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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

Thursday, 19 October 2017

"The Educated Mind" by Kieron Egan

This fascinating book traces the development of thought in a human.

The Somatic phase (0 to 5 yo). This is prelinguistic. Egan argues that it carries on into later life too: "As when we become literate we do not cease to be oral-language users, so when we become oral-language users we do not cease to be prelinguistic sensemakers" (p 166)

The Mythic phase (5 to 10 yo) As language begins, so do myths. Egan points out that creation myths often include naming. Myths feature binary dualisms. Vygotsky noted that children assemble collections using contrast rather than similarity: in group, out group. Egan believes that binary oppositions are fundamental to all language eg "nouns (stasis) and verbs (change)" (p 39) "Organizing one's conceptual grasp on the physical world by initially forming binary structures ... allows an initial orientation over a range of otherwise bewilderingly complex phenomena." (p 40) Subsequently oppositions are used "to ascribe meaning to any intermediary terms" like putting warm between hot and cold. (p 40). Although some educators seem to assume that kids of this age cannot understand concepts such as "oppression and freedom, love and hate, good and bad, fear and security" (p 43) a kid couldn't understand Star Wars without such concepts.

The Romantic phase (10 to 15 yo) typified by the Histories of Herodotus which scorns the myths preceding it but tells history as the story of great men. This is the most fascinating part of Egan's thesis. He points out that aged 5 "magic is entirely unobjectionable" but aged 10 you need to know the details. (p 71) Bacchilega (1997, 8) states that "In folk and fairy tales the hero is neither frightened nor surprised when encountering the otherworld". Is this because they are aimed at an audience of five-year-olds? However, Egan understands that"In some cultures this transition from a world in which fantasy and magic perform explanatory work does not take place in anything like the form that is common in the West." (p 72)

"Romantic understanding represents crucial elements of rationality developing along with persisting features of myth" (p 80). He now makes observations about characteristics of this phase. Kids of this age are interested in extremes: "Why is the average ten-year-old so interested in who was the tallest person who ever lived?" (p 84) He thinks this is to do with self-contextualising. Similarly kids of this age collect. And finally kids of this age hero-worship because "When we are ten ... we are typically subject to endless rules and regulations - parental, societal, and , not least, natural. The person, institution, or team that the child associates with usually gives clear clues to the constraints found most problematic. ... The tension characteristic of romance comes from the desire to transcend a threatening reality while seeking to secure one's identity within it." (p 90)

The Philosophic phase (15 yo and older) is typified by Thucydides who attempted to explain history as a system (he used a disease metaphor. This is the world of the ideology. It is the world of the Enlightenment.

"Students begin to grasp that what we are does not result from romantic choices and associations but from laws of nature, human psychology, social interactions, history, and so on, which apply to our selves as to everyone else The fading of the importance of romantic associations, then, can appear more a matter of putting aside childish things; having seen as through a glass darkly, students can attain a fuller, theoretic, consciousness of their place in the world." (p 124)

"Establishing the truth about history, society, and the cosmos is serious business. When Philosophic understanding dominates the mind, it can work with powerful intensity. The seriousness of Philosophic concerns, and the focus on knowledge that supports or challenges any one general scheme, tends to reduce interest in the extremes and in the dramatic. Romantic knowledge thus is often dismissed as irrelevant, pointless, a trivial pursuit; Romantic hobbies and collections lose their interest. ... A note of earnestness common in modern Philosophic students echoes Victorian high seriousness." (p 125)

However "This form of intellectual activity can easily slip into narcissism." hence the popularity of anthropology, sociology and psychology (p 126) Furthermore, if the developed world view is seen to fail it can lead to "angst, tears, depression, suicide, pills" (p 131).

