Tag Archives: literature

July’s Books

5 Aug

July has been a good month for reading. Beautiful weather makes me think ‘I must enjoy this! I must spend time outside!’. Computers and the like are for cold days. Books are for sunshine. Add to that the family holiday – ten days in Tenerife and hours of quiet, uninterrupted words – and the fact that the Aga has been off (so no diversions into the kitchen occupying hours of my weekends) and I’ve read really quite a lot. So here we go.

First – A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, by Mary Wollstonecraft. Not Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, author of Frankenstein, but her mum. Written in the 1790s, Vindication is one of the seminal English texts in modern feminism, though it was largely ignored and/or viciously criticised at the time.

It’s not an easy read nowadays as most of us (with the exception of some ancient academics) have lost the habit of reading and writing like we live in a Victorian crime novel. Yet if you can soldier through the prose and hang the arguments together you get an impressive pearl string of points. Wollstonecraft’s most oft-cited maxim is the one that goes along the lines of ‘I do not wish women to have power over men, but over themselves’. Which is a great line, no?

Wollstonecraft’s argument is imbued with religion, which can make it rather difficult to read if you’re not really into the whole ‘God’ thing. However, she (unusually) uses religion to justify her argument for equality, which is obviously quite a different use when compared to many hardline religious groups even today. She also struggles slightly to escape the biological and, in chastising the often destructive nature of ‘romantic’ love, creates a picture of a marriage that few would wish for themselves in the 21st century.

What I found particularly fascinating was Wollstonecraft’s attribution of much of the unequal treatment of women to economic and industrial factors. The changing perception of what a woman is good for and how much she ought, accordingly, to be educated go hand in hand and in turn create a vicious cycle. That’s why education for girls is so important – because it demonstrates the faith we have that they are worth it.

Anyway. Read Wollstonecraft if you can. Remember the context and try not to judge her by her verbosity, religious fervour and occasional inconsistencies. It really is fascinating.

Next on my list: To the Lighthouse, by Virginia Woolf. Written during the phase of Woolf’s career in which she seems to have found her voice and her style, TtL is a novel about children, about parents, about gender and about expectation (from my reading, anyway. Doubtless others have come away with different impressions). It’s also about art and construction. I enjoyed it for the characterisation of Mr and Mrs Ramsay and their relationship, and also for the flow of the prose and the natural descriptions. I enjoy reading the characters Woolf writes. They always sound familiar while still being mysterious and interesting. She catches human nuances really well.

Next I read The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories by Angela Carter – a compendium of short ‘fairytales’ designed, I assumed, to sit together. Written along similar lines and with very similar themes, each story was about femininity, property, innocence and violence. I raced through these – not because they were insubstantial; more because they were delicious. I couldn’t wait to read each one. I’m going to go back and read them all again because they really were great.

Continuing the Angela Carter theme, I next read Nights at the Circus. This was a slightly different kettle of fish as it was a full novel rather than a collection, although the themes were very similar and the characters and premise no less fantastical. It was funny, endearing, wild – and though-provoking, questioning, too. I later loaned it to my mum who had run out of things to read and I think she was a bit baffled by it, but a fantastical version of late Victorian London and its unusual inhabitants is right up my street. I loved it. If it’s up your street, I definitely recommend.

Written on the Body, by Jeanette Winterson, was the penultimate book I finished on holiday. I wrote about this at the time (and subsequently) when I wrote about gender and authorship. That aside – I thought it was a beautiful book. Winterson is so deft with her language – rarely, if ever, overblown. Whatever she is writing about, the tone is always right on the money between tripping and sincere; light enough to be humorous, dark enough to be deadly. I don’t know if I could pick a favourite JW of all the ones I’ve now read, but if you prefer reality to fantasy, this one’s a good bet.

I also read The Waves, another Virginia Woolf. I had heard that this is a difficult text to comprehend, let alone to get through. I’ll admit that I’m reasonably sure a lot of the significance of things was lost on me (although reading the critical introduction after I had finished the book was a little illuminating on that score). However – I actually really enjoyed it. The style is an almost relentless narrative relay, the baton passing between the six main characters across the course of their lives. I say ‘almost relentless’ because there are clear pauses between the otherwise-unbreaking patter of voices. These pauses take the form of an ongoing description of a sea landscape, described throughout the course of a single day, mirroring the characters’ much slower incandescence and subsequent decline. These bits have a lot in common with To the Lighthouse, especially in the ‘Time Passes’ segment. There’s nothing like a contrast with nature to emphasise the brevity of human life (I always think of Sophocles’ Ajax in these instances. But that’s just me).

Unwilling to take my kindle to the beach for the rest of the holiday (the sand was getting *everywhere*) and caught in the straitjacket of my good intentions pre-holiday, all I had left to read in paperback was More’s Utopia or Karl Popper’s The Open Society and its Enemies. Foolishly, perhaps, I went for Popper. I read a significant amount of it before coming home, but I find it difficult to read except in hefty chunks, as I struggle to pin down the philosophy straight away and need to allow it to build up until I have a mental breakthrough of understanding.

