About Me

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I live in Bedford, England. Having retired from teaching; I am now a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Threshold Concepts in the context of A-level Physics. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. I have also recently become a keen playgoer to London Fringe Theatre. I enjoy mostly classics and I read the playscripts and add those to the blog. I am a member of Bedford Writers' Circle. See their website here: http://bedford-writers.co.uk/ Follow me on twitter: @daja57

Saturday, 18 November 2017

"The Burgess Boys" by Elizabeth Strout

The BB opens with a reflective Prologue, a frame for the story, in which the author and her mother chat about the Burgess family. This enables the author to drop a couple of breadcrumb hooks:
“Bobby Burgess ‘was the one who killed his father.” (p 5)
“But after Susan Burgess’s son did what he did - after the story about him had been in the newspapers ... and on television too” (p 7)

This is an excellent way to get you to read what, despite the plot kicking in immediately, could be quite a slow start. Strout writes reflectively, meditatively. She takes her time to build character. 

She is particularly good on noting the minutiae of family life and what it means. What it is like to live in an apartment. How a wife always picks up her husband's socks. The sadness of being unable to have children. The loneliness of being human.

Jim B is a successful lawyer, married to Helen; the kids have grown up and left. Bob B, divorced by his wife so she could have the children she no longer really wants, is a much less successful lawyer working for the public. They live in NY having left their home in Maine after their mother died (dad died long before, crushed when the car he had just left his small kids in slipped its brake). Susan, Bob's twin sister, who had also been in that car, lives at home with her son, socially awkward Zach. The story begins because Zach has thrown a pig's head into a mosque and will have to appear in court.

And from there their lives unwind.

It is a sad book. Most of the characters are lonely even when they are putting the bravest face possible on it. It is like Pandora's box which, opened, let out all the sorrows of the world, but also released into the world Hope.

As Bob says to Jim near the end: "You have family ... You have a wife who hates you. Kids who are furious with you. A brother and sister who make you insane. And a nephew who used to be a kind of a drip but apparently is not so much of a drip now. That's called family.” (p 379)

Other great lines
  • My mother did not like Unitarians; she thought they were atheists who didn't want to be left out of the fun of Christmas.” (p 2)
  • Young couples who arrived at the coffee shops with hair still wet from showering after morning love.” (p 32)
  • In New York raising children is a horrendously competitive sport. Really fierce and bloody.” (p 53)
  • I would say the Wally Packer trial spoiled him, but I thought he was an asshole before that.” (p 101)
  • He thought of all the people in the world who felt they been saved by a city. He was one of them. Whatever darkness leaked it's way in, there were always lights on in different windows here, each light like a gentle touch on his shoulder.” (p 109)
  • Pam was being sarcastic, but it was one pebble thrown against a thick windshield.” (p 129)
  • The funny old lady from exercise class could come too. You lie on the mat, she had said ... and then you pray to God you get up” (p 166)
  • Terrifying, how the ending of his marriage has dismantled him.” (p 217)
  • Bob, I killed him.” (p 273)
  • An uneasiness was following Helen, as though a shadow walked behind her, and if Helen stopped moving, the shadow just waited.” (p 288)
  • And it was too late. No one wants to believe something is too late, but it is always becoming too late, and then it is.” (p 309)
  • Helen wanted to say something to Ariel that was hurt her, and when Ariel, reaching into the car's front seat, handed her a box of cookies she had made that day especially for them, Helen said, well I don't eat chocolate anymore.” (p 316)
  • As though her mind had Tourette's syndrome and these terrible things went uncontrollably through it.” (p 324)
  • I kind of thought I'd be a scientist tramping around Africa finding parasites and people would think I was great.” (p 358)
November 2015; 389 pages

Tuesday, 14 November 2017

"Gothic Fiction" edited by Jerrold Hogle

Chapter One is the Introduction by Jerrold Hogle. He explains the basics. It is difficult to define a Gothic tale. How can we distinguish it from horror, for example? If Walpole's The Castle of Otranto is the first true Gothic tale (he said it was) then what about the clear inspirations of ghostly stories such as Shakespeare's Hamlet? A castle, a ghost, a wrong from long ago, a hero going mad. Aren't all these Gothic? So what Hogle has to do is in some way write a definition that will encompass all that we think is Gothic and exclude all that isn't. No chance. Here is his attempt:
  • A Gothic tale usually takes place (at least some of the time) in an antiquated or seemingly antiquated space - be it a castle, a foreign palace, an abbey, a vast prison, a subterranean crypt, a graveyard, a primeval frontier or island, a large old house or theatre, an ageing city or urban underworld, a decaying storehouse, factory, laboratory, public building, or some new recreation of an older venue, such as an office with old filing cabinets, an overworked spaceship or a computer memory. Within this space, or a combination of such spaces, are hidden some secrets from the past (sometimes the recent past) that haunt the characters, psychologically, physically, or otherwise at the main time of the story. These hauntings can take many forms, but they frequently assume the features of ghosts, spectres, or monsters (mixing features from different realms of being, often life and death).” (Hogle 2002, 2) 
    • Note how he leaves the possibility to describe science fiction as Gothic.
  • Gothic fictions generally play with and oscillate between the earthly laws of conventional reality and the possibilities of the supernatural.” (Hogle 2002, 2) 
  • Gothic fictions ... have most often been about aspiring ... white people caught between the attractions or terrors of a past once controlled by overweening aristocrats or priests ... and forces of change that would reject such a past yet still remain held by aspects of it.” (Hogle 2002, 3)
  • The conflicted positions of central Gothic characters can reveal them as haunted by a second ‘unconscious’ of deep-seated social and historical dilemmas ... that become more fearsome the more characters and readers attempt to cover them up or reconcile them symbolically without resolving them fundamentally.” (Hogle 2002, 3) 
  • Many of the lead characters in Gothic fictions ... deal with the tangled contradictions fundamental to their existence by throwing them off onto ghostly or monstrous counterparts that then seem ‘uncanny’ in their unfamiliar familiarity while also conveying overtones of the archaic and the alien in their grotesque mixture of elements viewed as incompatible buy established standards of normality.” (Hogle 2002, 7) 
  • The Gothic has also come to deal ... with how the middle class dissociates from itself, and then fears, the extremes of what surrounds it: the very high or the decadently aristocratic and the very low or the animalistic, working class, underfinanced, sexually deviant, childish or carnivalesque.” (Hogle 2002, 9) 
  • No other form of writing or theatre is as insistent as Gothic in juxtaposing potential revolution and possible reaction - about gender, sexuality, race, class, the colonizers versus the colonized, the physical versus the metaphysical, and abnormal vs normal psychology.” (Hogle 2002, 13)
In Chapter two E J Clery traces the genesis of Gothic fiction suggesting that, at least for some years, “After Otranto the only significant work in which ‘Gothic’ appears in a subtitle was Clara Reeve’s The Old English Baron.” (Clery 2002, 21) 