The final (?) Ironic phase: This is the postmodern world. "All generalizations are false" (p 137)
"A more common theme in the Western intellectual tradition is that without some clear foundation, come bedrock of truth, human life and our sense of the natural world are chaotic and meaningless. The fear of raw contingency has long driven the pursuit of truth. But in this century ... ironic voices have suggested that nothing much happens if we give up looking for foundations to knowledge, and even for meaning; the sky holds in place, daily life goes on." (p 139)
"What was so disturbing about Darwin's ideas was ... the mechanism of natural selection and its implication that we owe our precious consciousness not to God, framing our symmetry for some high purpose, but to blind chance, to raw contingency." (p 139)
"In the early dialogues ... Socrates lives up to his claim that he 'knows nothing and is ignorant of everything' ... he deconstructs other's claim to knowledge but offers nothing positive of his own in their place. He solves no problems, shows that all the proffered solutions are inadequate, and cheerfully leaves us to sort things out as best as we can. ... To Thrasymachus, this is merely a cheap rhetorical ploy, ensuring for Socrates that he cannot be caught in the contradictions in which he delights to catch others; but it is a ploy whose cost is often destructive and negative, establishing nothing, and as such is pointless and irritating." (p 140 - 141)
"After endless philosophical work by the greatest Western thinkers, almost nothing is agreed, nothing is uncontested. If the enterprise were possible, surely something would be secured by now." (p 153)

This is AFTER an introductory chapter in which he dissects education as having three old, incompatible ideas:
Socialization:  "to inculcate a restricted set of norms and beliefs - the set that constitutes the adult society the child will grow into. ... a prominent aim of schools is the homogenization of children" (p 11)
"Intellectual cultivation": "to connect children with the great cultural conversation" (p 14)
"Fulfilling the individual potential of each student" (p 16)

Beautifully written and powerfully convincing. But does it belong to the philosophic stage or the ironic stage?

Other brilliant moments:
  • "The very structure of modern schools in the West ... can accommodate only a very limited range of nonconformity. ... pushed to extremes ... the socially necessary homogenizing process can become totalitarian in its demands for conformity." (p 11)
  • "The crucial feature of stories is that they end" (p 63)
  • Syllogisms "cannot be managed easily or at all by people who cannot read alphabetic script" (p 75)
  • "The archetypal romantic figure is the hero. The hero lives, like the rest of us, within the constraints of the everyday world but, unlike the rest of us, manages somehow to transcend the constraints that hem us in." (p 88) 
  • "We are born alone and we die alone, and in the short interval between, underneath our languages, histories, cultures, and socialized awareness, we live alone." (p 167)
October 2017; 279 pages

"Down and Out in Paris and London" by George Orwell

George Orwell writes so clearly about such dreadful conditions. As with The Road to Wigan Pier he combines acute observation with insightful social commentary. 

He starts by being unemployed and hungry in Paris. So hungry he starts to starve. He finds a job as a plongeur (dishwasher plus sous chef) in a Paris hotel and later a restaurant: he works long hours at breakneck speed in atrocious conditions.

Brilliant lines include:
The pace would never be kept up if everybody did not accuse everybody else of idling.” (p 74)
The Paris slums are a gathering-place for eccentric people - people who have fallen into solitary, half-mad grooves and given up trying to be normal or decent. poverty frees them from ordinary standards of behaviour, just as money frees people from work.” (p 3)
“Comment ├ępouser un soldat, moi qui aime tout le r├ęgiment?” (p 6)
“And there is another feeling that is a great consolation in poverty. I believe everyone who has been hard up has experienced it. It is a feeling of relief, almost of pleasure, at knowing yourself at last genuinely down and out. You have talked so often of going to the dogs - and well, here are the dogs, and you have reached them, and you can stand it. It takes off a lot of anxiety.” (pp 16 - 17)
“Hunger reduces one to an utterly spineless, brainless condition, more like the after-effects of influenza than anything else.” (p 36)
“You're not fit to scrub floors in the brothel your mother came from.” (p 68)
“It is the pride of the drudge - the man who is equal to no matter what quantity of work. At that level, the mere power to go on working like an ox is about the only virtue attainable. Debrouillard is what every plongeur wants to be called. A debrouillard is a man who, even when he is told to do the impossible, will se debrouiller - get it done somehow.” (p 77)
“Mario ... had the typical drudge mentality. All he thought of was getting through ... and he decide you to give him too much of it. Fourteen years underground had left him with about as much natural laziness as a piston rod.” (p 77)
“Roughly speaking, the more one pays for food, the more sweat and spittle one is obliged to eat with it.” (p 79)
“For many men in the quarter, unmarried and with no future to think of, the weekly drinking-bout was the one thing that made life worth living.” (p 96)
“Sharp knives, of course, are the secret of a successful restaurant.” (p 116)
“A ‘smart’ hotel is a place where a hundred people toil like devils in order that two hundred may pay through the nose for things they do not really want.” (p 119)
“A slave, Marcus Cato said, should be working when he is not sleeping. It does not matter whether his work is needed or not, he must work, because work in itself is good - for slaves, at least. ... I believe that this instinct to perpetuate useless work is, at bottom, simply fear of the mob. The mob (the thought runs) are such low animals that they would be dangerous if they had leisure; it is safer to keep them to busyt to think.” (p 120)
“Fear of the mob is a superstitious fear. It is based on the idea that there is some fundamental difference between rich and poor ... the average millionaire is only the average dishwasher dressed in a new suit.” (p 121)

