Thursday, 27 October 2011

Book review - Angels and Insects

Housekeeping first - my maiden blog for The Other Place is up, dealing sensitively with why Shakespeare, if he was alive in 2011, would be an internet troll. I hope you like it.

And now, on to your regularly scheduled review.

This year A. S. Byatt has come out of almost nowhere to become one of my favourite writers. For quite a while after I read Possession I was afraid to read anything else by her, in case she was only pretending to be amazing, but then I took the plunge with Ragnarok and then The Children's Book and it turns out that A. S. Byatt is always amazing, consistently so, until it's almost depressing. I think I've said this before, but the woman does not let up.

I'm not sure if I'm more in love with her style or the things she chooses to write about. She's got a fierce eye for colour and a weird, intricate turn of phrase that makes the reader really able to see the mad things she imagines - in the two stories that make up Angels and Insects, for example, we get a girl with a dress covered in live butterflies and a supernatural visitation from something like a giant glass vase on fire. She creates these fantastic pocket universes, boiling over with life, each of them full of stories within stories, and tiny little stories within those, like Victorian curiosity cabinets. There's so much to look at in her books, and so much to think about, too.

Byatt (who is interested in everything, almost exhaustingly so) likes to go both enormously big and incredibly small, just to keep you on your toes, and Angels and Insects manages to be about Natural Selection and an anthill, the whole of the Afterlife and a drawing-room seance. Byatt loves the Victorians  - for everything that was strange and wrong about them as much as for everything they did right - and (luckily for me) her idea of their greatest hits is very similar to my own. Animals and ghosts! Tennyson and ferocious jungles full of lurking wild beasts! Sex and death and really great dresses!

The two stories that make up Angels and Insects - 'Morpho Eugenia' and 'The Conjugal Angel' are two gorgeous pieces of Victoriana, but Victoriana with teeth. In 'Morpho Eugenia', about a naturalist who falls in love with his patron's whiter-than-white daughter, the characters aren't just compared to insects. In an undefinably creepy way they actually become them. Eugenia, object of William's affections, begins as a butterfly and then morphs into an enormous Queen of the Ants, with the house itself her anthill and all the other female characters her workers.

'The Conjugal Angel', meanwhile, tells the story of a medium and a seance, but a seance where the supernatural beings the characters call up are disgustingly real. Apart from the burning vase-creature, there's a ghost who appears to the medium in her room, 'his brows and lashes caked with clay', a nasty image that sticks in your head because it makes an uncomfortable amount of logical sense. If ghosts are a manifestation of the dead, and the dead are rotting away in the ground - well, you see where this is going. When the angel appears at the end of the story, it's not an attractive Biblical being but an unpleasantly literal representation of Plato's idea that each person is half of an eternal whole. One half of it is shiny and bird-like, and on the other -
On the other side, turned into the shadow, it was grey like wet clay, and formless, putting out stumps that were not arms, moving what was not a mouth in a thin whisper.
Nightmares for days.

There are plenty of stories like 'Morpho Eugenia' and 'The Conjugal Angel' written during the Victorian Era, or at least written about the same topics, but at the same time you won't find anything with quite the same slant to them. They're Victorian pastiches, sure, but at the same time they're a lot more than that. Byatt's adept at using Victorian writing styles, which is impressive enough, but you always know you're not just reading another Victorian novel. In Angels and Insects, Byatt has taken two not-particularly-original ideas and used her incredible imagination to turn them into stories that are both lively and unexpected. There are several twists in each tale that I won't spoil you for, but if you know your Victorians you'll be delighted and if you don't - well, you'll still be delighted.

Can I get an A. S. Byatt altar set up in this blog already?

4.5 stars.

Sunday, 16 October 2011

1001 Books Review - 1984

Two rather nice announcements first.

1) I've been given an internship at Litro magazine, a literary magazine that's big into giving exposure to new writers. It's well worth a look if you're a writerly type - here are its facebook, twitter and real-world subscription pages for your convenience. So from now on I'll be splitting my blogging between there and here, which is quite exciting and only slightly daunting.

2) The lovely people at Writersdock have been kind enough to publish my Animal Farm review on their site. Look at that! My words on someone else's website! Isn't that nice?

But anyway, on to the review, which today (aptly enough) is George Orwell's 1984. Here goes.

Last night I finished reading 1984. I'm quite proud of myself. After all, I only began it 10 years ago.

