It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible


The End of the 2008 Reading Challenge

It seemed like a good idea at the time. I consider myself well-read in the science fiction genre, but I’m certainly not in classic literature. So I decided to read a classic author I’d not read before each month of the year. It proved less successful than I’d expected. Which is not to say I think it was waste of time. Not at all. I’m glad I read the books, and it did introduce me to an author I fully intend to read further. This is how it went…

January: The Talented Mr. Ripley, Patricia Highsmith – I’d seen the film and enjoyed it, and I’d read in numerous places that Ripley was one of literature’s great anti-heroes. But I can’t say this book impressed me all that much. It struck me as mostly unremarkable.

February: For Whom the Bell Tolls, Ernest Hemingway – Hemingway is one of literature’s greats. He was awarded the Nobel in 1954. So it came as something of a surprise to discover that I couldn’t finish For Whom the Bell Tolls. I gave up about a quarter of the way in. Perhaps one day I’ll give Hemingway another try. But not this book.

March: Kim, Rudyard Kipling – I’ll admit I enjoyed this. Old-fashioned prose, yes; but a good adventure set in an exotic location. It was fun but hard to see as great literature. All the same, it was the first book of the challenge I was glad I’d read.

April: A Question of Upbringing, Anthony Powell – this was more like it. It was exactly the sort of fiction I enjoy and was hoping to find during my challenge. I’d like to read the remaining eleven volumes of Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time.

May: Orlando, Virginia Woolf – I’d seen and enjoyed Sally Potter’s film adaptation, so I had relatively high hopes for this book. But, oh dear. Self-indulgent tosh. Not at all to my liking. I’ll not be trying Woolf again.

June: Nostromo, Joseph Conrad – another one I couldn’t finish. Having said that, I’m more predisposed to give Conrad a second chance than I am Hemingway. Perhaps one day I will.

July: The Garden Party and Other Stories, Katherine Mansfield – another one that, like the Highsmith, didn’t do anything for me. Moving on…

August: My Family and Other Animals, Gerald Durrell – I started to run a bit late on the challenge in August, and didn’t read this book until September. But it’s another one I’m glad I read. It was entertaining, very funny, and I was much amused by the characterisation of my favourite author, Lawrence Durrell. Not a book I’ll ever read again, but a good one.

September: The Jewel in the Crown, Paul Scott – I was still running late and didn’t read this until October. But it was definitely worth the wait. The best book I’d read so far in the challenge by a long, long way. Scott’s writing is precisely the sort of literary fiction I enjoy and admire most. It was also about British expats, a subject which resonates with me. As soon as I’d finished it, I moved the rest of the Raj Quartet further up the TBR pile. And I stuck all of Scott’s other novels on my wants list.

October: The Good Soldier, Ford Madox Ford – I was slowly beginning to catch up, although once again I read this a month late in November. It was… okay. Although it’s easy to see how it was a seminal work, it’s been overtaken by so many subsequent novels that its appeal seems chiefly historical. While not as much fun as Kim or My Family and Other Animals, nor as good as A Question of Upbringing or The Jewel in the Crown, I’m glad I read it.

November: On the Road, Jack Kerouac – at last, back on track: I managed to finish this before the end of November. Sadly, it was one that did nothing for me. The “spontaneous” prose more often than not read like prose that hadn’t been edited, the characters were unlikeable and spoke mostly pretentious bollocks, and I couldn’t understand the appeal of the book’s premise.

December: The Fountainhead, Ayn Rand – what a silly book. Clash of the Titans, except the titans were… architects. All the characters were such brilliant paragons, and Rand’s only means of getting this across was by telling us so repeatedly. As for the philosophy… I can see how it might appeal to callow youths, but it’s nonsense. Not that Rand makes any real attempt to justify it. The hero represents Rand’s Objectivism, while the villain – who’s a real nasty piece of work – is a collectivist. So The Fountainhead is not exactly a considered presentation of Rand’s ideas. It wasn’t the worst book I read for my challenge, but it was definitely the unintentionally funniest (My Family and Other Animals was the intentionally funniest, of course).

So, an interesting result: one I loved, one I thought very good, two I enjoyed, three were merely okay, two were rubbish, one was extremely silly, and two I couldn’t finish.

It was, on reflection, a somewhat idiosyncratic choice of classics. That was partly because of what was available – i.e., what I found cheap in charity shops, or could mooch from The only book I’d actually had on my book shelves already was the Woolf, and I’d had that for years and failed to read it. In fact, I think it was Orlando that partly inspired me to choose classics as my reading challenge matter. Which is somewhat ironic, given that I disliked it so much. Ah well.

I plan to read more by Paul Scott. I’d also like to finish Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time. And I feel I should give Conrad another go one day. And perhaps Hemingway too. But Conrad more than Hemingway by quite a margin. As for the rest… they’ll be going on, in the hope that someone else will enjoy them more than I did.