I didn’t finish Popper because once I got home, I had a conversation with the wonderful E in which we agreed to send each other books (yes, we’re starting our own Feminist Library Lending Service, one day to be a full blown library/bookshop/café affair). Anyway, I sent her The Feminine Mystique and Tiffany Atkinson’s Catulla et al, and she sent me Toni Morrison’s Jazz and a short poem by Adrienne Rich. So I read those instead.

Jazz is set in the early years of the 20th century, mostly in New York but ranging around America in the telling of the main characters’ backstories. It’s soulful, thoughtful, with a narrator who places herself on the edge of the action to watch but who admits later on her fallibility and its basis in the human trait of making stories up about people to make them more interesting. Jazz is imbued throughout with the music that makes uptight characters suspicious and everyone else relaxed. It’s a book about colour and what it means, love and what that means and happiness, and what that means. In every case, the meaning is practical as well as emotional.

Jazz had some great lines and there was a particularly powerful segment about the way the black women of New York defend themselves or die. Though it wasn’t a book I would have thought to pick up off a library shelf or in a bookshop, I really, really enjoyed it. It was deep. It was funny. It was illuminating and it was dark. The characterisations were brilliant; the scenes were evocative. No character stayed the same and the end was pleasingly rounded off without being obvious from the beginning. Jazz left an impression.

Well. That’s it for July. August has started well so far after a large order of new books and the arrival of some university reading lists. Ariel Levy and Robert Galbraith (JK Rowling, in case you still hadn’t heard) are already on there. Til then, toodles!

Gender and authorship

21 Jul

ALL: this is a revised, edited version of the blog post I wrote on holiday about gender and authorship. It’s a bit more coherent now. And it’s got some Virginia Woolf references in it. Don’t say I never give you anything. X

Hey kids. How’s it going? I’m writing this on my iPad while on the family holiday so you’ll have to forgive me if the typing goes a bit crazy at points; one cannae trust these machines to accurately convey all the words one would like them to.

Anyhoo. I am writing due to a conglomeration of events. The first is the fairly well-known (by now) revelation that the crime writer Robert Galbraith is actually celebrated Harry Potter author JK Rowling. The second is that I have not long finished Jeanette Winterson’s book Written on the Body. How are these related, I hear you cry? Well, allow me to explain.

A lot of the news articles written in the wake of the JK story were about the ‘tell-tale’ signs that Galbraith wasn’t actually a man. That the women were meticulously described; that the main (male) character noticed the pungent smell of some urinals; that a famous Galbraith also uses the initials JK. How did we not see it? How could we be blind? One can’t help but feel there is some clutching at straws going on here. Robert Galbraith’s book did receive excellent reviews and various people expressed incredulity that it was indeed his first novel.

No-one, however, questioned the gender verity of either protagonist or author when it was originally published. Why search for them now? Some people actively avoid reading literature by female authors (you may scoff, but this was a genuine comment on a Guardian article). If the cheeky buggers will use pseudonyms, we obviously have to identify the ‘female’ features that prove when something’s been written by a woman. Right? *shakes head sadly*. Imagine how great it would be (such people must think) if one could identify ‘female language features’ that always occurred in books written by women, no matter what gender their assumed identity had. There have been plenty of studies of speech which look for the same thing. Last I heard, they decided it was not so much a feature of gender as a feature of power, which has traditionally been divided along gender lines. This doesn’t seem to have got round to some of the literary critics and wannabes yet, though, who still cling on to this belief like the last half-barrel of rum from a shipwreck.

‘Female language features’, if these chimaeras exist, will surely depend on the author’s voice. Virginia Woolf writes about finding one’s own voice in literature, and about how many female novelists have struggled to achieve critical acclaim in A Room of One’s Own. She notes this is partly due to the male-dominated literary sphere – both in writing and in criticism. Perhaps this is something you’d think we would have addressed by now, but no – while there are many more female critics than there used to be, the ‘serious’ novels are still almost unanimously reviewed by men. Heard of the recent furore over the TLS’ inability to find female authors? Yep, 21st century, home of progress. Not. Obviously, fewer writers and fewer critics who are women mean that there are fewer books and fewer reviews produced that are of high merit. That’s just statistics, amirite? Anyway, she also suggests there’s another reason for the scarcity of works of female genius, and that is the difficulty for women of freely and confidently writing in their own voice.