You can blame my thirteen-year-old self for this. The me that bought my copy of 1984, way back in 2001, was still coming off a childhood filled with books in which Good Triumphed, Bad Failed and Love Conquered All, and I believed in this. And then came 1984.

I started to read 1984 under the vague impression that Things, although bad at the beginning, would be All Right In The End, and I must (judging from what seems familiar on my second attempt) have gotten almost to the end of Part I, before something made me decide to turn back and read the Introduction. (This experience, by the way, is why I am heavily against scholarly introductions at the front of books. What are they doing there? Why, since they describe what happens in the book, aren't they at the end where they belong?) Of course, it spoiled me horribly. I found out the entire plot of the novel - and, most importantly, what happens to Winston.

I remember feeling utterly tricked. I don't know why I was so upset - self-preservation, as a concept, always made a lot of sense to me. I used to get very annoyed with the Christian Martyrs because I couldn't work out why they didn't just worship Zeus a bit, with their fingers crossed, and then go back to Jesus on the sly. Being holy, in my view, was no consolation for being dead. Somehow, though, I couldn't extend this to 1984. Love was a thing that I very much (theoretically) believed in, and I think I had assumed I was reading a love story - but of course, much like poor Winston and Julia, I was being had.

I won't give you the details (I'm not as cruel as Ben Pimlott), but suffice it to say that 1984 - the dystopian story of Winston Smith's struggle against Ingsoc and its leader Big Brother - does not end well. In a way this is nicely realistic - because, really, how likely is it that one man could actually bring down the evil empire? It's a lovely idea, and one that's very familiar to us but, er, it's not particularly feasible. (If you look carefully, by the way, there is an interesting bit at the very end of 1984 that does hint at the eventual downfall of the Ingsoc regime, but you've got to really squint to feel optimistic.)

But if you're looking for uplift in your sci fi, why the hell are you reading George Orwell? He's got a brand of pessimism that strikes me as remarkably British - his image the future is not only depressing, but incredibly detailed in a way that's both brilliantly clever and extremely pedantic. It's also, of course, fondly rude about the British people. In 1984, we as a nation have become ugly, puny boozers who hate ourselves. So nothing's new, then.

I think that's part of the reason why we've taken 1984 to heart as much as we have. In my Animal Farm review I remarked on just how many slogans and ideas from it have seeped into our cultural mindset, and, if anything, it's even more astonishingly true in 1984. Big Brother, Room 101, Newspeak, Thought Police, Doublethink, Thoughtcrime - for a crazy dystopian vision of the future it's bizarre how far it has shaped how we see our own present-day society. But while 1984 is sharply, embarrassingly right about a lot of things, I'm still not sure that I buy its bigger vision of the future. That's not because I have great belief in human nature - on the contrary, I think that humanity's saving grace is its immense and charming essential laziness.

Extreme evil, like extreme good, seems to take an awful lot of effort, so much so that I don't think most human beings are up to it in the long term. Sure, they'll try it for a while, but show them a boot stamping on a human face for ever and they're liable to wonder whether the person doing the stamping gets a lunch break and if they can do it sitting down. Why bother? Why not just have a cup of tea? This, I think, is why both Fascism and Communism were always bound to fail - they require people to be EXTREMELY WORKED UP, ALL OF THE TIME, and that, in practice, is exhausting. Human beings just want to muddle along, and that's the natural level that they'll always return to. At least, I hope so.

Ten years on, I actually ended up enjoying 1984. I must be more hardened to emotional betrayal in books these days, because 1984's version of it hardly bothered twenty-three-year-old me at all. I thought it was clever (isn't Orwell always?) and acute, if a bit idealistically overblown. It's definitely a better story than Animal Farm - Winston, thank goodness, is a person as well as a symbol, and so it's much easier to spend time with him than Manor Farm's animal-shaped politicians. Because I didn't have to read 1984 theoretically, I found myself more willing to do it - and, as I've said, I think what 1984 has to say is very interesting, even if I don't totally buy into it.

So, in conclusion: I liked it, I'm glad I don't live in Oceania, and Room 101 was extremely badly named.

3.5 stars. 18.48% of the list completed.

Thursday, 6 October 2011

National Poetry Day: Have a Poet and a Poem

Aw hell, it's National Poetry Day today! Nobody tells me things. But anyway, in the spirit of this day I am going to do something I've been meaning to for a while, and introduce you to a very much forgotten poet, James Elroy Flecker.