Wednesday, 18 October 2017

"The Sealed Letter" by Emma Donoghue

By the author of the breathtakingly brilliant and bestselling Room.

Based on a real-life divorce case in Victorian London, this is the story of 'Fido' Faithfull, a spinster proprietor of a printing press active in the 'womanist' movement, and her best friend Helen, wife of Admiral Codrington. After seven letterless years Helen returns from Malta with a young naval officer in tow; soon we discover that they are having an affair. But then the Admiral begins to suspect. What is the truth and who is telling it? Every character has a reason to tell lies; nothing is simple in this beautifully crafted tale. Donoghue's tale is full of contradictions: Fido, heavily asthmatic, smokes; she is strong in support of female rights and yet she is appalled by adultery. Everyone has secrets; this is a world in which truth, even perjury, is of less consequence than respectability. Just as steam trains with open carriages run in tunnels beneath the streets of London, so unquenchable passion surges beneath the surface of elegant matrimony.

To encapsulate this she uses one very striking (perhaps obvious) metaphor. The father tells his daughters: "There's a house in Bayswater that's only a false facade, constructed to cover a railway tunnel ... It looks more harmonious that way, I suppose. Otherwise people walking down that street would suddenly glimpse a train rushing past their feet."  The unspoken message is that respectability is a necessary facade built to cover our underground passions, otherwise people walking down the street would be frightened. Of course, already at this point Helen and Fido (with Helen's boyfriend) have travelled on the Underground railway. Symbolic!

One of the striking things about the way this book is written is its use of the present tense.

Lots of lovely lines:
  • The skin-tightening sensation of encountering a friend who is no longer one.” (p 6)
  • You’re not the stuff of a chapter ... several volumes at least.” (p 10)
  • The phrases are delivered with the sort of rueful merriment, as if by an actress who knows herself to be better than her part.” (p 10)
  • If one get paid for one’s work, one knows somebody wants it.” (p 31)
  • Prigs are the worst of women; all that prudery hides lust for power.” (p 35)
  • Haven't done anything to soften you two to each other? 
  •         Oh you innocent ... that's not what the years do.” (p 38) 
  • The problem with deterrence is that it can only be inferred, not proved. It's like having some fat porter outside with a pistol in his greatcoat ... who shakes himself awake when you open the door, to assure you that since breakfast his presence has kept a dozen murderers from garotting the whole family!” (p 82) 
  • The happiest marriages are made up of three parties.” (p 116)
  • He's weeping like a child, weeping for all the times over the years that he's shrugged instead.” (p 128)
  • I'm not managing to plan anything: I'm running and leaping and tripping like some hunted rabbit!” (p 137)
  • The machine rolls on but squeals, the little screws are starting to loosen and pop out.” (p 144) 
  • Helen is fallen: that odd word always makes Fido think of a wormy apple.” (p 230)
  • Really bad women can move from vice to vice, like butterflies in a flowerbed.” (p 352)

But most of all, fantastic characters trapped in insoluble dilemmas. I turned the pages! October 2017; 464 pages

Sunday, 15 October 2017

"From Hell" by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell

This graphic novel is a fictional account of Jack the Ripper. It favours the theory that the assassin was Sir William Withey Gull, a royal surgeon, who was recruited (by Queen Victoria herself in this story) to silence a group of prostitutes who were blackmailing the Crown because they knew that Victoria's grandson, heir to the throne Prince Albert Victor Edward ('Eddy') had secretly married and had a daughter by a girl who worked in a sweet shop in Cleveland Street, later to be the scene of the famous male brothel allegedly frequented by Prince Albert Victor and investigated by Inspector Abbeline who also investigated the Ripper murders. Apparently painter Walter Sickert knew everything.