The Last Book of the 2008 Reading Challenge

I read science fiction. I’ve read a lot of good, bad and indifferent science fiction. Much of it has been silly. But The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand, which is not science fiction, is one of the silliest books I’ve ever read.

There’s an ad you see on television. Over footage of the Wright brothers’ first flight, a portentous man’s voice says, “Conquered the sky.” Then it’s a mountain climber, and he says, “Conquered Mount Everest”. Finally, he says, “Conquered the… neck.” It’s an ad for a Philishave. The Fountainhead is like that ad. The protagonists and antagonists are architects. They allegedly represent all that is noble – and their antitheses – in society and civilisation. There is, apparently, a nobility of purpose to the art of architecture which is unmatched in all other fields of artistic and/or social endeavour…

The whole book is like that. It’s so overwrought and melodramatic you keep on expecting the cast to break into song at any moment. And everyone is such a paragon. No evidence is given for this status – Rand simply tells it us. Repeatedly. And on the few occasions where she tries to provide evidence, she spectacularly fails to convince: the excerpt from an article by the preternaturally insightful critic, for example, proves to be… pretentious empty twaddle.

Howard Roark was studying architecture at Stanton university but is expelled for not toeing the party line. All architecture, apparently, should reflect the past – paying tribute to Classical, Gothic, Renaissance, etc. But Roark is a Modernist, and he won’t change. So they boot him out. Peter Keating, on the other hand, is brilliant, good-looking, graduates at the top of his class, wins a scholarship to France, and is offered a job with top architectural firm, Francon & Heyer.

Roark, meanwhile, goes to work for disgraced and penniless Modernist architect Henry Cameron. He learns a lot, and even gets to design and build the occasional building. While Keating becomes the darling of the architectural elite, lauded for the buildings he designs, poor old noble Roark sticks to his Modernist guns and is despised and hated as a result.

Then there’s Ellsworth Toohey, a man so erudite and learned, he’s a scintillating and penetrating critic of, well, everything. So, of course, he writes a daily column for the most yellow of New York’s papers. Also writing a gossip column for the same paper is Dominique Francon, daughter of Keating’s employer, fabled society beauty and cold fish, who appears to be suffering from a debilitating case of ennui and self-loathing. Finally, there’s Gail Wynand, owner of the aforementioned newspaper and bits of just about everything else, a man whose hobby it is to break and corrupt anyone who displays the slightest amount of integrity. But he’s honest to himself, so that’s okay.

These are not stereotypes. They’re not even archetypes. They’re bloody great cartoon characters painted in primary colours. Rand appears not to know the meaning of “subtlety”. For example, only noble paragon Roark is smart enough to design buildings with straight corridors, with windows that don’t look onto brick walls, with sensibly-shaped and -sized rooms… And Toohey is such a nasty piece of work that his altruism and “collectivism” is treated with all the contempt and disgust of National Socialism.

I also have to ask: what happened to US literature immediately post-WWII? That’s two books from that period I’ve read recently, and both were populated by the most unlikeable and preposterous characters I’ve come across in Twentieth Century fiction.

The Fountainhead is a book for simple readers. I can’t believe anyone was taken in by its underlying philosophy, Objectivism, for an instant. If they were, I suspect they were blinded by their own selfishness and greed. Or perhaps they allowed Rand’s blatant manipulation of her characters and plot in The Fountainhead to sway them. I laughed all the way through the book.

I’ll not be reading any other books by Rand. And my copy of The Fountainhead will be going back on This is a very silly book, and I’m frankly amazed that it’s considered a classic, or that anyone was taken in by Rand and her juvenile philosophy.


A Different Road

November’s book – which I actually managed to read in November – for my 2008 reading challenge was Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. I can’t remember why I picked this book – I think it was one on a list of possible titles, and I managed to find a (free) copy on It’s certainly not a book I’d ever really planned to read. And, having finished it, I doubt I’ll be reading it again.

I’d always thought On the Road was a 1960s novel*, about someone living rough during that decade, living the hippy dream of LSD, Grateful Dead and giving two fingers to the Man. It’s nothing of the sort. For a start, it’s set in the late 1940s. And it’s about marijuana and jazz and subsistence-level jobs (and poverty). The protagonist, Sal Paradise, spends much of the book driving from one place to the other – so that’s “on the road” as in actual driving on the road in a car, not as in living rough like a vagrant (although he does hitch-hike several times). Most of these travels are with an assorted cast of friends, or in order to meet up with said friends. And chief among these is Dean Moriarty, who is “Beat”.

The book is a novel but it’s actually a thinly-disguised autobiography. The events it describes actually happened to Kerouac, and the various characters Paradise meets are the real people Kerouac met. Moriarty is Neal Cassady, for example; Carlo Marx is Allen Ginsberg; and Old Bull Lee is William Burroughs.

