In Cold Blood

This was a spontaneous pick for me; I had some time to kill in London while I was waiting for a flight to Venice, so I picked up a copy of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood from WHSmith. Usually airports are where I pick up more popular recent books, or terrible paperback crime thrillers, but they had an offer on the Penguin Modern Classics series- which I am collecting- so I went for that instead. My prior knowledge of the book was solely that I knew it was by the guy who wrote Breakfast at Tiffany’s. I seriously wasn’t expecting to be as impressed by it as I was.

So, it deals with the murders of four members of the Clutter family, by Perry Smith and Dick Hickock. Capote was granted a lot of access to the case as it was being investigated, and after the two killers were apprehended; his claim is that everything in the book is entirely factual, but some of the people who were there have disputed this. The main area which is disputed is the efficiency of the police; the lead investigator, Alvin Dewey, granted Capote special insight into the case, and a fairly common viewpoint seems to be that is resulted in a more favourable depiction than he may have deserved.

I fall on the side that, by and large, the book is pretty accurate, with a little artistic license here and there. I can safely say I’ve never read anything like it; somehow, it manages to alternate somewhere between a police report and an eloquent piece of literature, seamlessly. I’m really not sure how it works, but it does. What I thought did add to the plot was that there was no description of the murders or the motive until later in the book- even though the reader had been granted access into the upbringings and personalities of the killers from early on. I thought it was really effective, because it meant that as a reader- even though you know who’s committed the crime- you also move with the investigation in terms of finding out the how and why.

Despite really getting to know the killers, I didn’t find myself being able to sympathise with them. There was kind of two reasons for that I think. Firstly, the book really focuses on the Clutter family. We learn about how respected they are in their local community, the family dynamics and their personalities- you really get a sense of what a kind, god-fearing and genuine family they are. Second, because Capote never quite lets you get lost enough in his prose to forget that these two people are real killers. With fiction, I don’t struggle to sympathise with the murderers, Patrick Bateman, Hannibal Lecter and Dexter are some of the most interesting characters who I think have been put to paper- but they aren’t real.

Perry Smith, admittedly, is much more likable. Although, I got the impression he was given more “air time” than Dick; it is well known that Perry became very close to Capote, some say more than a little too close. Nonetheless, as a product of its time, presenting a murderer as fundamentally human and not solely a monster, is incredibly forward thinking. It is now commonplace that the “bad guy” has had some terrible upbringing or a complex personality which has impacted them later in life, but this was a brave depiction for a book released in the 1960’s.

The book is horrifying, largely due to the aforementioned bunch of sweet hearts that make up the Clutter family. They’re a very good fit for the ideal American Dream family, but it doesn’t come across as another hackneyed account, because they’re so genuinely nice. It becomes even more horrifying, when the murders are revealed to be so utterly senseless. It had been intended as a robbery, which would leave no witnesses. Perry and Dick left with around $50 dollars, a radio and a pair of binoculars- what they had expected to find was a safe containing around $10,000, but this safe did not exist. Dewey compares the murders to the whole family being struck by lightning, for the sheer random senselessness of the event- and that is probably the most accurate comparison I have ever read.

I believe the most thought provoking passage of the entire book comes from Perry;

‘Am I sorry? If that’s what you mean- I’m not. I don’t feel anything about it. I wish I did…Why? Soldiers don’t lose much sleep. They murder and get medals for doing it. The good people of Kansas want to murder me- and some hangman will be glad to get the work. It’s easy to kill, a lot easier than passing a bad cheque.’

The questions raised about human nature here are fascinating- Perry is not devoid of emotion, but he feels that killing is easy. He is not a ‘typical’ murder who is desensitized to the world around him, and he is shown to have morals, just like anybody else.  Perry still isn’t a character who I found likable, but he is disconcertingly human.

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James Joyce

When I first encountered James Joyce it was when I watched a dreadful adaptation of ‘The Dead’ in The Abbey Theatre in Dublin. Ten years later and I am still very certain that it was the longest evening, of my life. My family were all born in, or still live in, Dublin- so some of them are pretty big fans of him. Although at thirteen I was certainly not interested; it all went way over my head, and in all honesty I couldn’t understand the need to tell a story about a dinner party.