So what was special about Otranto?
  • Walpole wanted to combine the unnatural occurrences associated with romance and the naturalistic characterization and dialogue of the novel.” (Clery 2002, 24) 
  • The credible emotions of the characters connect us to incredible phenomena and events and allow terror to circulate via processes of identification and projection.” (Clery 2002, 25)
  • Walpole’s contemporaries suggested that fairy stories sublimated class conflict such that oppressive feudal Lords became Giants in their castles. (Clery 2002, 26)

What are the progenitors of Otranto?
  • Thomas Gray ... revised the Pindaric ode, the most irregular and thus ‘sublime’ of metrical forms. ... One of the poems, ‘The Bard’, contains several of the ingredients later to be found in Otranto: a tyrant, a prophecy, and ghosts demanding Vengeance.” (Clery 2002, 29) 
  • Scratch the surface of any gothic fiction and the dips to Shakespeare will be there.” (Clery 2002, 30)
  • Walpole's second preface ... was a notable ... defence of one aspect of Shakespeare's practice that remains controversial even in Britain: the inclusion of comic scenes in the tragedies. Walpole adopted this practice in Otranto, and it was to remain a [page break] feature of Gothic romance.” (Clery 2002, 30 - 31)

And of the contemporary imitators?
Beckford’s Vathek: “The eponymous villain and his equally loathsome mother Carathtis burst the bounds of moral instruction with their extravagant desires and grotesque cruelty ... Like Walpole, Beckford attempts a Shakespearean contrast of comedy and terror, but instead of interweaving the two, the black humour of the major part of the tale is finally overtaken by a scene of extraordinary tragic power. Vathek discovers that the reality of the ultimate Empire, for which he has committed so many crimes, is an eternity of aimless wandering among the multitude of lost souls in the vast domains of the devil Eblis.” (Clery 2002, 36)

Chapter 3 focuses on the 1790s. Its thesis seems to be that Gothic was inspired by the tensions, both in England and abroad, between the ancien regime and the demands of modernity. Thus the Marquis de Sade believed that ”the Gothic explosion was collateral damage from the French Revolution.” (Miles 2002, 42) Also:
  • Contemporary “ reviewers knew full well that Gothic terror derived from the Burkean cult of the sublime ... for sublimity and terror were associated with tragedy and epic, the two most prestigious literary forms” (Miles 2002, 43)
  • By linking Burke’s terror with Robespierre’s in the limited cases of romances by women writers, critics stripped the Gothic of it high literary pretensions, implicitly accusing its authors of being social incendiaries, while figuring them as literary sans-culottes.” (Miles 2002, 44)
  • There was a widespread perception that all old structures were in a tottering condition such as, for instance, castles, or the constitution, with its feudal, Gothic foundations.” (Miles 2002, 44) 

But there were other influences as well:
  • Mrs Radcliffe developed the “explained supernatural, but her most significant innovation was ... the heroine in flight.” (Miles 2002, 46)
  • It was a common belief among Whigs and radicals alike that the English parliament traced its origins to an ancient, or Gothic, constitution brought to England by the Saxons.” (Miles 2002, 48)
  • Schiller’s play The Robbers “ created an immense Fad for stories of Banditti.” (Miles 2002, 50)
  • Schiller’s The Ghost-Seer
  • The Masonic charlatan, Count Cagliostro, was then headline news across Europe. Cagliostro was in fact of obscure birth from Palermo, Sicily. Styling himself be master of Egyptian mysteries and friend of mankind, Cagliostro cut a swathe through the capital cities of Europe. He foretold the future (using a crystal ball); dispensed nostrums freely to the poor; and held seances for the wealthy. It was also rumoured that he was a member of the Illuminati, a revolutionary band of Freemasons allegedly founded in Ingolstadt ( the future site of Dr Frankenstein's experiments).” (Miles 2002, 51) 
  • “For the British middle-class mind, English revolutionary violence was indelibly linked to ‘ enthusiasm’, or radical Protestantism. Mad George Gordon, who inspired the violence that bore his name, was a Protestant zealot; while the excesses of the English Civil War will laid at the feet of Levellers, antinomians, and now, retrospectively, the Illuminati through their diabolical influence on Cromwell.” (Miles 2002, 55)
  • "German tales of illuminati ... did not feature revolution per se; rather, they represented plots and conspiracies and took place in a myriad of hidden places: in forest houses, gaslit caves, or secret gardens.” (Miles 2002, 56)