Kerouac wrote On the Road in what he called “spontaneous prose”. It shows. It’s not prose you can savour. Much of it possesses a breathless clumsiness which only works if you read it as fast as he apparently wrote it. Kerouac also has a tin ear for dialogue. Perhaps his intent was to document the spontaneity of his characters’ thought processes, but the result is that they talk mostly unfettered bollocks.

It’s not all bad. Some of the descriptive passages are good, and Kerouac’s documenting of the underbelly of late 1940s USA is never less than interesting. A visit to a jazz club in Chicago, for example, is especially impressive, and works so well because its prose is spontaneous. But On the Road is a “cult” novel – which usually means you either get it or you don’t. And I didn’t. I don’t understand the appeal of Paradise’s adventures, I don’t understand the appeal of a book you have to read at such a headlong pace. I don’t belong to a generation – or nationality – which finds anything all that enticing about its subject. To be fair, Paradise’s attitudes seem more twenty-first century than are typical for 1940s America. Which is admirable. At one point, he stays in “Mill City” in California (actually Marin City), and describes it as the only non-segregated community in the US. He mixes freely with blacks and Mexicans… which seems unusual for a country which practiced overt institutional racism until the 1960s.

On balance, On the Road falls squarely in the middle of those books I’ve read during my reading challenge. I didn’t hate it, but neither did I stick Kerouac’s other titles on my wants list. I enjoyed bits of it, but I can’t say I enjoyed all of it. Perhaps if I’d been alive in the 1950s and read the book at that time, perhaps if I were American, perhaps if I actually liked jazz…

(* if the edition I read had the cover art I’ve used to illustrate this review, then perhaps I wouldn’t have thought it was about the 1960s)


More Catching Up With The Challenge

October’s book for my 2008 Reading Challenge was Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier. Like many of the books I chose for my challenge, I knew almost nothing about it. I knew it existed; I’d probably seen mention of it in various places, not to mention catching sight of it on the “classics” shelves in my local Waterstone’s. But I knew nothing about Ford – who he was, what part he played in English literature, or even what was the general reputation of The Good Soldier. And that’s one reason why I chose it. The other reason is that it’s a slim novel – I’d have liked to try a James Joyce novel, and I have a copy of Ulysses… but it’s huge (I also own Anthony Burgess’ Here Comes Everybody, his study of, although there’s little point in reading about, unless I’ve read Joyce, Joyce, Joyce*).

However, The Good Soldier

The novel is set just prior to World War I and is narrated by John Dowell, a wealthy American mostly resident in Europe. He and his wife, Florence, spend several months each year at Nauheim, a spa in Germany. While there they’re chiefly in the company of another couple, Edward and Leonora Ashburnham, who are English. Edward is the good soldier of the title. Dowell’s narrative skips about in time, describing incidents in no particular order from the decade or so during which the Dowells and Ashburnhams are friends. What Dowell does not initially reveal – although it’s later clear that he knows it at the time he is recounting the story – is that Edward is a philanderer and having an affair with Florence. And she has also had a succession of lovers – beginning with a blue-collar thing, Jimmy, whom she was sleeping with when she married Dowell.

As The Good Soldier progresses, Dowell reveals more and more of the peculiar dynamics between the two couples. When Florence learns that Edward has fallen in love with Nancy Rufford, the ward of Edward and Leonora, she commits suicide. Edward also commits suicide later, when Leonora sabotages Nancy’s burgeoning love for him.

Ford originally titled the novel The Saddest Story, and Dowell repeatedly describes the story as the saddest he knows. Perhaps too often. I can understand how a chronologically non-linear narrative might have been seen as something new and astonishing in 1915, when the book was first published, but it’s an unremarkable technique nowadays. The same is also true of using an unreliable narrator (if you’ve read anything by Gene Wolfe, you’ll be only too familiar with unreliable narrators). Which means that much of what’s interesting about The Good Soldier is no longer the case. The book does, however, give a good indication of what life was like for wealthy Edwardians – for example, Edward is almost sent to prison for kissing a maid on a train. That “consorting with the lower classes” was a crime then seems completely bizarre.

Ford’s maintenance of Dowell’s voice throughout The Good Soldier is impressive. Not once does he let his character slip. Unfortunately, far too much is told rather than shown. I suppose in part that’s the nature of a recounted narrative. It’s also perhaps the fashion of the time. But it reads somewhat distant to a modern reader.

In all, I find it hard to consider The Good Soldier as good as its reputation. I enjoyed reading it, and it’s a clever evocation of Edwardian England. But its two innovations – a non-linear narrative and an unreliable narrator – are neither as remarkable as they were in 1915. It’s by no means a difficult read, although it is difficult to care about the characters – which is hardly unsurprising, given that they’re hardly pleasant people. “Good people”, perhaps, but not pleasant. Having said that, I think I rate The Good Soldier higher than some of the books I’ve read during my challenge. But The Jewel in the Crown remains the highwater mark, and A Question of Upbringing a distant second.