I'm very fond of Flecker, partly because no one else seems to be interested in him at all. Here he, is in his Edwardian get-up, with a small and charming dog (I think it's a dog. Unless it's a very small sheep?). Note particularly his fabulous moustache. He wrote some poems, he wrote a play, he married a lady and then he died of TB when he was 30.

Flecker, bless him, was an Aesthete and very into saucy exoticism, and his poetry can be quite full of wafting roses and naked marble statues and ladies with naughty eyes. He's also apt to tip over into rather overblown teenage emotion, but at the same time I think there's something quite lovely about him. He tries, and though sometimes it all goes a bit wrong, sometimes he really does manage something pretty great. Career-wise, he seems to have come in at exactly the wrong time, when Tennyson, as A Thing, was way over and even Swinburne (who is like a later Tennyson but with added whips and chains) was a bit passe, and because of that he's very much ignored. I'm not saying he deserves a retrospective Laureateship, or anything, but there are plenty of far worse poets who have managed to stick around like mould and so I always feel a little sad about how very much Flecker doesn't get a look in.

I first came across Flecker in the epigraph to an Agatha Christie novel, Postern of Fate - which, it turns out, is a quotation from his poem 'The Gates of Damascus'. So off I went to find this unknown poem, and I found it on the internet, and then it blew my teenage mind.

What I thought at the time - and still think now - is that 'The Gates of Damascus' is an amazing fantasy novel that happens to have been written as a poem. It's just so weird and mad and full of things that you don't understand but want to. At times it tips over into complete fever-dream territory and you get lines like
Have you heard
That silence where the birds are dead yet something pipeth like a bird?
I mean, what is that? That's terrifying! That's a Doctor Who episode in waiting, is what that is. Actually, the whole first section of the poem is like that, with mad stalking bird men and people dying of various inventive causes and awesome, gruesome lines like
The Sun who flashes through the head and paints the shadows green and red,
The Sun shall eat thy fleshless dead, O Caravan, O Caravan!
And then you get to the second section and things get even better, if possible, because we're off to sea for an adventure. At this point Flecker comes up with my all-time favourite description of the sea:
The dragon-green, the luminous, the dark, the serpent-haunted sea,
The snow-besprinkled wine of earth, the white-and-blue-flower foaming sea.
Not only does it scan beautifully, but it's full of booze and sea monsters. And on these mythical-creature infested waves Flecker goes and makes up his own creepy, crazy version of the Odyssey, which features not only pterodactyls and bleeding rocks but also ROBOTS:
Beyond the sea are towns with towers, carved with lions and lily flowers,
And not a soul in all those lonely streets to while away the hours.

Beyond the towns, an isle where, bound, a naked giant bites the ground:
The shadow of a monstrous wing looms on his back: and still no sound.

Beyond the isle a rock that screams like madmen shouting in their dreams,
From whose dark issues night and day blood crashes in a thousand streams.

Beyond the rock is Restful Bay, where no wind breathes or ripple stirs,
And there on Roman ships, they say, stand rows of metal mariners.
Do you see yet why I think it's a fantasy novel in disguise? I had a year or so when got obsessed with it and made several awful and luckily abortive attempts to write the book hiding in it, because the book hiding in it would be amazing.

Things sort of tail off after the sea-shanty part, excitement-wise, and we get a bit about saucy Eastern commercialism and then another bit about emotive Eastern mysticism, but all the same, I love this poem. I love it ridiculously and unreservedly and despite the undeniable fact that it's bloody weird. Actually, that's why I love it. That, and it sounds really nice when you read it out loud.

So there you have it: 'The Gates of Damascus' by James Elroy Flecker, my favourite book-that-isn't.

And a happy National Poetry Day to you.

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Review - Howards End (AKA: Douchebags in Romantic Literature)

Gertrude Stein and her ego
I have come to a decision: if I read a book for my MA course, I do not have to review it on this blog. This is to prevent me from ending up in a gibbering heap of madness, hiding behind Watson the lizard's cage, and to prevent you from having to hear my thoughts on books with titles like Gendering the Natural: Virginia Woolf and her Use of Root Vegetables as Phallic Symbols in To The Lighthouse. (Actually, if I do ever read that book I will certainly write about it. It sounds great.)

Therefore, I do not need to take any more notice of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas here than to remark on the absolutely enormous size of Gertrude Stein's ego. It bursts up through the pages of the book like a rapidly inflating airbag and leaves the reader lying in a stunned heap upon the floor. Although maybe I would be like that if Picasso, Matisse and Man Ray had all done portraits of me. I don't know.

