for you. And that’s really quite crucial in TGS because the point is that the narrator knows the end of his story, but it takes you a very long time to find it out (I get that maybe this is the case in quite a lot of stories, but in my defence, I have read a lot of Greek tragedy where the idea is that *everyone* knows the story).

The narrator is pretty unreliable. He skips between time frames, events, people like a blood-hungry mosquito. He stops long enough to get a taste and then springs away before he is swatted. He’s rather more bumbling and amiable than a mosquito, of course; he is a pretty helpless character. He’s a good narrator in that sense because he is so passive; he really has just watched this unfold around him, completely clueless of infidelity, passion, anger, religious affiliation. His complete bewilderment about how events turn out makes him easy to relate to from a position of ignorance; he’s not presumptious about what the reader should understand, because he’s so keen to stress he doesn’t understand it himself.

One thing I can’t get over with FMF is his interest in the difference between Catholics and, well, everyone else, and how this translates into seriously messed up human relationships. This was a big thing in Parade’s End (Sylvia, wife of the main character Christopher Tietjens, causes absolute havoc by refusing a divorce on the grounds that she is Catholic). The Good Soldier offers a rather more subtle treatment of this phenomenon – or perhaps it’s more that the character is more sympathetic; less the one at fault. At any rate, it’s interesting that Ford chose to look at the same subject in apparently the same way twice and came to different conclusions about it both times.

The narrative style is not so densely, relentlessly stream-of-consciousness as Last Post (the fourth part of Parade’s End) but it is still a novel very much conducted through the medium of a character’s brain. That’s ok. It reminds you how ridiculous your own memory is; connections are always made too late and events that seem completely unrelated turn out to be more than simple coincidence. The end of the novel holds more emotional material than it would without the personal narration. Overall – I enjoyed The Good Soldier. It was restfully deflating; wistful, a little sad, but a smooth journey down.

As soon as I’d finished with FMF, I turned my attention to Orwell. I read Animal Farm years ago at school but for some reason or another I had never got round to reading 1984; again, it’s one of those books that everyone assumes everyone else has read (although I suspect that half the people who claim to have done so and frequently and superciliously refer to a ‘Big Brother Society’ etc are telling porkies). Anyway. I bought an excellent Penguin edition – a classic, with the orange cover – which has the name and author censored out. Pleasing. Again, my aim is not to spoil the story for all those prepared to confess to ignorance so I’ll just say what I thought.

It’s difficult to remember, when you read it, that it was written a significant amount of time before 1984 and Orwell was only half-jokingly predicting a horrifying dystopian future. Forget the number on the front and it still reads like a slightly alarming potential consequence of our messed up society. It’s possibly a bit more politically driven than your average teen reader today would understand (is it just me or is our interest in all political parties outside a small circle around the centre steadily diminishing?). It is, nevertheless, fascinating. And chilling. Mostly chilling, to be honest.

When I finished 1984, I also felt deflated – but not in the calm, serene way of a sad story come to a natural, if tragic close. I felt like a frog in the midst of its croaking, suddenly stepped on, one eye still blinking in discomfort. Gross, perhaps, but there you go.

On to the next one. January/February time is when all the news-y people start chattering away about films and award seasons and people start looking ahead to what’s coming out in the following year. I’ll be honest, this is partly why I read Gatsby – I want to watch the new Leo DiCaprio + Carey Mulligan version in May, because I ❤ Carey Mulligan. Lots of people were talking about Kill Your Darlings, the sort-of-biopic of Allen Ginsberg and his mates, with Ginsberg played by Daniel Radcliffe, sporting some glasses of which HP would be proud. I think it’s out some time this spring. All this natter about the Beat generation and so on led me to realise I didn’t have a clue what it’s about and that I should probably find out. So off I toddled.

I read Howl and Kaddish by Allen Ginsberg before tackling Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. I thought I had the measure of Beat after Ginsberg but there is a significant difference between beat poetry and beat prose. Beat poetry really thuds – you can hear it if you read it – it reverberates and clangs and echoes in your head while already pealing out the next chimes. Kaddish is strikingly similar to its namesake in that respect; the prayer entitled ‘kaddish’ is read several times in a Shabbat service and a lot of Orthodox Jews accompany it with a rocking motion that really does sound like poor delusional Ginsberg mourning his mother.