Gothic, like any genre, began to diversify:
  • Gothic follows the first law of genre: to deviate and make it new.” (Miles 2002, 58)
  • Like families, genres branch off into distinct lines as they incorporate new genetic material.” (Miles 2002, 44)
Chapter 5 considers the links between the Gothic and the Romantics. The Romantics simultaneously were attracted to and repulsed from Gothic. 

There was a fascinating discussion of the “schism between text and footnote” (Gamer 2002, 94). For example, “Byron's notes systematically debunk as baseless ‘superstitions’ the very materials ... he indulges in most strongly in the text of his poem.” (Gamer 2002, 99) I have never before considered how footnotes could be used to establish a different narrative from the main text. I suppose it is another form of framing device.

The fragmented structure of The Giaour, for example, becomes a metaphor for its title character’s state of mind, while the rapid cuts and multiple perspectives of its protocinematic technique put forward a phenomenological model of experience - one requiring interpretation to construct coherence from its pieces while simultaneously representing such interpretive acts as self-serving and doomed to failure. Frankenstein, in turn, deploys a narrative structure that buries its story under multiple layers of hearsay testimony.” (Gamer 2002, 101)

Chapter 8, about the effects of Gothic on Victorian novels, was perhaps the most fascinating, in part because it showed how novels I had read were influenced and, in some cases, sourced.

For example, in The Mysteries of London by novelist GWM Reynolds “one spectacular facade penetrated for future burglary is that of Buckingham Palace” penetrated by “the potboy Holford” who eavesdrops on Victoria and discovers that “immured in the luxury of her palace and surrounded by courtiers, she is unaware of the reality outside and the plight of the poor.” (Milbank 2002, 148) Sounds  remarkably like episodes from the second series of the recent ITV production of Victoria. Could it be that they sourced some of their plot from fiction rather than history? Dramatic adaptations of Gothic novels still apparently exist.

The magazine Blackwoods had a significant effect on Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte. In chapter 34 Jane states “My iron shroud contracted round me”; this may refer to a Blackwoods story called ‘The Iron Shroud’ in which a prisoner is to be crushed to death by the inward moving iron walls of his cell. Other Gothic themes in Jane Eyre include that of a woman fleeing from a man and the “mad wife in the attic of Thornfield Hall owes something both to the blending of house and asylum in Maturin’s Melmoth The Wanderer and to a short story by Sheridan Le Fanu ‘A chapter in the history of a Tyrone family’ ... from which she draws the imprisoned foreign first wife, as well as the veil and the mirror.” (Milbank 2002, 151). One has to remember that JE was written in six weeks. Borrowing from other texts does not diminish an author in my eyes. It does the opposite. Just as one appreciates the craft that Shakespeare shows when he tailors his plays for the actors in the company he works with or the circumstances of the theatre in which they are staged one admires Bronte for using the materials she has at hand. Writing, like any other art, is not a matter of genius but of skill.

Dickens is, if you think about it, extraordinarily Gothic. Oliver Twist: “is set in all his pristine Innocence as a contrast and a judge of the people and institutions that attempt to corrupt or enclose him: the workhouse and its greedy administrators, the undertaker's shop, the thieves’ kitchen, and so on.Yet he only reveals what is already the moral character of those he meets: he affects no change.” (Milbank 2002, 155 - 156) “In The Old Curiosity Shop ... Dickens follows the same procedure of contrasting the child with a range of grotesque companions, but by placing a young girl in the setting of an embalmed past he imports expectations that equate escape with movement forward in time and the possibility of social change accompanying her rescue and maturation. In a novel that combines fairy-tale, comedy, melodrama, religious allegory and social comment, the Gothic is the motor that truly drives the action ... Although the child sleeps peacefully among objects that would terrorize most children, this is in itself disquieting, since it allows no possibility of escape ... Indeed, one of the most disturbing aspects of The Old Curiosity Shop is its utter inability to imagine anyway in which its angelic heroine may be released from the tentacles of a deathly embalmed past.” (Milbank 2002, 156) “Neil is the shortened form of Eleanor, and her journey across the Midlands is analogous to the route taken by the body of Edward I’s Queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine, from Northampton to London, each resting place marked by the erection of a stone cross.” (Milbank 2002, 156) “Esther Summerson, the illegitimate narrator of much of Bleak House, is named after the Jewish Queen who saved her people from death.” (Milbank 2002, 157) “Bleak House is a world without energy, erotic drives, or the possibility of future children.” (Milbank 2002, 157) In Great ExpectationsMouldering Satis House, with its time-locked mistress and youthful Estella, offers a false Gothic promise that Pip is the hero come to bring change and new life by rescuing the Heroine.” (Milbank 2002, 159) 

Chapter 11 switches from the literary to the cinematic and is as brilliant about ceinematic techniques as other chapters have been about literary techniques.