The book also lays heavy stress on Gull alleged membership of the Freemasons, on the supposed occult significances of the churches of Nicholas Hawksmoor, many of which are in the vicinity of the murders, and it introduces a science fiction element with Gull's spirit traversing the fourth dimension and inspiring Ian Brady, the Moors Murderer, and Peter Sutcliffe, the Yorkshire Ripper, not to mention (going backwards in time) Gull appearing as a scaly fiend in a vision to William Blake.

It is an immense sweep. I was happy to take it all on board although this might have been because I have read most of the major source books including the outstanding novel Hawksmoor by the brilliant and prolific Peter Ackroyd; Ackroyd's masterful biography of William Blake, and Stephen Knight's Jack the Ripper: the Final Solution. Without such a thorough grounding I might have become quickly lost; Moore provides extensive notes for the general reader.

Even with the notes I feel that the scope of the book was its downfall. There was a moment when Walter Sickert delivered the baby daughter of prince and shopgirl to the shopgirl's parents, said girl having been incarcerated in a mental asylum. At this point the grandfather confesses to incest with his daughter. This takes several frames, a tiny fraction of the book, amounting to perhaps a few paragraphs in a novel. One would have thought such a potentially major sub-plot deserved a little more (If the grandfather not the Prince was the father of the shopgirl's daughter then the child is not a royal bastard and perhaps less drastic action might be taken). Alternatively, leave it out entirely. This sort of occurrence left a feeling that this work was just looking at the surface of a story which had potentially a great deal more; it felt shallow and unsatisfying.

I suspect it is my own inability to properly appreciate the visual arts that makes me fail to recognise that the cartoon drawings add value. I suppose that they help to add an air of menace to the whole book but I would have preferred the potential for rich description that a traditional novel might have offered. Mea culpa for being such a words man.

Is this a Gothic work? Of course it has many of the classic Gothic elements such as horribly killed corpses, dark places, and even a ghost. The secret brotherhood (in this case the Freemasons) reminds one of the controlling Catholic priests in The Monk. It also incorporates science fiction which has been suggested as the new Gothic. The idea of a monster preying on women is very reminiscent of Dracula. But does this book have any of the thresholds and their transitions that have been suggested as characteristics of Gothic literature? There is the chapter of Gull spiritually  travelling through space and time but this is scarcely fundamental to the story. There are two worlds, that of mundane Victorian London and the symbolic and spiritual Masonic London that exists in Gull's mind. This is an important theme and I suppose that if Gothic literature is equated with conspiracy theories this makes the work essentially Gothic.

My favourite line:

  • Policeman talking about one of the butchered women: "makes you think there's naught to us but shit and mincemeat". This reminded me of remains of the corpse after the bombing in Joseph Conrad's The Secret Agent: "the by-products of a butcher's shop"

Alan Moore also co-authored graphic novel V for Vendetta.

October 2017; a lot of pages

Wednesday, 11 October 2017

"Brave New World" by Aldous Huxley

A dystopia? Everyone in the world is happy. Babies are hatched, genetically manipulated and brainwashed into five castes, the clever alphas and the sub-human epsilons who do the donkey work. Everyone belongs to everyone else and everywhere there is guilt-free promiscuous sex. There is no disease. There is no ageing. People work, play, and take soma, the wonder drug that just keeps them happy with no ill effects.

Some places are different. There are some savage reservations (“A savage reservation is a place which, owing to unfavourable climate or geological conditions, or poverty of natural resources, has not been worth the expense of civilizing.” p 141) where aboriginals live brutish lives. On one of these lives John, born to a mother from the civilized world who found herself trapped on the reservation by accident. And when Bernard and Lenina vacation on the reservation they bring John and his mother back. John, educated on Shakespeare, is eager to see this brave new world that hath such creatures in it. But he can't cope. There is no solitude. Life has no meaning. “Nothing costs enough here” he complains. (p 211)

And he is in love with Lenina. She wants to sleep with him. But she will do it for fun. He wants to marry her and feel the passion of love. As Margaret Attwood's foreword puts it “Never were two sets of desiring genitalia so thoroughly at odds.” (p ix)