At first, perhaps, you will scoff. ‘Own voice? Surely everyone’s got their own voice. How hard can it be?’, etc. Well, yes and no. Woolf points out that even Charlotte Bronte – someone she explicitly points out as a great female writer – didn’t quite nail her own voice in Jane Eyre. There are times when her dissatisfaction with her straitened existence and the limitations imposed on her by the era’s social mores comes through over and above the narrator’s voice. Austen gets it – her sinuous irony and light touch are so delicately placed they are often misunderstood or overlooked altogether (witness basically any complaint ever that she only writes about money or about romantic love or – well, any one thing, really). One’s voice is a unified sentiment which can ride the waves of the story as well as direct them. It’s the manager and captain of the football team, responsible for tactics on and off the pitch and covering the game as well as the season. It’s a tough one to pull off. And it’s especially tough if – as very many women were, and nearly as many women still are – one is sufficiently under the oppression of society to be denied a voice in one’s day to day life, let alone in one’s written existence.

So many writers take a long time to find their voice, their style, their modus operandi. Hilary Mantel’s voice is very different to Caitlin Moran’s. Jack Kerouac’s voice is very different to Allen Ginsberg’s – contemporaries and friends and members of the same literary movement though they were. Betty Friedan’s voice is not the same as Germaine Greer’s. Etc. It’s a personal journey of development and growth. In a world where there are so many ‘voices’ shouting to be heard (online especially), the development of one’s own literary voice is what makes one person publishable instead of another. JK Rowling’s voice is not the voice of the narrator of Harry Potter, or the voice of the narrator of The Casual Vacancy or of The Cuckoo’s Calling. It’s the voice which allows her to write all three. It’s an undercurrent. It’s probably discernible only to her, or only if one knows exactly what one is looking for. It’s not a ‘woman’s voice’.

On to my next point. Written on the Body is a book about a love affair, written in the first person by a narrator who is never named and is also never explicitly gendered. The narrator describes their previous girlfriends and boyfriends. If there is ever a reference to their clothes, they are gender neutral. The narrrator’s profession is fairly ambiguous, although it becomes clearer as the book progresses that it involves translations, mostly in and out of Russian. So words and physical nature are (as you can guess from the title) fairly central to the book. The constructed neutrality of the narrator adds an interesting edge.

However. The author – Jeanette Winterson – makes no attempt to hide her authorship. I read the main character as a woman, but that’s all part of the beauty of reception. You bring your own understanding to the table and you take away something new. Fine. I looked up a review of the book when it came out – the Independent have clearly digitised their back catalogue of book reviews for just such a purpose – and I couldn’t really believe what I was reading.

The reviewer didn’t approve of the gender-ambiguous narrator. Not at all. He said it was contrived and required serious ducking and diving around words to keep up the illusion. I thought this was unfair – I hadn’t noticed it. I was aware of the ambivalence towards the explicit, but it hadn’t seemed as pronounced as that.

No, what was ridiculous to me was that the principal beef the reviewer had with this was that translators of the book who were working with gendered languages wouldn’t know what to do about it. Erm, sorry, what? For a start, if you’re writing a novel so that translators can translate it, you’re writing it for the wrong reasons. Secondly, as a translator herself, I reckon JW knew what she was doing. Thirdly, translation theory! Reception! The translator will make what they will of it. In a way, the more ambiguous you are, the more opportunity you give to the translator to find their own voice in your work. That’s not really the done thing in Anglo-American literature (see Laurence Venuti on this) but that doesn’t mean it’s wrong. Ezra Pound didn’t speak a word of Chinese but his Cathay poems are revered. Yeats was no Gaelic scholar but his translations are not criticised as such. And it is ludicrous, utterly ludicrous, to judge an original on the basis of its future translation. I mean, really. Come on.

For what it’s worth, I reckon this review betrays a sense of unease in the difficulty of the reviewer to identify gendered language. I think the reviewer feels off-kilter because the ambiguity means he has to dance on the edge of a precipice of understanding, constantly questioning the gender and therefore also the sexuality of the narrator. The explicit(ly) romantic plot means this question is fairly difficult to avoid. It’s meant to be. That’s the point. When we ask ‘is this book about a woman who falls in love with another woman?’ we are supposed to catch ourselves doing so and wonder why it matters.

It seems as though the gender of the author and the gender of the narrator are intrinsically bound up in how we approach books. Yet it also seems to be the case (I was going to write ‘increasingly’ but then I remembered all the novelists who have published as men) that we’re not very good at definitively saying what a book written by a man looks like compared to a book written by a woman. And for some reason, although I can name at least five women who have published as men off the top of my head, I can’t think of a single example of the other way around. We think we know what women write about and how they write it, and yet, barring atrocious chick-lit suitable only for the beach and for giving away free with trashy magazines, women resolutely refuse to be pigeonholed. Men have always been grudgingly allowed to be daring, movement-founding, ground-breaking. Women don’t seem to have that unquestionable right to freedom of expression. That’s why women assume pseudonyms, or write out gender altogether. Because a woman’s voice is still hampered by the fact it’s come out of a human being with a vagina. No other reason.