Several years later I started reading T.S. Eliot, and as a result started to read up on what would become (and remain) my favourite literary movement- Modernism. Of course, James Joyce is entirely interwoven with Modernism, so I decided I was going to conquer ‘Ulysses’, before I started uni. It started off well, the high point for me was spotting a Dorian Gray reference a few pages in. Sadly, after feeling like Northrop Frye, things took a quick downturn. Much like watching a play about a dinner party, I really did not get the significance or the point of any of it. I am one of those irritating literature lovers who have to get a work of art; I like to feel as though I have seen a potential meaning, or significance, I’ve never been good at reading for the sake of the words on the page. I didn’t even manage the first chapter, so the hefty novel was condemned to the bottom of the bookshelf.

‘Ulysses’ reared its ugly head once again at university; I read the sparknotes and just about managed to get through the seminars. Luckily it was my second year and writing on Joyce was an option and not compulsory;I licked my intellectual wounds and vowed (much like Elizabeth Bennett, promising never to dance with Mr Darcy) that Joyce and I had parted ways for good. Uni had other ideas, and I was once again reunited with him in an elective module in my final year. I saw his name on the reading list and wondered, just how badly I needed that degree after all, but I’d gotten this far. I picked up ‘A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man’, in the same way a sane individual would handle a dead animal which had found its way to their doorstep, and began reading it.

I ended up absolutely loving it. I even liked the book far too much to be concerned with how much I was having to eat my own words. Perhaps it was the gradual phasing in of Joyce’s hard to digest style- the novel begins from the perspective of a child which makes things much simpler. It is also proof to me that Joyce is a genius. His usage of free indirect discourse means that the reader can fully engage with and follow the intellectual progression of Stephen Dedalus. It’s hard to comprehend the artistic scope of a novel which opens with ‘Once upon a time’ and a moocow, but by the closing chapter the same novel is engaged in a lengthy discussion on aestheticism.

There’s only five chapters in the novel, so it’s quite a quick jump in time, but somehow Joyce makes it all appear seamless. I also realised that there is nothing quite like Joyce’s depiction of Hell to put the fear of God into you, and I’ve read Dante. It is easily the most vivid and horrifying section of any book I have ever read;

“Imagine some foul and putrid corpse that has lain rotting and decomposing in the grave, a jellylike mass of liquid corruption. Imagine such a corpse a prey to flames, devoured by the fire of burning brimstone and giving off dense choking fumes if nauseous loathsome decomposition. And then imagine this sickening stench, multiplied a millionfold and a millionfold again from the millions upon millions of fetid carcasses massed together in reeking darkness, a huge rotting human fungus. Imagine all this and you will have some idea of the horror of the stench of hell”.

Reading the sections on Hell made me really understand the phrase ‘it made my skin crawl’.

Image (4).pngFor anyone who might be reading ‘Portrait’ for the first time, I can’t recommend the Oxford World Classics edition enough. It has a brief but useful introduction, and plenty of really interesting further reading suggestions.  There is also a godsend of a section which provides notes to some of the more confusing passages and provides context for some of the colloquialisms and contemporary allusions (so useful when dealing with Joyce).

In light of my appreciation for Joyce I have started reading ‘Ulysses’ again (fingers crossed), now that I’ve graduated and can read for fun when I’m not working. I even found time to visit the James Joyce centre when I was last in Dublin. It’s cheap to get in, but there’s nothing particularly noteworthy which will keep you there for longer than 20 minutes. I am told that the James Joyce tower and museum is much better. I also took a detour past Belvedere College, where Joyce studied. The older parts of it are lovely, but (as is often the case with older academic institutions) they appear to have drafted in a vindictive architect, and have erected a monstrous orangey brown building which certainly has a negative impact on an otherwise lovely site. Below is the only sort of okay photo I managed to get from the James Joyce centre, and it isn’t actually an original so this really added to the underwhelming experience.