We wish to be as the careless gods, lying around on Olympus, eternally beautiful, having sex and being entertained by the anguish of others. And at the same time we want to be those anguished others, because we believe ... that life has meaning beyond the play of the senses and that immediate gratification will never be enough.” (p xvi)

It wasn't the threat of genetic manipulation that scared me, though I know that that is what the tabloids fear. For me the scary thing was that this brave new world is what we seem to have created. In the book it is immoral to mend things because throwing away and buying new keeps industry profitable. People work and shop and play games and then their sensibilities are number by entertainment that has none of the passion of great art. Even the sports they play have to use lots of expensive equipment. It keeps industry profitable. For me the scary vision of the Brave New World was the capitalist society of consumption that we have already created. Has it already stripped the meaning from our lives?

But perhaps the originality of Brave New World is that it is so hard to criticise the dystopian society presented. As Mustapha Mond, the world controller, puts it to the Savage, is he really claiming "the right to be unhappy"? “Not to mention the right to grow old and ugly and impotent; the right to have syphilis and cancer; the right to have too little to eat; the right to be lousy; the right to live in constant apprehension of what may happen tomorrow; the right to catch typhoid; the right to be tortured by unspeakable pains of every kind.” (p 212) Is it worth all that just to give life 'meaning'?

Lines I loved:
  • “Wintriness responded to wintriness.” (p 1)
  • The light was frozen, dead, a ghost.” (p 1)
  • Not philosophers, but fret-sawers and stamp collectors compose the backbone of society.” (p 2)
  • "The air was drowsy with the murmur of bees and helicopters.” (p 25)
  • Family, monogamy, romance. Everywhere exclusiveness, everywhere a focusing of interest, a narrow channeling of impulse and energy. But everyone belongs to everyone else.” (p 34)
  • Mother, monogamy, romance. High spurts the fountain; fierce and foamy the wild jet. The urge has but a single outlet. My love, my baby. No wonder those poor pre-moderns were mad and wicked and miserable. Their world didn't allow them to take things easily, didn't allow them to be sane, virtuous, happy.” (p 35)
  • Liberty to be inefficient and miserable. Freedom to be a round peg in a square hole.” (p 40)
  • ‘Oh, oh, oh!’ Joanna inarticulately testified.” (p 72)
  • five minutes later roots and fruits were abolished; the flower of the present rosily blossomed.” (p 90)
  • They disliked me for my complexion. It's always been like that. Always.” (p 100)
  • It never used to be right to mend clothes. Throw them away when they got holes in them and buy new ... Isn't that right? Mending’s anti-social.” (p 104) 
  • He did genuinely believe that there were things to criticize. (At the same time, he genuinely liked being a success and having all the girls he wanted.)” (p 136)
  • One of the principal functions of a friend is to suffer ... the punishments that we would like, but are unable, to suffer upon our enemies.” (p 156)
  • As though death were something terrible, as though anyone mattered as much as all that!” (p 181)
  • You can't make tragedies without social instability.” (p 193)
  • Being contented has none of the glamour of a good fight against misfortune, none of the picturesqueness of a struggle with temptation, or a fatal overthrow by passion or doubt. Happiness is never grand.” (p 195) 
  • Every discovery in pure science is potentially subversive.” (p 198)
  • Industrial civilisation is only possible when there's no self-denial. Self Indulgence up to the very limits imposed by hygiene and economics. Otherwise the wheels stop turning.” (p 209)

October 2017; 229 pages

Saturday, 7 October 2017

"The Time Machine" by H G Wells

This classic of science fiction was published in 1895 (according to wikipedia; my edition says 1898).

The Time Traveller (we never know his name, indeed the only names we are given throughout are of "Filby, an argumentative person with red hair" (p 1) and Weena, the TT's love interest of the future) discusses theories of time travel with sceptical friends, including the narrator. Inviting them to dinner he arrives late and very dishevelled; he changes and insists on eating (a brilliant bit of making the reader wait just when the tension is at its height) before telling his story.

He says he travelled forwards in time to the year 802,701. Here he met the Eloi, delicate  descendants of mankind who play in the meadows and live an incurious, fruit eating life. Soon he discovers that underground dwell the Morlocks, pale, with large red eyes that can see in the dark. The Morlocks prey on the Eloi, indeed it may be that the Eloi are kept like cattle for the Morlocks to eat. The TT theorises that the Eloi descended from the aristocrats and the Morlocks from the working classes, driven underground. But the Morlocks have stolen the Time Machine and the TT has to recapture it. In the battle to do so Weena dies.