Gothic visual tropes include: “The ruined castle or abandoned house on a hill made hazy by fog; the dark cemetery dotted with crosses and gnarled, bare branches; the heavily-built wooden doors that close without human aid; the high, arched or leaded windows that cost imprisoning shadows; the close-ups of mad, staring eyes ... the passing of a black cloud across a full moon.” (Kavka 2002, 210)

How can film achieve fear? By manipulating what we feel to be normal about the space around us.
  • The effect of fear is produced through the transformations, extensions, and misalignments of size and distance that are possible only in a three-dimensional space. Gothic film thus reveals and reconstitutes an underlying link between fear and the manipulation of space around a human body.” (Kavka 2002, 210)
  • Casting shadows is one way of manipulating space” (Kavka 2002, 214)
  • The stylistic techniques of German expressionism involve chiaroscuro lighting effects ... distorted backdrops, claustrophobic spaces, extreme camera angles, and shadows disproportionate to the objects that cast them.” (Kavka 2002, 215)

A range of feminist and queer criticism has suggested that the Gothic must also be understood as a blurring of boundaries between the masculine and the feminine, where monstrosity is associated with the copying, mirroring, or incursion of one gender form onto or into the other. In Frankenstein, for instance, men undertake the female role of human reproduction.” (Kavka 2002, 211)
What is the difference between Gothic film and horror film? It's whether you see it or not:
  • There is ... a world of difference between not being able to see something that remains shadowed or off screen (the Gothic) ... and being able to see something terrifyingly placed before our very eyes but from which we want to avert our gaze (horror).” (Kavka 2002, 227)
I enjoyed chapter 12 about Gothic in the Caribbean as much for the relish in the way the author wrote as for what they said. But it was very interesting about the link between zombies and slaves.
  • In the first Gothic set in Jamaica “the terrors of the heroine’s situation are exacerbated by her atavistic fears of Jamaica's African-derived magicoreligious practice of Obeah and the possibility of sexual attack by black males.” Paravinisi-Gebert 2002, 229)
  • Zombification conjures up the Haitian experience of slavery, of the dissociation of man from his will, his reduction to a beast of burden at the will of a master.” Paravinisi-Gebert 2002, 239)
  • The depiction of the Haitian people as zombies negates any possibility of their transcending a history of colonialism, slavery, postcolonial poverty, and political repression since, as zombies, they are incapable of rebellion.” Paravinisi-Gebert 2002, 243)
  • The hyperbolized, quasi-Rabelaisian grotesque images of the Haitian collective body are primarily olfactory: unbathed bodies smelling like ram goats, the abominable stench of rotting flesh, the nauseous smell of plague-ridden corpses, the stink of piss and decay, the smell of sweat, blood, and bruises. These images blend with Gothic, frightful images of the body as a mutilated, rotting corpse. The text abounds with images spawned from political terror: crushed hands, burnt bodies, cut-off penises, roasted testicles, sores, the blood that soaks and fertilizes the scorched earth. Death haunts the text” Paravinisi-Gebert 2002, 243)

This was a fascinating text full of brilliant insights into a genre that I had never really considered but now recognize as one with deep set roots and far-flung influences.

November 2017; 300 pages

Friday, 10 November 2017

"The Passion of New Eve" by Angela Carter

New York is a nightmare city. The “blacks” have fortified Harlem and now use it as base base for armed incursions into the rest of the city. People are randomly gunned down in the streets. Militant feminists attack men. Rats run everywhere. This is very much a dystopian vision as seen in the mid-1970s when urban decay seemed to be inevitable. Having impregnated his girlfriend, Evelyn from England flees into the desert where he is saved from death and captured by a gang of militant feminists who perform surgery to transform him into a woman, Eve, to be inseminated by his own, harvested, sperm. (s)He escapes into the clutches of Zero, is raped, and forced to join Zero's harem. Then Zero and the girls go to the lonely mansion of reclusive ex-film star Tristessa, femme fatale of so many Hollywood movies, because Zero believes that Tristessa has made him sterile.

A quite bizarre picaresque.

First, there is Carter's obsession with mirrors. In New York Evelyn's girlfriend exotic dancer Leilah puts her make-up on every night in a cracked mirror as the narrator watches: “Her beauty was an accession. She arrived at it by a conscious effort. She became absorbed in the contemplation of the figure in the mirror but she did not seem to me to apprehend the person in the mirror as, in any degree, herself. ... she brought into being a Leilah who lived only in the not-world of the mirror and then became her own reflection.” (p 28) “She was a perfect woman; like the moon, she only gave reflected light.” (p 34) Later as he flees into the desert “As dawn came up over the New Jersey turnpike, I saw the desolation of the entire megapolis and it was a mirror of my own.” (p 38). Having had his sex changed he is allowed a mirror “But when I looked in the mirror, I saw Eve; I did not see myself.” (p 74) And again, and again:
  • I saw him step back and I saw his reflection in the mirror step back and the reflection of that reflection in another mirror stepped back.” (p 132)
  • I had become my old self again in the inverted world of the mirrors.” (p 132)
  • I was a boy disguised as a girl and now disguised as a boy again.” (p 132)
  • She invaded the mirror like an army with banners; she entered me through my eyes.” (p 151)
  • The glass was broken, cracked right across many times so it reflected nothing, what's a bewilderment of splinters and I could not see myself nor any portion of myself in it.” (p 181)

Of course the reflection of Evelyn into Eve and the subsequent discovery of Tristessa seem to suggest that men and women are mirror images of one another.