Maybe instead of telling people not to judge a book by its cover, we should say not to judge a book by its author. We make much more interesting analyses when this point of non-contention is allowed to lie undisturbed.

June’s (belated) books

8 Jul

This month has been another fairly quiet one on the book front but I feel beholden to point out that I have read 2 non-fiction titles and they definitely take longer. So. Here we go.

First up – Screenplay, by Syd Field. This is basically a manual for writing a screenplay that has bankability, structure, character and plot. It also tells you how to get it to Hollywood, find agents, secure copyright etc. I think it’s fairly safe to say it’s aimed at an American audience. My parents bought it for me when they were in New York, possibly because they believe I’m the next *insert famous scriptwriter here* but mostly because they are pandering to my great desire to Write Stuff.

It was very illuminating, if extremely repetitious – people talk about three act structures and plot points but until you have had the diagram shoved under your nose a few times, you don’t necessarily think in that structure. It’s actually very easy to develop a story when you have such clear building blocks (writing it is, of course, another matter; I’m not that presumptuous!). And it’s quite fun to invent a character and then spend a few days mentally writing his or her life story, just for your own pleasure. If absolutely nothing else, I now have a list of films I really, really have to get on and see because they were referenced so many times as being great examples of X. So I feel culturally, future-ly empowered for reading it. Thanks, Syd.

Feeling a bit lacking on the ol’ novel front, I next picked up The Passion, by Jeanette Winterson. I’ve developed a bit of a love affair with her (inspired by the excellent E) so this isn’t the last mention you’ll see. After the last two books I read, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect; her style is quite mutable according to her subject and she likes to hop between narratives, genders, timeframes; the lot, really. Trying to describe when The Passion is set is a tricky one; it’s written from the perspective of one reflecting in a (recently) post-Napoleonic world, but the timeframes jump according to the character and the Venice sequence about halfway through seems quite timeless. This is possibly something especially interesting given that in Sexing the Cherry there really is a time leap between 17th century London and the present (whenever that is); in Venice, it’s just the behaviour which is atemporal; it soon becomes enmeshed within the time of the story’s plot and, indeed, history.

I really enjoyed The Passion. I think it was possibly less reflection-inducing, less questioning, than Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit or Sexing the Cherry; I can’t decide if that’s because it did those things but on a subtler level, or if it’s because it didn’t really do those things. Nevertheless, it was a supremely satisfying story, without being one of those ‘boy meets girl’ tropes. It was emotionally complete, though not necessarily with the expected emotion. Basically, JW FTW.

Right. The last book I completed in June was a biggie. I nearly wrote a blog post dedicated to it because it was so interesting. It was one of those books which you read and think ‘Oh em gee, I can’t believe how relevant this is. When was it written? THEN? *amazed face*. Maybe this doesn’t happen to you that often. Anyway. I read Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. This was written in the late 1950s and very early 1960s which is, when you think about it, kind of a while ago now. My parents weren’t even born when BF started writing. I mean, wowzers.

So. The premise of The Feminine Mystique is that there existed in this era in the households of white, middle-class America, a ‘problem which has no name’. Countless housewives up and down the country were being referred to therapists and/or self-medicating with alcohol, comfort food and consumerism. The cause? Intelligent women were being actively encouraged not to use their brains. Popular anthropological and psychological ideas were being (mis)applied to a world in which the observations of Freud no longer had any purchase within the cultural setup. Women were talked into believing that their naturally-ordained role was that of wife and mother. Does this sound familiar? Yeah, I know.

Despite a heavy reliance on certain studies (like the Kinsey study), some slightly questionable survey selection techniques and some highly outdated attitudes to homosexuality (as well as an outright avowal that she is dealing only with the problems of white, middle-class America), Friedan’s case is well made. She writes passionately and with great force. She presents coherent arguments, models and examples and argues her points more clearly than someone like Greer, who tends to get swept up in moralising and political ideology. Friedan not only identifies the problem, she points historically to the way it has been allowed (and encouraged) to evolve and the sociological factors that have permitted this.

The Feminine Mystique is a phenomenon that can still be observed today. It’s tied to the religious hangover of the female ‘role’ and perpetrated at an almost-subliminal level by consumerism. What Friedan advocates is emphatically not bra-burning, non-shaving, ‘scary’ feminism. She says women need to be allowed the freedom to tax themselves as far as they want, and to grow and exist as people, not as mother-robots. Some women will be perfectly content to stay at home and rely on their husbands. But many who think this about themselves have been tricked into doing so. They may find fulfilment for a little while through their children (although their children will suffer for this later), but they will come to be part of a trend of miserable, middle-aged women suffering serious empty-nest syndrome. Having been encouraged into education, these girls should continue to want to stay there – not be subject to opinions that suggest over-educated women are unattractive or unfeminine or less likely to be good mothers. They should be pushed to be as good as they can be – not told to stop before they scare men off.

This book sparked a revolution. Read it and you’ll see why.