* to spoof Burgess’ infamous: “He breathed baffingly on him, for no banquet would serve, because of the known redolence of onions, onions, onions” in Enderby Outside.


2008 Reading Challenge: The One That Made It All Worthwhile

I’m still a bit behind with this year’s reading challenge, but I’m slowly catching up. For September’s book, which I didn’t actually start until this month, I picked The Jewel in the Crown by Paul Scott. Like most Brits my age, I have vague memories of the ITV adaptation from 1984. Other than that, I knew little about the book, or its author. And it’s unlikely that would have changed… if I hadn’t found all four books of The Raj Quartet going for £1.38 for the lot in a local charity shop, and thought they might be worth a go.

I should have come to Scott sooner. My favourite non-genre writers are Lawrence Durrell, John Fowles and Anthony Burgess, all British post-modern literary writers who came to prominence in the first two decades of the latter half of last century. As did Scott. There are other similarities – all four spent time abroad and later set fiction there: Burgess in Malaysia (The Long Day Wanes); Fowles in Greece (The Magus); Durrell… well, take your pick: he was a professional expat and set novels pretty much everywhere he lived; and Scott, of course, in India. Further, all four are known chiefly by the general public for only one of their works – The Raj Quartet for Scott, A Clockwork Orange for Burgess, The French Lieutenant’s Woman for Fowles, and The Alexandria Quartet for Durrell.

But on to the book itself.

Not having read anything by Scott before, I’d expected a relatively traditional narrative, something like EM Forster’s A Passage to India, perhaps. But the first page proved me wrong. Rather than pull the reader into the story of The Jewel in the Crown, Scott explains it: “This is a story of a rape, of the events that led up to it and followed it and of the place in which it happened.” The next forty pages then relate the life of Miss Crane, who moved to India as a governess in 1907 but stayed on when her employers were posted back to Britain. She became a teacher in the mission schools and, by the time the rape occurs in 1942, she is Superintendent of Schools in Mayapore, where The Jewel in the Crown is set. But she doesn’t actually have anything to do with the rape.

But then neither does Lady Lili Chatterjee. Or Sister Ludmilla. Or Mr Srinivasan. Or Brigadier Reid. Or Duleep Kumar. Yet these are all viewpoint characters in The Jewel in the Crown, and it is through them, and their stories, that Scott builds up a picture of the events sparked off by the rape of Daphne Manners by a group of Indian men. These viewpoints are written in a variety of narrative styles. Some are third person, some are first person. Some are presented as the spoken recollections of a character – and Scott’s handling of each character’s voice is impressive – to an unnamed listener. There are some lovely bits of prose, such as :

With all the chicks lowered the house is dark and cool even at midday. The ceilings are very high. In such rooms human thought is in the same danger as an escaped canary would be, wheeling up and up, round and round, fluttering in areas of shadow and crevices you can imagine untouched by a human hand since the house was rebuilt by MacGregor.

The Jewel in the Crown is by no means an easy read. Scott maintains voice so rigorously that the narrative rarely sticks to the story, and often detours into areas – such as the backgrounds and characters of his cast – which do not actually advance the plot. Duleep Kumar, for example, is Hari Kumar’s father, and Hari is one of the men accused of Daphne’s rape. Duleep’s story explains Hari – the Indian who is more English than the English – but it’s peripheral to the story.

Of course, India is as much a character in the book as Hari, Daphne and the others. It is represented by the invented city of Mayapore. Scott has not stinted on the details, nor on the thoughts and feelings of each of the various characters to the town and the country. The most damning is Hari, an Indian brought up in England and educated at the best schools, who does not feel Indian, but is treated as such. He thinks of himself as invisible: too Indian for the English, too English for the Indians. He’s the pivot about which the plot of The Jewel in the Crown revolves.

The Raj Quartet has been criticised for perpetuating prejudices and racial stereotypes. In a 1984 essay ‘Out of the Whale’, Rushdie pointed out that if Daphne Manners’ rape was a metaphor for the British exploitation of India, it should have been the rape of an Indian girl by white men. Which completely misses the point. The Jewel in the Crown is not about the exploitation of India. Scott is not writing about the Indian experience, about being Indian under the Brits. He is writing about two societies crashing together, each driven by an imposed agenda. The rape is merely the trigger for the reactions of the characters in the book, and those reactions are specific to those involved.

Nor is it surprising that The Jewel in the Crown perpetuates racial stereotypes. The story is told through its characters, and it is their sensibilities which are on display. Miss Crane, Brigadier Reid, Sister Ludmila, and Daphne Manners are all white. Brigadier Reid, for example, is offensively patronising because he epitomises the attitude of his generation of India hands. A reader who doesn’t understand that is missing the point. If Scott wanted to depict a balanced viewpoint, he would not have used Reid.