Presumably this is an allegory of the afterlife (literally after the Time Traveller has lived, at least on Earth). The Eloi are the dwellers in the Edenic Elysian fields of heaven; the Morlocks are the devils in their subterranean hell.

The TT, reunited with his Machine, travels forwards to a future when tidal drag has stopped the rotation of the earth, when the sun is swelling into a red giant, and when the seashore is populated by giant crabs and octopuses. Then he returns to the present.

But they don't believe him. The next day, in an attempt to secure proof of what he has seen, the TT sets off again. He never returns.

Wells writers a simple straightforward story to illustrate his theories of social Darwinism: that we shall evolve to reflect the way we are. He achieves suspension of disbelief by having one central unlikelihood (time travel) bolstered by a great deal of mundane realism, such as the dinner party guests and the manufacture of the machine and the buildings in the world of the Eloi.

A classic frame structure: the bulk of the story is the Time Traveller's account of his adventure but it is both topped and tailed by the unknown narrator.

Is this in the Gothic tradition?  According to Aguirre (2008; p 2) Gothic literature abounds in liminality, as does science fiction. Perhaps the perceived incoherence between science and fiction predisposes one towards liminality. Wisker (2007; p 412) describes both thresholds: "doorsteps or windows through which you do or do not invite the ghost or vampire” and zones: “the liminal spaces of existence, hovering between being and unbeing, dead and undead." (AGUIRRE, M., 2008. Geometries of Terror: Numinous Spaces in Gothic, Horror and Science Fiction. Gothic Studies, 10(2), pp. 1. WISKER, G., 2007. Crossing Liminal Spaces: Teaching the Postcolonial Gothic. Pedagogy, 7(3), pp. 401-425.) This suggests that the Gothic element is the crossing of the threshold between the everyday mundane world and the world of dreams and nightmares. It isn't really about the tunnels (though that is a clear element in Gothic literature, for example in The Monk by Matthew Lewis, the Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole, (A Sicilian Romance by Anne Radcliffe). The crossing of the threshold is, of course, a necessary structural element in much science fiction: what is the TARDIS of Doctor Who but a Time Machine (and don't forget all those endless corridors!)?

Aguirre also says (pp 2 - 3) that "Gothic can be said to postulate two zones: on the one hand, the human domain of rationality and intelligible events; on the other hand, the world of the sublime, terrifying, chaotic Numinous which transcends human reason (but which may not be supernatural). These are separated by some manner of threshold and plots invariably involve movement from one side to the other - a movement which, most often, is presented as a transgression, a violation of boundaries." (Aguirre 2008; p 2-3) No violation as such in the Time Machine (although the Time Traveller does pay for the Travel with his life) but the cotrast between the everyday world of eating dinner and the Time Traveller's adventure world is phenomenal. 

Aguirre also claims (p 5) that narrative forms of Gothic literature often involve a labyrinth (provided by the underground passages of the Eloi) and a tale within a tale. Looks a pretty convincing case for placing this book within the tradition of Gothic literature.

Great lines:

  • "night followed day like the flapping of a black wing." (p 11)
  • "That is the drift of the current in spite of the eddies." (p 19)
  • "certain tendencies and desires, once necessary to survival, are a constant source of failure." (p 20)
  • "That has ever been the fate of energy in security: it takes to art and to eroticism, and then come langour and decay." (p 20)
  • "We are kept keen on the grindstone of pain and necessity" (p 21)
  • "the devil begotten of fear and blind anger was ill curbed." (p 24)
  • "The Eloi, like the Carolingian kings, had decayed to a mere beautiful futility." (p 36)
  • "intellectual versatility is the compensation for change, danger, and trouble. ... There is no intelligence where there is no change and no need of change." (p 49)
  • "The Time Traveller vanished three years ago. And, as everyone knows now, he has never returned." (p 58; final sentences apart from the Epilogue).