On the list for July – I’m reading A Vindication of the Rights of Woman by Mary Wollstonecraft. I’ve also got a LOT of Angela Carter to read. Happily, I’m going on holiday soon, so I’ll have lots of time to get through it all!

April’s books

1 May

Hullo my lovelies. Those of you among the faithful will be familiar with the monthly book review. As it is now the end of April (with all the attendant Joys of Spring etc that this brings) it is time to look back and consider what I have read.

I’ll be honest, I don’t have a list as lengthy as – well, any of my previous ones. I don’t know if I just burned out after March or if it was something to do with getting off to a bad start, but I’ve only read three books this month, and they aren’t even big ones. Nevertheless, ours not to reason why, so I will give you the (dubious) benefit of my thoughts on them notwithstanding.

I got part of the way through the Mill on the Floss, but after two weeks I realised that I just wasn’t going to finish it. If there is one problem with reading books on a Kindle, it is this: you can’t tell – physically – how far through you are. Now, with something that’s not terribly verbose or is highly character/plot driven (eg Game of Thrones), this isn’t really a problem. But with a Victorian novelist it’s a bloody nightmare. I’ve had the same problem with Vanity Fair. I still haven’t finished the damn thing. And I haven’t finished Mill on the Floss, either. So I’m not counting that as one of my ‘completed’ books, but I thought you should at least receive some explanation for the lack of other titles…

I did, however, read Flatland, by the excellently named Edwin Abbott Abbott. Flatland is a late Victorian novel which was recommended to me by my mathematician friend Michael. I am pretty average at maths and fairly awful at spatial awareness, so even though this is a very short work, it took me a few days to read it – properly – and assimilate what on earth was going on.

Basically, Flatland is a 2-dimensional world inhabited by shapes; the more sides the shapes have, the higher their social prestige and mental capacity (the two are inextricable). The story is narrated by a self-described ‘respectable square’. He lays out the principles and features of Flatland, then goes on to describe a dream he has where he visits a 1-dimensional world. Stepping down the dimensions prepares the reader – though not the poor square – for a visitation by a denizen of Spaceland, who arrives in the square’s home on the evening of the millennium to announce that the concept of three dimensions is  possible. The square takes some convincing but eventually considers himself enlightened; however, he cannot remain in Spaceland and his knowledge of it makes him a traitor in Flatland. He is consigned to a prison and there he ends.

It’s an effective story about the limits of our perceptions and the way that our understanding about how we live reduces our capacity to think in a different way. It’s also an interesting example of analogy and its various powers. And it’s a social study, too – hierarchy, education, upbringing, social mobility, intelligence, the position of women – all are presented in such a way as to seem perfectly congruous with (perhaps not our own experiences, but certainly) those of a late Victorian – yet also ridiculous.

I can’t say the plot was necessarily ‘gripping’, nor could it be described along generic lines – but it was provoking, engaging and enlightening. A curious read, and not in a bad way.

Well. Empowered by my new understanding of planes and solids, I cracked my literary knuckles and picked up another Virginia Woolf – this time, Mrs Dalloway. My previous experiences with Woolf – detailed in March’s Books, if you’re looking – did not prepare me for this. Woolf the essayist is not the same as Woolf the novelist. Or rather, the core is very much the same, but you are looking in through another window altogether. The Voyage Out is such an early work that it can barely be held up as an exemplary piece of her writing, so that didn’t help me much either, except to make me wonder why the names of some of the characters seemed so familiar (yes, she does reuse them; Richard and Clarissa Dalloway feature in The Voyage Out too).

Anyway. It was – difficult. Stream of consciousness writing is immersive; you have to be able to commit to every line, every sentence, every paragraph, one after the other, unwinding your thread of understanding so you can follow it all the way back through the labyrinthine text and see the point from which you started. Close the book and the skein is cut – you won’t find it again unless you go back to the last place where you tied it to something solid; a chapter heading or new section. So that meant it took me a little while, even though it is, again, only a very short book.

It is short, but it is intricate. There are phrases in it that made me laugh out loud and ones that made me murmur them again to myself, just to feel the buzz of the words on my lips. “The word ‘time’ split its husk; poured its riches over him…” – it’s a lexical aneurysm, a sentence you can’t understand when it first hits you but leaves you reeling with the effects. I could wax lyrical about the words, the characters, the truth, the folly, the compassion, the levity, the painful relevance – but others have said it better. Read it, then decide for yourself if you want to read anyone else.

Finally – finally! I read Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad. I struggled with this one, too.   I don’t know why. It’s not a particularly difficult book; it’s certainly not a long one. It is, however, dense and dark and it clings to you like a viscous, poisonous mud. There are moments where it feels incredibly current and true and cruel – and others which are anachronistic and jarring. I haven’t quite decided where I stand on it yet. I am glad to have read it. That’s about as much as I can tell you today.