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Revisiting Shakespeare

I am, as previously mentioned, more of a Marlowe fan. However, in my final semester at uni (of which I now only have two weeks left), I took an elective in Shakespeare. I had taken a Shakespeare elective last year, and the plays on this course were (bar one) not ones I had previously studied at uni. There were plays which I had not read before, and absolutely loved; Henry IV and Love’s Labour’s Lost, but there were two plays I was absolutely dreading. I studied Othello and The Tempest in school, and to say that I was bored at the prospect of trawling through them again would be an understatement. Yet, I found myself pleasantly surprised when I revisited them, and I found a lot to like upon second readings.

Othello was the first play which I re-read, more because I was able to recall a bit more about the plot. I had never really liked the character of Othello, and I still don’t now. Unlike a lot of Shakespeare, I actually don’t think this play requires much suspension of disbelief. If your best friend who you have known for years tells you that your partner is being unfaithful, and provides evidence (however scanty), a lot of people would not extend the benefit of the doubt to their partner (a lot of people also wouldn’t strangle them either, admittedly). Desdemona is a character who I rank with Cordelia from King Lear, absolutely dreary. People point out to me that she is defiant at times, that still doesn’t redeem her for me, she’s far too subservient to her husband.

Iago is the saving grace for me. He is the plot. Re-reading the play certainly justified Ian McKellen’s claim, in my mind at least, that the play should have been called Iago. He is the ultimate malcontent, and has been brought to life by some of the best Shakespeare actors. He is, in my view, one of the most complex characters ever created by Shakespeare. I am not always such a sucker for a villain, I didn’t like Aaron from Titus Andronicus, didn’t enjoy anything in Claudius from Hamlet, and quite simply found Richard II boring. But there are some who stand out, and Iago is definitely one of those characters. He is always driving the play forward, and he makes it all look so easy.

Now for The Tempest, I was particularly dreading that. Ensuring that I’d had a solid eight hours sleep the night before and a large black coffee in my hand, I started to read what I always remember as being the worst thing I had ever read. Seriously. It was the text for my English Lit GCSE, and I hated every moment of studying it. To my surprise, I found the opening scene funny, and the first scene with Prospero and Miranda also got me thinking a lot. I began thinking a lot about broader themes, of empire and control, and what it means to be human.

I am a fan of moral ambiguity, and I am in a lot of things a subjectivist (too much Nietzsche at a young age), so revisiting Caliban was something of a field day for me. I have never been so torn over a character, because he’s clearly done an awful thing, but I think he’s also been subjected to awful things. Prospero is a pretty awful person, he loves the sound of his own voice and brings sanctimony soaring to new heights. Prospero came to a location and usurped it from the rightful owner, even after it was done to him. Caliban has some of the most poignant speeches in the play, and seems to genuinely delight in the island and wishes to be left alone. So it really isn’t as simple as viewing Prospero as the wronged father and Caliban as the antagonist. Prospero is affronted at Caliban’s attempt on Miranda, but thinks it is justifiable to use her virginity as a bargaining chip for his political gain.

I’m now in the midst of writing my last ever essay at uni, on both of these plays. I think it goes to show that sometimes it can be worth giving some books/plays/poems a second attempt, they have the potential to mean something completely different several years down the line.

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Historical Fiction

English Literature has always been my favourite subject, by a country mile, but if I had to pick a second option then it definitely would have been history. I have only, relatively recently, discovered some of the fantastic novels which depict some of the most important periods in English history.

As a trainee editor it is second nature to me to consider how a potential book will fit into a market by appealing to particular readers. The market for historical fiction is huge, even in terms of television; The Borgias, Versailles, Vikings and, my personal favourite, The Tudors. These are all hugely successful shows which have all been released in the last ten years, alongside many others too numerous to begin listing. Many people have an interest in the past, but do not necessarily (like myself) enjoy wading through everything that has been written by David Starkey in order to learn about it.

I think historical fiction is a good mixture; I don’t feel quite so lazy when reading a novel about the past as I do when sat binge watching every episode of The Tudors, repeatedly. Philippa Gregory is, of course, the most famous author associates with the historical fiction genre, and for very good reasons. Her series on The Cousin’s War was my personal favourite. Most people know about the Tudor dynasty, but not as many know about the events which took place beforehand. The best thing about Gregory, in my opinion, is that she does not overstep the historical facts in order to make a good story. Like any historian, she takes her sources and takes a standpoint.