This also seems to be a book about sterility. New York is fecund but only of rats: “Outside, in the dusty street, the wind saying songs of loneliness in the geometric web of power cables and telephone wires.” (p 40). The desert is, of course, sterile: “the desert, the abode of enforced sterility, the dehydrated sea of infertility, the post-menopausal part of the earth.” (p 40). So is Zero; he blames Tristessa. Everyone is childless; Evelyn forces Leilah to have an abortion; he flees the feminist the day before he is about to be impregnated; the continent itself seems to be dying.

Written in 1977 Carter seems to have extrapolated the tensions between white and black and between men and women in New York and seen the potential for urban decay (which has taken over, for example, Detroit), and magnified the rioting of those days into full scale civil war. 

And there is a clear Gothic theme running through the book. New York is avowed as a Gothic city: “In New York I found, instead of hard edges and clean colours, a lurid, Gothic darkness that closed over my head entirely and became my world.” (p 10). But when Eve flees from the feminists we have the Gothic theme of the fleeing heroine (as in Jane Eyre) and when Zero and the women take over the reclusive film star's mansion we have so many Gothic themes including the burial chamber (although it is a waxworks museum) and a wonderful catastrophic Fall of the House of Usher. Even at the end we have the theme of the heroine crawling through subterranean passages.

Kavka (2002, 211) points out "A range of feminist and queer criticism has suggested that the Gothic must also be understood as a blurring of boundaries between the masculine and the feminine." This book is all about the blurring, or mirroring of those boundaries. But perhaps most Gothic of all is the fundamental theme of this book. Eve/Evelyn is Frankenstein's monster, created by the mad scientist/plastic surgeon Mother.
And then we have flashes of Freud. 
  • That we should all be happy posits, initially, a consensus on the notion of happiness. We can all be happy only in a happy world. But Old Adam’s happiness is necessarily dysfunctional. All Old Adam wants to do is, to kill his father and sleep with his mother.” (p 16) 
  • “Just as I crossed the filthy threshold of that gaunt, lightless, vertical, extinguished apartment block, all tenanted by strangers, my senses were eclipsed in absolute panic. ...And scrawled in chalk upon the wall ... INTROITE ET HIC DII SUNT [Slaney from answer bank says that the original phrase was Introite et nam hic dii sunt; ‘these words were attributed by Aristotle to Heraclitus who called them out to passers-by as he was seated in a smoky bakers's cottage. Enter, for here too are gods - meaning the gods are everywhere even in lowly places; In a letter dated 4th December 1896 Sigmund Freud wrote The psychology of hysteria will be preceded by the proud words, Introite et hic dii sunt "Enter -- for here too are gods." Aristotle, De partibus animalium. This second source, being more exactly what Carter writes, fits with her discussion of Ald Adam a few pages before. So this suggests that Carter is referencing Freud for this work. Freud wrote ‘The Uncanny’ which explores the psychoanalytical implications of Hoffnung’s The Sandman, potentially a classic German Gothic story. The rather tamed Sandman is a popular figure in American culture].” (p 25) 
    • OK> Enter for here too are gods. Does this theme continue throughout the novel? Clearly Mother in the underground feminist compound is intended to be a god. Is Zero, inhabitant of the lowliest hovel in the desert another god? Is Tristessa a goddess of the silver screen? Are these the gods that we have to find? Or is it all Freudian in which case I probably haven't so much failed to perceive this theme or misunderstood it but I have suppressed it. Hmmm.
  • They were case histories, rather than women.” (p 99)

It is a complex novel and there are times when Carter's prose is so poetic that I want to swim in it. But I found it difficult to read. 

Other lines I enjoyed:
  • I took up rugby football and fornication. Puberty stormed me. I grew up.” (p 8)
  • Leilah, Lilith, mud Lily, as you slip on another pair of the sequinned knickers that function as no more than a decorative and inadequate parenthesis round your sex.” (p 29)
  • so aroused was I by her ritual incarnation, the way she systemically carnalised herself and became dressed meat, that I always managed to have her.” (p 31)
  • Does a change in the coloration of the rind alter the taste of a fruit?” (p 68)
  • I did not like the way he flagellated me with the unique lash of his regard.” (p 90)
  • Emmeline even tried to bob down in a gross facsimile of a curtsey, all cramped at the top of the stairs as she was.” (p 124)
  • Tristessa had no function in this world except as an idea of himself; no ontological status, only an iconographic one.” (p 129) 
  • The erotic clock halts all clocks.” (p 148)
November 2017; 191 pages

Carter also wrote (reviewed in this blog):
Wise Children: about twins and therefore also naturally obsessed with mirrors and dualities
The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman which is also a picaresque
Heroes and Villains set following the destruction of the old world
The Bloody Chamber a brilliant collection of short stories based on fairy tales

Sunday, 5 November 2017

"The Unlimited Dream Company" by J G Ballard

For all we know, vices in this world may well be metaphors for virtues in the next.” (p 64)

Ballard set this book in his home town of Shepperton, a small suburban town on the outskirts of London, on the banks of the Thames, near Heathrow Airport and famous principally for its film studios (although writers Thomas Love Peacock and George Meredith lived here long before JGB himself). One wonders what his neighbours make of lines such as “I wanted to celebrate the light that covered the still drowsing town, spill my semen over the polite fences and bijou gardens, burst into the bedrooms where these account executives and insurance brokers lazed over their Sunday papers and copulate at the foot of their beds with their night-sweet wives and daughters.” (p 55)

A young man, Blake, steals a light airplane from Heathrow Airport and crash-lands it in the Thames. Trapped in the plane, burned and drowned, he is brought back to life by a young doctor, witnessed by her mother and a fossil-collecting priest. The young man has to flee from the police but discovers that, like so many ghosts, he is trapped in the town: when he tries to row across the river it grows larger, the same thing happens when he tries to cross the bridge of the meadow. He discovers that his death or near-death experience has left him incredibly randy: he can scarcely see anyone, man, woman, or child, without wanting to rape them. And in the night he dreams that he turns into a bird and all the residents of this suburban town have birds hatched from their brain and he flies with all of them in the night sky and tries to copulate with all of them.