That’s your lot, I’m afraid. That’s really all I’ve read. I dabbled a bit with some Hippolytus because I don’t like to feel I’m forgetting all my Greek, and I did the same with the opening of the Aeneid, too, but those aside – that’s April.

I can’t promise great things for May, on this basis, although I have got some good novels lurking around my room, bought in great eagerness earlier in the month. The best I can say is ‘wait and see’.

Why I can’t write poetry

3 Apr

Apparently it’s National Poetry Writing Month (or NaPoWriMo, if you like things short and pithy [apologies for the double brackets but I just wanted to let you know that this makes me think of a kumquat. Short and pithy. No? Never mind.] ) I think I’m in the wrong ‘nation’ for this but I’m going to plough ahead and buy into it anyway because, woo! Globalisation.

Yesterday I cobbled together a couple of limericks just because, well, you know. They were all right. They were, in the best traditions of limericks, a bit rude and rather nonsensical. I sent one to my friend because a) it was about him and b) it was sort of also about Doctor Who, of which is he a fan. The other one was an exercise in two-syllable rhyming (conclusion: it’s really hard). I will not repeat it here and shame myself.

The truth is that despite my best efforts and concerted attempts, I am just no good at writing poetry. It’s either emotional drivel, or unfunny punning. If I could splice some emotionality to some hilarious wordplay a la Ovid, trust me, folks, I would be rejoicing til the cows wended their way home, possibly after a long weekend in Magaluf, partying hard as only cows know how.

Oscar Wilde said that all bad poetry springs from genuine feeling. I can certainly testify. Some of the worst stuff I have written has been about boys, their distance from me and my moping, boo-hoo state as a result. The other worst stuff I have written has been about me trying very hard not to write the first lot. Given that I spend a significant amount of my time pendulating[1] gently between these two scenarios, or in a deep existential crisis, there’s not really much hope. I doubt strongly that anyone is going to gather up my notebooks and publish them to great critical and/or popular acclaim at any point in the future.

I have just about reconciled myself to this literary ignominy. When you can’t write poetry, there’s nowt a lot you can do about it. Given the tragic lives of some of my favourite ladypoets, maybe I should be grateful. As much as I admire Sylvia Plath and Dorothy Parker, I’m not really interested in modelling my life on theirs. Clearly the fate of a female poet is not necessarily limited to depression and suicide (Carol Ann Duffy, Alice Oswald, Anne Carson etc are all still very much alive, hooray) and there are certainly men who’ve gone the same way, but one seems to need a certain mind set to be a poet. An introspective, ferociously self-critical, trying-to-laugh-it-off attitude which allows you to comment objectively about a human experience and then make it achingly, despairingly personal. Or vice versa. Or a heady mash-up of same.

I’m in the position of experiencing the two ways that I believe poets see the world, but I don’t have the apparatus to tie them up. I’ve got both lenses for the pair of 3D glasses, but no frame, nothing to hold them together. I can hold the red and the blue up to my eyes and see in poetry – but then my hands are full, and I can’t write.

So until I stumble across a decent set of frames (I like to think they’d be pleasingly retro, hipster-ish tortoiseshell ones, but knowing my luck they’ll be 19th century pince-nez or something equally ridiculous) I cannot be a poet. As I have said – this doesn’t especially bother me. I won’t cry myself to sleep at night, knowing there’s a magical tool out there that will clarify my imagination until it drips like melted butter through my fingers and smears itself indelibly onto a page. I’ll just carry on writing the way I like. Hope you’re ok with that. I am.


[1] Yes I just made this up. What of it?

March’s Books

1 Apr

Hey team,

It’s the first day of April, which means (among other things) that the list for March’s books is now CLOSED. And that you get to hear all about them. Woop!

I’ve read quite a lot this month. I don’t quite know where I found the time to do all this. I’ve also seen an unprecedented number of films. Again, not sure how I did this. The long Bank Holiday weekend can only account for so much.

Without further ado, then: I started the month with Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell (not that David Mitchell). This had been on my radar for some time – in fact, since I saw the BBC version of Richard II in the summer and was totally captivated by Ben Whishaw. Anyway. I knew that I wanted to see the film (and not just because of Ben Whishaw) so I read the book first. Coming straight after Wolf Hall, it’s a very different kettle of fish – Mantel writes Cromwell in an almost ahistorical way; Mitchell writes his characters in a manner that is supposed to delineate very clearly where they are from and who they are. The book is divided into the story of 6 characters and each story is split in half so it brackets the stories that come inside it, like a Russian doll. The central ‘doll’ is whole – the character and story are entirely self-contained. If you had to describe the plot – well, you couldn’t, really. You’d have to be content with the idea that the novel is an exploration of the theme of the renegade against a greedy corporate society.  If you haven’t read it, it is really very good. And, incidentally, so is the film.