Her depiction of Richard III is grounded in fact- he was not the only person at the time who would have benefited from the deaths of the surviving sons of Edward IV. Gregory does not depict him as a monster; Richard was renowned for his fierce loyalty to his brother and bravery on the battlefield, but all too often this is disregarded. In fact a lot of what history has to go on regarding Richard is Tudor propaganda, so Gregory very much took a stand against the norm in going with a positive and more realistic depiction. The story which sheds a lot of light on Richard in the series is The Kingmaker’s Daughter; this is told from the perspective of Richard’s essentially forgotten Queen, Anne Neville.

History is not often considered from the perspective of women, as it was generally the men who held all the power and influence. There are obvious exceptions- Elizabeth I, Queen Victoria and Christina of Sweden- but viewing history through the eyes of the lesser known women is even more fascinating. Gregory gives many long-forgotten women a voice, and truly brings their stories to life.

Another author, who I think has made astounding contributions to historical fiction, is Hilary Mantel. My favourite works of hers are Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies; like Gregory, she manages to reinvent one of the most infamous characters in history. Thomas Cromwell was a man of supreme influence, largely known for his role in the English Reformation, and history has certainly not been kind to him. He is not remembered for the loyalty he bore Cardinal Wolsey (until the very end, even when he held favour with no one else), his charitable work or for being one of the few men at the time who were competent in their positions.

Mantel’s books are by no means easy reading; unlike Gregory you cannot simply pick it up and start reading, it is more immersive than it is fast paced, but it is well worth the effort. Mantel brings a new perspective to a well known story; more so than any other historical fiction writer she makes you think that there’s still a chance the outcome will be different, because you are so involved in their present, you can almost forget your knowledge of the facts.

If anyone can recommend other historial fiction writers I would be very interested to know 🙂 I am trying to expand my range a little! djidfjd

 

 

 

 

The Beautiful and Damned

I really do think Scott Fitzgerald is an underrated writer; yes, I know how stupid that sounds because he has become so renowned, sadly this renown came after his untimely death. The vast majority of his renown came from The Great Gatsby, which I do completely adore, but in my opinion he has a vast array of work which is not given the consideration that it deserves. He wrote five novels (one of which is sadly incomplete), more than 150 short stories, 25 poems, one play, and numerous essays.

I can’t claim to have read all of these, but I am (slowly, due to uni and work commitments) making my way through them. Fitzgerald is memorable for his critiques, and they are often ruthless. You do not need to be Northrop Frye to realise that The Great Gatsby acts as a critique of the American Dream; this is not to say that I am limiting it solely to this particular interpretation, but it is by far the most obvious one. I want to talk about, what I believe, is his most scathing critique, which is overlooked by many critics and even those who are fans of Fitzgerald.

His second novel, The Beautiful and Damned, was released in 1922, it sold reasonably well but there were many critics who felt that it was too pessimistic. This is the novel that I am going to focus on, as being (of what I have read so far) one which people really should start to consider. The protagonist, Anthony Patch, is weak, of average intelligence- but he certainly believes himself to be of a much superior intellect- and generally quite intolerable. There is no point in the novel where I feel any sympathy for him, ever. While his wife Gloria sulks and simpers through the novel, only really breaking this cycle when she is considering her own beauty.

I will always be of the opinion that the protagonists do not need to be likable for a book to be good. The novel is so good, because Fitzgerald makes this morally ugly couple and their quest for inheritance, sound so beautiful. No one can write like Fitzgerald, there is something so much more real about the words on the page when he puts them there. He shows people exactly what they want to ignore, but because he is such a talented writer, this does not make for a bad reading experience.

Despite not being all that well known, the limited attention that The Beautiful and Damned has received, is because of one fact- that it draws upon the real lives of Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. The thing with that, the same with any book where the author draws heavily on their own experience, is that people try to force every aspect of the characters onto real life. Well, it doesn’t really work like that. Anthony and Gloria represent types of people just as much as they represent two people. Fitzgerald drew (a lot) on his marriage when writing this novel, but it is by no means an autobiography.