This is an extraordinary book.

Reminding us of Ovid's Metamorphoses (“I had been casually banished to some remote Black Sea port and given the right to make the stones on the beach sing to me.” p 141) the young man changes into birds, into a whale, into a rutting stage. Masturbating furiously he splashes his semen around the town; plants spring from this strange seed and soon Shepperton is a jungle. He teaches the townfolk to fly by absorbing them into his body in a cannibalistic reinterpretation of holy communion and then releasing them into the air; sinisterly there are some he keeps inside himself (“I felt his strong bones anneal themselves to my own, his blood vent its bright tide into my veins, the semen of his testicles foam as it dashed in a torrent against mine. ... The last motes of his self fled through the dark arcades of my bloodstream, down the sombre causeways of my spinal column” p 149) and this is what forms his nourishment. Symbolically this happens principally at the War Memorial, as if Ballard is suggesting that society feeds on the dead bodies of its own children killed in wars. Other religious motifs include Blake's spell as a faith healer and his death and resurrection at least once. It would be blasphemous, given the intense sexual overtones to this work, to suggest that Blake is in many ways Jesus but there seem to be parallels.

But fly as they might he and the townfolk are trapped within the town. What is left but a repudiation of materialism and a wave of wife-swapping and incest that turns into a Shepperton-wide orgy.

But there are some people seemingly immune from Blake's magic. The attractive young doctor he so desires. Three children, one blind, one lame and one a mongol. And his nemesis Stark.

Utterly imaginative and utterly bizarre: it was like a William Burroughs novel (try Naked Lunch or The Wild Boys) without the cut up bits. The difficulty with this sort of narrative is that there are only so many times you can describe the sexual act, or metamorphic magic, or being trapped, without repeating yourself. But in the end the wonder of this story is in the poetry of lines such as:

  • Around me the streets are silent in the afternoon light.” (p 2)
  • I see my skin glow like an archangel’s, lit by the dreams of these housewives and secretaries, film actors and bank cashiers as they sleep within me, safe in the dormitories with my bones.” (p 3) 
  • The past ten years of my life had been an avalanche zone.” (p 4)
  • I wanted to mount her like a stallion taking a meadow-rich mare” (p 20)
  • savour the scent of her armpits, save for ever in a phial around my neck the tag of loose skin on her lip.” (p 22) 
  • The everywhere of suburbia, the paradigm of nowhere.” (pp 25 - 26)
  • I was moving among these young women with my loins at more than half cock.” (p 26)
  • The pavements were deserted, the well-tended gardens like miniature memorial parks consecrated to the household gods of the television set and dishwasher.” (p 26)
  • The two women had an address to me with an uncanny sense of physical intimacy, as if they were unveiling a treasure they were about to share.” (p 48)
  • Her gasping mouth was smeared with blood milked from my lips.” (p 51)
  • My semen splashed the windows of the supermarket, streamed across the sales slogans and price reductions.” (p 97) 
  • I saw myself suddenly ... as a brutal shepherd, copulating with his animals as he herded them into their slaughter pens.” (p 97) 
  • I am the fire ... and the earth, air and water.” (p 100)
  • Semen jolted into my palm.” (p 106)
  • I would mount the town itself, transform Shepperton into an instant paradise more exotic than all the television travelogues that presided over their lives.” ( 107)
  • through the narrow aperture of my survival another world was spilling through into this one.” (p 117)
  • The air was a paint-pot of extravagant colours hurled across the sky.” (p 119)
  • In the streets below hundreds of people were waving us back, frightened that we would fly too near to the sun.” (p 129) 
  • Shepperton had become a life engine.” (p 144) 
  • I knew that she would soon move on to that world of which Shepperton was merely a brightly furnished but modest antechamber.” (p 192)
Millennium People (not as weird but with scenes of urban revolution which were quite similar) by J G Ballard is also reviewed in this blog.

This is a breathtaking book both in terms of the beauty of some of its prose and the obsessive eroticism. November 2017; 195 pages

Thursday, 2 November 2017

"Winter Garden" by Beryl Bainbridge

This is a fascinating book by the author of the equally brilliant The Birthday Boys. I can't believe I have left it this late to discover the work of this wonderful writer.

The main character is called Douglas Ashburner (almost always referred to by his surname). He loves all the routine and paraphernalia of fetching coal, twisting newspapers into spills, and setting fires in grates although his wife considers coal fires smelly things. He has recently been having an affair with an artist, Nina; this is a tremendous departure from his staid life with his wife now that the boys have grown up and left home. Boring Ashburner sees it as his role in life to support everyone; now that his wife has come into some money of her own she no longer seems to need him. This is his first affair and when he tells his wife that he needs a two week Scottish fishing holiday for his nerves (he’s flying to Soviet-era Moscow with Nina) he is disheartened by how quickly she agrees. He keeps hinting that she needs him to stay but she never asks him to so he is reluctantly obliged to go.