A very short classic. Easy to read. October 2017; 58 pages

Friday, 6 October 2017

"A Clockwork Orange" by Anthony Burgess

A masterpiece by the man who wrote so many other masterpieces including:

There was me, that is Alex, and my three droogs, that is Pete, Georgie, and Dim, Dim being really dim, and we sat in the Korova milkbar making up our rassoodocks what to do with the evening, a flip dark chill winter bastard though dry." (p 3) 

Alex and his three droogs are thugs and robbers in a dystopian world. Although some aspects of society are rigidly controlled in a mirror to soviet society in which everyone lives in tower blocks and everyone has to either go to school or work, the police have lost control of the night and youth gangs roam the streets. 

And Alex inhabits an alternate reality. He and his droogs have their own argot, nadsat: it is the language that first excites when you read the book. At the start it is overwhelming: “Our pockets were full of deng, so there was no real need from the point of view of crasting any more pretty polly to tolchok some old veck in an alley and viddy him swim in his blood while we counted the takings and divided by four.” (p 3) is one of the easier sentences. But it is surprising how swiftly one learns the lingo. Then, having entered the mind of Alex through being able to understand his inner voice, we enter also his world of violence. In the first few pages Alex and his droogs beat up an old man and vandalise his library books, rob a “sweets and cancers shop” (p 9), and steal a car and drive out to the countryside to break and enter and beat up an author and gang rape his wife. The film was condemned at the time for its violence but it is all there in the book. And the book ensures that you, sharing the language of Alex, are aware of his joy in violence. He loves it. It turns him on. It excites him. It fulfils him. He is overwhelmed by it.

He also loves and is overwhelmed by classical music. “Oh, it was gorgeousness and gorgeosity made flesh.” (p 26) is a reaction to just a few notes he hears sung. He comes home from the gang rape and lies in bed listening to a violin concerto. The next day, truanting from school, he meets two young girls at the record shop and takes them home, gets them drunk and brutally rapes them to the last movement of Beethoven's ninth symphony, the Song of Joy: "then these two young ptitsas were not acting the big lady sophisto no more. They were like waking up to what was being done to their malenky persons and saying that they wanted to go home  and like I was a wild beast. They looked like they had been in some big bitva, as indeed they had, and were all bruised and pouty. ... They were creeching and going ow ow ow as they put heir platties on, and they were like punchipunching me with their teeny fists as I lay there dirty and nagoy and fair shagged and fagged on the bed ... Then they were going down the stairs and I dropped off to sleep, still with the old Joy Joy Joy crashing and howling away." (p 36) Thus with this distinctive narratorial voice sex and violence and classical music are combined.

Alex is captured and jailed and given experimental aversion therapy to brainwash him into being good. But when he is released he discovers that not only can he not stand the thought of violence but also he can't stand his music. Rejected by his parents and his droogs, subjected to violence from his victims, he is used by political subversives in a battle against the government and it is only through a suicide attempt that his brainwashing is undone.

There are some nice parallels between the start of part one and the start of part two: The first line, “What's it going to be then, eh?” (p 3) is repeated four times over the first few pages. It is then repeated four times at the start of part two and four times in part three although one of those is left until the last few pages. “In out in out” is how Alex refers to sex. But when he is in prison at the start of part two the chaplain asks “is it going to be in and out and in and out of institutions?” The three parts are carefully structured: Alex as vicious teenage tearaway; Alex in prison and undergoing experimental treatment to make him good; Alex trying to survive in a post prison world. It is a morality play in three acts. The message? Young people go through a naughty phase? There is only morality if there is a choice? A totalitarian society is bad because it takes that choice away?

More brilliant lines:
  • Then out comes the blood, my brothers, real beautiful.” (p 7)
  • He said nothing for fear of being called gloopy and a domeless wonderboy.” (p 9)
  • We went back to town, running over odd squealing things on the way.” (p 20) 
  • I felt all the little malenky hairs on my plott standing endwise and the shivers crawling up like slow malenky lizards and then down again.” (p 22)
  • I got more razdraz inside, calmer out.” (p 24) 
  • This biting of their toe-nails over what is the cause of badness is what turns me into a fine laughing malchick. They don't go into the cause of goodness, so why the other shop?” (p 31)
  • Civilized my syphilised yarbles.” (p 32)
  • And so I lead my three droogs out to my doom.” (p 43)
  • That was everything. I’d done the lot, now. And me still only fifteen.” (p 56)

A stunningly brilliant book pushed into stratospheric orbit by the language. Overwhelming. A masterpiece.