Crazy blurb edition
But anyway, I did read E. M. Forster's Howards End (yes, no comma), and that was not for my MA, and so I am now going to review it. So here we go.

My copy of Howards End is a Penguin from the 60s, era of charmingly hilarious back-cover blurbs (my all-time favourite is the back of The Waves, which informs the reader that 'Virginia Woolf is the wife of Leonard Woolf'. How times change), and true to form this one begins by cutting straight to the heart of the matter with the immortal line 'Mr E. M. Forster is not a prolific novelist.' How interesting. Did he perhaps like cheese? What was the name of his dog? This is all so relevant. Tell us more.

The blurb goes on to say that
An attempt to outline the story of Howards End would do paltry justice... to the delicate pattern of its composition.
Which, like most literary brown-nosing, is nonsense. Howards End is about the two Schlegel sisters, Margaret and Helen (and their brother Tibby, but no one really talks about him) and their relationships with the Wilcox family, who are kind of assholes. When Mrs Wilcox (not a Wilcox by birth, so not actually an asshole) dies, she leaves a written request for Margaret to be given her beloved country house Howards End, but of course, because they are assholes, the living Wilcoxes ignore this. The rest of the book is a series of cosmic coincidences that end up with (you guessed it) Margaret and Helen getting possession of Howards End and the Wilcoxes being karmically punished for their assholitude. Simple.

Shut up woman get on my horse
Reading books like Howards End makes me realise just how very glad I am to have been born in the 1980s, into a world where the Pankhursts have already been and gone and made their point. It's true that there is still a long way to go in terms of women getting equal pay and not getting groped and laughed at for no reason, but all the same those 90+ years since 1918 have done absolute wonders for the mental state of eligible males as a group. It's fairly sobering to realise that, until really quite recently, men like Monsieur Paul and Mr Wilcox were, without a hint of irony, the good ones. If you wanted a husband pre-1970 you appear to have had to hope like hell that the one you found would just call you stupid and disagree with everything that came out of your mouth, rather than ignoring you, taking all your money or chasing you round and round the room with a stick.

Basically (giving the plot away somewhat, but Howards End isn't exactly a thriller), at one point Mr Wilcox falls for Margaret and proposes to her. Margaret's considerations on the subject go something like: "OK, so, he hates everything I stand for, and I disagree with him, and he's a soulless ass, and his forehead is weird, but hey, it could be so much worse." And so she marries him.

You can't tell, but she's barefoot and pregnant too
I can't really decide what E. M. Forster thinks about all this. I read A Passage To India last year and I was completely astonished by how balanced and understanding he was about racism and the effects of imperialism. But when it comes to The Woman Question things get a bit more dodgy. There's just an uncomfortable amount of "Women don't need the vote! They should simply be influencing their husbands with their eyes and breasts! Also most of them are stupid." I don't know E. M. Forster's life - and to be fair to him, Margaret and Helen get a hell of a moral victory on Mr Wilcox at the end of the novel - but there's still something that doesn't feel right about his attitude throughout. I guess that's another confirmation of my point: when you have a society that legally treated half of its members like drooling imbeciles, even good, sensible guys end up with idiotic opinions. And what's worse, those opinions tend to stick around.

It's interesting to read the big feminist books of the 60s and 70s (think The Golden Notebook and Lady Oracle) in light of this obvious but somehow easily forgotten point. Once you do, you realise that a very big part of the reason why all of the women in them are so horribly depressed all the time is because although they've bettered themselves, and accepted new ideas, when they start looking for a mate they realise that ALL THE MEN ARE STILL BUSY BEING ASSHOLES. They've got nothing else to choose from. Essentially, they're screwed.

I'd like to think in 2011 that we're (mostly) out of that dark, dark place. I possess two (male) housemates and a (male) boyfriend, all of whom have high-level cooking, cleaning and washing-things-up skills and, because they grew up in a world where women were seen as basically rational, functioning human beings, tend to treat the women they come across in the same way. At the very least, I don't think any of them would even consider unironically arriving at their mistress's house at ten o'clock at night and screaming WOMAN WHERE IS MY POT ROAST (this happens in The Golden Notebook, more or less). Call me crazy, but I find that sort of thing not particularly desirable in a man.

So hooray for Pankhursts (junior and senior) and also all the non-Pankhursts (both those run over by horses and those not), and thank god I don't need to marry a Mr Wilcox any more. Margaret, he's all yours. Have fun.

3 stars. And 18.38% completed.