Now, obviously, my perspective on The Jewel in the Crown is going to differ from Rushdie’s. But I’m not reading it as a Brit, I’m reading it as a British expat – or rather, an ex-expat – who grew up in the Middle East as a “privileged white”. Of course, the parallels are not exact; the Gulf was not the Raj. Also, by the late 1960s / early 1970s, attitudes and sensibilities had changed a great deal. But I went to English speaking schools (I’m a founding pupil of two English speaking schools in the Gulf), I mixed with other European kids, and I rarely if ever socialised with Arabs or people from the Indian subcontinent. When I returned to the Gulf to work in the early 1990s, things were different. At one point, I was the only Brit in my employer’s Systems Development department (and I was also the only male). And yet in many respects, things had not changed: when I asked an Indian colleague why she was filling in a membership form for a bar, she told me it was so she wouldn’t be turned away at the door. I replied that I’d never been refused entry. “You’re white,” she said.

There is a particular British expat experience which The Jewel in the Crown (and Durrell’s The Alexandria Quartet) both make use of. Neither mirrors precisely my own experiences growing up in the Gulf, but there’s a… shape in the text, in the life and interaction of the characters which comes close to emulating it. It’s not as arrogant as:

In his heart he also shares with that old ruling-class of English he affects to despise a desire to be looked-up to abroad, and shares with them also the sense of deprivation because he has not been able to inherit the Empire he always saw as a purely ruling-class institution.

… But there is certainly a shadow of Empire colouring the experience, as well as an understanding of Britain which is filtered through the perceptions of those who were once ruled by it. It’s Britishness informed by the culture of its surroundings, a microcosm of Britishness – almost a siege-mentality in some respects – but one which has subsumed some aspects of its environs. It no longer maps directly onto the culture of Britain. It’s an experience I suspect is slowly vanishing as the world grows “smaller”. Since the alternative appears to be McDonald’s, Cocoa-Cola and Hollywood, then I’m not convinced its disappearance is a good thing.

Of the books I’ve read so far this year for my reading challenge, The Jewel in the Crown has easily been the best. I certainly plan to read the remaining books in The Raj QuartetThe Day of the Scorpion, The Towers of Silence and A Division of the Spoils. And I shall be adding Paul Scott’s other novels to my wants list. Oh, and I want to watch the television adaptation again.


2008 Reading Challenge – August’s late entry

I didn’t read a classic book for 2008 reading challenge in August because I volunteered for a group read of Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun. I had a book picked out, but just didn’t get around to starting it. But now I’ve read it.

The book was My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell.

I’m a big fan of Lawrence Durrell’s writing (see here), but I’ve never read anything by his brother Gerald. This is not so surprising – Gerald Durrell is a naturalist, and that’s a topic which has never interested me. But. My Family and Other Animals is generally considered a classic, and is even included in the Essential Penguins series.

After one too many miserable summers in the UK, the Durrell family – Larry, Leslie, Margo, Gerry, Mother and dog, Roger – decamp for sunnier shores. On the advice of a writer friend of Larry’s, they settle on the island of Corfu. My Family and Other Animals chiefly details ten-year-old Gerry’s explorations of the island and its fauna, but many family incidents are also recounted. When Larry freely offers invites to his friends and acquantainces, and several decide to accept, the family moves to another villa, large enough to accommodate guests. When Great Aunt Hermione declares an intention to visit, the family moves to a smaller villa in order not to have to put her up. In between, we have descriptions of the island, the insects and animals Gerry collects, and the people he meets.

The first thing to note about this book is that it’s funny. Durrell has an eye for idiosyncracies, and a nice turn of phrase when describing them; although he does have a tendency to characterise people as grotesques rather than as realistic people. The same is true of his family – there’s something a bit clichéd about them all: Larry, the sarcastic older brother; Leslie, monomaniacal about guns and hunting; Margo, the sister who mangles proverbs and aphorisms; Mother is harried, somewhat absent-minded, and very forgiving. But it’s these characterisations which lead into the humourous episodes, so it seems a bit churlish to complain.

One of the reasons I picked My Family and Other Animals was because it features Lawrence Durrell (I’ve yet to read Ian McNiven’s giant biography). Admittedly, Larry doesn’t come across too well in the book. In fact, he seems a bit of a self-important prat. He has a bad habit of insisting that other’s achievements are hardly remarkable as they’re no more than the result of applying intelligence and sense. So when Leslie tells how he shot two doves with a “left-and-right”, and Larry claims anyone could have done the same, he is argued into proving it. With entirely expected comic results.

However, there are things which are not so good about My Family and Other Animals. It was first published in 1956, but actually describes the years 1935 to 1939. Some of the attitudes and sensibilites seem odd, if not offensive, to a modern reader, although they were common at the time. There is, for example, a blithe casualness to disturbing wild animals in their habitat which is no longer acceptable. Having said that, Durrell’s treatment of the people he meets is never less than affectionate.