Next I read Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys. It is only a very short book; more like a couple of chapters to Jane Eyre rather than a standalone, requiring as it does fairly good knowledge of Bronte’s novel. I enjoyed it as a study of what you can do with a source text; people can get quite hoity-toity about authors writing sequels or prequels to well-known books (Eoin Colfer’s take on Douglas Adams, for example). There’s really no need. It’s just a more explicit acknowledgment of influence, and it can be very successful. Bertha Rochester isn’t just a madwoman who stands in the way of Jane and E.F.R’s love. Her backstory may not have been something Bronte was prepared to explore or elucidate on, but another’s take on it is fascinating. And, as is the idea with this ‘reception’ lark, the more recent work informs subsequent readings of the earlier one. Next time I re-read Jane Eyre, I daresay I’ll notice things I didn’t previously. 

Next on the list – Neverwhere, by Neil Gaiman. I heard there was going to be a radio serialisation so I wanted to read it (as it happens, the serialisation was very good and I could have not read the book, but anyway). Neil Gaiman is great. He combines some of my favourite elements of Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett and delivers them forth with lightness and nonchalance. He’s the sort of writer who makes you hug yourself when you come across a really great line, because it’s so delicious and it feels as though it’s been tailored specifically to amuse you. Also, a villain that collects and eats priceless Chinese porcelain. That’s just – inspired.

After a bit of a diversion into Gaiman, I returned to my monster book order with Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. I thought this was great – a very twisted, dark story about solitude, reality and sex. Interesting questions raised about narrative, authorship and memory. I wasn’t sure whether I felt let down by the ending or not – on the one hand, an epilogue that contextualises and concludes the story is usually a good thing; on the other, the nature of the epilogue almost made me feel uncomfortable. The ease with which the narrative was explained as a historical account cast a slightly noxious light over my own experience of studying history. So – the novel was still very much a satisfying read, but the ending didn’t quite close down the book as I expected it to do. In retrospect, I think I prefer that.

Around the time I started reading the Handmaid’s Tale, I realised I was running out of books. So I put in a substantial book order, almost exclusively composed of Virginia Woolf. I decided I should get stuck in sooner rather than later, so after Atwood, I began A Room of One’s Own. I know purists would say this isn’t really a book so much as an extended essay based on a couple of lectures, but whatever. It was enlightening and inspiring and so – well, simple. Just a very reasonable rejoinder to so many criticisms people make of women and have done for centuries. I don’t know why it isn’t compulsory reading. I felt a lot better about myself and my insecurities after reading Woolf. I followed up this essay/book with The Voyage Out, Woolf’s first novel. I enjoyed how it seemed very familiar, very close to the late Victorian novelistic tradition and yet – it was more; there was definitely something else to it. I thought there was a powerful subversion of the unity one normally gets from a conclusion. Anyway, two books of Woolf seemed like a good start to improving my general understanding of the development of 20th century literature.

I concluded March with Bring up the Bodies, the second in Hilary Mantel’s projected trilogy on Thomas Cromwell in the court of Henry VIII. Knowing Mantel’s prose style this time, it was much easier to slip into the spirit of the narrative, and with so many threads already set up in Wolf Hall (and a considerable chunk of this history being much more familiar to me than the early years of H8) the story flowed smoothly onward. I suppose the great boon of a historical novel is that it is much harder to accidentally leave a line hanging – every character plays a part, and these parts can be reflected backwards as well as forwards within the novel’s unfolding to cast light on motive and cause. But Mantel shows the folds you can also smooth out of the history – the covered up events that don’t suit the chronologists (or rather, the ones you can invent on this pretext) that can stand as explanations for sudden policy changes and the like. The promotion of Richmond; the return of Henry’s bad leg; Mantel can turn these into elements of her story so skilfully that her retelling could well feed back into our historical understanding of the period.

So. There you have it. March. Lined up for April – a whole bunch more Virginia Woolf, some Betty Friedan and probably some George Eliot, for a personal project.

Til next time, then!

Brainy is the new sexy: would Victorians have fancied Sherlock?

30 Nov

You don’t have to love every current incarnation of Sherlock Holmes to appreciate that considerable numbers of others do. If Benedict Cumberbatch doesn’t float your boat, Robert Downey Jr might just, and if neither of them do it for you then maybe you like Jonny Lee Miller (although frankly, if that’s the case, you should perhaps consider having your head examined). Or, slightly further out, there’s Gregory House, the medical equivalent, working in a hospital in New Jersey. The variety of Sherlocks currently available to the consumer is such that it’s difficult to put it down to ‘man in a cravat’ syndrome, or ‘man in a suit’ desire. There’s something about the character that makes the way he is (currently) being played – whether in the UK, the States, the past, the present – incredibly compelling, and incredibly sexy.