Beat prose is a different kind of beat – beat up, rather than beating. (Just for a moment, let’s all look at the word ‘beat’. Isn’t it ridiculous? Yeah. Anyway.). Beat prose is like a kettle that’s been hammered out of a dustbin. I found it really difficult to get a handle on what the story was, where the hero Sal Paradise was going, why he was going there, why he was so easily drawn into ladding about across the country with his crazy mate Dean Moriarty. Maybe it’s because I’m not American, not a lad, not of that generation, not of a generation that remembers or understands that generation. Beat doesn’t speak to me. Perhaps I’m a bit too prim and proper for stories about hitchhiking across the breadth of America looking for girls and drugs. That’s all right. You don’t have to like every book you read. I get why it was seminal, though. 1950s America can’t have seen many books like it.

In the end, it was a relief to finish On the Road. I dithered for a short while about what to read next before settling on Wolf Hall (I did read Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead in the meanwhile, but do scripts count? I haven’t decided). Hilary Mantel was in the news for her talk, published as an article in the London Review of Books, about the Duchess of Cambridge, but I had already started reading (I’m a trendsetter, me), so I felt very topical for a change. I finished Wolf Hall yesterday evening after a considerable effort to crack the last 100 pages or so before month end.

I really, really enjoyed it. Mantel’s prose style is unusual – I struggled a little at first; a present tense 3rd person narrative from Cromwell’s point of view is initially not terribly intuitive, but it became much easier very quickly and soon it was simply pleasant. Keeping it up consistently for over 600 pages is no mean feat, either; I know from small attempts at writing that maintaining such a complicated authorial/narrative persona for any length of time is pretty tough.

I always secretly thought that Cromwell wasn’t that bad a guy and it’s delicious to read a story that allows for ambiguity in judging the key players. Wolsey’s not a bastard, Cromwell’s not a bastard; even Henry VIII, Anne and Katherine all come off with depth and a multiplicity of motivation. Having studied this era in a significant amount of detail at A level, it’s a great joy to come across a name I remember, or a character I know will be important, or an event the outcome of which I already know. Richard Riche; the dissolution of the monasteries; Chapuys the Imperial ambassador (I think I even studied some of his letters). Mark Smeaton, the pesky lute player, Paulet, the administrator, Zwingli, the German religious sectary – all these folks are going to be important.

Mantel has done so well to take a story that everybody knows the bones of and hang an impressively meaty tale around it. I can’t wait to read Bring Up the Bodies, even though I know exactly what’s going to happen. Because, you see, I don’t. Or rather, I don’t know why it’s going to happen. And so it turns out that it’s not ‘stuff’ that makes up a really great story, it’s ‘reason’. So and so kills so and so. Fine. Why? Ah, well. That’s the interesting part. OF COURSE IT IS.

I can apply this little epiphany back over the month and explain why I liked the books I did. The Good Soldier only gradually reveals what happened, and puzzles out why it occurred that way en route; I enjoyed that, in an emotional armchair-detective sort of way. 1984 runs two storylines, effectively; a cultural one and a personal one. The cultural one explains the culmination of the storyline of the main character, Winston, but his story also demonstrates the internal need for the cultural atmosphere to exist. They make up a sort of Mobius strip of fiction, which is, obvs, delicious. So I liked that. I couldn’t connect with Kerouac’s reasons – which is appropriate, contextually; he hails from a generation without a need for reason; the only reason for doing anything was to feel alive. I’m not from a background which demands I have to remember how alive I am all the time; I was lost. And then Mantel. She provides the reasons behind the story I already know. Much, in fact, like Greek Tragedy.

As a tiny aside, I read Virginia Woolf’s Killing the Angel in the House on the evening of the 28th. What can I say? It resonates. I think I’m going to be reading a lot more Woolf.

So there you go. It is now March, and I have 31 whole days to absorb some more literature. I was asked in my lunch break the other day (I always sit outside the office and read in my lunch breaks) if I eat books. I suppose I do. They’re rather nourishing. I’ve just started Cloud Atlas, which I reckon I’m going to enjoy, and then my list of potential reads becomes rather long, encompassing The Handmaid’s Tale, Wide Sargasso Sea and a bunch of others. If you have any suggestions for me, let me know – I’d like to hear them! Also, tell me what books you’ve been eating – I like to hear those, too.

Til next time!


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