Also, Durrell’s prose is a bit like a child’s birthday cake – he has a tendency to over-ornament. He’s at his best when he keeps it simple – and that’s usually when he’s describing a family incident. Some of the writing about flora and fauna is so over-laden with colourful adjectives, it slows the narrative to a stumble. Again, the book is over fifty years old, and tastes change.

Of the eight books I’ve read to date for this year’s reading challenge, My Family and Other Animals is certainly one of the better ones. Perhaps Anthony Powell’s A Question of Upbringing was a better book, but I did enjoy My Family and Other Animals. I don’t expect to read more of Gerald Durrell’s books, however. I think I’ll stick to Lawrence Durrell.


Catching Up With The Challenge

I’ve been a bit crap the last couple of months with my 2008 Reading Challenge. It seemed like a really good idea when I started it: each month, read a book by a classic author I’d never read before. Sadly, it’s proving a bit of a chore. I gave up on Hemingway. Woolf was definitely not to my taste. Five months in, and the best I could say was, I’d like to read more of Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time.

And two months and two books later…

Well, June’s book was Joseph Conrad’s Nostromo. I wanted to like this. I know a lot of people who think it’s very good indeed. But I found it hard-going. I took it with me on a business trip to Stuttgart in early June. Plenty of opportunity for uninterrupted reading, I thought. I also took John Fowles’ The French Lieutenant’s Woman with me. I like Fowles’ writing a great deal, but I hadn’t expected to like The French Lieutenant’s Woman so much that I’d polish it off in three days.

And then I started Nostromo

Nostromo is set in the invented Central American country of Costaguana, and chiefly in the town of Sulaco in that country. The book’s title is the name of the town’s capataz de los cargadores, the leader of its gang of stevedores. Believed by all to be incorruptible, he is asked to hide the San Tomé mine’s silver from bandits and warlords taking advantage of a struggle for the presidency. Naturally, Nostromo proves less reliable than people had thought…

I didn’t actually finish Nostromo. I got bogged down somewhere in the middle and, after one too many looks of longing at the unread books on my shelves, put it down and turned to something new. It’s not that I didn’t appreciate what I’d read – Conrad clearly deserved his reputation. But after The French Lieutenant’s Woman, Nostromo‘s old-fashioned, more discursive and less focused prose failed to capture and keep my attention.

However, I plan to give Conrad a second chance – if not Nostromo, then perhaps one of his shorter novels.

July’s challenge book was The Garden Party & Other Stories by Katherine Mansfield. This was a much easier read than Nostromo, but ultimately just as disappointing. Mansfield, according to Wikipedia, is “widely considered one of the best short story writers of her period”. To me, the contents of the collection I read were more vignettes than stories. Well-written vignettes, I have to admit, but entirely plot-less. Perhaps it’s my genre background, but I expect a story to be more than a description of an incident, or series of incidents. It has to go somewhere. It has a plot. It has a resolution – or, at the very least, implies a resolution. None of Mansfield’s stories do this.

In the title story, a well-to-do family are planning a large garden party. A young working-class man who lives in a nearby cottage is run over and dies on the day of the party. One of the daughters of the family throwing the party wonders if it they should cancel it in sympathy. In ‘The Voyage’, Fennella and her grandmother take the ferry across Cook Strait. And, er, that’s it. ‘Marriage à la Mode’ describes a man returning to his wife for the weekend, and his dislike of her sycophantic friends and how they have changed her.

Mansfield had a nice turn of phrase, although some of descriptive imagery she used is no longer as fresh as it once was. Her characterisation was also sharp. And, I suppose, the fact that she wrote chiefly about life in New Zealand (despite living in England at the time) adds an interesting patina of strangeness to her fiction. But. She’s neither comic (cf PG Wodehouse or EF Benson) nor plot-driven (cf Agatha Christie) and, no matter how crass this is, I can’t help thinking that fiction from the 1920s ought to be one or the other.

I’m not so daft I really believe this, and I’d like to read something that proves me wrong. Anthony Powell’s A Question of Upbringing doesn’t count – it’s set in the 1920s but was published in 1951. But there are other writers I could try from the period. I might just do that.

For August, however, I’ve already picked out My Family & Other Animals by Gerald Durrell, brother of Lawrence Durrell, my favourite writer.


2008 Reading Challenge – May

I’ve had Virginia Woolf’s Orlando on my book-shelves for a number of years, but had never got around to reading it. I forget why I even bought it. It was cheap, I know that much: there’s a Dh 10/- sticker on the back (ten Dirhams, the currency of the UAE; at the time I was living there, that would be about £1.65).

I also have the DVD of Sally Potter’s film, starring Tilda Swinton. And it’s a good film – looks fantastic, although the story meanders a bit.