 

What do they all have in common? Well, we know that from the books. All these Sherlocks are based on a sallow, languorous, stick-like figure whose hobbies include playing the violin (possibly not as well as he thinks he does) and smoking. Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes has an addictive personality and, probably, a mild form of autism. He likes things to be just so; problems to be solved, eggs to be served thus, a pipe to be packed in such-and-such a way. He is brilliant, but he is socially a little difficult. He is an observer of humans but he maintains an aloof distance from them, making a scientific study of his inquiries. He does not embark on personal crusades of justice, although he does have a moral compass. He takes on cases that interest him – and so invariably he appears bored when a problem that appears impenetrable to its proposer comes to him. He is, however, rarely rude (to peoples’ faces, at least) and behaves rather chivalrously in a way that we might find ourselves a little uncomfortable with nowadays, especially in his oversolicitousness for the women who come to him with cases. Imagine if you were his teacher when he was around nine. You just know he’d be the kid in the class who insisted on asking difficult questions and making your life harder. Precocious, obnoxious, fiendishly intelligent and dedicated to applying his considerable breadth of understanding and ability for lateral thinking to every problem he encounters. Bloody irritating, in short.

 

So what on earth makes this character so endlessly interpretable and generally delicious to womenfolk ? [1] And is this a recent trend?

 

It’s clear that in the last twenty years or so, there has been a move away from brawn and towards brain. You only have to look at statistics about couples meeting at university (I believe the figure stands at 1 in 5 couples beginning in HE) and the current obsession with the new Q in the recent Bond film, Skyfall. Moreover, those who acquire a reputation for intelligence are revered by all because, it seems, many people are just as happy to be shielded by a towering intellect as they are by enormous biceps. Granted, a brain isn’t going to keep your other half warm at night, although maybe we can hope that what the brain comes out with will keep them warm on the inside. There simply isn’t a requirement for a male to defend himself with his body any more, and now that the battlefield is one of minds, the war is open to women, too. And gosh, who’d have thought? It seems that, these days, the man who can wow us with his wit, his knowledge and his thick-rimmed specs is the one we’d rather go home with at the end of the evening. Take Avengers. Tony Stark, or Captain America? I know who I’d choose. And so ‘brainy is the new sexy’, the endlessly quotable quote from A Scandal in Belgravia, becomes the motto for a generation of nerd-lovers.  

 

If we look at Regency and Victorian literature – classic examples being Pride and Prejudice, Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, Vanity Fair, North and South and the like – we can see that maybe our fascination with this sort of guy isn’t that new. Fitzwilliam Darcy is clearly a well-educated, intelligent young man; he’s just misunderstood. Heathcliff is apparently ferociously unlikeable but that doesn’t stop him being incredibly attractive. Rochester is explicitly described as not exactly being a looker, but he’s clearly got wit and a dry sense of humour and has some great chat. The buffoonish Rawdon Crawley is nowhere near as loveable as George Osbourne, who in turn can’t beat the quiet devotion of Will Dobbin. Thornton is a self-made man intent on acquiring an education, as task which becomes entangled with his mission to make himself worthy of his lady. In all these novels, the self-aware, intelligent man is the one we want the heroine to end up with at the end; the self-interested, the buffoons, the braggarts are the ones we cringe to read about. I don’t think there is a woman in history who has found herself harbouring a secret crush on Mr Collins or Jos Sedley.

 

So clearly, our 18th and 19th – century forebears dreamed the same dreams as we do now when we imagine the kind of guy we’d like to propose awkwardly to us in the rain or send us an incredibly rude but heartfelt and intelligent letter by mistake. It’s no wonder that our Sherlocks are all different shapes and sizes and cheekbone-structures – it’s their minds, not their bodies, after which we’re principally lusting (well, mostly).

 

I do think there’s a disjunct, though, between the character Conan Doyle wrote and the other literary characters we all secretly fancy. Darcy and Thornton and their ilk are intelligent, yes, but they are physical and legal protectors as well as intellectual equals in a way that society made the norm in that era. The written Sherlock Holmes, on the other hand, just isn’t the marrying type. He barely seems capable of taking proper care of himself, let alone anyone else. He’s not a guardian, except perhaps of public order. We don’t expect him to look after us; we don’t want him look after us. We just want to engage with him. Perhaps his standoffish-ness is part of his charm for us. He reminds us so much of all those slightly awkward young gentlemen with unkempt hair and big glasses who lurk behind dictionaries, textbooks, computers and lab equipment. We want brainboxes and geeks, these days, not just men with £10,000 a year and a disinclination to dance. Intelligence is valuable, and it’s taken a considerable shift of attitudes in men as well as women to come to this conclusion. That’s why our Sherlocks are experiencing new life. They draw so much on the original character because, thank goodness, the original character now plays both to our intellectual and to our emotional needs.  

 

I suspect that Sherlock was not the Victorian pin-up of choice. I think it’s a good sign of our times, though, that he is now.


[1] I don’t doubt there are gay men out there who subscribe to similar views, but I haven’t got one around to ask about it right now