Fitzgerald, like Anthony, did descend into alcoholism, and it eventually killed him. Despite that, you have only to do your research on Fitzgerald to know that there are major differences. Anthony toys superficially with the idea of writing a book, Fitzgerald was different. I was always struck by how effortless he sounds, effortlessly beautiful. In reality Fitzgerald agonised over every word that he put on the page. He would draw up countless drafts, and despaired if it didn’t sound just right. His determination is something not a lot of people can hope to equal, least of all Anthony Patch. Plus, the Fitzgerald’s had more intelligence in their toenail clippings than the Patch’s could ever hope to have between them.

Many of Fitzgerald’s novels deal with disillusionment, The Beautiful and Damned deals with outright decay.  Perhaps the novel will receive more attention in the next few years; it has recently been announced that there will be an adaptation, starring Scarlett Johansson. Along with this is the upcoming release of some of Fitzgerald’s unreleased short stories (April next year) in a collection titled I’d Die for You. I hope that these big events will help to bring other works by Fitzgerald into the limelight, because he is an author who still has a lot to offer, which is no mean feat for a man who has been dead more than 75 years. image

 

 

 

 

The Satanic Verses

Strange as it may sound, I had never heard of this book until I came across the name on my University reading list. I was often looked at as if I was some sort of cave dweller for this, and after doing a tiny amount of research, I could see why. It was not difficult to learn of the controversy and outrage that surrounded the novel and Salman Rushdie. After finishing the book, I was also outraged. I was outraged that a man who had exercised his right to freedom of speech could be made to fear for his life.

It is not difficult to see why the Islamic State were offended, I won’t dispute that, it does not paint their religion in an especially favourable light. BUT, the parts which can be seen as a critique of Islam are minimal. This has a tendency to happen with controversial texts. Take American Psycho; violence does not make up the bulk of the material, but that it what it became infamous for. Controversial texts are very rarely examined for their artistic merit as a whole, most are only interested in the parts which cause a bit of drama. Even Fifty Shades of Grey, it is largely a terribly written love story; the erotic scenes are frequent but by no means make up the majority of the written material- but this is what everyone remembers. The Satanic Verses is by no means constantly trying to denounce Islam, but it is known for the minimal number of pages which do not portray the origins of the religion in a positive manner.

I am religious myself, a Catholic. I’ve read the His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman. Although I was by no means in agreement with the depiction of Christianity, I felt no outrage either. We cannot all have the same views on religion, we all have the right to an opinion and the right to express it; we do not have the right to persecute other people because they do not agree with us. There was, of course, outrage in the Christian faith, there were also many Christians who commended the books. No faith is immune to the dangers of corruption and dogmatism, critiques can point these things out to people, and religions could benefit from this (even if that was not the intention of an author).

I’m going to follow my own advice now, and consider The Satanic Verses as a novel, not for the issues which surround it and the author. The opening 50/60 pages were hard to get through, the narrative is disjointed and often veers into tangents. If I did not have to read the book for university, I can’t say for certain that I would have ever finished it. The protagonists (Gibreel Farishta and Saladin Chamcha) I felt were slightly hollow, this also added to my initial lack of interest. After having read it I still don’t feel that I like or dislike Farishta or Chamcha, there was nothing about them that jumped out.

As I progressed further into the book, I began to like it a lot more. The characters did not need to be  believable, because they act as mediums by which Rushdie depicts much more important themes. One that stuck out was the manner in which a Western lifestyle can corrupt immigrants. Farishta and Chamcha, despite taking on opposite personalities (devil and angel) are startlingly similar. Both men seem thoroughly ashamed of their Indian nationality. Nationality is something most people (I assume) are proud of, but the two men wish to eradicate theirs. Farishta and Chamcha’s dramatic external changes are something which I view as relating not only to their personalities, but to the contrasting forces of English and Indian national identities.

Nationality is a theme of continuing importance, so reading about it from the perspective of two men who wish so desperately that they can become more English was interesting, but also a shame. Nationalities are not cars; something which we can trade in when it no longer meets a certain criteria. They stay with us throughout our lives.