So the book immediately went on the list when I decided to read a classic author each month of 2008. And now I’ve read it…

Orlando is a young noble in Elizabethan England. He is a favourite of Queen Elizabeth, writes volumes of execrable poetry, and has an affair with a Muscovite princess. The affair ends badly, and so Orlando wangles a position as Ambassador Extraordinary to the Sultan’s Court in Istanbul. Several years later, he is promoted to Duke and made a member of the Order of Bath. Shortly afterwards, he falls into a sleep from which none can wake him for a week. While he sleeps, the Janissaries revolt. When Orlando wakes, he is now a woman.

After spending some time with Anatolian gypsies, Orlando returns to England. She then lives through the centuries following until the publication of the book: “Thursday, the eleventh of October, Nineteen hundred and Twenty Eight” (the last words of the novel).

Orlando is written as a biography, with frequent authorial interjections – at one point, even declaring the date on which a passage was written – “…for the poet has a butcher’s face and the butcher a poet’s; nature, who delights in muddle and mystery, so that even now (the first of November 1927) we know not why we go upstairs…”; or commenting on the prose itself: “…who has so much to answer for besides the perhaps unwieldy length of this sentence…” The words “biography” and “story” are used throughout, explaining that Orlando is as much a commentary on Orlando’s life as it is a telling of it.

Unfortunately, Orlando is a paragon – loved by all who meet him; his legs “the shapliest legs that any Nobleman has ever stood upright upon”; his house the greatest in England, with 365 rooms and 15 acres of parkland… We are told this repeatedly. Woolf makes no effort to make her protagonist or her story plausible. Orlando’s central change of sex is left completely unexplained – and barely remarked upon by those who knew him before.

Orlando reads like a paean to its subject. It tells a story, yes, but it’s not really a novel. Woolf’s close friend and lover Vita Sackville-West was the inspiration for Orlando, and the book reads like an open and frank love letter to her. In places, the author’s heart is far too visible on her sleeve.

In one respect, reading Orlando proved an interesting exercise. It’s a fantasy, and it was published ninety years ago. Given the current form of fantasy, especially high fantasy (or sword & sorcery, as it’s sometimes known), comparisons between such novels and Woolf’s were almost inevitable. The current trend is for immersion, a narrative that drags the reader into the world of the story and keeps them there. And the world must be internally consistent in order for that to occur. Whereas Orlando does no such thing. The story is told to the reader, no effort is made to entice the reader into living the story in their imagination. Woolf is quite clearly writing Orlando in 1928, and often makes reference to items and knowledge that would have been unknown to her protagonist – “The thought struck him like a bullet”, for example. It’s an entirely different reading experience to that of, say, Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time (quality of writing aside).

Personally, I prefer rigour and internal consistency in my fiction. Especially in regard to an invented world, or a story which cannot rely on the real world to provide consistency. Woolf’s authorial interventions I found intrusive. This might have been acceptable if they were witty – like Jane Austen, for example – but in Orlando, they were just fawning. Orlando was too good, too improbable, a hero/heroine, and quickly became boring. Orlando is, well, fanciful tosh.

So, another classic fails to make the grade. While I admitted back in February that I might give Hemingway another go some time, I very much doubt I’ll be doing the same to Virginia Woolf. Orlando is, according to Wikipedia, “generally considered one of Woolf’s most accessible novels”. Not to mention its importance to English literature. But I just can’t see it.

I’ve all ready picked out Nostromo by Joseph Conrad for next month. Let’s hope I like that one better.

(Incidentally, for those who want to try Orlando for themselves, here’s an online copy.)


Breeding Always Shows

For April’s entry in my 2008 Reading Challenge to try each month a classic author I’ve never read before, I picked A Question of Upbringing by Anthony Powell. It’s actually the first book in the 12-volume series A Dance to the Music of Time, and was first published in 1951.

In his 99 Novels: The Best in English Since 1939, Anthony Burgess describes A Question of Upbringing as “a work we may not always like, but we cannot ignore it”. That’s hardly a ringing endorsement, but the fact that he’s named it as one of the ninety-nine says much. Even the most cursory of googles will throw up plenty of approving reviews. Time magazine even included it in its 100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005. A Dance to the Music of Time is clearly a highly-regarded series of novels.

A Question of Upbringing opens with its narrator, Nick Jenkins, in his final year at Eton. It is 1921. Jenkins describes several incidents which took place that year, and serve to introduce the characters who will reappear throughout the series: Charles Stringham, Peter Templer and Kenneth Widmerpool. After finishing at Eton, Jenkins visits with Stringham, and then spends a few days with Templer. He next goes to stay in France, ostensibly to improve his French, before taking a place at Oxford. There he meets up with Stringham once again, and joins Professor Sillery’s coterie of possible future movers and shakers. The novels ends with a car crash: Templer on a visit drives his car into a ditch while carrying Jenkins, Stringham and some others as passengers.