Ashburner loves his wife in his own boring way. When listing the reasons he loves her he can only think of trivial incidents. But these have always been enough for him. “He felt in some undefined way that he was at fault and wished his wife was at his side. in company she had been known, once or twice, to back him up.” (p 69) This is the portrait of a man who needs little except to feel needed.

Things fall apart in Russia. They are on a tour with artists. Ashburner hardly ever understands what is going on (partly because he is always being given vodka); the reader is supposed to know more than him. Thus, there is a woman in the corridor of the hotel posted at night to report on any goings on. Almost as soon as they read Russia Ashburner loses his suitcase (in which Nina put some tablets) and Nina herself goes missing. Throughout the rest of the journey their escorts keep assuring them that she has just been on the phone and she is well. Bernard is truculent and keeps seeking to depart from the official itinerary in order to make sketches of interesting buildings. Enid appears desperate to discover romance. Their adventures in Moscow, Leningrad and Tbilsi become increasingly surreal. Ashburner keeps imagining he sees Nina: at a cemetery, in the opera, on the operating table at a hospital. His grasp on reality becomes increasingly fragmented. Meanwhile the reader is speculating like mad. Has Nina been murdered or is she a spy? Are they mixed up in the icon smuggling business? Have the Soviets discovered the pills in Ashburner's suitcase? Or is everything a huge mistake?

The whole thing is a spin into surreality with a wonderfully stiff upper lip dry old stick whose life so far has been utterly boring at the very centre of it.

It's well weird.

It reminded me of Bodily Harm by Margaret Atwood, another surreal holiday in which no-one is quite whom they seem. BH in turn reminded me of Graham Greene. This author is worthy of that pedigree.

The winter garden is the “name his wife gave to the sunken yard behind the house, a paved area devoid of earth and so called because even in summer it's late as dark as the Grave.” (p 5) That this represents Ashburner seems obvious though it might also represent their dog “a creature so dependable and infirm as to be thought incapable of straying beyond the confines of the winter garden.” (p 15) Come to think of it, the dog represents Ashburner as well. Late in the narrative he remembers the dog. Later still he remembers the Winter Garden.

His awareness of flowers was admittedly poor. in his view ... the things either picked up out of the ground or lolled in vases.” (p 5) Later he is given a bunch of tulips whose forced growing has given them oversized heads: “The tulips rolled in all directions and finally hung down, pointing at the floor. It was as though Ashburner had just eaten a particularly large banana and haven't yet thrown away the peel.” (p 31) There arer so many wonderful images such as that.

The affair with Nina has grotesque moments, such as the time they think they hear Nina’s husband return to the house and Ashburner has to hide, naked, in a cupboard. “In this sort of affair ... there was always someone who loved and someone who played the clown, and possibly they were the same person. She takes me for granted, he’d thought. It's not a thing a man can tolerate.” (p 18) These last words perhaps refer to his wife. This is a double bind. Ashburner needs to be the support, the quiet man in the background, but not to be taken for granted.

Other great moments:
  • “Listening to a foreign language, he thought, was similar to listening to classical music, which wasn't something he did often. If the sound was tuneful enough one noticed the first and last noises made by the orchestra; all the rest was drowned in day-dreams.” ( p79)
  • Round-shouldered from lack of sleep she slumped against the edge of the table.” (p 98)
  • He wasn't prudish, but he did like to know with whom he was being intimate - and then again a man preferred to do some of the running. It was in his nature. It wasn't as if he was a nocturnal animal, doomed like a hamster to couple in darkness. To be accurate, he realised he hadn't often coupled in daylight - beyond a few countable summer evenings before the children were born.” (p 113)  One of the great things about Ashburner is that he can't help being honest with himself.
  • He had been sent away to school when he was seven, and his own mother was something of a stranger. Her hugs, such as they were, could be described as lukewarm.” (p 124)
  • He had sat for hours in his sou'wester on the beach at Nevin, watching the sun sink into the sea and the moon float up over the headland, knowing that soon he would go indoors and light the fire and tell his wife of the beauties of that self-same sunset and moonrise.” (p 149)
  • "He was sure he had put on weight. He pulled his stomach in as far as he could; the bulge shifted to his diaphragm.” (p 150)
  • A lady dentist ... had tilted him backwards in the chair and explored the moist lining of his open, lascivious mouth with fingers fragrant with the scent of sandalwood.” (p 163) 
  • One day they’ll invent a machine to pick up all the conversations left wandering about with nowhere to go.” (p 174) 
November 2017; 184 pages

Tuesday, 31 October 2017

"Gone for Good" by Harlan Coben

Eleven years ago Will's girlfriend was murdered. The prime suspect was his brother who went missing. Now Will believes his brother is back. And then his new girlfriend goes missing.

A classic thriller full of levels of duplicity, exotic characters including an assassin nicknamed The Ghost and a yoga teacher cum homeless charity van driver with a tattoo on his forehead, and twists all the way to the end. I thought it was a bit too twisty, to be honest. It kept up the excitement to the end but I'm not sure that I was concerned for the fate of any character.