The Satanic Verses has a wide variety of settings, I found the most interesting ones to be those in Farishta’s dream sequences. These sections made up a fascinating sub plot, and were significantly more exciting to read than the opening pages. The story of Ayesha, an Indian peasant, who claims to receive messages from the Archangel Gibreel. She leads a pilgrimage across the Arabian Sea, and the exact result of this is contested in the closing pages of the novel. I found her story interesting, because it is very heavily implied that Gibreel is not giving her any messages, while it is implied that Mahound takes the messages from the angel which he wishes to hear. The voice of the author often shines through at various stages in the text; having an author who is so involved with the characters he has created adds another layer to the novel. He often comments on the actions of Farishta and Chamcha, and will at times question the truth of the events.

Overall I think that The Satanic Verses is a book which deserves much more credit than it gets. The controversy surrounding it has, unfortunately, eclipsed what is a very good book. I would certainly recommend it to determined readers, the opening section is boring and the style can often detract from the point- but I think that it is a rewarding read once finished. I only think it is beyond shameful that the author of this book has been given a reputation of infamy, he deserves much better.

 

 

 

 

 

The Line of Beauty book review

Today I finished reading Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty; I wasn’t expecting to be impressed by it, as I had already read The Stranger’s Child and found it to be rather dull reading. However, this really exceeded my expectations and I finished it within 48 hours.

I found the context of the novel to be particularly interesting. Set in the 1980’s with the ever present figure of Thatcher, she does not dominate the text- even on the occasion where she appears in it- but she is always present. The novel (to me) offers a critique of Thatcherism from a different perspective. As The Line of Beauty takes place mainly in the wealthy parts of London (with the occasional manor house and French holiday home), it offers a critique of Thatcherism from the perspective of the wealthy. The characters become more corrupt and selfish as the years progress; even the middle class protagonist Nick has gone from being jealous to outright grasping and envious.

It offers an ugly portrait of neoliberal ideals, from the very people who benefited from them. There is, of course, literature which shows the perspectives of the poor who were most affected by the Thatcher regime, but I think Hollinghurst does well to show another viewpoint. He often shows snapshots of conversation between Conservatives, discussing policy and their opinions on Thatcher; although this is not to say that the novel is dominated with right-wing views, there are plenty of people who are shown to disagree.

Thatcherism is not the only controversial theme which Hollinghurst writes of, the third part of the novel is set against the onset of AIDS. It sees one character die of the virus and another deteriorating from it before the novel draws to a close. Hollinghurst offers a honest depiction of the onset of a disease which we still have a reason to fear, without being tactless.

Hollinghurst seems to portray love as not having a chance in 1980’s England. The protagonist begins as a naive, but ends up partaking in drug fueled threesomes before long. Catherine, the manic depressant MP’s daughter, attracts men from all walks of life and manages success with none of them. There are failed engagements, affairs, and plenty more but no actual successful relationship. Even Nick’s parents, living outside of London, are revealed to sleep in separate beds. Indeed, the only content character seems to be the bachelor, Lord Kessler.

By showing love to be universally a failure, in the world of the novel, Hollinghurst really sheds a damning light on the hypocrisy of heterosexual relationships. The heterosexual people do not fully accept Nick’s homosexuality, and often he is viewed as being inferior for it, yet they are incapable of keeping corruption from seeping into their own lives.

After being so impressed with The Line of Beauty I think I will give some of his other novels a try; his style of writing is not necessarily what I always  go for in modern writers, but on this occasion I was impressed.

 

Visit to the John Rylands and some Shakespeare appreciation

Last week a friend and I went to an exhibition at the John Rylands library, owned by The University of Manchester. The exhibit was on witchcraft and the supernatural, and they had some fantastic documents on display. It is definitely the most beautiful library I have EVER been in, here are some pictures, for anyone who might be interested. Would recommend a visit as a must to anyone in or near Manchester, if they haven’t already been!

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Although we mainly went for my friend, who specialises in Italian Renaissance history, I also found a few things on display which were of particular interest to my degree. They had Shakespeare’s first folio on display, as well as a first edition of the sonnets (obviously open on Sonnet 18). Which got me thinking, which Shakespeare play is my favourite?