As plots go, not much happens in A Question of Upbringing. Admittedly, it’s a relatively thin novel – 223 pages in my Fontana paperback edition – and it is only the first of twelve books. It’s an introduction, chiefly to the characters. Powell’s prose, in fact, focuses on the people, often at the expense of everything else. There are no sweeping passages of landscape painting as you’d find in Lawrence Durrell, or even John Jarmain. Jenkins analyses everyone he meets, and every action or utterance they make. It’s as if you’re standing before a large painting, armed with a magnifying glass and peering through it with your face no more than inches from the canvas. There is no clue to the “big picture” in A Question of Upbringing (which seems slightly weird, when compared to modern-day blockbuster high fantasy series).

The period in which the novel is set also invites unfair comparisons with PG Wodehouse or EF Benson. But A Question of Upbringing is no comedy of manners. The cast might all be upper-class twits – as Burgess points out, “Powell cannot take the lower classes seriously” – but Powell does draw his characters with a sharp eye, and he takes them very seriously.

The writing throughout is mannered, but very good. There is some strangely old-fashioned grammar – a tendency to run on sentences using colons, for example; but it doesn’t impede reading. Burgess’ pyrotechnics might be memorable, as are Durrell’s lyrical purple passages; but Powell is not so flamboyant. There are some striking images – A Question of Upbringing opens with a description of snow falling on a workmen’s brazier, which effectively sets the motif for the entire twelve-volume sequence.

I enjoyed and appreciated A Question of Upbringing. Which makes it the first success of this year’s reading challenge. While I’ve no plans to dash out and buy the other eleven books, should I see them in some second-hand book shop or charity shop: then yes, I will buy them and read them.

Besides, I’ve a feeling A Dance to the Music of Time improves a great deal as more of the big picture is revealed…


Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it

I probably know what every Brit my age knows about Rudyard Kipling – born in India… The Jungle Book… Nobel Prize for Literature… ‘If–‘… He’s supposed to be the quintessentially British Empire writer. And yet I’ve only seen Disney’s The Jungle Book, and never read anything by him. Which is why I picked Kim as my March reading for this year’s challenge…

Kim is the orphaned son of an Irish soldier, brought up as a beggar on the streets of Lahore. One day, he meets a Tibetan lama, and becomes his chela or disciple. The two set off on a religious trek around India, searching for the River of the Arrow which will free the lama from all sin. In the past, Kim has also run errands for Mahbub Ali, a Pathan horse-trader who works for the British secret service. Through Ali, he becomes involved in the Great Game, the covert war for control of Central Asia between Russia and Britain throughout the Nineteenth Century.

During their journey, Kim stumbles across the regiment his father belonged to, and is identified as the son of a Sahib. He is sent to school, but then recruited by Mahbub Ali’s superior officer. He sends him to a top school for Sahibs in Lucknow. After several years there, Kim returns to his lama, and the two continue their religious trek, this time up into the foothills of the Himalayas. There they stumble across a pair of Russian spies and Kim does his part for Empire.

If British sf authors followed in the footsteps of HG Wells, after reading Kim I have to wonder if US sf authors took Kipling’s path. There’s something about its depiction of India during the days of British Empire which reads more like early US-style space opera than historical fiction. The mix of strange cultures, the historical info-dumping, the somewhat archaic language (all thee and thou), the nobility of purpose of the characters… It’s a rich and heady stew and every bit as exotic and adventuresome as Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom or Leigh Brackett’s Mars.

The prose is… odd. It’s not just the archaic language – you soon cease to notice that. But it almost falls into reportage in places, and Kipling frequently breaks the illusion between reader and story – at one point, for example, he even adds authorial commentary to an expression used by a character:

‘The house be unblessed!’ (It is impossible to give exactly the old lady’s word.)

A lot of the plot is carried in dialogue – as it is in a lot of early science fiction, where characters explain intentions and actions and consequences to each other. It’s never done crudely, like sf’s infamous “As you know, Bob,” info-dump. But I did wonder if such poor exposition in sf was born from a bad attempt to emulate Kipling’s style. Also, Kim‘s plot features a hurried tying-up of plot-threads and an abrupt resolution – yet another characteristic sf shares with Kim.

Despite all that, the landscapes in Kim are vividly-drawn, and the writing is at its most evocative and impressive when the story moves into the Himalayas. Perhaps some of the characters are a little over-the-top, especially Hurree Babu and Lurgan, two of Kim’s colleagues in the British secret service. And perhaps some parts of the story are glossed over a little quickly, such as Kim’s school years in Lucknow. But what is there has its compensations. It’s a fascinating world Kipling describes; but while there are enough adventurous elements to the story to keep you reading, there is also a lot of instructional dialogue.

I suspect I’ll not be reading Kim again. However, the (cheap) edition I bought also includes The Jungle Book. I think I’ll give that a go one of these days… and then stick the book up on