 Technically Coben has to be the master of the pause. His dialogues are full of moments of business for the characters to think, to accentuate what they have just said, for the reader to think: what the heck, this is exciting and the writer has just pressed the pause button. Moments like: “The shower stopped. I picked up a poppy-seed bagel. The seeds stuck to my hand.” (p 206)

He has some wonderfully dry asides as well:

  • The TV stories gave it lip service that was so tongue-in-cheek you'd expect your television to smirk at you.” (p 24)
  • We took off from LaGuardia, which could be a lousier airport, but not without a serious act of God.” (p 303)

He also has some utterly unforgettable descriptions:

  • Her skin was in that cusp between jaundice and fading summer tan.” (p 1)
  • Raquel was the size of a small principality and dressed like an explosion at the Liberace museum." (p 173) [Raquel is a huge muscled black transvestite.]
  • Hospital rooms normally smell of antiseptic, but this one reeked of male-flight-attendant cologne.” (p 240)
  • The cell reeked of urine and vomit and that sour-vodka smell when a drunk sweats.” (p 244)
  • There were shades of skin colour that could inspire the people at Crayola.” (p 245)

And more great lines:

  • the thing about cliches is that they're often dead-on.” (p 10)
  • I collapsed into the chair and stared at the phone as if it'd tell me what to do. It didn't.” (p 61)
  • Taking the newbies out of circulation eliminates competition. If you live out in the streets, you get ugly in a hurry.” (p 73)
  • Gone before good-bye.” (p260)
The thing about thrillers is when they are so well written as this one they have to be good. October 2017; 383 pages

Saturday, 28 October 2017

"Out of the Silent Planet" by C S Lewis

C S Lewis is famous for his Narnia books though his Space Trilogy starting with this book predated Narnia. These are also allegories in which a character, in this case an eminent philologist, travels to another world and, after a series of adventures with talking nonhumans, meets the planet's 'god'. All the elements are there.

But it is adults. Ransom, a philology don on a walking holiday, is kidnapped by mad professor Weston and treasure hunting Devine and taken on a space ship to Malacandria, a planet where there are three species of rational beings. Quite a lot of the book is taken up with realistic descriptions of the planet and its flora and fauna. Almost exactly half way through comes the crime, or tragedy, that marks the turning point and sends Ransom on a journey to the god of the planet.

There are several moments of homage to H G Wells. At the start of the book Ransom is described as "The Pedestrian" as Wells only ever calls the protagonist of The Time Machine as “The Time Traveller"; both books end with the narrator talking direct to the reader. There is a reference to Ransom having read Wells.

There is a delightful part at the end when one of the other humans, a bad man who arrived with the narrator, is given a speech in which he justifies his desire to colonise the new planet in terms of the march of life, of civilization, and of his own species. This would be heavy going if he just droned on for two or three pages! So his speech must be translated and this opens up first the opportunity for the translator to interrupt so that the speech is broken up by 'business' and second (and most wonderfully) the opportunity for the weasel words in the speech to be explored. Thus "To you I may seem a vulgar robber" becomes "there is a kind of hnau who will take other hnau's food and - and things, when they are not looking. He says he is not an ordinary one of that kind." This is a very clever piece of technique.

Great lines:
The last drops of the thundershower had hardly ceased falling when the Pedestrian stuff his map into his pocket.” (p 1; first line)
Dressed with that particular kind of shabbiness which marks a member of the intelligentsia on a holiday.” (p 2)
One of those irritating people who forgets to use their hands when they begin talking.” (p 13) This allows CSL to punctuate the speech with (a) longings of Ransom to see the bottle uncorked and (b) Devine stopping talking to do another bit of the uncorking ceremony.
It, too, was in the grip of curiosity. Neither dared let the other approach, yet each repeatedly felt the impulse to do so himself, and yielded to it. It was foolish, frightening, ecstatic and unbearable all in one moment. It was more than curiosity. it was like a courtship - like the meeting of the first man and the first woman in the world; it was like something beyond that; so natural is the contact of sexes, so limited the strangeness, so shallow the reticence, so mild the repugnance to be overcome, compared with the first tingling intercourse of two different, but rational, species.” (pp 65 - 66)
A pleasure is full grown only when it is remembered.” (p 89)
Would he want his dinner all day or want his sleep after he had slept?” (p 89)
How could we endure to live and let time pass if we were always crying for one day or one year to come back - if we did not know that every day in a life filled the whole life with expectation and memory?” (pp 91 - 92)
I do not think the forest would be so bright, nor the water so warm, no love so sweet, if there were no danger.” (p 92)
A world is not meant to last for ever, much less a race.” (p 126)
They are like one trying to lift himself by his own hair - or one trying to see over a whole country when he is on a level with it - like a female trying to beget young on herself.” (p 129)
What it might mean to grow up seeing always so few miles away a land of colour that could never be reached and had once been inhabited.” (p 130)

This is a fun book. Although there is too much 'world-building' for me I understand that there are a lot of science fiction aficionados who adore that aspect of sci-fi. It is a little dated: it was written in 1938 when Dons did take walking holidays and the working class really did tug their forelocks. I suppose it is a grown-up version of Narnia.

Perhaps another source is Paradise Lost: the mythology of Malacandria does seem to involve the fall of Lucifer and his banishment to the earth.

This author also write two sequels to this book, the Screwtape Letters, and the seven book Narnia series as well as 'The Discarded Image', a fascinating study of mediaeval literature. He was also the subject of a biography by Roger Lancelyn Green and Walter Hooper.

October 2017; 206 pages