Don’t get me wrong, I am more of a Marlowe person, but unfortunately he never had the chance to produce as many plays as Shakespeare. I get that the language can make his work seem inaccessible, at first, but I think with a good edition and after reading a few of his plays, it gets much easier to get to grips with. Some people argue with me that he’s dated- I could not disagree more on this point, he is just as relevant (probably more so) now as he was in the 1600’s. His plays represent human nature, in all of its forms. I really can’t think of a personality which he has not covered, in some way. He also doesn’t get credit for his sense of humour, a lot of his plays are hilarious!

My favourite play by Shakespeare, however, is not very generously supplied with humour. I first read King Lear three years ago, and I absolutely hated it. I know all plays require a certain amount of suspending your disbelief, but this? From the first scene it hit me as being so blatantly ridiculous; he’s cast aside his loyal daughter and split his kingdom between the two evil ones instead, and it doesn’t necessarily get much more convincing after that.

But then I, for college, had to read it a few times, and it struck me that perhaps it wasn’t all so black and white. The play didn’t get more believable the more often I read it, I just stopped seeing the play as a plot that had to make sense, and started seeing it as a depiction of human nature. Take Goneril and Regan; they do bad things, but how would you feel if your father had declared in front of a room full of people that you were only getting a decent share of his will because his favourite child had displeased him, and the terms of this was that he was going to stay with you for six months every year, along with 100 of his friends? I thought so. Lear is a difficult man, and he shows himself to be rash. Or Edmund, he is a bastard and very much a product of his time. I was born out of wedlock, and I can safely say I have never even been asked about it, but back then it was considered a pretty horrendous social stigma. Plus, he is a lot more intelligent than Edgar, and ALWAYS cast as being the better looking brother. These characters are what makes King Lear so amazing- good and evil characters are ENTIRELY subjective.

I think the play took longer to grow on me, because tragedies are a genre I just find harder to like. Some do contain comic elements, like Romeo and Juliet (which was my close second favourite), which I think helps me to warm to them a bit more. After the second reading of King Lear I could appreciate the literary merit and significance. Then I began to see, it is just so incredibly relevant. There is no person who can be completely good all of the time, even the saintly (wet flannel, if you ask me) character of Cordelia shows herself to be very proud. Likewise, although Lear is rash and often cruel he is not an inherently evil character who can’t be sympathised with.

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In defence of the literary classics

Books

I’m now at the stage where I have almost finished my Literature degree; alongside this I’m gaining some experience by working in a publishing house. I keep up to date with the trends in book market; although I doubt I’d ever be able to predict them or guess how long they may last. So I really pay close attention to EVERY opinion which I hear relating to literature and the book market. In my personal experience, I’ve noticed a growing feeling of disapproval of “the classics” in literature.

Before I give my opinion on their validity, I’ll run through a couple which spring to my mind as being particularly important; Pride and Prejudice, The Great Gatsby, Moby Dick, Wuthering Heights, 1984, Vanity Fair and The Catcher in the Rye. I know it’s a relatively abstract concept, but this at least gives an idea of my own personal opinion. There are hundreds of books which fall into the category- but there are also millions that do not. Also, I don’t just have a preference for the Anglo-American literature, I also adore; War and Peace, The Aeneid, Lolita, Madame Bovray, The Iliad and The Divine Comedy.  (Side note, I would love to hear what texts other people consider to be particularly important classics, I’m making a list of highly recommended ones which I want to get around to reading).

Now that I’ve mentioned some texts, I can move on to the specifics of what I’ve been noticing. I’ve encountered a lot of people studying literature, who say that they simply don’t like the classics. I don’t pretend to get that viewpoint; I know not every classic speaks to everyone, but I think there must be one out there that appeals on a level to every one? If people aren’t giving the classics a chance, I was once hugely guilty of doing the opposite, if it was published after 1955 I probably didn’t want to know. Although, after much persuasion, I gave Irvine Welsh a chance, and realised that actually I should be giving modern literature a lot more credit than I had been.

So I’ve changed my attitude towards modern literature; after all, an editor who can’t stomach new authors would not survive very long in the publishing industry. Despite that, my pet hate will always be the association many lit students make between those who love the classics and snobs. Having an appreciation for the great writers of the past, without whom many of the popular books of our time would not have been possible, is not synonymous with literary snobbery. Without the Marquis Du Sade, Fifty Shades of Grey could never have been published- the content would have been deemed too shocking if the Marquis had not been determined to write erotic and sadistic literature all those years ago. Without  Jane Austen, Bridget Jones’ Diary could have ended up as a very different story. Even the film industry has been influenced by the classics; without Shakespeare, we could not have had She’s the Man, and that is not the world I want to live in. I could go on, but I’m sure you get the picture.

The classics have an influence which is impossible to measure; take T.S Eliot’s The Waste Land; keeping track of the literary allusions in that is nearly impossible without the help of several study guides and Wikipedia- and that is just one man’s poem. Without them, literature would not be the same as it is today. I don’t think appreciating this is something which should be frowned upon. Even in university, when the electives start being decided upon, it is always those with a heavier percentage of classic titles on the reading list with the smallest number of students enrolled. Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s important to study more modern work too, but classic literature seems to be dying a death unless it is forced upon students in compulsory modules. I know there is the popular argument, ‘the classics have dominated universities for hundreds of years, is it not time to give other authors a chance?’. Yes, give them a chance, but this shouldn’t mean that the writers who prefigured their work should be ignored either.

People often cite their reason for studying history to be this, that it is only by understanding the past, that you can begin to make sense of the present- so is literature any different? Appreciation for Austen and Nabakov does not mean that I consider Person A’s love for Harry Potter or Person B’s obsession with The Hunger Games to be inferior to my own taste; these might be books that I have read and disliked, but the world would be an incredibly boring place if we all liked the same things.

 

 

 

 

Byron and the decline of poetry

So today I finally finished reading Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage by Lord Byron, needless to say I’m feeling pretty pleased with myself because it is long. This is the only Byron that I’ve ever read, and it’s in preparation for a course unit that I will be doing on him this year at University. I do feel somewhat guilty that it has taken me so long to get around to reading him, he’s been on my to read list for a long time now. I thought some of it was really beautiful, particularly the opening sections; although it was only my first reading so a fair amount of it went way over my head. I’ve studied classics, so the descriptions of Greece and Italy and the mentions of the pagan Gods were also aspects I found interesting.

I’ve always adored poetry, but predominantly the more modern authors; Plath, Lowell and Eliot have always been my firm favourites. However, I do always try to keep an open mind and give all poets a chance. I’m not a major fan of the Romantic movement, but I’ve only really encountered Blake and Wordsworth, and the movement is so much bigger than those two figures. So that’s a large part of the reason that I opted to study Byron, I wanted to give the movement a bit more of a chance.

Although University has taught me that most of the people on my English Lit course don’t share my enthusiasm for poetry. I can’t pretend it didn’t confuse me- a lot. I know it isn’t everyone’s cup of tea and many people prefer books (totally understandable), but I am talking about a borderline vehement dislike from nearly everyone who I’ve spoken to about it. I can see why some people don’t adore it; I’ve heard a lot of people talking about how it’s too veiled etc, but I favour the Confessional movement so that’s not totally applicable to my personal taste.

There’s a total of fourteen people taking the Byron course unit, out of nearly 150 English students, and a few have already mentioned to me that it’s only because there’s less reading involved in what is going to be a content heavy year. I really did think that such seminal figure in poetry would have attracted a lot more enthusiasm, and that the sole appeal wouldn’t be the thought of an easier workload. I took a look at the other course units that were on offer, and Byron was the only unit that solely focused on poetry. Which got me thinking, I actually have not had the option throughout my degree to do a unit which is entirely focused on poetry. If course units are renewed based on popularity, then Lord Byron certainly won’t be making a triumphant return for next year’s English students.

I wonder if this is part of a wider trend across universities, is poetry just being viewed as slightly out of fashion now? I do hope not, because I think there is poetry out there to suit everyone, just like books, you just have to be open minded when trying to find it. file

If anyone reading this has any experience with reading Byron, or the wider Romantic movement in general, I’d love to hear your views as I am relatively new to it from an academic perspective 🙂